The New York Times’ Questionable Perspective

by Joshua Foust on 2/9/2011 · 3 comments

Rod Norland, being breathless:

International and local human rights groups working in Afghanistan have shifted their focus toward condemning abuses committed by the Taliban insurgents, rather than those attributed to the American military and its allies.

Outraged by growing civilian casualties, many activists are now calling for the insurgents to be investigated for war crimes and viewed as war criminals. The insurgents are now blamed for more than three-fourths of all civilian casualties, according to United Nations statistics, and those casualties increased by 20 percent last year.

Several groups have approached the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has been conducting a preliminary inquiry into war crimes charges in Afghanistan.

The activists’ concern would have been unheard-of a year ago, when a series of large-scale civilian casualty episodes caused by NATO forces outraged Afghans and prompted President Hamid Karzai to repeatedly condemn his own allies. Human rights groups joined the chorus of blame.

Of course, had he chosen to report this honestly, Rod would have noted that some rights groups were shifting their focus back to the Taliban as the primary cause of civilian casualties. See, it is only recently that ISAF has stopped being the primary cause of civilian death, and the Taliban has gone back to being the main killer of innocents—something Nordland waits until paragraph 17 to helpfully point out.

Norland’s basics aren’t even right. One year ago—at the beginning of 2010—two major figures in the International Crisis Group ran an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times’ sister publication in Paris, that called for the prosecution of the Taliban as war criminals. In August of 2010, Amnesty International did the same thing. Just in case you thought it was a recent thing, in 2007 the AIHRC reported (pdf) that in 2006—when no one in the U.S. cared about Afghanistan because of Iraq—the Taliban were busy murdering and abusing people.

But maybe there’s a bigger reason there wasn’t a huge push for a war crimes tribunal. Most of the “allies” Hamid Karzai has used to cement his rule—let’s be honest and call them warlords, from Gul Agha Sherzai to Atta Mohammed Noor—are themselves war criminals. In fact, one of the biggest concern in the Afghan human rights community in the 2002-2004 time frame wasn’t the Taliban per se, but the abuses of these warlords, several of which still command vast swaths of the country. Their domination of Afghanistan’s countryside remains a serious worry to rights advocates. Most inexcusably, last month Karzai nominated Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, a man so heinous, feared, and evil that a terrorist group in the Philippines named themselves after him, to become speaker of Afghanistan’s Parliament. And let’s not get started on Karzai’s hand-picked Vice President, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, who is responsible for his own treehouse of horrors in the 1990s.

This, of course, raises two uncomfortable points: given our willingness to work with gross human rights violators, on what grounds could we reasonably presume to single out the Taliban for investigation and prosecution for crimes against humanity? And, if we really do prosecute everyone who’s ever committed a war crime in Afghanistan, would anyone be left over?

From my perspective, I’d be perfectly okay with throwing the whole lot in jail: most of Karzai’s cabinet, including, at this point, Karzai; most of the high-level Taliban leadership; most senior figures in the ANP; most provincial governors. I could go on and on, and would in fact be hard-pressed to name a prominent Afghan in a position of power who has not done something horrible in his past. It would be incredibly disruptive, even violent, but in the long run Afghanistan would probably be better off as a result.

Reality, alas, must poke its head in. This is where Rod Norland’s terrible reporting really shines. In paragraph 21, he notes a Human Rights Watch analyst isn’t actually focusing on the Taliban at all:

She was among human rights activists who have met with the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, encouraging at least a preliminary investigation of human rights abuses on all sides. “He’s interested, and his ears are open,” she said.

So that’s all sides, and not just the Taliban. Good. It might be a good idea to wait until the worst of the fighting has died down, if only so there’s room for a proper investigation, but I fully support investigating all sides of the war in Afghanistan. Oh yeah, and a few paragraphs later, Norland notes the same Amnesty International call for investigating the Taliban—which invalidates his entire premise that accusing the Taliban of war crimes is a new thing.

None of this is to condemn the human rights community in Kabul*. Take this passage, for example:

A Jan. 29 attack on the Finest Supermarket in Kabul by a Taliban member, using both firearms and a suicide bomb vest, was both a recent example of the insurgents’ disregard for civilians and something of a watershed event for the human rights community.

Among the 14 civilian victims was a prominent human rights activist, Hamida Barmaki, her husband and their four young children; the youngest victim, her 2-year-old son, had a bullet wound in the head as well as blast wounds. When his body was found, clutched in his hand was the scorched remains of a plastic shopping bag handle.

That galvanized many in the rights community, and a memorial service held in Ms. Barmaki’s honor on Feb. 1 at the Human Rights Commission turned into a series of impassioned eulogies, mostly denouncing the insurgents for singling out civilians.

Rod makes it seem like they waited until their friend got killed off to really lay in on the Taliban. It’s true their criticism intensified after one of their own, along with her children, was butchered. But it is especially bad form on Rod Norland’s part to pretend that the human rights community has been inconsistent on the issue of condemning the Taliban’s atrocities. They’ve been condemning all atrocities, regardless of who commits them—which is why there was more focus on ISAF when ISAF was causing them, and now back to the Taliban, when the Taliban is causing them. Norland’s insinuation that they’re only now discovering the horror of the Taliban’s methods is, put simply, foul.

* An earlier version of this post mistakenly blamed the human rights community for not protesting the Taliban in this final section. That obviously wasn’t the argument of this post, and I didn’t intend to say that. I meant, instead, to criticize Rod Norland’s portrayal of the human rights community. My only excuse is I was high on nyquil, and I apologize for it.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 3 comments } February 10, 2011 at 10:59 am

Good point – Taliban issues are certainly not new, but MSM have not focused as much on them as they have ISAF issues.

Re: “there was more focus on ISAF when ISAF was causing them, and now back to the Taliban”, any links re: when ISAF may have been causing more civ cas than the Taliban? Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen a pretty consistent (approx.) 2/3 Taliban:1/3 ISAF ratio reported by a range of groups, but I’m not exhaustive in my hunting.

Frank February 11, 2011 at 10:00 am

I was pretty surprised when I saw this article too. If anything, human rights groups have been focused on the Taliban even before America started to care about Afghanistan. I remember going to an Amnesty International event back in Middle School, around 2000, and they had a presentation on how horrible Taliban rule was in Afghanistan, especially their abuse on women, and how something needed to be done. That was about 5 months before 9/11 and I’m sure that kind of condemnation of the Taliban was going on even before that. The NYT makes it seem like people are just starting to realize how messed up the Taliban are.

Neil February 14, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Here’s an additional thought: Assuming that human rights groups did pay more attention to alleged ISAF atrocities that those committed by the Taliban (and Josh does a pretty good job showing that’s not the case) could the reason be that perhaps the human rights community feels its moral suasion is more effective at changing the behavior of ISAF?

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