Like many mothers in Afghanistan, Maghferat Samimi has affixed a photo of a child to her mobile phone. But the 2 1/2-year-old is not her daughter. She is a rape victim, one of scores that Samimi, a researcher with the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization, has documented in the country’s northern provinces over the past year. Witnesses to the child’s abduction by a local militia commander have had their rape claim backed up by a nearby hospital, but the district police chief maintains that the child fell on a stick. The chief’s objectivity in the matter, however, is hardly assured, given that he once worked with the militia commander.
In Afghanistan today, it can be impossible to know whom to turn to for help. Seeking justice from government officials, says Samimi, “is like going to the wolves for help when the wolves have stolen your sheep.” As the Obama Administration signals that it intends to devote more attention to the war in Afghanistan, many Afghans claim that in the name of fighting the Taliban, the West is ignoring abuses committed by its Afghan proxies. One of the worst offenders, alleges Samimi, is Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic-Uzbek warlord who helped in the triumphant ousting of the Taliban in 2001, when, backed by U.S. special forces, he led hundreds of men on horseback to liberate the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Dostum’s militia is accused of that war’s worst human-rights atrocity, in which hundreds of his captives suffocated to death after having been locked inside shipping containers. He denies the charges. Samimi is not concerned about Dostum’s wartime activities–few if any of Afghanistan’s leaders can boast clean hands after three decades of war. The problem, she says, is that the warlords and their militia commanders continue to commit crimes with impunity, protected by their alliances with foreign nations and comfortable positions within the Afghan government. A Criminal State Though they have largely relinquished their tanks and heavy artillery, several warlords have been able to maintain their core militias in the form of private security companies, political parties or loose business networks. Many derive their income from lucrative cross-border smuggling routes. Allegations of land grabs, rape, murder and kidnapping are common. Human Rights Watch and Afghan human-rights organizations like Samimi’s have documented extortion rackets operated by former warlords and militia-run prisons where captives are held for ransom. Afghan journalists covering these crimes have been harassed by police or thrown in jail. In 2007, Samimi received a phone call from Dostum threatening to have her raped “by 100 men” if she continued investigating a rape case in which he was implicated. Dostum denies ever making such a threat, telling TIME that the rape allegation is “propaganda.” And yet a witness to the phone call, military prosecutor General Habibullah Qasemi, was dismissed from his government post soon afterward, despite carrying a sheaf of glowing recommendation letters penned by U.S. military supervisors. The perception that warlords, protected by their influence and threats of violence, are not held accountable for their crimes has rocked Afghan society and fueled public discontent with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.