Afghanistan Analysts Network
Human Rights Watch has released a hard-hitting report about CIA-backed Afghan paramilitaries which documents their alleged involvement in extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and attacks on medical facilities. The report also details changes in the United States targeting rules which, Human Rights Watch says, have led to indiscriminate airstrikes being called in by these forces, causing disproportionate harm to civilians. AAN’s Kate Clark, who has investigated some of these potential war crimes herself, has been reading the report.
The new Human Rights Watch report, “They’ve Shot Many Like This”: Abusive Night Raids by CIA-Backed Afghan Strike Forces” is a highly significant publication. Many journalists, researchers and human rights activists, AAN writers among them, have documented individual cases of abuses by CIA-backed Afghan paramilitary forces. UNAMA’s Protection of Civilians reports have also, increasingly, been pointing to their actions as especially problematic. Yet, this is a rare major report which has been able to draw wider conclusions, that patterns of abuse by these forces are repeated and widespread, indeed common to every province in which these units operate. (1) The 14 case studies, from late 2017 to mid-2019, documented in this report are, says Human Rights Watch, “illustrative of a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war violations—some amounting to war crimes.” Human Right Watch has also delved into the command and control of these units, which it calls ‘strike forces’, including the role of the CIA and the United States military and the lack of oversight by the Afghan government. Author of the report Patricia Gossman points out that the actions of the Afghan paramilitaries do not only affect immediate families, but has also “consigned entire communities to the terror of abusive night raids and indiscriminate airstrikes.”
Who are the CIA-backed Afghan strike force units?
There are five militias that, says Human Rights Watch, come under only the nominal control of the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS and do not “fall under the ordinary chain of command within the NDS, nor under normal Afghan or US military chains of command.” Rather, they are “recruited, trained, equipped, and overseen by the CIA.” Human Rights Watch also quotes UNAMA as to the “lack of transparency for command, control, rules of engagement, and policy framework” guiding these five ‘strike forces’. They are:
Operates in Afghanistan’s central region, in Kabul, Parwan, Wardak, Logar, and possibly other bordering provinces.
Operates in Afghanistan’s eastern region, in Nangarhar and possibly other bordering provinces.
NDS 03 (Kandahar Strike Force or KSF)
Operates in Afghanistan’s southern region, in Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan out of the former compound of the late Taleban leader Mullah Omar, commonly referred to as ‘Mullah Omar’s house’ and by US forces as ‘Camp Gecko’. The late brother of former president Hamed Karzai Ahmad Wali Karzai reportedly oversaw KSF operations until his assassination in 2011.
Operates in Nuristan, Kunar, and other bordering northeastern provinces.
Khost Protection Force (KPF)
The oldest of the militias, the KPF developed out of a Khost-based militia made up largely of former PDPA officers, recognised as the 25th Division by the Ministry of Defence as part of the (pre-ANA) Afghan Military Forces. The 25thDivision escaped demobilisation because of its close contacts with US forces, and morphed into the KPF. It operates out of the CIA base, Camp Chapman in Khost, where, quoting UNAMA, Human Rights Watch says a KPF commander “participates in the weekly security meetings in Khost province, chaired by the provincial governor, alongside Afghan national security forces, which suggests some degree of information-sharing and tacit consent by the [Afghan] government of its operations.” KPF, says Human Rights Watch, reportedly has battalions in Sharana in Paktika province and Gardez in Paktia province, and is the largest of the paramilitary strike forces, with between 3,000 and 10,000 men and a network of informants.
AAN carried out two in-depth investigations into the killing of civilians in Zurmat district of Paktia, the first allegedly by the Khost Protection Force on 30 December 2018 when six civilians were killed and another on the night of 11/12 August 2019, when eleven civilians were killed allegedly by the NDS 01 strike force; in both instances, eye-witnesses reported American forces as present. (Both AAN investigations feature in the Human Rights Watch report).
Human Rights Watch dates the increase in the use of these CIA-proxies and the rise in abuses from 2015 when the units stepped up night raids against insurgents, with a pronounced increase, it says, from late 2017 following the US’s new ‘South Asia policy’ when the US expanded both airstrikes and CIA operations. On 12 October 2017, then CIA Director (now Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo publicly announced that the CIA would be taking a more aggressive approach in Afghanistan. As we reported, the tone had been set by President Trump on 21 August, when he announced that his strategy was “killing terrorists… not nation-building [sic].”
What are the abuses the strike forces are documented as committing?
The Human Rights Watch report details 14 cases where serious abuses were perpetrated, usually during night raids. They include: summary executions, arbitrary disappearances and enforced disappearances, attacks on medical facilities and supporting airstrikes which caused disproportionate harm to civilians or which were indiscriminate.
Typically, when carrying out night raids, members of a strike forces are brought to an area by helicopter and force entry to a compound often using explosives. In cases from different provinces and involving different strike forces, HRW has documented paramilitaries summarily executing males from particular households, often after separating adult men and teenage boys from women, girls and younger boys. In one incident, an adult woman and a girl were also reported shot. Deliberately killing civilians, or killing combatants in custody is never lawful. Yet even beyond that, the intelligence used to target households or areas is questionable, says Human Rights Watch: in many of the raids, civilians appear to have been targeted “because of mistaken identity, poor intelligence, or political rivalries in the locality.” Actions apparently leading to the targeting of people include: providing food to insurgents, even under duress, and medical staff working in clinics treating Taleban wounded (as the Laws of War obligate them to do); civilians also appear to be targeted, says Human Rights Watch because of “incidental contact” or mere “proximity to insurgent activity.” The impact on whole communities, it says, is huge:
Civilians in these areas also described living in fear that the near constant presence of drones, aircraft, and helicopters searching for insurgents who live in their villages left them vulnerable to being targeted at any time as fighters.
The cases documented in this report include that of a 70-year-old farmer, ‘DD’, from Nerkh district in Wardak province whose area was subject to a large-scale operation by NDS 01 with US support on 8 October 2018, as he described to Human Rights Watch:
At around midnight on the 15th of Mezan [October 8], the NDS 01 destroyed the gate to our compound with an explosive device. They killed one of my sons at the back of our home and took the other with them. My sons had returned home after three years from Iran doing hard labor jobs over there. We are not terrorists. The forces accused us, “Why are you feeding the Taliban?” But the Taliban come asking for food. If you don’t feed them, then they harass you.
Attacks on medical facilities and personnel
Medical facilities and staff have special protection under the Laws of War and staff have special obligations to treat wounded people equally, no matter what side in a conflict they are from, if any. Yet, Human Rights Watch has documented an increase in raids on clinics by NDS 01, NDS 02, the Kandahar Strike Force (NDS 03) and other special forces units, with the support and sometimes on-the-ground presence of US forces. “During these kill-or-capture operations,” the report says, “the forces involved assaulted and, in some cases, killed medical staff; assaulted or killed accompanying civilian or noncombatant caregivers; and caused damage to the facilities.”
The medical facilities raided included a clinic in Daimirdad in Wardak province run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan on 8 July 2019. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that NDS 01 put all the staff and caregivers in one room and bound their hands and then took away four members of staff. One, the director of the clinic, Dr Wahidullah, has not been seen since and villagers believe he may have been detained. The dead bodies of the other three staff members were subsequently found, along with the body of a family caregiver. It is the second time this clinic has been targeted: on 17 February 2016, as AAN reported, Afghan special forces with international military support raided the facility, dragged two patients out of the clinic, along with a visiting 11-year-old boy and shot all three dead.
Indiscriminate use of airstrikes
Human Rights Watch has also described the airstrikes that often precede or follow kill-or-capture raids and the loosening of civilian protection measures which had been imposed by the US military and ISAF from 2008 onwards to try to limit civilian harm. In 2017, “[i]n a departure from previous policy,” writes Human Rights Watch, the US authorised Afghan forces “to call in airstrikes for support even without US forces present to identify the targets.” It goes on:
Changes to targeting directives have meant that airstrikes are hitting more residential buildings, at a time when a decreased ground presence and a reliance on local Afghan intelligence sources have limited the amount of information about the possible presence of civilians in those buildings. Such strikes carry inherently greater risks for civilians because of the difficulties in determining whether civilians are inside prior to a strike.
In general, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of civilians killed in air operations by Afghan and especially US forces (more than a quadrupling since 2015 according to UNAMA. These include strikes carried out in support of the CIA-backed Afghan paramilitaries. At the same time, compared to the pre-2014 environment, there are also fewer investigations into civilian casualties and less transparency (for example the US has stopped publishing data about air operations).
One case documented by Human Rights Watch took place on the night of 22 September 2018 and involved several air strikes on the village of Mullah Hafez, in Jaghatu district, Wardak province. These followed US and NDS 01 forces carrying out a raid. One resident, Masih Al-Rahman Mubarez, told Human Rights Watch the forces had been searching for a Taleban prison, checking all the houses in the area. Fighting had broken out in the village between the Taleban and the US and Afghan forces and then, said Mubarez, the air strikes came. One destroyed his house and killed everyone in it: his wife, Amina, and ranging in age from four to 16 years old, their seven children and four nieces. Because of continuing fighting in the area, Mubarez told Human Rights Watch, villagers could not retrieve the bodies from under the rubble of the house for two days.
Who controls the Afghan strike forces?
Human Rights Watch quotes The New York Times to describe how the Afghan paramilitary forces are overseen by the CIA and operate “in a parallel mission to the United States military’s, but with looser rules of engagement,” with Afghan security forces having only a “liaison relationship.”
The US military also appears to be crucial to the strike force operations. Firstly, says the report, it lends members of its special forces, principally Army Rangers, to the CIA in a programme initially codenamed Omega. Human Rights Watch, quoting an article in Politico, says that Army Rangers are “often” deployed with the Afghan strike force units, the original article says, to provide “medical and fire support.” There may also be CIA operatives present. For example, when AAN asked the US military about the presence of an ‘American’ in uniform in Zurmat on 30 December 2018 who was described by witnesses as questioning family members through an interpreter before the six civilians were shot, a spokesperson said the military had not been involved in the operation; that led us to assume the foreigner was probably a CIA operative. The second way the US military often supports strike force operations is logistical and tactical, says Human Rights Watch and includes help with “planning, delivering the forces to the location via helicopters, and providing air support.”
As for the Afghan government, it is not in control of these forces. Moreover, Human Rights Watch said that, in the very few cases the Afghan authorities has promised to investigate, no findings have been made public and it is unaware of “any cases in which those responsible for serious crimes, including murder, have been held to account, nor have the victims been able to obtain redress.” Mostly, victims have no recourse and officials do not want even to meet them. One case that bucked this trend, not mentioned in the report, but documented by UNAMA in its third quarterly report in 2019 on the Protection of Civilians, involved the NDS 02 allegedly killing four brothers in their home in Jalalabad overnight on 4/5 September 2019; the four happened to be relatives of a senior politician, former minister of finance Omar Zakhilwal; the director of the NDS, Masum Stanekzai resigned in response.
The reappearance of an old, failed, destructive strategy
The incidents documented in this report have taken place in rural areas which are not under government control. This makes reporting and investigating them difficult, especially since most of Afghanistan’s journalists are urban-based. An Afghan NGO staff member based in Kabul who said incidents were “severely and maybe sometimes intentionally under reported,” told Human Rights Watch he thought this was because “Afghan media outlets are under pressure from Afghanistan’s security institutions not to publish reports critical of the security forces.” Despite the difficulty of reporting these incidents, the patterns of abuse are clear, as is the impunity under which Afghan and international forces are operating. Victims, including wider communities subject to repeated night raids and air strikes, have no redress. This is a particular and longstanding problem with regards to the CIA. It has no ‘address’ to which Afghans can complain. Its headquarters in the old Ariana Hotel lies on a road between the US Embassy, NATO and the US military headquarters on one side and the presidential palace on the other, which is out of bounds for almost all people, Afghans and foreigners alike. Human rights advocates and international organisations wanting to ask questions about CIA actions in Afghanistan typically have to travel to CIA headquarters in Langley in the United States.
The CIA has a horrible and continuing track record in Afghanistan – from torture and mass arbitrary detention in the early years of the intervention – the last Afghan to be held and tortured in a CIA black site in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo in 2007, Muhammad Rahim, is still incarcerated in Cuba – to supporting proxy forces who commit abuses. Having Afghan forces answerable to a foreign command is, or should be, problematic for the Kabul government. However, no one, UNAMA says, “within the Afghan national security forces or civilian government administration has been willing or able to discuss incidents … or address issues of accountability.”
Hamed Karzai did make some efforts to curb these forces, with an order by the National Security Council chaired by him on 17 February 2013 to “relevant security institutions” to “impede operations by all the armed groups and units established in some provinces by the coalition forces outside the Afghan armed forces’ structures.” The NSC also said it had decided to ask all such groups and units to be incorporated into Afghan government security institutions (see AAN reporting here). The order followed two separate incidents of air strikes killing civilians in the same location in the Shigal Valley in Kunar after reports of operations involving CIA paramilitaries and a unit under what government officials said was under nominal NDS control, which they named as 04 (analysis by AAN here). However, President Karzai also allowed the Kandahar Strike Force overseen by his brother Ahmad Wali to operate with impunity. Ghani, with the exception of the murder of Zakhilwal’s four relatives has been much more circumspect in what he says about foreign forces and CIA proxies.
Human Rights Watch’s recommendations to the government echo UNAMA’s past calls for the disbandment of these groups:
Immediately disband and disarm all pro-government armed groups, paramilitary strike forces, and militias… not under the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces chain of command. Only incorporate such forces into the [Afghan National Defence Security Forces] following a robust vetting procedure to screen out individuals against whom there are credible allegations of war crimes.
Disbandment seems far from CIA planning. Indeed, Human Rights Watch warns that negotiations between the US and the Taleban in Doha made no mention of Afghan covert forces. This issue needs to be watched if the peace process does resume, given the gross abuses the CIA appears to be facilitating, the lack of redress for victims, the lack of control by the Afghan authorities, and what Human Rights Watch describes as the strong, official calls “to preserve” the strike forces (see for example, here).
The behaviour of the Afghan strike forces should be problematic for the US military given the magnitude of the harm done to civilians and the damage to its military mission. By lending support to these operations, it is at least partly responsible for the abuses committed. All the strategic reasons for mitigating civilian harm which caused ISAF and the US command in 2008 to start to prioritise the protection of civilians still hold.
NATO should also be worried. Why is the public affairs office of its non-combat Resolute Support mission (see the appendix to the report) answering for the actions of the CIA and responding to allegations that CIA-backed forces are perpetrating abuses, some of which may amount to war crimes?
For anyone who has followed the Afghan war since 2001, there is a palpable sense of déjà vu reading this report: the terrible accounts of the suffering of families and communities caught up in the violence and the lack of accountability. There is also the way that, as Human Rights Watch describes it, the current set of abuses are just the most recent instance of the US using unlawful means to prosecute the war in Afghanistan:
Ultimately, the strike forces are just the latest manifestation of US and Afghan government attempts since 2001 to unleash forces largely unbound by the laws of war in a counterproductive approach to combatting insurgency, from the Taliban to Al-Qaeda to ISIS. Rather than bringing stability to Afghanistan, they have undermined Afghan institutions and put many Afghans at risk.
There are some in the Afghan government who acknowledge the harm being done to their compatriots, and the political damage caused to the government when whole communities are alienated. Some privately express frustration at their lack of control. However, whether this is a moment when they have sufficient political capital to change this is another question. Moreover, even if the NDS had more control of these units, it has a poor track record of its own when it comes to accountability and oversight, especially in its use of torture. The NDS would also still be beholden to its primary donor, the CIA. All this means it is hard to imagine the victims of these crimes, unless they have powerful relatives, getting justice from either the US or the Afghan governments.
(1) A recent paper by Astri Suhrke and Antonio De Lauri focused on Afghan paramilitary forces working for or with the CIA draws on publically-available sources, rather than primary research (the Human Rights Watch report uses both). See: “The CIA’s “Army”: A Threat to Human Rights and an Obstacle to Peace in Afghanistan”, The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University (Costs of War), August 2019 (see here).