The grave site of 31 members of a family killed by the Taliban in a January 2001 massacre in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan. Photo credit: Una Moore

The Perils of Mapping Afghanistan’s Conflict

Five years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) produced a conflict mapping report of crimes committed by all armed factions in Afghanistan between April 27, 1978 and December 22, 2001.

The report is not available on any UN website.

Some members of the international community claim it was briefly available on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) website, but was taken down following diplomatic alarm and immediate complaints that naming Afghan government officials in connection with serious international crimes would hurt the UN’s political mission. Others say it was never intended to be publicly released. Whatever the case, the report has been passed around on flash drives among a select group of Afghan and international activists and lurked unread and virtually hidden in out-of-the-way corners of the web for years.

It will reach a wider audience now that Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kuovo of the Afghanistan Analysts Network have linked to a leaked pdf version of it in their recent blog post about the good that the Nobel Committee could have achieved had it awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Afghan human rights pioneer Dr. Sima Samar.

The executive summary of the mapping report states:

No document can fully describe what the Afghans have lived through. Every Afghan has a story to tell, or many stories, of suffering and loss, and also of those responsible: the armies, militias, commanders, and gunmen—some Afghan, some foreign—who fought each other for ideals, political power, money, and revenge. Some victims became perpetrators, and some perpetrators became victims in a cycle of violence that has slowed but not yet ended.

Seven things you should know about the leaked report:

1. It’s based mostly on open-source materials.

Unlike the leaked UN conflict mapping report on the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Afghanistan report is composed mostly of information that is available elsewhere; in old newspaper articles, in Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports, and in scholarly articles and books. (A small but significant percentage of the information in the report comes from unpublished papers and interviews unavailable elsewhere.)

What makes this point important is the fact that the UN used these sources, and deemed their accounts credible enough to include in its own document. The mapping report is a narrative of Afghan history between 1978 and 2001 as the UN understands it. It is the backstory top officials carry into meetings with Afghan politicians and foreign diplomats.

2. It’s gruesome.

Compiled from human rights reports, interviews with refugees and former humanitarian workers, and journalistic accounts from Afghanistan’s war, the report is a nearly 300-page catalog of the most gruesome acts human beings are capable of: mass executions, mass rapes, conscription of child soldiers, humanitarian blockades, and the international community’s indifference to the mass suffering of Afghans across three decades. It’s the kind of text one shouldn’t read before sleeping, or without a bottle of hard liquor close at hand. The mental images of inhumanity one is left with after reading are the indelible, conscience-shocking kind. Prisoners bound together, doused in gasoline, and burned alive during the Afghan-Soviet war. Crowds of civilians running through the streets of Mazar Sharif in 1998, fleeing the bullets the victorious Taliban rained into the bazaars from truck-mounted machine guns. The skinning of a teenage boy during a village massacre in 2001.

3. It covers all sides.

No fighting force comes away looking good in the report, including the U.S. military and its Afghan allies. The last few sections detail the U.S.’s use of cluster weapons in civilian areas, denial of due process to prisoners, and involvement in enforced disappearances.

The chapters on the Northern Alliance’s crimes describe how Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan were targeted for displacement, looting, rape and murder by non-Pashtun militias during the late fall and winter of 2001, and how Taliban prisoners of war were summarily executed.

4. It’s incomplete.

Nine years is a big chunk of 31 and change, and the mapping report doesn’t cover anything after December 2001. Since then, thousands more civilians have been killed, most at the hands of the Taliban, but many also by pro-government warlords who never had reason to worry they would be held accountable and by actions of international forces, particularly airstrikes and house raids.

5. It’s politically dangerous.

It’s disheartening, though not surprising, that the UN mapping report was considered too dangerous to publish.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch published its most controversial Afghanistan report to date, ‘Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity.’ Testimonies included in the HRW report implicated former militia commanders, many of them senior political figures, in the killing, torture and disappearance of tens of thousands of Afghans during factional battles in Kabul between 1993 and 1994.

The report rocked Afghan politics, but not in the way HRW and other human rights advocates had intended. In 2007, members of the Afghan parliament with ties to former armed factions passed legislation that granted blanket amnesty to former combatants.

International outcry followed, and President Hamid Karzai refused to sign the legislation. In late December 2009, it was quietly published in the official gazette and brought into force anyway. Justice advocates were dismayed, and furious. But, by then, transitional justice was a toxic topic in diplomatic circles and guaranteed to earn Afghan activists death threats in the field.

6. It was meant to be a call for action.

The mapping report was written around the same time as the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) report ‘A Call for Justice.’ It’s obvious the two reports were intended to strengthen each other; the UNHCHR report described a history of crimes against civilians and the AIHRC report provided hard evidence of broad public support for transitional justice. The mapping report even states that it “hopes to establish a baseline for further documentation.”

Moreover, the atrocities described in the report include the most serious crimes under humanitarian law, and states are obligated to prosecute them. The Crimes of War Project explains:

While it is hard to say categorically that there is a general prohibition against amnesties in international law, international treaty law –including some of the conventions to which Afghanistan is a state party such as the Geneva Conventions, the Torture Convention, the Genocide Convention– obliges states to prosecute or extradite in relation to certain crimes. Afghanistan is also a party to the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutes of Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity (1983), which specifically bars State Parties from enacting legislation that provides for statutory or other limitations to the prosecution and punishment for crimes against humanity and war crimes and requires them to abolish any such measures which have been put in place (Article IV). The amnesty law appears to breach all of these obligations.

7. It upsets the media narrative of the ‘nine-year war.’

You’ll read many articles with phrases like “nine years into the war,” phrases that belie the fact that Afghanistan hasn’t been at war for nine years –it’s been at war for nearly 32 years, with the intensity of violence and perpetrators of mass crimes changing over time, but no periods of real peace.

A 40 year old Afghan woman alive today likely remembers peace only from her parents’ stories of it. Her children have never known anything but wartime, and her grandchildren have been born into the fourth decade of conflict. In 2001, NATO didn’t start a war in Afghanistan; it intervened in one that had been going for over 22 years and was already one of the world’s worst and longest-running humanitarian disasters.

Any proposed solution to the conflict should take into account that war has now defined life for four generations of Afghans. Likewise, would-be deal-makers should keep in mind who has suffered, who has inflicted suffering, and who is most –and least– likely to break the cycle of violence.