September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
The Taliban’s War on Afghanistan - Testimony by Assistant Secretary Lorne Craner Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau At a hearing of the House International Relations International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee; October 31, 2001

The Taliban’s War on Afghanistan

Testimony by Assistant Secretary Lorne Craner
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau

Department of State

At a hearing of the
House International Relations
International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee
October 31, 2001

“People who had the power to leave – young men and women – fled. Old men and children who couldn’t escape were all killed. At night, I came down and buried the people with my hands. Most of the dead bodies were found in the mosque, but some were found around and inside their homes.”

Comments of a refugee from a Taliban attack on Sar-e Qazu, Bamiyan valley – Summer 2001.


Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Universally accepted human rights, particularly those of women, are virtually nonexistent as the Taliban continues to commit numerous serious and systemic abuses.

Afghanistan is experiencing its twenty-third year of civil war and instability. There is no functioning central government; no nationally-recognized constitution, and no independent judiciary. The Taliban, which controls up to ninety percent of the country, has imposed its own radical interpretation of Islamic Law.

Summary killings are common in Taliban-held territory. Political and other extra-judicial murders, summary executions and deaths in custody occur. Since September 11, there have been rumors of increased summary killings of potential Taliban opponents and even of persons perceived of being “neutral” in the struggle with the United Front/Northern Alliance.

The human rights of women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities, and indeed all who do not share the Taliban’s increasingly radical interpretation of Islam, continue to be systemically denied by the Taliban.

Lack of Religious Freedom and Ethnic Tolerance

The Secretary of State has identified Taliban-ruled Afghanistan a “country of particular concern.” The rigid policies adopted by the Taliban have had a chilling effect on adherents of other faiths and in particular on Afghan Muslims who do not accept the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. Enforcement of Taliban edicts are most pronounced in the cities, especially in Kabul; less so in rural areas, where local customs are more prevalent, and where there may be less of a Taliban presence.

The Taliban rely on a religious police force under the control of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice (PVSV) to enforce rules on such matters as appearance, dress, employment, access to medical care, behavior, religious practice, and freedom of expression.

In September 1999, the Taliban issued decrees that forbade non-Muslims from building places of worship but allowed them to worship at existing sites. The decrees also ordered non-Muslims to identify their houses by placing a yellow cloth on their rooftops and prohibited non-Muslims from living in the same residences as Muslims. On May 22, 2001, the PVSV proposed that all Hindus be made to wear an identifying mark on their clothing to distinguish them from Muslims. This has been revised to requiring that all Hindus carry special identification cards at all times and show whenever needed. Taliban officials claim that the plan is an effort to safeguard Hindus from harassment from the religious police.

In areas they control, the Taliban has decreed that all Muslims must take part in five daily prayers. Those who are observed not praying at appointed times or who are late attending prayer are subject to punishment, including severe beatings. PVSV members in Kabul reportedly have stopped persons on the street and quizzed them to determine if they knew how to recite various Koranic prayers.

Licensing and registration of religious groups do not appear to be required by the authorities in any part of the country. The small number of non-Muslim residents who remain in the country may generally practice their faith in private, but are prohibited from an attempt to convince Muslims to convert. Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and is punishable by death.

There is an ongoing conflict between the Taliban, who subscribe to a radical interpretation of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, and Afghanistan’s Shi’a, most of whom are Hazaras. In September 1998 and April 1999, over 500 persons were reportedly killed in the struggle for control of the city of Bamiyan. The United Nations has reported that, after retaking the town of Yakaolang in January 2001, the Taliban massacred at least 100 Shiite Muslim civilians (USG sources believe this figure to be closer to 300). This massacre followed the May 2000 massacre at the Robatak Pass of some 31 Ismaili Shi’a Hazaras (26 of which were positively identified as civilians).

In early August 2001 the Taliban arrested 24 members of an international relief agency – 16 Afghans, 4 Germans, 2 Americans, and 2 Australians – on charges of proselytizing. Taliban authorities were threatening to execute the agency’s Afghan employees for allegedly converting to Christianity from Islam. The eight foreign workers continue to be detained.

This February the Taliban ordered the destruction of all statues in Afghanistan, claiming that “Islamic beliefs” condone such actions. Afghan museums contain ancient and culturally priceless statuary from the Greek, Buddhist, and other eras of the country’s rich and varied history. The Taliban claimed to have destroyed statues in these collections and elsewhere. Two massive second-century statues of the Buddha, located in the central province of Bamiyan and considered among the world’s great cultural treasures, were totally destroyed in March 2001. This war against Afghan culture has extended to the Taliban forbidding the flying of kites, the playing of chess, possession of dolls and stuffed animal toys (as violations of their understanding of the Islamic injunction to “make no image of a living thing”). Along these same lines, we understand that the Taliban has required that medical texts be reduced to straight-forward narratives, without diagrams or photographs of the body or any of its parts.

Rule by the Sword – Taliban Massacres

Since coming to power in 1996, the Taliban has shown itself willing to carry out massacres, usually along ethnic lines, to establish and maintain its control over parts of the country.

· In August 1998, they captured Mazar-i Sharif, a major city in north-central Afghanistan, and murdered nearly 3,000 civilians. Most were Hazaras, who, as Shias, were characterized as “infidels” by the region’s Taliban governor Mullah Manon Niazi. In January 2001, Taliban forces recaptured Yakaolang district in Bamiyan province and summarily executed approximately 170 male Hazara civilians.

· In June, to strengthen its hold on the province, Taliban forces carried out a “scorched earth” program, burning perhaps 5,000 structures, including houses, a clinic, mosques and a madrassa. As one returning villager noted, “there was nothing left.” The June program also entailed the killing of numerous fleeing civilians as well as those too ill or infirm to flee.

· Current conditions in Afghanistan make reporting of similar activities by the Taliban difficult, but given the history and proclivities of the group, we should not be surprised to learn of similar activities, perhaps even more brutal, in the ensuing weeks.

Womens’ and Girls’ Rights

The promotion of human rights, particularly the human rights of women and girls, is a high priority for us in Afghanistan today. Afghan women traditionally suffered disadvantages in many areas of Afghan society prior to the civil war. However a limited but growing number, primarily in urban areas, worked outside the home in nontraditional roles. There were thousands of female lawyers, government officials and doctors in Kabul in the early 1990’s.

Despite the efforts of the U.S. Government, the UN and the NGO community, the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan remains largely unchanged and indeed has worsened as Taliban has intensified its enforcement of its radical beliefs.

When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, they began to enforce a series of discriminatory social strictures, many of which impacted women and their position in society. The Taliban forbade women to work outside the home, but soon allowed exceptions for female doctors and nurses in restricted circumstances. They have stated that widows could work outside the home to support their families, but this benefit is granted sporadically. In urban areas, women were forbidden to leave home unless accompanied by a male relative. Particularly in cities, when women go out they must wear a traditional long robe, the burqa, covering them from head to toe and obscuring their vision. While many Afghan women wore the burqa before they took control, it is now part of a legally enforced dress code decreed by the Taliban. (The Taliban also enforce a dress code for men, which includes an obligatory wearing of beards of a certain length. Men who violate the dress code risk beatings, imprisonment and religious indoctrination courses, women risk being stoned, though more often the male elders of their family are beaten.)

The Taliban restrict education for girls, particularly in urban areas such as Kabul. Private home-based schools were ordered closed in Kabul. By some estimates, only 3 percent of Afghan girls have access to any form of primary education. Nearly one-quarter of male children receive education (albeit this is often limited to memorization of the Koran in Arabic, not a language widely spoken Afghanistan). Women and girls have access to medical services and most hospitals in Kabul, but in practice women are usually excluded from treatment by male physicians. The requirement that women be completely clothed when treated by male medical personnel is clearly a severely limiting factor.

The Taliban’s unwillingness to tolerate educated women is reflected in the country’s infant mortality figures. In Afghanistan, over 150 of each 1,000 children die before the age of five. In Pakistan, the number is 80; in India it is 63, in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan 73 children of every thousand die before the age of five.

What the USG is Doing

Promoting human rights in Afghanistan, particularly religious freedom and the rights of women and girls, is a high priority for U.S. diplomacy. Even before September 11th, we kept the international spotlight focused on the Taliban's human rights abuses. At every opportunity, we have called on the Taliban to cease its persecution on the basis of religion, and to lift its restrictions on access to health care, employment, and education of women and girls. We have raised human rights questions with other factions as well. In February, the State Department again documented in its human rights report human rights abuses in Afghanistan. This year’s Report on International Religious Freedom again details the gross violations of religious liberty by the Taliban regime. In April, the United States and other nations introduced and adopted a resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights which strongly condemned human rights abuse in Afghanistan, particularly discrimination against women and girls.

Along with working for improvements in human rights in Afghanistan, we continue to support the Afghan people through our humanitarian assistance programs. The United States is the largest provider of humanitarian aid to Afghans. During Fiscal Year 2001, we have provided over $170 million in aid for Afghans. Additionally there is 165,000 tons of wheat from the U.S. currently on ships headed to the region. The President recently announced an additional 320 million dollars in humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people. This assistance helps support the weakest and the most vulnerable Afghans - women and girls and ethnic minorities. Last year, the Department provided $3.8 million specifically for programs targeted at Afghan women and girl refugees, and USAID provided an additional $1 million. We expect to provide similar amounts this year.

The United States remains committed to improving the human rights situation in Afghanistan. We have called for a broad-based, representative, multi-ethnic government, one that accepts international norms and practices, particularly regarding human rights in general, but in particular religious freedom and issues concerning women, and facilitates safe delivery of humanitarian and economic assistance. We are working with other countries and the United Nations to bring about change.

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