Over 100 Bodies Found Dumped in Canal in East
(New York) – Taliban security forces have summarily executed and forcibly disappeared alleged members and supporters of an Islamic State offshoot in eastern Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, residents of Nangahar and Kunar provinces east of Kabul have discovered the bodies of more than 100 men dumped in canals and other locations.
Taliban forces have carried out abusive search operations, including night raids, against residents they accuse of sheltering or supporting members of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) armed group, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS). During these raids, Taliban forces have beaten residents and have detained men they accuse of being ISKP members without legal process or revealing their whereabouts to their families. An unknown number have been summarily executed – shot, hanged, or beheaded – or forcibly disappeared.
“We investigated an emptied canal in Nangarhar in which over 100 bodies have been dumped between August 2021 and April 2022,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Taliban authorities appear to have given their forces free rein to detain, ‘disappear,’ and kill alleged militants.”
Between October 2021 and June 2022, Human Rights Watch, working with a local organization that cannot be identified for security reasons, interviewed 63 people, including 42 in person in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, and 21 by phone.
In November, a team from both groups counted 54 bodies of men, many in an advanced state of decomposition, along a 15 to 20 kilometer stretch of the emptied canal. The bodies showed evidence of torture and brutal executions: some had missing limbs, ropes around their necks, or had been beheaded or had slit throats. Healthcare workers in Nangarhar said that they had registered 118 bodies that had been found across the province between August and December.
A media report cited one Taliban fighter who said, “We conduct night raids and whenever we find a Daesh [ISIS] member, we just kill them.” The United Nations has reported that Taliban operations against ISKP “rely heavily on extra-judicial detentions and killings.”
Over a number of years ISKP has carried out bombings particularly targeting Hazara, Shia, and other religious minority communities, as well as against Taliban and former government forces. The armed group springs from a minority violent stream of Salafism, a movement that looks back to the earliest years of Islam for moral guidance.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented Taliban forces summarily executing or forcibly disappearing former Afghan government officials and security forces. The cases from eastern Afghanistan demonstrate that Taliban forces have extended such atrocities to those they accuse of links to ISKP, Human Rights Watch said.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which applies to the armed conflict between the Taliban and ISKP, obligates all parties to treat everyone in custody humanely. Arbitrary detentions, summary executions, and other forms of mistreatment are prohibited, and those responsible are subject to prosecution for war crimes. Also prohibited are enforced disappearances, which international law defines as the detention of anyone by state forces or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the detention or whereabouts of the person.
Suspected ISKP members taken into custody for criminal offenses should be promptly brought before a judge, appropriately charged, provided access to relatives and legal counsel, and prosecuted in accordance with international fair trial standards.
“The ISKP’s numerous atrocities do not justify the Taliban’s horrific response,” Gossman said. “Taliban forces have repeatedly carried out summary executions and other war crimes against people in their custody and have yet to hold those responsible to account.”
For detailed findings, please see below.
Human Rights Watch and the local organization found substantial evidence of summary executions and enforced disappearances by the Taliban of people accused of supporting the ISKP. There was extensive evidence from the Darunta Canal, near Jalalabad, which the groups visited and where they documented scores of killings by inspecting corpses discovered there in late 2021. The interviews revealed that many of those killed were people whom the Taliban had earlier taken into custody.
Taliban-ISKP Conflict in Nangarhar and Kunar
Taliban forces took control of Nangarhar’s capital, Jalalabad, on August 15, 2021, the same day they took power in Kabul. In the ensuing months, Taliban security forces carried out search operations to apprehend and detain former members of the Afghan National Security Forces and ISKP members.
When ISKP attacks on Taliban forces continued after August, particularly in Nangarhar’s eastern districts of Dehbala, Shinwar Mohmand Dara, Achin, and Kama, the Taliban intensified their campaign against ISKP. In November the Taliban deployed hundreds of fighters against ISKP forces. Taliban officials in statements to the media have claimed that their forces have “eliminated” ISKP “98 percent,” and that the group is “no longer considered a serious threat in Afghanistan.” However, the alleged brutality with which the Taliban has conducted operations may spark increased recruitment to ISKP in the province.
On several occasions, Taliban officials claimed to have seriously degraded or destroyed ISKP. However, ISKP forces have continued to attack Taliban units, typically by means of magnetic improvised explosive devices (IEDs), roadside bombs, and hit-and-run assaults on Taliban checkpoints. They have also continued their unlawful bombings of Hazara and Shia communities, killing and maiming numerous civilians.
Taliban Night Raids and Collective Punishment
Since taking power, Taliban forces have conducted night raids in residential areas, a tactic that has long been a feature of counterinsurgency operations by all parties in the Afghanistan conflict. These raids have frequently included abuses.
The Taliban have targeted many neighborhoods known for being home to Salafists, a community that follows a form of Islam modeled on the beliefs and practices of the earliest Muslims of the 7th century. These raids appear aimed not only against ISKP fighters, but also to punish residents who may have no involvement with ISKP because of their adherence to Salafism.
From September through November, Nangarhar and Kunar residents reported a wave of Taliban operations and the enforced disappearance and killing of Salafis. In some cases, relatives alleged that the Taliban took away their family members, and afterward denied that the men were in their custody. In other cases, residents said they found the bodies of relatives who had been taken away. Some were reportedly found beheaded.
Residents from Kunar province, a province that has long seen conflict between the Taliban and the former government, ISKP, or other armed groups, said they were being targeted. They said Taliban fighters stopped and questioned men on the streets, sometimes beating or humiliating them in public if the Taliban discovered or suspected the men were Salafists.
One man said: “Kunaris cannot say anything [about this treatment]. If you do, they say you are Daesh [ISIS].” A man from Marawara district, Kunar province, who had been stopped by the Taliban in Jalalabad said: “When they found out that I am Salafi, they shaved my beard and head in front hundreds of people and made me sit there for hours.”
Salafi elders said that because of the continued raids, Salafi community elders in a number of districts felt pressure to pledge their support to the Taliban authorities. The Taliban have also registered members of Salafi communities, which, among other things, facilitates Taliban monitoring of community members.
While there are no verified numbers of those killed and forcibly disappeared since August 2021, bodies of some victims have been displayed in various parts of Jalalabad and the surrounding area. Between August and December in the Farm Adda park, south of Jalalabad, local residents and relatives said that while looking for missing family members they found bodies of people whom the Taliban had taken hanging from trees. Taliban officials have acknowledged that they have displayed bodies along main roads and intersections as a warning to others that “this is what happens” if you join the ISKP. Family members have found the bodies of their relatives in the neighborhood known as Khalis Baba in Khogyani. Others have discovered bodies in canals and rivers.
Disentangling the killings of former Afghan government security force members from those accused of being linked to ISKP is difficult, although they follow somewhat different patterns. When the Taliban have targeted former security force members, they appear to single people out based on the position they previously held, or because they were known to Taliban fighters and commanders in the area.
Community elders, family members of victims, and analysts who have studied ISKP said that the Taliban frequently carried out mass arrests based on guilt by association rather than any determination of ISKP links. Many of the Salafists detained appear to have been picked up because they lived in certain neighborhoods or Salafist villages. Community elders and family members said that bodies found often had distinctive clothing, long beards, and other typically Salafist characteristics.
A health worker at a local hospital said that by late December, hospital staff had registered 118 dead bodies that had been found across Nangarhar, and that most people who came to inquire about the bodies were from Kunar, Jalalabad city, and districts surrounding Jalalabad. It is likely that not all bodies found would be registered or taken to a hospital.
The Darunta Canal flows from a hydroelectric power plant seven kilometers west of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province. In the early morning of November 7, local officials stopped the flow of water through the dam in response to a request from residents living along the canal who wanted to retrieve the body of a boy who had drowned a day earlier. Once the flow through the dam stopped, the entire canal dried up.
A team from Human Rights Watch and the Afghan organization carried out an investigation along the canal on the morning of November 7, covering about 15 to 20 kilometers of the canal by car over 2 hours and 30 minutes. The team counted 54 bodies – all male – in the emptied canal. While it was difficult to determine ages, none appeared to be older than about 50. Fifteen bodies were considered to be in a very advanced state of decomposition. Seven had been beheaded and others had their throats slit but had not been decapitated. Two had ropes around their necks, suggesting that they had been hanged before being thrown into the canal. Some bodies had limbs missing. Only a few had visible bullet wounds, although this could not be determined with accuracy since some were badly decomposed.
The team interviewed residents living along the canal, one of whom directed them to a location called Muqam Khan, close to the Sarhadi Lewa, a Taliban military installation. In this area, bodies were visible in the dried canal bed. Some were scattered and others grouped together. Some appeared to have been in the water for some time, based on their advanced state of decomposition.
The residents said that since August 2021, the canal had become well-known as a place to dispose of bodies. Five families living along the canal confirmed that they had seen bodies when the water was drained. “Most were thrown into the canal between August and November, when the Taliban were detaining and disappearing men accused of being ISKP,” one resident said.
Another resident said that there had been at least five IED attacks against the Taliban in the Muqam Khan area after August, and the Taliban might have dumped the bodies there to send a message.
“Habib,” a pseudonym, who is a resident of Surkhrod district, said:
When the canal dried up, 10 bodies were found near Kabul Adda [the station for Kabul-bound buses]. This area of the canal, called “barong,” has a net that prevents trash or other material from entering and blocking the canal; the bodies were stuck in the net. Word got out and the Taliban came and would not allow people to come near. An hour later, an ambulance came and took the bodies away. Some of the bodies were headless; some were rotten, and discolored. Most of the bodies were unidentifiable. I think these people were thrown into the canal at this place.
While many bodies were recovered on November 7, people continued to find bodies afterward. Later in November, Habib was bathing in the canal after working as a day laborer. He said, “Something soft touched me. It was wrapped up like a parcel, a body was inside. My colleague and I took it to the hospital.”
“Zekirya”, a resident of Nazrabad Kalay, Surkhorud district, also recovered bodies from the canal. He saw four bodies “stuck in the net in the canal on November 7, 2021.”
“Sadullah,” a day laborer from Tatang Kala, Surkhorud district, found bodies in the canal in late November. He said:
We were cleaning the canal when my friends found two wrapped objects. The bodies were inside. They were attached with stones before being thrown in the water. The bodies smelled and appeared to have been in the water for days. Some people had gathered around who took the bodies to the hospital [morgue].
The body of a man named Wahabudden, from Fatehabad village, Surkhorod district, was among those found in the canal. Taliban forces had taken him and his brother Gulapudden into custody in mid-October. A Fatehabad resident said:
On November 20, 2021, we found Wahabudden’s dead body in the [Darunta] canal, and Gulapudden is still missing. Wahabudden was shot twice in the shoulder, and also his throat was cut. There was also a stone attached to Wahabudden’s chest, so his body didn’t rise to the surface.
Wahabudden’s body was found 13 days after the discovery of most of the other bodies in the canal bed.
“Ahmad,” searched in vain for the body of his brother Nazeerullah, who had been detained by the Taliban on October 7. When he learned from a relative that the water into the Darunta canal would be stopped on November 7, family members came to search. Ahmad said that his relatives had warned him that the bodies would be hard to recognize, but said “our heart could not stop [hoping] so we went.” He described the scene at the canal:
[One] could not recognize most of the bodies. … They were not all at the same place but spread across the bed of the canal. It is possible they [the Taliban] threw one body here, another somewhere else. The distance between the bodies varied: between some bodies 10 meters, some 100 meters, some even more distant. … We looked at [almost] the entire canal by car. … our guy [Nazeerullah] had a scar on one hand, and we were checking the dead bodies for the scar … I do not remember an exact number, but I am sure close to 100 people were there [in the canal]. I heard some were already taken away by their relatives and other people. Because Nazeerullah had a scar on his arm, we thought we might recognize him. We were there from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. … Seeing all those dead bodies, it had a huge impact on me, mentally.
He did not find Nazeerullah.
Additional Summary Executions and Enforced Disappearances
According to his patients and others in the community, Mubariz, between 40 and 45 years old, was respected for his knowledge of health care although he did not have a medical degree. He operated private clinics across the east and southeast Afghanistan, including many small clinics in Nangarhar, for which he hired medical staff. The last clinic he opened with one of his colleagues was in the Smarkhail area of Jalalabad city. After August 2021, he continued to run the clinic, as he did the others. Taliban forces took Mubariz and his partner into custody from this clinic in early September. About 10 days later, his body was discovered in Jalalabad with a gunshot wound.
A witness to Mubariz’s arrest told the family that “[t]he [Taliban] came in a vehicle that had the markings of the previous government’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), wearing NDS uniforms. They were members of the Taliban’s intelligence forces, the General Directorate of Intelligence.” The family said that they received a call the evening of the arrest informing them that Mubariz had been taken to Amniat-e Milli, the national security district headquarters. The family went to the headquarters and were told Mubariz was there: “We were not allowed to see him, though the Taliban said, ‘He is here with us.’”
Family members said that the next day they returned to the headquarters accompanied by community elders: “We sat next to the door of Amniat-e Milli until our turn came to talk to the officials. But we could not see Dr. Mubariz.” An official at the gate told the family “You go back home. His case is still [under investigation] but there is nothing in the file [on him].”
About nine days after the arrest, Mubariz called his oldest son at around 10 p.m. He told him: “Son, my heart is suffocated here. No one has beaten me, no one said a bad thing to me. They have been telling me I will be released tomorrow but you should try to release me sooner. Come for me, bring elders to secure my release. They [the Taliban] should punish me if I am guilty of having ties with ISKP.” The family did not know how Mubariz got access to a phone. A Taliban official told us that “Dr. Mubariz did not call from his number but from a new number, which could have been provided by Taliban inside the facility.”
The next day at 9 a.m. the family received a call from neighbors that Mubariz’s body had been found along with two other bodies in the Farm Ada area of Jalalabad. A man who found the bodies said they appeared to have been killed during the night. Mubariz’s body had a letter attached to it that said: “Dr. Mubariz, Daesh surgical doctor,” suggesting he was working for or providing health care to ISKP. A tribal elder said: “This is a lie that he was a Daesh doctor.”
Mubariz’s partner was released but said they had been separated in detention and he did not know what had happened.
International humanitarian law protects all personnel from mistreatment, including those who provide medical care for opposing armed forces or armed groups.
Muhammad Baz was from Badel Valley, Narang district, in Kunar province. His family and community members said he was a Salafist, yet had also fought with the Taliban.
One relative said that on September 20, Baz left his home in Narang district to go on a business-related trip to Spin Boldak, in Kandahar province. The Taliban stopped him at a checkpoint in the Darunta area of Jalalabad city.
He was allowed to call his family and told them that when the Taliban had checked his phone, they found some Salafist material on it. He also told his family that he had contacted Saleh, the district head of intelligence for Narang district and that Saleh had told the Taliban that Baz was a “mujahid,” a member of the Taliban, and not ISKP. But the Taliban who detained Baz said he could not leave.
Baz’s family and friends said that when they tried to call the phone later it was turned off. A cousin went to the Darunta area where Baz was detained. He asked local residents what they had seen. One witness, a merchant, said, “The Taliban detained someone [who matched Baz’s description], put him in a Ranger [truck], and went toward the city [Jalalabad].”
The next day, Baz’s family received a call from a clinic to come to collect the body, which had been found by a driver in the hilly desert areas of Memla in Khogyani district. Baz’s throat had been slit; his name was on a piece of paper attached to the body. His family and others believe that the Taliban killed Baz because he was a Salafist, wore a long beard, and had Salafist material on his phone.
Taliban security forces in Kama district, Nangarhar, detained Nazeerullah, on October 7. His brother “Jawad” said:
At around 10:30 a.m., Taliban forces raided our house. They were in two vehicles: a Ranger and a silver Toyota Fielder. Four of them entered the house forcibly and arrested my brother, who is around 43 years old and is a laborer and finds food for his family through hard work. He was taken to the car in front of several witnesses. … [T]en minutes later the Taliban took two of my sons [Ibrahim and Subhanullah] who were working in the fields near the mosque.
A villager who saw the arrest said that he had asked the Taliban, “‘Where are you taking these boys?’ and they said, ‘We are taking them to the district [center].’”
Jawad said he went immediately to the district center but was not allowed to see any Taliban officials. The next day he tried again, without success. The third day, more family members from Kunar went to the district center and with a guarantee provided by Bakhtiur Rahman, a local influential figure, the Taliban released Ibrahim and Subhanullah.
Jawad said that Qari Yasir, the Taliban’s Kama district police chief, and the head of the General Directorate of Intelligence, Shaheen, told him that the district governor, Hekmat Adil, had ordered the arrest. Jawad said that he went to see Adil, who told him that a battalion from Kabul had come and taken Nazeerullah with them.
Jawad said he then filed petitions first with the Nangarhar provincial governor, Mohammad Daud Muzamil, and then with the deputy governor asking them to order Kama district officials to produce Nazeerullah. He received no response. He then petitioned Interior Ministry officials to produce Nazeerullah, but also received no response. Finally, he wrote to the appellate court of Nangarhar, which referred the case to the primary military court of the eastern zone. The family has learned nothing about Nazeerullah’s whereabouts.
Other cases of enforced disappearance were similar. A woman whose son was taken by the Taliban in September said that no one would tell her where he was detained: “They do not allow me to go to the district [district governor or police] … I spent hours and hours in front of the governor’s house, no one allowed me in or even asked me. I do not know what to do.”
Taliban officials have also threatened family members who have sought information about their detained relatives. One resident of Chapahar district, Nangahar, who accompanied “Jaffar” to the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence Facility No. 90 in Kabul to inquire about the whereabouts of Jaffar’s brother, whom the Taliban had detained in September, said that the guard at the gate told him: “They will arrest you too, do not inquire about these people.” Jaffar said “I was afraid but what can I do? I want to know, [he’s] my brother.”
In another case, a man said that his brother and nephew went to the Nangarhar chief of police to ask the whereabouts of a relative. The Taliban commander who met them threatened them, saying: “Shut up, you have come here to release Daesh people.” Another man said, “You want to ask [about your relative], but you do not dare ask.”
Even if they are not threatened, family members seeking information about detained relatives have said that Taliban authorities refuse to acknowledge the detention or provide any information. A neighbor of a man who was the victim of an enforced disappearance by the Taliban for alleged connections to ISKP said: “When you go to see the Nangarhar [provincial] governor [looking for a relative], they won’t let you in. At the gates they tell you go ask elsewhere [referring to other government departments]. Just to deter you.”
Nasir, an alleged ISKP member, had been arrested by the former Afghan government some time before the Taliban takeover. He was serving time in Bagram jail, and when the Taliban took over, he broke out. He started a fruit cart business in Charahi Butkhak in Kabul in late August. Local workers said that on September 20 “vehicles full of Taliban [came] and took Nasir with them.” His brother went first to the District 12 police station, and then he and other family members went to the Bagrami district governor’s office in Parwan province, but they were repeatedly told that the Taliban had not detained anyone by his name. A family member said that we “just want to know he is alive … if he had done anything [wrong], put him on trial.”
Not all cases reported in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces involved people accused of affiliation with ISKP.
Ahmadullah, 25, served in the military in the previous government. His relatives said that in September, Taliban forces surrounded the Surkhab Pul area of Jalalabad city and went directly to Ahmadullah’s house. The Taliban authorities used loudspeakers to pressure the family to hand him over and threatened to enter the house if they did not. In front of a gathering of villagers, the family handed Ahmadullah over to the Taliban forces.
Three days later, Ahmadullah’s father received a call telling him that his son’s body was lying in the Khalis Baba area. The father said that when he saw his son’s body, Ahmadullah’s name and village were written on a paper attached to it. The bodies of about seven or eight others were also found in the area.