Battling warlords try civility

A grim human-rights report spurred Afghan warlords to agree to stop targeting civilians.

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, northern Afghanistan's most important power broker, signed a peace and cooperation agreement with three rival warlords yesterday, during an unprecedented meeting at which he admonished more than 90 commanders for alleged atrocities committed by their soldiers after the fall of the Taliban.

General Dostum, seated next to his main rival, Gen. Ostad Atta Muhammed, and two other warlords, forced commanders from Dostum's five-province domain to listen to every excruciating detail of a 52-page human-rights report given to him this weekend by the United Nations. The report alleges atrocities committed by Dostum's own, mostly Uzbek, military forces, as well as Hazara and Tajik soldiers.

To be sure, virtually no force in Afghanistan has not stood accused of committing atrocities. But this may be the first time any warlord has called for such a public accounting of the deeds committed by his and others' soldiers – albeit with the hope will forgive and forget.

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Observers have long noted Dostum's tendency to kill opponents even after they were captured and disarmed. And a team of investigators from the UN and US-based Physicians for Human Rights were here earlier this week investigating evidence that Dostum's troops may have massacred or suffocated Taliban troops after they surrendered last November.

Dostum said he wasn't sure if every awful detail in the stories of rape, murder, and theft were true, but told commanders they should listen anyway and stop the abuse of civilians under their helm.

"After today, if anybody creates problems in my name or in the name of [the other warlords], we will not let them stay in this province. We will unite against them and we will call him the friend of Al Qaeda and the Taliban," said Dostum, a burly, thick-mustached man.

"I am dying of these accusations from the international community. 'What is happening in Mazar with these mass killing? Why are you so cruel?' " he complained, mimicking the questions he has been fielding. "If any one of my commanders commits these kind of acts, I will kill him tomorrow."

These many not sound like the words of a kinder, gentler warlord, but the intent to turn over a new leaf seems genuine. Just a day earlier, Dostum signed an agreement with General Muhammed – with whom Dostum's men were engaged in battles just a week ago – to remove all heavy artillery, machines guns, and ammunition from Mazar-e Sharif and move them to military garrisons, and to create a combined, 600-member multiethnic force to police the city, with an eye toward discouraging abuses of minority groups.

Dostum was already such a key figure in the anti-Taliban resistance that interim government Chairman Hamid Karzai appointed him deputy defense minister last December, and just recently made Dostum his special envoy to the north.

Now, instead of shying away from the accusations – a team of forensic investigators were here earlier this week to investigate allegations of mass graves from the time of the Taliban's retreat – Dostum is trying to get neighborhood warlords to recognize that the world is watching. "You must be careful in the future. These are very dangerous men," he said of the investigators who carried out the report. "They can take you to an international court of justice if they can prove your actions."

The report, compiled by Human Rights Watch and entitled "Paying for the Taliban's Crimes," was a chilling litany of rape and murder. A great portion of the crimes were committed against Pashtuns, targeted presumably because the Taliban were also Pashtun.

The liberation of Mazar-e Sharif left long-competing warlords to vie for control of the city. Dostum's troops have had control of the region, but security chief Muhammed has wielded the most control in the city itself.

But, in perhaps the most propitious sign this city has seen since the Taliban's retreat, the two strongmen embraced yesterday after each of more than 90 commanders signed an agreement to solve differences through negotiations, not bloodshed, and to stop harming civilians.

"Let's bury the enmity in the graves, just as we have buried thousands," Dostum said yesterday.

The UN has been negotiating with both men's forces to find a formula to cool off the tense situation here. One UN official suggested that they gave Dostum and Muhammed some "incentive" in the form of the report.

Said Nurullah, a spokesman for Dostum, read the grueling report before commanders from the five provinces of Balkh, Samangan, Jowzjan, Sar-i Pol, and Faryab. In many of the reports, soldiers went house to house to steal goods and weapons, and anyone who resisted was killed.

A woman who was identified only by her first initial, Q., said that 20 ethnic Hazara soldiers came to her house in January. They tied up her husband, Jalaluddin, then raped her and her 14-year-old daughter, who was still hospitalized.

In Chamtal, a Pashtun village west of Mazar-e Sharif, a group of 15 of Dostum's soldiers arrived under the pretext of collecting weapons, but took whatever the villagers had of value. "A group of five young men refused to give them their belongings, and they were killed," Nurullah read from the report, which did not mention a date of the alleged crime. "When the mother of one young man jumped to take the gun of the killer of her son, they opened fire and killed her, too."

Muhammed's men, meanwhile, were accused in the report of arriving at villages with two trucks full of weapons, telling local people to take up arms against Dostum – or be killed. Terrorized, the villagers obeyed.

Muhammed said Afghan military officials should find the report embarrassing. "It is very bad that the UN must order us to come and sit together and speak about violations of human rights," he said.

Afghai Sayedee, a Hazara warlord who represents the more important Hazara warlord, Khalili, signed the peace agreement, but said he doubted the report: "I think 50 percent of this report is baseless, and some names in it are incorrect. Maybe it's propaganda against us."

He told his commanders: "The UN wants peace and stability in our homeland, and they are well aware of what is going on here. You must be careful about your deeds and about how you treat civilians – especially Pashtuns."

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