The deaths are part of a string of assassinations and summary executions, largely considered revenge killings, that have been happening across Afghanistan since the fall of Ashraf Ghani’s government in August.
The attacks underscore the dangers that Taliban critics, activists and members of the former government’s security forces face despite the Taliban announcement when they seized power of a general amnesty for former government workers and military officials.
In a report released Tuesday, Human Rights Watch detailed the killing and forced disappearance of 47 members of the former government’s security forces who had either surrendered to the Taliban or were detained by them between Aug 15 and Oct 31 in four of the country’s 34 provinces: Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar and Kunduz.
The group’s research indicates that the Taliban are responsible for the deaths or disappearances of at least another 53 former security force members in the same provinces.
“The Taliban leadership’s promised amnesty has not stopped local commanders from summarily executing or disappearing former Afghan security force members,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director of the Human Rights Watch. “The burden is on the Taliban to prevent further killings, hold those responsible to account, and compensate the victims’ families.”
Gossman said that the killings had evolved into a more “deliberate” effort to crush dissidents and those who may pose a threat to the new government and that the Taliban leaders were “condoning” the atrocities.
The Taliban have a long history of targeting security forces and officials of the former government, as well as activists, journalists and elders. Particularly in the 18 months leading up to the takeover, the Taliban carried out an assassination campaign against journalists, government and military workers and civil society leaders, though they rarely took responsibility for the deaths.
But the recent summary executions and assassinations have raised new fears because they occurred even in the face of reassurances from senior Taliban leaders that the new government would not seek retribution against members of the former government and military.
Score settling and blood feuds have marked Afghanistan’s last four decades of conflict, often playing out at the local and familial level.
A Taliban spokesperson told The New York Times that some fighters might have taken the law into their own hands to settle old scores, but that the killings and disappearances were not Taliban policy. The spokesperson, Inamullah Samangani, said the government was “seriously investigating” such incidents to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
“We are fully committed to the amnesty that we have announced,” Samangani said in a phone interview. “We don’t have a security system yet in place, and some people are taking advantage of this vacuum, misusing the name of Islamic Emirate, and carrying out such killings.”
He said: “Revenge killings aren’t in the interest of our government. They are harmful to Islamic Emirate’s reputation at this critical time.”
The killings raise concerns that Taliban leaders may have little control over lower-rank commanders and foot soldiers, who are believed to be behind most of the forced disappearances and executions.
Among the Afghans whose deaths were documented by Human Rights Watch was a man named Dadullah, who had worked only for a few months as a police officer in Kandahar city, then quit his job and moved to the town of Spin Boldak near the Pakistan border before the Taliban takeover.
Last month, Dadullah returned to Kandahar city. Two men believed to be Taliban members picked him up on Oct 23, and his body was sent home in an ambulance later that evening.
“We took the body to the governor’s house, but the Taliban would not tell us anything and did not allow us to meet the governor,” a neighbour told Human Rights Watch.
Since seizing power, government leaders have instructed members of the former security forces to register with local officials and surrender their weapons in exchange for a letter guaranteeing their safety.
But some victims’ families say the Taliban have used these screenings to detain and kill former officials, the report said. Former civil servants in top government posts, such as judges, who did not realise they were required to obtain an amnesty letter, have been beaten and detained for not doing so, according to the report.
The report also says the Taliban have carried out searches to find some former security force members, and have threatened and abused their families to try to get them to disclose their hideouts.
Many of the victims were arrested when the Taliban’s elite special forces, known as red units, raided their homes in the middle of the night under the pretext of seizing weapons, according to the report. These units led the Taliban’s most successful operations against coalition and former government forces in recent years.
In September, the killings prompted the Taliban’s acting defence minister, Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub, to issue an admonition to his commanders.
“Islamic Emirate has announced a general amnesty to all the soldiers and bad people who stood against us, and martyred us and caused suffering to the people,” he told the Taliban fighters in a voice message distributed by the government. “Once they are pardoned, no mujahid has the right to break the amnesty commitment or take revenge.”
But that seems to have had little effect on the Taliban fighters.
In a recent killing confirmed by The New York Times, Bahauddin Kunduzi, a former intelligence officer, was found dead two weeks after he went missing in Kunduz city, a hub in Afghanistan’s north.
Kunduzi had handed over his weapon and equipment and had received a letter guaranteeing his safety, according to his family. The Taliban even allowed him to continue working at the intelligence agency.
Then one evening, a group of Talibs arrived at the grocery store Kunduzi had just opened to generate some income since the new government was unable to pay his monthly salary, his relatives said.
“They beat him up in the store, then took him,” one family member said, his voice disappearing into sobs behind the phone. “They strangled him, then dumped his body into a ditch.”
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