Northern Alliance like Taliban, critics say

Bitter Afghan foes have atrocious rights record, advocates, analysts say

War On Terrorism : The Response

October 16, 2001|By NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - They have been called ethnic cleansers, rapists, thieves and thugs. But in the war against terrorism, soldiers of the Northern Alliance are being described as something else by the Bush administration: potential friends.

Washington is working cautiously with the alliance to root out Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, a group with an atrocious human rights record.

However, some rights advocates and political analysts say that President Bush, in his zeal to capture the key suspect in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, may be fighting evil with evil by depending on the Northern Alliance.

"Some of their top commanders were warlords who excelled in running rampant in Kabul and elsewhere, massacring and raping people," said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch.

Many Afghans fear that the alliance will eventually reclaim Kabul and resume its old ways to settle old scores.

"That's what people are afraid of in Afghanistan, that these guys are coming back," said Patricia Gossman, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who has researched Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch. "That's why people are fleeing Kabul. They know what these guys did. They were horrible."

The Northern Alliance, or United Front, is a confederation primarily of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Afghans who have been fighting the Taliban, who are mainly from majority Pashtun tribes.

When they weren't fighting the Taliban, alliance factions were fighting among themselves, racking up a record of atrocities.

From 1992 to 1995, factions that later formed the Northern Alliance bombed Kabul indiscriminately, killing thousands of people, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

On Feb. 11, 1993, Tajik and Pashtun factions joined in a spree of rape and murder in West Kabul, killing about 100 people and causing countless ethnic Hazara civilians to "disappear," Human Rights Watch said. Two years later, Tajik alliance troops went on a rampage of rape and looting after capturing a predominantly Hazara neighborhood in Kabul.

"Everybody likes to make them [alliance members] into Robin Hoods," said Milt Bearden, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan who handled agency aid to anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan. "When they ran Kabul from 1992 to 1994, they were as responsible as anyone else for bringing the Taliban to power."

Alliance infighting created a vacuum that enabled the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group, to move on Kabul in 1996.

Alliance abuses continued under Taliban rule. In May 1997, Uzbek and Hazara alliance troops captured and executed 3,000 Taliban soldiers.

"Some of the Taliban troops were taken to the desert and shot, while others were thrown down wells and then blown up with grenades," according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Alliance supporters call the accusations of abuses exaggerated, but concede that the group committed misdeeds.

"When there is war, some people take the law into their own hands, and we regret it," said Mohammed Eshaq, a Washington representative for the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the alliance's political arm. "It was not organized. There were one, two or three ... isolated incidents."

He bristled at the notion that the alliance and the Taliban are equally bad on human rights.

"To say we are equal to the Taliban is unfair," Eshaq said. "Nothing is equal to the Taliban."

Harold Koh, a former Clinton administration human rights expert, said he saw little distinction between the warring groups.

In its 1999 report on human rights, the State Department wrote that "armed units of the Northern Alliance, local commanders, and rogue individuals were responsible for political killings, abductions, kidnappings for ransom, torture, rape, arbitrary detention and looting."

Since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, however, many politicians and analysts are viewing the Northern Alliance with a fresh eye.

"We need to recognize the value they bring to this anti-Taliban effort," said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, "and, where appropriate, find ways to assist."

Alliance members are an unsavory lot, said a former Clinton administration adviser, but the United States needs them.

"There's a direct threat to the United States. Six thousand Americans died, and [the Northern Alliance] is willing to help," he said. "Sometimes the only way to catch terrorists and murderers is to associate with terrorists and murderers."

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