When given a choice between security and freedom, people always choose security. That is why so many dictators and demagogues survive by creating a false sense of threat and then presenting themselves as the saviours.
The same logic applies when people are given a choice between safety and justice. They would choose safety over justice. In the case of Afghanistan, this has fed a continuous cycle of violence over the past few decades.
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The absence of any legal consequences for violence and war crimes has only further emboldened armed groups. The release of Taliban fighters as part of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban and the continuing negotiations between the armed group and the Afghan government will not lead to peace. Only a thorough transitional justice process will.
A repeat of history
The decision to sideline justice to supposedly maintain security and peace is not without precedent in recent Afghan history.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1987), more than 800,000 people lost their lives. The United States and several Muslim countries supported the mujahideen’s fight against Soviet forces. Both sides regularly committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law throughout the conflict. While the atrocities committed by Soviet forces were widely reported on, war crimes committed by the mujahideen during the same period were largely undocumented.
After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, infighting broke out between various mujahideen groups which led to more war crimes being committed. In February 1993, for example, the infighting between mujahideen factions resulted in the Afshar massacre, in which up to 1000 Hazara men, women and children were brutally murdered. Intra-mujahideen fighting lasted from 1992 to 1994 costing up to 50,000 civilian lives. It is this violence and upheaval that gave birth to the Taliban, which took over Kabul in 1996 and established an Islamic emirate. In August 1998, the Taliban executed between 2000 to 5000 civilians from the Hazara ethnic group in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The 9/11 attacks on the US turned the odds in favour of the same mujahideen as the US-led coalition which invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 allied with them against the Taliban. In 2007, after a US-backed government was installed in Kabul, mujahideen leaders involved in the 1990s civil wars passed legislation in parliament granting them amnesty for their war crimes. The justification given for these laws was simple: if the international community and the government of Afghanistan tried to bring them to justice, the mujahideen would provoke more chaos and insecurity.
Hence, no transitional justice measures were carried out, thereby sacrificing accountability to maintain an illusory post-2001 peace. Suffering for more than two decades, the people of Afghanistan who were the primary victims of the mujahideen’s war crimes let go of justice in the hope of security.
The absence of a transitional justice process against the mujahideen emboldened the Taliban and reassured its members that there would be no consequences for their actions and they continued to commit ever more gruesome violence against the Afghan people. In other words, the impunity the mujahideen enjoyed did not really bring peace to Afghanistan.
This approach to war ethics is problematic, not only because it denies justice to the victims of the Taliban atrocities but also because it strengthens the Taliban’s capacity to prolong the war to achieve its goal of establishing a theocracy.
Transitional justice in Afghanistan
The release of thousands of Taliban fighters after the armed group concluded an agreement with the US on February 29 this year has been justified as necessary to jump-start peace negotiations. However, the odds are against any permanent peace in the country.
The Taliban will not give up violence because it knows that it is only through violent means that it can have any political power. Even with its enormous corruption scandals and its own track record of violence against civilians, the government in Kabul is still preferred by 92 percent of Afghans, according to a 2015 poll. Any impunity the Taliban enjoys will also motivate other groups to continue committing crimes against the Afghan people.
Because of this, calls are growing for the leaders of the Taliban to be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Nevertheless, Taliban leaders are unlikely to face the court soon. Not only the Afghan government and its international backers would be happy to give the members of the group amnesty should they agree to make peace, the US itself is not willing to allow the ICC to investigate the crimes its troops allegedly committed in the country.
Moreover, an ICC investigation at this critical junction risks undermining the ongoing Doha peace talks, as it may discourage the Taliban from agreeing to make peace. But there are ways to achieve some transitional justice without insisting on an ICC investigation.
The war crimes committed in Afghanistan in the last four decades by all parties can and should be officially documented. This would put an end to widespread attempts to whitewash history and force the perpetrators of these crimes to face some accountability. Following the documentation of these crimes, all political parties, including the communists, the mujahideen factions and the Taliban, should officially apologise to the people of Afghanistan in general and the victims of violence in particular, to officially acknowledge and atone for their past crimes.
A public apology by leaders involved in war crimes has a precedent. During his 2013 election campaign, President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, issued an apology for being a part of the 1990s civil wars. Dostum’s apology and pledge to never repeat his past mistakes was welcomed by many Afghans.
The people of Afghanistan are once again being asked to choose between justice and security. While an acknowledgement of war crimes and a promise by perpetrators to not repeat them would not heal the victims of these crimes, it can be an important step towards healing Afghanistan. If these steps are backed by a commitment by the international community to prevent further human rights violations in the country, Afghanistan can finally leave its painful past behind and turn its face towards the future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.