Thousands of Afghan mercenaries are believed to be helping America battle Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies. But they’re accused of flagrant human rights abuses.
With his broad cheekbones, hair swept back under a sequined cap, and the gentle manner of a well-to-do Pashtun, Atal Afghanzai might easily pass for a doctor or an engineer.
Instead, his career path led into a cloak-and-dagger world of covert armies and foreign agents, until a rare lethal run-in with an Afghan police chief landed him on death row in Kabul’s most notorious prison.
Young and motivated, Mr. Afghanzai is one of thousands of Afghan mercenaries believed to be working with the CIA to help America battle Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies. His story – confirmed by US diplomats, other Western officials, and Afghan authorities – illustrates the military advantages of this secret war. But, with the US poised to ramp up reliance on paramilitaries like Afghanzai as it pulls out frontline troops, the practice is raising the ire of Afghans who accuse the groups of human rights abuses. Read the rest of this entry »
Shadowy, unaccountable forces accused of human rights abuses
Covert forces of CIA-trained Afghan paramilitaries are being built up to continue the US-led war on the Taliban as thousands of US troops prepare to leave the country.
Members of one shadowy group of some 400 men in southern Kandahar province have given The Independent a unique insight into their training and secret operations against militants as foreign troops prepare to quit Afghanistan by 2014.
Senior figures within one of the forces revealed that they were taught hand-to-hand combat by foreign military advisers, were delivered to targets by US Black Hawk helicopters and have received a letter of thanks from President Hamid Karzai for their work. Read the rest of this entry »
The head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission has urged Hamid Karzai’s government and Nato to investigate allegations, first reported in The Independent, that an Afghan strongman employed by United States Army Special Forces embarked on a spate of war crimes, including rape, the summary execution of children, and torture. “We call on Special Forces – indeed, any forces – and the Afghan government to conduct an investigation of these allegations and find out if [the allegations are] correct or not,” said Nader Nadery, who heads the Human Rights Commission.
He said the commission would make its own efforts to verify the claims against Commander Azizullah, the leader of a US-sponsored militia in the south-eastern Paktika province, but that “it is a core responsibility of the government of Afghanistan to launch an investigation… this is the only way to build confidence in [the country's security] forces”. Read the rest of this entry »
Proper procedure would have been to detain and question the family he suspected of hosting Taliban insurgents but Azizullah did things differently, opening fire on their house with his men. Then they locked the survivors inside. And then they set the place ablaze.
This story is one of many separate alleged instances reported by interviewees during an investigation by The Independent lasting several months. Three separate reports, including two by the UN from early 2010, confirmed many of The Independent’s findings, and documented their own, separate allegations of atrocities. Read the rest of this entry »
Witnesses back leaked UN reports detailing claims of rape and murder against feared Tajik warlord
An Afghan warlord backed by US special forces faces persistent allegations that he launched a two-year spate of violence involving burglary, rape and murder of civilians, desecration of mosques and mutilation of corpses. Yet, despite repeated warnings about the atrocities Commander Azizullah is alleged to have committed, he has remained on the payroll of the US military as an “Afghan security guard”, a select band of mercenaries described by some as “the most effective fighting formation in Afghanistan”.
Interviews with religious leaders, tribal elders, villagers, contractors and Western and Afghan officials all pointed to a reign of terror in which they believe 31-year-old Azizullah, a ethnic Tajik, targeted Pashtun civilians while fighting the Taliban. Although individual allegations, all from ethnic Pashtuns, might be inaccurate, malicious or motivated by envy of Azizullah’s close and lucrative links to US special forces, taken together they come from sources belonging to a range of tribes and from several areas. The testimony also tallied with several independent reports documenting the allegations against Azizullah and seen by The Independent, including two confidential reports compiled by UN officials and circulated to Nato personnel last year. Read the rest of this entry »
As troops step up their attack on the militants’ Kandahar heartland, Julius Cavendish meets the ordinary people caught on the frontline
The first eyewitness accounts of Nato’s assault on the final Taliban sanctuary threatening Kandahar City have begun to emerge, painting a picture of sporadic fire fights, steady progress by Afghan and coalition forces, and flight by those inhabitants wealthy or lucky enough to escape the violence.
Earlier this week, Nato began its final and critical phase of a major offensive designed to clear Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, with hundreds of troops carrying out an air assault on the main insurgent base in the region. In interviews with The Independent, tribal elders, government officials and civilians in Kandahar City provided vivid descriptions of special forces night raids and Nato’s bombardment of the area in the preceding month – designed to damage the local Taliban leadership – and the tactics the insurgents used to cow inhabitants before fleeing in the face of coalition firepower.
Mahmoud Dawood, a 35-year-old farmer from the western tip of the Horn of Panjwaii, the area Afghan and Nato forces are trying to take, described how he was woken last Thursday night by explosions in a neighbouring village. Suddenly the blasts came closer, and the silhouette of an Afghan commando appeared in his open door. “There was a bright white light and a voice said in Pashto ‘Stand up’,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »
Vice Adm. William McRaven traveled to the village of Khataba to offer personal apologies for the five Afghanistan deaths in a botched special forces raid there in February. The US military acknowledged its involvement in the killings earlier this month.
A top US Special Forces commander visited the village of Khataba in eastern Afghanistan today to apologize for a night raid that went terribly wrong. It was here on Feb. 11 that a Special Forces team gunned down an Afghan police chief, a prosecutor, and three unarmed women, infuriating locals and drawing a sharp rebuke from politicians in Kabul.
Flanked by dozens of Afghan soldiers, Vice Adm. William McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations Command, spent an hour at the scene of the killings. “I am the commander of the men who accidentally killed your loved ones,” Admiral McRaven told Haji Sharabuddin, the family patriarch. “I came here today to send my condolences to you and to your family and to your friends. I also came today to ask your forgiveness for these terrible tragedies.”
It was a remarkable turnabout for the US military, which for two months after the killings declined to say what units had been involved or otherwise take responsibility for the deaths. Afghan investigators have claimed that Special Forces tried to cover up their involvement in the Afghanistan deaths, though that’s a charge the US has denied. Read the rest of this entry »
In the Afghanistan war, NATO forces chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal publicly apologized Tuesday for 27 Afghan civilian deaths in a US airstrike. The coalition has begun saying ‘sorry’ more quickly to civilian deaths, as part of a new hearts and minds strategy.
Another botched airstrike, another apology.
In a video distributed Tuesday in Dari and Pashto, the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, the top NATOcommander here Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he was sorry to the nation for 27 civilian deaths, after US special forces killed a convoy of Afghan civilians they had mistaken for insurgents. It was the coalition’s deadliest mistake in six months.
While public apologies by NATO have become almost commonplace – this was just one of half a dozen in the past 10 days, and the second by McChrystal himself – the push to admit mistakes and say sorry is unprecedented in NATO’s nine-year intervention in Afghanistan. It fits into McChyrstal’s new strategy that prioritizes winning over the population.
“I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again,” he said. “I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans. Most importantly, I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief and will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
For years, stonewalling
For years, foreign forces here were grudging in their apologies, trying to spin big mistakes into smaller mistakes and refusing to comment on civilian casualties until torturously slow and opaque inquiries ended. If any blame was admitted, it was usually too long after the event to sound sincere. The Taliban exploited NATO’s lack of information, seizing on reports of civilian deaths with its own propaganda machine to turn Afghans against the foreign forces.
But NATO has shifted on the communications front. In the past 10 days alone, it has admitted that airstrikes in Kunduz and Kandahar Provinces last week killed five civilians and a handful of Afghan policemen, and that a rocket strike in the Marjah offensive in Helmand Province left at least nine bystanders dead. Troops there have also shot and killed civilians they have mistaken for suicide bombers. Each time an explanation has been forthcoming.
Afghans are circumspect about the change in tone. “Does this apology mean there won’t be any other civilian casualties in future?” says Abdul Jabar, a carpenter from the eastern province of Wardak. “If it does then I appreciate it.”
Mohammad Yassir, a shopkeeper in Kabul, is less receptive. “I want to ask McChrystal if he had lost his family in such an incident,” he says. “And if someone called to apologize, what would his reaction be? An apology doesn’t bring anyone back to life.”
Officials claim that NATO’s improved ability to communicate in Afghanistan can be attributed to McChrystal himself, who has shaken up the command structure and spun off a new public affairs office fielding queries 24 hours a day.
“It’s a good place to be right now. It’s very exciting and I think the excitement is contagious,” says Col. Wayne Shanks, a NATO public affairs officer based in Kabul. “I owe most of it to General McChrystal because he refocuses us and reenergizes us each day.”
More than words
But independent observers say the difference is attributable not just to the reorganization but also to a change in approach. The circumstances in which coalition forces are allowed to call in an airstrike have become more limited. For example, they must wait 72 hours to establish a “pattern of life” before bombing a house where insurgents have taken refuge.
Although the total number of civilian casualties rose in 2009 to 2,412, NATO troops were responsible for ‘only’ 25 percent of them, down from 39 percent the year before.
“The distinction that McChrystal has brought to the table is that there is a focus on communications but there is another level beyond that, where they are willing to make some changes in policy that reflect community concerns,” says Erica Gaston, a human rights advocate in Kabul for Open Society Institute. “I think that’s the main reason he’s been more effective in strategic communications.”
“With [Gen. David] McKiernan [McChrystal’s predecessor] there was also a certain public relations sensitivity to issues like civilian casualties, but you didn’t really see changes of policy,” she says.
“McChrystal is not only willing to go to the site afterward and make apologies but also to follow that up by making changes to tactical restrictions to prevent similar incidents from occurring.”