The Afshar Massacre, a forgotten horror

The uncertainties of the present situation in Afghanistan, as talks are said to be beginning between NATO and theTaliban have inspired claims that another terrible and all-engulfing civil war could be in the offing.  It’s worth remembering how it once was.  Nothing was worse than the civil war of 1992-1996 that made even life under the Taliban seem tame — the Taliban were at first welcomed by virtually everyone because they brought peace, at least a form of peace.  The terror, the internal divisions, the shifting of alliances, the betrayal of friends and colleagues — all this could be ahead again for the peoples of Afghanistan if the talks break down.  

The current generation has no idea what it was like. The civil war of 1992-1996 and afterward is scarcely rivaled for its ferocity and cruelty.  Civil wars — the American Civil War being a famous example — are the cruelest, meanest of human conflicts.  They are always a blight on human history, on memory, a shame to all the pretenses of the human moral imagination.

KabulPress recently published a long report on one such incident in the war for Kabul:  the Afshar Massacre and Rape of the Hazaras that took place almost exactly nineteen years ago this month (February 1993).  I reproduce it here because the story has been forgotten, and the younger generation has no idea; its’ one of the tragic affairs of all Afghan history.  Let us pray that the Afghans will be spared that experience again.  [Click on the title for a link to the source.]

Massacre and Mass Rape in Afshar (February 10-11, 1993)AFGHANISTAN JUSTICE PROJECT  Saturday 11 February 2012 

The Context of the OperationThe Afshar operation of February 1993 represented the largest and most integrated use of military power undertaken by the ISA up to that time. There were two tactical objectives to the operation. First, Massoud intended, through the operation to capture the political and military headquarters of Hizb-i Wahdat, (which was located in the Social Science Institute, adjoining Afshar, the neighborhood below the Afshar mountain in west Kabul), and to capture Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of Hizb-i Wahdat. Second, the ISA intended to consolidate the areas of the capital directly controlled by Islamic State forces by linking up parts of west Kabul controlled by Ittihad-i Islami with parts of central Kabul controlled by Jamiat-i Islami. Given the political and military context of Kabul at the time, these two objectives (which were largely attained during the operation) provide a compelling explanation of why the Islamic State forces attacked Afshar.

Responsibility for the abuses committed during the operationThe forces that launched the offensive in west Kabul on February 10-11, 1993 all formally belonged to the ministry of defense of the ISA. The minister of defense and de facto commander-in-chief of the ISA at the time of the Afshar operation was Ahmad Shah Massoud. He had overall responsibility for planning and command of military operations. He directly controlled the Jamiat-i Islami units and indirectly controlled the Ittihad-i Islami unit. Massoud secured the participation of the Ittihad-i Islami units through agreement with Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of the party. Although the Ittihad units had been given Afghan Army formation numbers, commanders in the field took their orders from senior Ittihad commanders and Sayyaf himself. Sayyaf acted as the de facto general commander of Ittihad forces during the operation and was directly in touch with senior commanders by radio. In this sense, Sayyaf shares equal command and control responsibility with the top Jamiat military leadership.Given the pattern of violence and ethnic tension that had preceded the operation, the general commanders could and should have anticipated the pattern of abuse that would result when launching an offensive into a densely populated Hazara majority area.. Furthermore, as fighting took place in an area barely two kilometers from the general command post, and field commanders were equipped with radio communications, the general commander must have known of the abuses taking place in Afshar as soon as they started. Both Massoud, together with his senior commanders, and Sayyaf failed to take effective measures to prevent abuses before the operation commenced, or to stop them once the operation was underway.  While it has not been possible to identify individual commanders responsible for specific instances of execution or rape, the Afghanistan Justice Project has been able to identify a number of the commanders who led troops in the operation. Testimony indicates that both Jamiat and Ittihad troops committed abuses. Although some of the commanders were only involved in legitimate military actions, capturing and securing a designated objective, commanders who took place in the operation on the ground have a case to answer to determine whether they restrained their troops from abuses, or whether they and their men actively participated in the summary executions, rape, arbitrary detentions and other abuses that occurred during the operation.The Islamic State, through Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud and leader of factional ally, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, committed the following military forces to participate in the Afshar operation. 

Jamiat-i Islami commanders and units 

Mohammad Qasim Fahim, director of intelligence, with responsibility for special operations in support of the offensive and participating in planning of the operation. Anwar Dangar, commander of a division level unit of mujahidin from Shakkar Darra, Shamali, named by numerous witnesses as leading troops in Afshar that carried out abuses on the first two days of the operation.Mullah Izzat, commander of a division level unit of mujahidin, from Paghman, named by numerous eye witnesses as leading troops in Afshar that carried out abuses on the first two days of the operation.  Mohammad Ishaq Panshiri, commander of a brigade level unit of mujahidin (lewa) that, according to witnesses, participated in the assault Haji Bahlol Panshiri, commander of a brigade level unit (lewa) that, according to witnesses participated in the assault Baba Jullunder Panshiri, commander of a brigade level unit (lewa) that participated in the assault Khanjar Akhund, Panshiri, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund) that participated in the assault Mushdoq Lalai, battalion level, participated in the assault Baz Mohammad Ahmadi Badakhshani, commander of a division level unit that participated in the assault, attacking from Qargha 

Ittihad-i Islami commanders and units participating in the operation 

Haji Shir Alam, division commander affiliated to Sayyaf, from Paghman, named by numerous eye witnesses as leading troops in Afshar on the first two days when abuses were committed  Zulmai Tufan, commander of the Lewa 597 brigade, named by numerous eye witnesses as leading troops in Afshar on the first two days, when abuses were committed. (Lewa 597 existed before the fall of Dr. Najibullah’s government when it was called Lewa Moradat-Tank). It was in based in the Company area of west Kabul.  Dr. Abdullah, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund) of the Lewa 597, named by several witnesses as leading troops in Afshar on day one and two, when abuses were committed Jaglan Naeem, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund) of the Lewa 597, had stationed troops in Afshar by second day of the operation  Mullah Taj Mohammad, named as participating in planning of the operation  Abdullah Shah, named by several witnesses as leading troops in Afshar and responsible for arbitrary arrests, abductions and other abuses.  Khinjar, who had stationed troops in Afshar by the second day of the operation  Abdul Manan Diwana, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund), named by witnesses as stationing troops in Afshar by the second day of the operation  Amanullah Kochi, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund), had stationed troops in Afshar by second day of the operation  Shirin, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund), had stationed troops in Afshar by the second day of the operation  Mushtaq Lalai, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund), had stationed troops in Afshar by the second day of the operation  Mullah Kachkol, had stationed troops in Afshar by second day of the operation  

Narrative of the operation 

All of the forces that ultimately participated in the fighting on February 10-11, 1993, were already deployed in and around Kabul before the start of the offensive. The main preparations made by the ISA were the conduct of special operations to weaken the Hizb-i Wahdat defenses and deployment of additional artillery for the bombardment. As director of intelligence, Mohammad Fahim had overall responsibility for special operations. His personnel contacted a number of the Shia commanders around Afshar and obtained their commitment to cooperate with the Islamic State offensive.  The most significant new deployment of artillery before the operation was the position on Aliabad Hill. Massoud pre-positioned a Z0 23 gun there, with the detachment of 30 men, to target the area around the Central Silo, Afshar, Kart-iSeh, Kart-iChar and Kart-iSakhi.  The main significance of the massive firepower and the large number of positions from which artillery was used is that they demonstrate the scale and significance of the operation. This was not a raid or skirmish but a full scale battle, in which the Islamic State deployed the combined military resources from the old Soviet era army and the mujahidin against targets within the capital city, all of them located in areas that were primarily residential, with the civilian population intact.  Witnesses who were associated with the military at the time of the operation have provided accounts of the planning and military coordination that Massoud undertook prior to actually launching the operation on the ground. However, this represents only a partial view of the planning, as an operation of this scale must have involved intensive preparations. According to one witness, the top Jamiat commanders, along with selected senior Ittihad commanders (Shir Alam and Zulmai Tufan), and with the main Shia ally, Massoud Hussain Anwari, plus the ISA military advisors, met under the chairmanship of Massoud at Corps headquarters in Badambagh two days before the operation. Another meeting was held in an intelligence safe house in KartiParwan, near the Intercontinental hotel, on the night before the offensive. Massoud used the same house as an operations room for much of the day. There was also a meeting of the Ittihad commanders, under the chairmanship of Sayyaf, in Paghman, one day before the operation. The purpose of these meetings was to instruct key commanders on their role in the ground offensive.The ISA forces commenced a generalized bombardment of west Kabul on the night of February 10-11, 1993, with targets both around the Social Science Institute and Afshar and in the rest of the Shia areas of the city. Troop movement started around 05.00 on February 11, and this is generally remembered as the time of the full commencement of the operation. The first decisive troop movement was from Badambagh to the top of the Radar Hill, part of the Afshar ridge. ISA troops were immediately able to take over positions along the top of the ridge unopposed and the main Hizb-i Wahdat defense posts there were burned and the tanks stationed there immobilized.  A large contingent of both Ittihad and Jamiat forces advanced towards Afshar from the west. The closest point of the front line to the main target of the operation was the Kabul Polytechnic. A Jamiat force advanced along the main Afshar Road, from Kart-iParwan and the Intercontinental Hotel, towards the Social Science Institute, entering Afshar from the east. The ISA forces did not advance along other sections of the front line marking the west Kabul enclave, although they maintained an intense bombardment and had ample forces deployed to maintain a threat of advance.  However, by 13.00 Hizb-i Wahdat’s main defense line along the Afshar ridge was gone and their hold on the Social Science Institute untenable. Mazari and his top commanders fled the Institute on foot. By 14.00 the ISA forces were able to occupy the Social Science Institute, and the forces that had advanced from the east and the west, met up in Afshar, having taken effective control of the area. They deployed in Khushal Mina and Afshar, but made no further advance.  Troops started to secure the area, establishing posts and undertaking a search operation. It was this search operation that rapidly became a mass exercise in abuse and looting, as described in the civilian eyewitness testimony below.  Mazari was able to order the re-establishment of the defense line along the edge of Khushhal Mina, next to the Central Silo and Kart-iSakhi, thus retaining most of the rest of west Kabul. Some of the Afshar residents, basically those considering themselves most vulnerable, managed to flee with the departing Wahdat troops (this factor seems to account for the relatively low number of male youths mentioned in the casualties in the testimony). However, the majority of the Afshar civilian population was in place as the ISA forces took over. Because of the bombardment, active fighting and presence of potentially hostile troops, it seems that many civilians were unable to leave on the first day of the operation. However, a mass exodus took place on the night of the February 11-12. Women and children fled mainly towards Taimani, in north Kabul, and they found shelter in schools and mosques in the Ismaili quarter there. Some old men elected to stay and guard houses and possessions, but testimony indicates that the troops mainly targeted men for arbitrary detention and summary execution, i.e. male civilians were not free to leave the area. Most survivors who fled Afshar described seeing debris and corpses along the way, indicating that they fled after the main battle. By the end of the second day, the bulk of the civilian population had evacuated Afshar and it seems that this exodus was the development that most decisively ended abuses against civilians in the area.  On the second day of the operation, February 12, Massoud convened a meeting in the Hotel Intercontinental which, belatedly, discussed arrangements for security in the newly captured areas. This meeting was attended by top ISA military commanders and political figures, including Rabbani, Sayyaf, Hayatollah Mohsin, Ayatollah Fazl, and General Fahim. ISA did claim a Shia constituency and Hussain Anwari, as a senior ISA commander, was under pressure from Shia civilians to make some arrangements for their safety. The meeting ordered a halt to the massacre and looting and agreed on an exchange of envoys between the warring parties, for identification of prisoners. It also called for a withdrawal of the offensive troops, leaving a smaller force to garrison the new areas.Given the scale of abuses that occurred on the first two days of the operation, before the meeting, it was clearly too late to prevent the main abuses. The meeting also seems to have been ineffective in halting the looting of the area, as the destruction of housing in Afshar happened largely after the meeting. 

The War Crimes: Indiscriminate Attacks, Rapes, Abductions and Summary Executions 

Indiscriminate Shelling and bombardment of civilian areasThe Afshar area was subjected to heavy bombardment during the first day of the operation. The principal military targets would have been the Social Science Institute and the other main Wahdat garrisons. However, the Social Science Institute was never hit. The majority of the rockets, tank shells and mortars fell in civilian residential areas. As the command centers of both the Ittihad and Jamiat forces were within site of Afshar, it appears that the attack was intended to drive the civilian population from Afshar—which it succeeded in doing. The number killed in the assault (not including those summarily executed) is not known. Virtually every witness interviewed by the Afghanistan Justice Project described seeing bodies in the area.Indeed, the shelling and mortar fire was so intense, many residents hid on the first day, and did not try to leave. Although this may have reduced civilian casualties from the bombardment, it left these civilians vulnerable to the abuses that followed.