A dark side to the Northern Alliance
Afghanistan's anti-Taliban militias share history of human rights abuse
By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 10/6/2001
ASHTI QALAH, Afghanistan - Commander Mullah Omar, one of the local leaders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, sat cross-legged yesterday on a Persian carpet inside the compound that is his home and military headquarters, while a young soldier poured green tea and offered a plate of candy.
''You have come from America to meet our poor people, and we say thank you,'' he said, smiling, to a visitor. ''We very much want America to support us. Anyone who wants to fight against the terrorists is on our side.''
But his polite demeanor quickly changed as he snapped an order to the acolytes who hovered around him: ''Bring the prisoner!''
''We have a Taliban soldier we captured,'' he explained as he led the way outside the compound. ''You may see him.''
From a 10-foot deep, 3-foot-wide hole in the ground, a bone-thin man emerged, at the order of the guards. He wore ripped and soiled rags; his feet were bare. He had been in the hole for three weeks, since he was captured.
His leg irons were removed and he was pushed forward. He kept his head down except when he turned it to the side to spit up blood. Several of the soldiers laughed and the commander smirked as the prisoner stumbled to the ground.
The image - the pitiful Taliban prisoner and the Northern Alliance commander smiling as he presented him - was evidence of what ages of war and ethnic hatred have wrought in Afghanistan: a gratuitous, almost medieval cruelty.
And for a country like the United States, where the president has presented the looming conflict in stark terms of good and evil, it served as a reminder of just how many shades of gray exist on the barren landscape of Afghanistan.
Washington has vowed to back the Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of militias headed by local warlords like Omar who employ the roughly 15,000 fighters as a proxy army in the United States' pending confrontation with the ruling Taliban and Osama bin Laden's warriors.
The Northern Alliance - or United Front, as it prefers to be called - is primarily made up of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Afghans who have been fighting to hold on to pockets of Afghanistan against the Taliban, who are predominantly from the rival Pashtun tribes. These tribal lines run deep, and in more than a decade of civil war in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance has had an alarming human rights record.
From 1992 to 1995, rival factions bombed Kabul neighborhoods, killing tens of thousands of civilians, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
''That period was the worst time in Afghanistan's history,'' said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch in Washington. ''All these factions vying for power, shelling neighborhoods, committing mass rapes, indiscriminately killing civilians.''
The abuses reportedly continued even after the Taliban's takeover of Kabul. In May 1997, Uzbek and Hazari soldiers belonging to the Alliance killed 3,000 Taliban prisoners of war, according to Sidney Jones, Human Rights Watch's Asia director.
''Nobody among the commanders looks very good,'' Jones said. ''General Dostum has a particularly wretched record across the board.''
General Abdel Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, head of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, in recent months returned to northern Afghanistan. Among other commanders who allegedly oversaw troops that have committed documented abuses: Haji Mohammad Muhaqqiq, a Shiite leader in the Hezb-i-Wahdat, an Islamic unity party; Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, head of Ittyhad-i-Islami, the Islamic Union; and Abdul Malik, currently in Iran, who formerly was Dostum's deputy.
''If the United States will be providing military and financial support to these factions, there should be conditions that aid be withheld from these commanders and others,'' Hiltermann said.
In Afghanistan, evidence of the Alliance's past are not hard to find. There is no word for ''ethnic cleansing'' in the Persian vocabulary, but the burned-out and emptied villages where Pashtuns once lived in northern Afghanistan are ghostly reminders of the Northern Alliance's concerted effort to push any village suspected of sympathy to the ruling Taliban out of the roughly 10 percent of the country the opposition fighters control.
The harsh ways of today's Northern Alliance commanders are reflected in Mullah Omar (no relation to the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar), who is typical of the tribal chieftains who run militias. His family is a large landholder, and the opposition soldiers he commands - he puts the number at 2,000, but local observers say it's roughly half that - operate as a kind of a heavily armed private posse, out to protect their farmland and plains where sheep and cattle graze on the tufts of wheat that manage to sprout through the drought-stricken land.
Mullah Omar, who is a Muslim cleric as well as a local warlord, was once an Islamic scholar who studied at the ''madrassas,'' or religious schools, of Pakistan. His strict interpretation of the Koran is marginally more moderate than that of the puritanical mullahs of the Taliban.
He came of age as a young soldier in the shadows of his older brother, Kari Emir Olam, who was a legendarily brutal commander of the militia until he was gunned down in an ambush in April 2000.
Omar, an Uzbek, claims several factions of the Northern Alliance were paid handsomely by the Taliban for carrying out the assassination of his older brother. Four months later, Omar's twin brother was also assassinated. Omar took the reins of power after his brothers' deaths. He rounded up the three rival warlords who he believed took part in the plot to kill his oldest brother and had them hanged in a nearby village square.
The cycle of killing between these factions resembles a mafia war, and offers insights into the treachery that has often fractured the Northern Alliance and the character of the company that the United States is planning to keep here as it draws up plans for a military response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Taliban prisoner being held by Omar was captured just days after Sept. 11. Omar said that he was found near the river valley of the village of Khojagar carrying an AK-47 rifle, and had three bullet wounds on his right shoulder. To prove the point, Omar's soldiers tore back the prisoner's filthy green tunic and showed the three small holes that they said were bullet wounds.
''We know he was a soldier. He is a Kandahari,'' said Omar, referring to the tough Taliban fighters who come out of the southern Afghanistan town of Kandahar, where bin Laden was believed to have been based.
The prisoner was asked his name.
''Bashir,'' he replied, not raising his head. ''I come from Kandahar. ... I have nothing to say,'' the prisoner said, trying to cover up where the tunic had been pulled away and shivering in the dry wind of the late afternoon.
The prisoner was asked if he knew about the attack on America, and answered mechanically, ''I don't know anything about that.''
Omar stared at the Taliban soldier. ''They are all like this,'' he said, ''The Kandaharis don't talk.''
Omar explained that he had captured 150 soldiers in the past two months and turned most of them over to the central command of the Northern Alliance. But he said he had been given permission to keep some prisoners, such as Bashir, to arrange prisoner swaps with the Taliban soldiers who control the hills outside this village.
''We have communicated with them. We will give them this in exchange for five of our men,'' said Omar, casting a disdainful glance at the prisoner.
The sun was setting over the parched landscape outside Omar's compound, and the prisoner was led back to his hole. The shackles were placed back on his ankles and clicked together with a padlock. There was a heavy metal tank tread that would soon be placed over the cover of the hole.
Then Omar walked back to the compound, but a driver, Khaled, who came with the visitor, quietly walked back to the prisoner and the young sentry who was ordering him back into the hole.
Khaled, who asked that his full name not be used, reached out and said softly to the prisoner, ''Would you like a cigarette?''
The prisoner nodded slowly and Khaled lit the cigarette and handed it to the prisoner, who carried it back down to the hole with him before the tank tread was pulled over the top.
Driving away, Khaled, 45, who normally works as a truck driver shuttling goods between his native Panjeer Valley and Dashti Qalah and who served as a fighter in the mujahideen forces that pushed the occupying forces of the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s, shook his head.
''That is wrong,'' he said. ''That man should not be treated that way.''
John Donnelly of the Globe's Washington bureau contributed to this report.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/6/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.