For more than a decade, Afghan warlords mostly ignored reports by international watchdogs that accused them of grave human rights abuses.
But a strongman in northern Afghanistan has now threatened to sue Human Rights Watch (HRW) over its latest report, which accused him of controlling and funding local militias implicated in serious rights abuses.
"Based on accepted international principles, I would like to defend myself in a credible international court through the United Nations," Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of the northern province of Balkh, said in a statement. "The HRW report is based on allegations and baseless documents. It has insulted me and my status as a public servant."
In its report titled Today We Shall All Die: Afghanistan's Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity, HRW profiled eight "strongmen" serving in senior positions of the Afghan police, military, intelligence and civil administration.
All were accused of serious abuses in recent years, and HRW Deputy Asia Director Phelim Kine noted that "the previous Afghan government and the United States enabled [these] powerful and abusive individuals and their forces to commit atrocities for too long without being held to account."
The HRW report says Noor maintains "a network of militias under his effective command that has been implicated in serious human rights abuses."
It notes that in 2011 Noor controlled more than 2,000 armed men and used them as "insurance" to protect his interests in the uncertain political situation in Afghanistan.
The report, based on 125 interviews carried out by HRW researchers since 2012, accuses militia forces under Noor's command of killings, theft, arbitrary arrests, beatings and the forced abduction of women.
"Atta controls many parts of society in Balkh Province. Through corruption and patronage he is able to exert influence on e.g. the commercial life, politics, media, the judicial system and even criminality," the HRW report quotes a confidential 2011 document by international forces as saying. "Atta’s interests in [the west of Mazar-e Sharif] are most likely related to his aspiration for increased political leverage but also his probable involvement in illicit activities, particularly drug trafficking."
Noor, however, rejected such findings. His March 5 statement said the HRW report is devoid of accuracy and is biased.
"It is spreading rumors in its attempts to politicize human rights," the statement said. "Accusing me of keeping armed groups is nothing more than a joke."
During the past decade, Noor, a former anti-Taliban leader, has been successful in revamping his image from that of a marauding commander to a benign ruler.
Western officials have publically endorsed him, and he is often credited with maintaining relative stability in Balkh.
The prosperous northern province, which borders Uzbekistan, has emerged as a key commercial hub and has been relatively immune from the Taliban violence plaguing southern and eastern Afghan provinces along the Pakistani border.