Irregular Afghan forces in focus for abuses

Atrocity claims against US forces and locals working with them prompt Karzai to order Americans out of Wardak province.

Abdul Rahim was in Kabul when the raid on his family home took place. When he returned to his house in Maidan Wardak province in eastern Afghanistan, he found blown-off doors, shattered windows and closets in disarray.

But what Abdul Rahim remembered most were the faces of his brother Nasibullah’s children. Hours after seeing their father shot dead by US special forces, tears still lined their cheeks.

“This is not only our house – it happens in every village,” Abdul Rahim said as he pointed to the spot where two helicopters he said were carrying the American commandos landed in the early hours. “They came and killed him [Nasibullah] and left.”

Abdul Rahim’s mother recounted that the soldiers “shouted, telling us that from the elderly to the children, everyone had to come out. They were on top of the roofs. They were everywhere”.

Fraught relationship between Kabul and Washington

When they came out of their home, Abdul Rahim’s mother said Nasibullah tried to address the US special forces that surrounded them, but they shot him “on the spot. He fell face-down”.

As she ran from what she called the “special Americans”, Abdul Rahim’s mother looked back to see Nasibullah bleeding.

An Afghan translator for the Americans told her: “Don’t shout, don’t do anything – stand over there.”

She, along with Nasibullah’s wife and children, were taken to a field. “Everyone in the village saw. This is what the Americans did to us.”

Ordered to leave

Cases like these are what Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, hoped to put an end to when he ordered US special forces to leave Wardak province by mid-March.

A statement explaining the decision cited a case in Wardak in which nine villagers were “disappeared in an operation by this suspicious force” last October. The whereabouts of the nine – who include seven truck drivers and two schoolteachers – remain unknown. “In a separate incident,” the statment read, “a student was taken away at night from his home, whose tortured body with throat cut was found two days later under a bridge.”

Karzai may have been spurred to act when Mohammad Halim Fidai, Wardak’s provincial governor, complained that the number of allegations of abuse, disappearances and killings have been rising.

Though Abdul Rahim and residents of three other villages in the province told Al Jazeera that US forces “harass” them, initial media reports also said Afghans working with the special forces were contributing to the abuses in Wardak.

In a series of interviews with Al Jazeera, families in the province, government officials and journalists painted a grim picture of the long-standing “insecurity and instability” in Wardak, blaming both US special forces and Afghans.

Wardak, an hour’s drive west of Kabul, has long been considered a restive area. Asadullah Hamdam, the former governor of Uruzgan province, said the elders he spoke to complained of armed groups of Afghans, believed to be associated with US special forces, who have been torturing, kidnapping and killing villagers.

“These are people who specifically work with the special forces and have no legal standing in the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF],” Hamdam said.

Many Afghans in the area believe these irregular forces, which also do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Afghan defence or interior ministries, have accompanied US special forces on secret missions, including night raids such as that experienced by Abdul Rahim and his family.

In one district, locals said if the armed Afghans find nothing else, they will take away families’ gosht-e-kagh, or lamb jerky, a wintertime staple in Afghanistan.

Mirwais Wardak, managing director of the Kabul-based NGO Peace Training and Research Organisation, said these groups often comprised former fighters in Afghanistan’s civil war. “They come from other provinces looking for revenge” for perceived past affronts, he said.

Beyond Kabul’s control

With the active regrouping of the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami – the two largest armed opposition movements in the country – in Wardak, the arming of irregular Afghan groups is especially worrisome for a government dealing with fears of a civil war after international troops withdraw in 2014.

Senior officials of the international coalition in Afghanistan said they would be willing to meet with provincial leaders to discuss the accusations that US special forces and those working with them are responsible for abuse. But many Afghans believe that these groups, whether local or foreign, are beyond Kabul’s control.

“There is no government to ask why they are cruel to us. No one has come to ask us what happened,” Mohammed Hakim, Abdul Rahim’s neighbour, told Al Jazeera.

Hares Kakar, an Afghan journalist who has reported from Wardak, said the US “may not always be knocking down people’s doors, but they are paying and arming these Afghans who lack [ANSF] uniforms and registration, and are given guns anyway”.

This lack of accountability, said Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist who writes extensively about US national security, is made all the more problematic by what he describes as “a system of incentives for the special forces to maximise the number of operations and the number of people that they capture or kill in those operations. They get credit for that – they put out numbers and their budget goes up”.

Further complicating the issue of jurisdiction are reports that some of the Afghans accompanying US special forces may in fact be Afghan-Americans or Afghan-Europeans who have come to work with NATO as translators, “cultural advisors” or fixers.

“How can you hold them accountable? They have two passports; they can easily escape,” Wardak, the NGO director, told Al Jazeera.

One Afghan-American adviser to ISAF in Paktia province said “it is not beyond imagination” that abuses by special forces occurred. “It has happened and it will continue to happen.” Speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because her ISAF contract does not authorise her to talk to the media, the source said the abuse is not always physical.

For instance, she alleged that translators sometimes “work to their own benefit: rather than translating what the person said, they would often tell their superior what they wanted to hear”.

This, said the ISAF adviser, is especially problematic in a country where the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan spy agency, has been known to detain and torture people based simply on accusations of Taliban affiliation.

Three months

For Abdul Rahim and his family, this is an especially prescient point.

“He wasn’t in the Taliban. He wasn’t working with the government. He was a poor man, a bus conductor,” said Mohammed Hakim, Abdul Rahim’s neighbour, of Nasibullah.

To improve accountability, Karzai has given all irregular Afghan forces established by the NATO coalition three months to fall under government control. The deadline, declared only days after US special forces were told to leave Maidan Wardak, may be meant to pre-empt restive areas from falling into the wrong hands.

Former government officials such as Hamdam support the president’s decision. “The sooner Afghan security forces can take control over the nation, overall, the better,” he said.

Though some regard Karzai’s order for the American special forces to leave as emotional, others see it as a strategic political manoeuvre to shake off the “puppet” image that has dogged his decade-long tenure. The Afghan president has frequently complained that the US military is undermining the Central Asian nation’s independence.

“It’s the final months of Karzai’s presidency. He wants to show ‘we don’t need foreign forces anymore,'” said Kakar, who was at the press conference announcing the deadline for the withdrawal of the special forces from Wardak.

“NATO must listen and show respect to the Afghan president and his wishes. But at the same time, it is NATO’s responsibility to find out who is responsible for these acts,” said Hamdam.

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

Source: Al Jazeera