If Abdul Bashir Salangi had known the reaction it would trigger, he might well have kept the file with the macabre title “Gallows” locked safely away on his computer. It’s early morning last Thursday, and the shrill ringtones of Salangi’s mobile phones are irritating the governor of Afghanistan’s Parwan Province.
He answers the phone with an edge to his voice and replies, “No, we can’t do anything. Even if we had a hundred men looking for the perpetrators, the Taliban is stronger there than we are.” He goes on to complain briefly about the weakness of his own forces before bringing the conversation to a close.The calls are from the capital Kabul, which is about an hour’s drive from Salangi’s office, and the capital wants results. The president’s office, the Ministry of the Interior — everyone is up in arms because the whole world is talking about this particular file, or more accurately, about the video it contains, which Salangi shared with a reporter a week before. Within hours, the video from Parwan had spread to the furthest corners of the globe via Youtube. And everywhere it went, it caused shock — and feelings of helplessness.
Salangi plays the video on his iPad. The camera work is shaky, but a woman in a gray burqa can clearly be seen crouching on a gravel-strewn slope. In just a few sentences, a bearded man pronounces her death sentence on grounds of alleged adultery. From that point on, everything happens very quickly. A man in a white robe steps forward and fires nine shots, killing the woman. Once she’s lying lifeless on the ground, he steps even closer, kneels down, and fires another four shots.
Behind the camera, voices begin to cheer. The cameraman pans around, revealing perhaps 150 men squatting in front of their houses, which are clustered at the foot of a mountain. The residents of the village Qol-i-Heer, in the district of Shinwari, watched the execution, and it seems they liked what they saw. “God is great!” they cry. The few Taliban members in the foreground, slim men with black beards and ammunition belts strapped around their chests, smile briefly for the camera. Then the video breaks off.
Protest in Kabul
What the video doesn’t show, and what eyewitnesses later reported, is that the young woman did not actually receive a trial. The execution is better described simply as murder, performed to cover up the fact that Taliban members themselves are guilty of the same crime of which they accused their victim.
Salangi has watched this video many times, but with each repeat he still shakes his head to think “that things like this are still happening in Afghanistan.” And yet his words fail to convey any real sympathy. The way he says it, it sounds more as if the Taliban’s shooting of the 22-year-old woman, Najiba, were perhaps a traffic violation.
The reaction this video garnered abroad was quite different. Most shocking was the realization it brought, that 10 years after the war in Afghanistan began and with a year to go until the end of the NATO mission there, there are still regions of the country where the Taliban exerts its authority brutally and without fear of retribution. But viewers abroad are not the only ones protesting; women in Kabul have also protested this barbarism.
Even very recently, an increasing number of reports out of Afghanistan presented fairly convincing evidence that the Taliban was considerably worn down after 10 years of war. Some members of the organization even expressed a willingness to negotiate, admitting that they were losing the war and that the United States had succeeded in demoralizing their once-powerful forces. But then this video emerged with drastic proof of the Taliban’s unbroken dominance here, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the capital.
This video from the mountains of Parwan couldn’t have come at a less convenient time for President Hamid Karzai’s government. Karzai had to appear at the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan the very day after the first reports of the execution emerged. There he met with representatives of the international community, who pledged $16 billion (€13 billion) in additional reconstruction aid, to ensure that the withdrawal of international troops in 2014 doesn’t pave the way for a return to Taliban rule.
Yet here in Parwan, the governor mentions often that he already has to share control of his province with the Taliban. Salangi says that “the good guys” — by which he means himself and the government’s security forces — call the shots here only in the provincial capital of Charikar. Everywhere north of here, he continues, the Taliban operates a parallel government, with shadow governors and its own legal system and checkpoints. “I wouldn’t show my face there without military protection and air support,” Salangi says.
The governor doesn’t even feel entirely safe in his capital, which is also an hour’s drive from the site of the execution in the video. Ever since the Taliban attempted to storm his office with suicide attackers in the summer of 2011, Salangi has kept an AK-47 close at hand next to his desk. Most of the damage from that attack still hasn’t been repaired, nor have the windows in most of the building’s offices been replaced.
Abdul Kabir, Salangi’s subordinate who runs the district of Shinwari, where the Taliban execution for alleged adultery occurred, can only receive visitors far away from his actual place of work, in the neighboring province of Baghlan. Here in his garden, Kabir explains that he’s essentially powerless in his district. Just two weeks ago, when Kabir dared to go in to his office for a day, a bomb went off under his Jeep. It was pure luck that he survived.
This representative of Karzai’s government hasn’t gone back to work since then. Now and then he puts in a call to a local informant, and that has to suffice.
All this is despite the fact that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ceremonially turned over nearly the entire province of Parwan to Afghan control in December 2011. Since then, in theory, Afghan armed forces have been responsible for maintaining security in this strategically important province. The only problem, the governor says in a tone of resignation, is that there are hardly any Afghan soldiers in Parwan.
Salangi has sworn, of course, to put the young woman’s murderers on trial, but so far the search for the perpetrators has been carried out with words alone — even though Salangi believes he knows very well who was responsible for the crime: Mullah Mirza Khan, the district’s shadow leader.
Punishable By Death
The local Taliban leader is feared throughout Shinwari for his brutality. Villagers in the area say he often enforces a death penalty of hanging even for minor offenses. The Taliban commander, believed to be around 40 years old, is nowhere to be seen in the video, but Salangi and his staff feel sure Khan was the one to impose the sentence for the supposed adultery.
Salangi cites the statements of two separate eyewitnesses familiar with the circumstances behind the murder. Both report that a Taliban commander named Qader either lured the victim away from her husband, another Taliban fighter, or kidnapped her from his home in a nearby village. They say Qader housed the woman in an outbuilding on his compound, where Mirza Khan was a frequent visitor, and where he there began a relationship with Najiba. Whether this took place by force or with the woman’s consent, no one can say.
The adulterous relationship quickly began causing agitation in this conservative region, say both witnesses, who wish to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. Reports of the scandal in the village of Qol-i-Heer soon reached higher-ranking militant Islamists in Pakistan, who decided to send a representative to sort out the delicate problem.
At that point, the witnesses say, it seems Mirza Khan decided to simply dispose of his accomplices himself. First he had Qader killed, the man who had housed his mistress. Then, one afternoon in late June, he staged a trial for Najiba herself. Najiba’s husband Juma Khan is believed to be the man who fired the fatal shots in the video.
Despite the villagers’ detailed testimony, Salangi has not yet dared to send his own security forces to Qol-i-Heer, instead making vague allusions to a major operation he says is being arranged from Kabul.
Yet if the Taliban handles the case according to its own laws, the man behind the execution has virtually signed his own death sentence. “There’s only one possible punishment for Mirza Khan’s offense, and that is death,” reports one of the eyewitnesses. Because of precisely that fear, the Taliban commander fled deeper into the mountains as soon as the video of the execution became public.
Governor Salangi has thus been left uncertain as to how he should proceed. He shrugs his shoulders. “There’s one thing you have to hand to the Taliban,” he says. “Their justice system often works better than ours does.”
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
This article is being reproduced for personal reading to stress the lack of human security in Afghanistan as the drawdown date o Western troops nears.