The deputy emir of a new Taliban faction in Afghanistan that is attempting to portray itself as more moderate than the established branch has been directly implicated in the massacre of thousands of Afghans during the 1998 takeover of Mazar-i-Sharif. Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi also helped shelter a former senior Taliban leader who is closely linked to al Qaeda before he was detained and transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Niazi, the deputy leader of the so-called “High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate,” was accused by Human Rights Watch of inciting and supporting the murder of thousands of Afghans, mostly from the minority Shiite Hazara sect, after the Taliban seized the city in August 1998. He also sheltered Khairullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, one of five former Guantanamo Bay detainees who were exchanged for captive US soldier Bowe Bergdahl.
Niazi attempted to portray his faction, which opposes the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as Mullah Omar’s successor, as the kinder, gentler Taliban in an interview with the BBC’s Dari service. He claimed that the High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate supports women’s rights and opposes revenge killings, suicide attacks, and the targeting of Afghans.
“We have realized this now, that under an Islamic system all rights of human beings — both men and women — need to be implemented 100 percent,” Niazi said, according to The Washington Post.
“From now on, we Afghans are not in favor of revenge seeking,” he continued. “We announce to all Afghans that it is enough and to put aside Afghan fratricide. Let us find out who the source of the war in Afghanistan is, and where it comes from and how to prevent it.”
Niazi previously was a member of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura, its top council that directs all aspects of the group’s insurgency in Afghanistan. He opposed Mullah Mansour’s appointment as the Taliban’s emir after Mullah Omar’s death was announced, and even accused Mansour of killing Omar.
“We have to appoint someone who has a proper knowledge and hold on Sharia and our Afghan values. Mullah Akhtar Mansour did not even contribute much to our movement,” Niazi told Al Jazeera after Omar’s death was announced.
Niazi and the the Massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif
Niazi’s attempts to soften the appearance of his newly created Taliban faction are complicated by his personal history. Human Rights Watch reported on his role in the Mazar-i-Sharif massacre, while a US judge has described him as “a hardline Taliban military commander.”
In a report titled “Afghanistan: The Massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif,” Human Rights Watch documented the 1998 Taliban takeover of the city and the rampant killing of minorities, primarily Shiite Hazaras, in revenge for for a Taliban defeat and the execution of hundreds of its soldiers in the city one year prior. The Taliban put most of the blame on the Hazaras for the executions.
One section of the report, titled “Incitement of Violence Against Hazaras by Governor Niazi,” is devoted to the Taliban leader. Niazi was installed as the Taliban’s governor of Mazar-i-Sharif within hours after the takeover of the city, and immediately incited for the roundup and murder of all Hazaras in the city, according to HRW.
“By the second day of the Taliban takeover of Mazar, the newly installed governor, Mulla Manan Niazi, delivered speeches at mosques throughout the city, sometimes several in one day, threatening violence against Hazaras in retaliation for the killing of the Taliban prisoners in 1997, criticizing them for being [Shiite] and urging them to convert, and warning other residents that they would also be punished if they protected Hazaras,” HRW noted.
In one speech, Niazi was reported to have stated, “Last year you rebelled against us and killed us. From all your homes you shot at us. Now we are here to deal with you.” In another speech he reportedly said, “Hazaras are not Muslim, they are [Shiites]. They are kufr [infidels]. The Hazaras killed our force here, and now we have to kill Hazaras.”
Although he reportedly stated, “We are not here for revenge. What has happened has happened,” he told Hazaras that “If you do not show your loyalty, we will burn your houses, and we will kill you. You either accept to be Muslims or leave Afghanistan.” In another speech he warned Hazaras that “wherever you go we will catch you. If you go up, we will pull you down by your feet; if you hide below, we will pull you up by your hair.” Families petitioning Niazi for the release of detained relatives were told that he would consider releasing anyone except the Hazaras.
Niaza also threatened to arrest anyone sheltering Hazaras in the city and bragged that the Taliban killed far more than the Hizb-i Wahdat, the Hazara militia that is blamed for executing Taliban fighters, did in 1997.
“If anyone is hiding Hazaras in his house he too will be taken away. What [Hizb-i] Wahdat and the Hazaras did to the Talibs, we did worse…as many as they killed, we killed more,” Niazi said in a speech.
Niazi also “personally oversaw the process of selecting prisoners for transfer.” The Taliban tightly packed their prisoners into container trucks; in at least two instances, nearly all of the estimated prisoners in the containers died of heat or asphyxiation.
Human Rights Watch estimated that more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the Taliban invasion of Mazar.
Sheltered dangerous Taliban commander
Niazi was also identified as “a hardline Taliban military commander” by District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina in his May 2011 ruling on Guantanamo Bay detainee Khairullah Khairkhwa’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Khairkhwa is a senior Taliban leader with close ties to al Qaeda. In May 2014, the US government exchanged Khairkhwa and four other dangerous al Qaeda-linked Taliban leaders for Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured after deserting his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
In his opinion rejecting the petition, Urbina noted that Khairkhwa was captured at Niazi’s home in Chaman, Pakistan, and not at a medical center as Khairkhwa had claimed:
[Khairkhwa], however, was not captured at a medical office in Chaman. Rather, it is undisputed that the petitioner was captured at the Pakistani residence of senior Taliban official Abdul Manan Niazi. As previously discussed, Niazi was a former Taliban military commander and Governor of Kabul, who had personally overseen the massacre of thousands of Shiites in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998 and was part of the Taliban delegation that traveled to Iran in October 2001 to discuss Iran’s offer to provide military assistance to the Taliban. The fact that [Kharikhwa] was captured at the home of a hardline Taliban military commander [Niazi] greatly undermines the [Khairkhwa’s] contention that he had disassociated himself from the Taliban prior to his apprehension by Pakistani authorities.
Kharikhwa was appointed as the Taliban’s governor for Herat province in 1999 and held the position until the US ejected the jihadist group from power in late 2001.
In an article published shortly after Bergdahl was exchanged for the Taliban leaders at Guantanamo, The Los Angeles Times argued that Khairkhwa and three others were “moderate” Taliban leaders. But, as noted here at The Long War Journal, all five Taliban leaders exchanged for Bergdahl are seasoned jihadists with dark pasts.
Khairkhwa’s association with Niazi, who orchestrated the massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif, demonstrates that neither are or were moderates.
Correction, Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital of Balkh province, not Herat.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.