Exclusive: A US-backed militia runs amok in Afghanistan

Afghan militias have accumulated a lengthy record of human rights abuses, including murders and rapes

A policeman searches a person in Ghazni province, Afghanistan.
Xinhua / Eyevine / Redux

KABUL, Afghanistan — Before dawn on June 1, a group of U.S. special forces and Afghan army commandos arrived by helicopter to the east of Alizai, a farming hamlet in Andar district in Taliban-controlled territory in central Afghanistan. They moved from house to house, arresting any fighting-age men they found, while the local Taliban fighters, who had been sleeping in a mosque at the other end of the village, fled without a fight.

By sunrise, the soldiers had gathered more than 100 men in the yard of a house belonging to a local man named Hajji Badruddin. As is typical in rural Afghanistan, the house had two large adjoining courtyards fenced in by high mud walls. The villagers were kept in one yard, while in the next yard the Americans and Afghan commandos had set up their four-wheeled ATVs, other vehicles and equipment.

“This operation was Afghan planned and led,” Lt. Col. Christopher Belcher, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, explained in a written statement. “ISAF was there in an advisory role, advising the Afghan security forces conducting the operation.”

Night raids are common in Andar, and the villagers assumed they’d be let go once the soldiers were finished with their operation.  “When we saw that we all shared the same fate, we felt comforted,” said Yousuf, one of the villagers. (The names of Alizai residents quoted in this article have been changed for their protection.)

Militia leader Abdullah, in a film still from a documentary about the 2012 Andar uprising that aired on Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera

Then, around 11 a.m., they heard the sound of motorcycles, and a group of roughly 30 armed men entered the yard, some wearing the tan uniforms of the U.S.-funded Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, others in traditional robes and turbans. Leading them was Abdullah, a well-known local commander of a pro-government militia that is not part of any formal government entity. In his eyes, the villagers of Alizai were all Taliban sympathizers. “All of the people were afraid when they came,” Yousuf recalled.

Abdullah and his militia left Alizai to join a battle against the Taliban in a neighboring village, but returned that same afternoon. According to eyewitnesses, when he returned, Abdullah first went into the yard where the soldiers had set up their vehicles and equipment; then he walked over to three men and a boy of 14 who had been kept separate from the rest of the villagers in the second yard. They had been rounded up with everyone else that morning and were suspected of having links to the Taliban.

All but one of them, the boy, were bound and blindfolded. According to eyewitnesses, Abdullah and his men put the three captives — Mohammad Gul, Nasrullah and Fazaldin — on the back of motorcycles and drove away as U.S. and Afghan soldiers looked on from rooftop positions. Soon afterward, the villagers said, they heard gunfire.

A shopkeeper from Telbeh, a village about two miles from Alizai, was returning from his store in Andar district center when he encountered the group of militiamen. He watched from a distance, he says, as they led three men, blindfolded and bound, to the side of the road and shot them. “They immediately fired on them,” he said. “They fired an uncountable number of times, more than 100.”

Several other witnesses were present, he and other locals said, and the killings have become widely known in the area. The United Nations, which conducted its own investigation of the executions in Andar, confirmed that the killings had taken place. “The U.N. has investigated and verified allegations of extrajudicial killings of three men by a pro-government militia,” said Georgette Gagnon, the head of the U.N. human rights unit in Afghanistan. “There has so far been no accountability for these executions.”

“Three individuals were removed from the area of operations by Afghan security personnel for further questioning,” Belcher said. “Postoperational briefings/summaries gave no indication of detainee mistreatment.”

Belcher also denied that ISAF worked with any unofficial militias. “ISAF advisers do not partner with militias,” he said. “Rather, they work with legitimate MOD [Ministry of Defense], MOI [Ministry of Interior] and ALP partners.”

According to Belcher, ISAF had not heard allegations of the killings in Andar until they were raised by Al Jazeera, but it subsequently conducted an inquiry. “The inquiry found no information that substantiates the allegations. We have passed the allegations to our Afghan counterparts to conduct their own inquiry,” he said. “According to Afghan officials with whom we spoke after receiving your inquiry, these individuals were questioned and later released without harm.”

Spokespersons at the both the Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior declined to comment on the allegations. But when reached by telephone, Abdullah, the militia commander, acknowledged killing the men. “I killed these three people,” he said when asked about them by name. “Those three were Taliban.” He also claimed that he has received, and continues to receive, backing from the U.S. special forces for his unofficial militia. “Everything is provided by the foreigners, including the weapons, salaries and other equipment.”

The patsoonian don’t belong to the Ministry of the Interior like the Afghan Local Police do. The patsoonian don’t belong at all to the government.


Pro-government militia leader

Since the beginning of the war, the U.S. military has worked with local militias and other informal armed groups in Afghanistan, and in recent years it has made them a cornerstone of its exit strategy. In 2010 the American and Afghan governments established the ALP program, under which local militias would be trained by U.S. special forces and placed under the command of the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. U.S. commanders came to see the ALP program as an effective means of taking territory from the Taliban, and by June of this year there were 26,451 registered members across the country.

But the militias have also accumulated a lengthy record of human rights abuses, including murders and rapes. And while the ALP program is supposed to provide training and supervision to prevent such abuses and — should they occur — accountability through a defined chain of command, the events in Alizai raise questions as to whether U.S. forces are adhering to the program or whether, by failing to do so, they have become complicit in the abuses of unofficial militias like Abdullah’s.

Andar district, which abuts a strategic national highway that passes through Ghazni province, has long been a Taliban stronghold. However, in the spring of 2012, villagers in southern Andar rose up and drove out the Taliban insurgents. At the time, Kabul hailed it as a “people’s uprising,” a sort of third way that would sweep the country and appeal to rural Afghans who were tired of the Taliban but wary of the government. But while the instigators of the movement were unaffiliated with the government, they were soon bolstered by pro-government commanders and co-opted, in a common pattern, with funding and weapons from the country’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

In 2012, Afghan Local Police personnel patrol at their base in Goshta district of Nangarhar province.
Shah Marai / AFP / Getty Images

In October 2012, an ALP unit was established in Andar, with training provided by a U.S. special forces team in the district center. In accordance with ALP program rules, the recruits were to be registered and vetted for past crimes. While some were drawn from the ranks of the anti-Taliban militias, others declined to join, either because of the stigma still attached to the government or because they wanted to escape oversight and control. “In Andar, we have the ALP and the uprisers,” said Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, deputy provincial governor of Ghazni, using the local term for the latter, “patsoonian.” “The ALP is under the supervision of the national police, and the uprisers are controlled by NDS.”

The U.S. special forces, residents and officials allege, have supported the patsoonian as well as the ALP members. “They have given them money and from time to time provide them with supplies,” said Ahmadi. “They do this to achieve their own military objectives.”

Over the telephone, Abdullah said he and his men are not part of the ALP program. “The patsoonian don’t belong to the Ministry of the Interior like the ALP do,” he said. “The patsoonian don’t belong at all to the government.” A former member of the Taliban who is adept at spotting his enemies, Abdullah said he and his militia work closely on operations with the American military, having recently returned from an operation with U.S. special forces in neighboring Giru district. “Wherever we are going in Andar, they’re going with us,” he said. “Anytime we call on them, they’re ready to help us and go out with us. If one of us is wounded, they help us and take him from the battlefield.”

When asked about the upriser militias in Andar, Belcher, the ISAF spokesman, said: “ISAF does not arm such groups. We conduct operations with legitimate GIROA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] security forces.”

The Taliban responded to the uprising with a violent counteroffensive of assassinations and bombings. In one incident last October, a roadside bomb killed 19 members of a wedding party from the family of an ALP member. In another incident, 17 ALP members were drugged and murdered by turncoats at their own post. In this increasingly bloody conflict, the militias, backed by U.S. special forces, have slowly expanded into territory that has been under Taliban control for much of the last decade — like Alizai village.

The Americans were the leaders. They would tell their interpreter to tell us to move or sit or do something.


Alizai villager who witnessed the operation

Four villagers who were present in Alizai on June 1 — each interviewed separately in person — estimated there were at least a dozen Americans and as many as 30 Afghan soldiers at Badruddin’s house, some of them in firing positions on the roof, which commanded a view of the surrounding area. “The Americans were the leaders,” said Saleh, one of the villagers who was detained. “They would tell their interpreter to tell us to move or sit or do something.”

According to Belcher, a “team-sized” element of ISAF forces was present in Alizai that day, along with about three to four times as many Afghan forces. “The operation in question was led by GIROA security forces,” he said. “Temporary detention of these individuals occurred under the authority of the proper Afghan National Security Forces personnel, in this case the provincial chief of police, provincial NDS chief and district chief of police, who were present during the operation.”

The Andar district police chief, Lutfullah Kamran, in a film still from a documentary about the 2012 Andar uprising that aired on Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera

The Americans were bearded and wore U.S. military uniforms, according to villagers who were shown photos of camouflage patterns common to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Based on the location and nature of the operations, they were likely members of ISAF’s Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, which is responsible for training both the ALP and the Afghan special-operations forces. The Afghan commandos told Yousuf that they had come from Forward Operating Base Sharana, a large site in eastern Afghanistan that was transferred to Afghan control last fall. They had traveled by helicopter, after stopping in the Andar district center to pick up the district police chief, Lutfullah Kamran, who could provide local knowledge and represent the Afghan government.

According to the four witnesses, Kamran and the Americans jointly interrogated a number of the detained villagers. “There were two Americans looking at the photos they had brought with them,” said Saleh. According to these witnesses, the Americans recorded biometric information on some of the villagers, as is standard practice with detainees. “One had a camera, and the other had a device for fingerprints,” said Haseeb, a resident who claimed he had his picture taken by the Americans. “The collection of biometric data was done by Afghan National Security Forces, not ISAF,” said Belcher.

After entering the compound and conferring with Kamran and the Americans, Abdullah led about half his militiamen on an attack against Taliban positions in nearby Khadokhel village, the villagers said. For the rest of the afternoon, the prisoners sat in the yard and listened to the nearby gun battle and the sounds of ISAF aircraft bombarding the village. According to U.N. reports, 11 Taliban were killed in the battle. Belcher said that three members of Afghan National Security Forces, along with one ISAF soldier, were wounded and evacuated by ISAF helicopters.

When the battle ended, Abdullah returned to Alizai. The four witnesses said they saw him first go into the yard where American special forces, Afghan commandos and Kamran had set up before taking Fazaldin, Mohammad Gul, and Nasrullah — even though, under Afghan law, the ALP does not have the legal right to detain prisoners.

After witnessing the executions, the villagers in Telbeh, fearful of the militiamen, waited until nightfall to retrieve the bodies of the three men. By then, the U.S. and Afghan soldiers had left by helicopter. “His body was found in a small water drain,” said one of Fazaldin’s relatives, who buried him the next day in Alizai. “Half of his face was gone, and he had bullet holes from head to toe.”

Abdullah was unapologetic about executing the three men. “It was a raid and I caught them,” he said. “If anyone is saying these were civilians, that person is pro-Taliban, a Talib himself, or is spreading Pakistani propaganda.”

Under national and international law, the government is obliged to investigate any unlawful killing, including those committed by pro-government armed groups.

Georgette Gagnon

U.N. human rights unit, Afghanistan

Critics of the ALP program have argued that its short-term gains in territory will come at the expense of future stability, as armed groups proliferate outside of the state’s control. “The introduction of ALP also spawned other militias,” said Rachel Reid, a research director at the Open Society Foundations who led an investigation into the ALP program for Human Rights Watch. “Suddenly it was the ‘must have’ for every local power broker to have his own band of armed men.”

In the case of Abdullah and his men, those fears already seem to have been realized. “Our concern is armed groups operating outside of official security structures where there’s a chain of command and through which they can be held accountable,” said the U.N.’s Gagnon. “Under national and international law, the government is obliged to investigate any unlawful killing, including those committed by pro-government armed groups.”

With ISAF ending its mission this year, Afghanistan’s future remains uncertain, a fact highlighted by the controversy over the presidential election, with both candidates claiming victory — an impasse that has revived the specter of civil war. “We’re currently in a tense political standoff, and there’s an acute awareness that all sides are armed. ALP and all the other internationally backed armed groups have contributed to this state of play,” said Reid. “It’s not enough for the U.S. to point to the Afghan government and say they must rein them in. The U.S. created this force, the U.S. is paying for it, and U.S. special forces continue in places to partner with them.”

An Afghan journalist, unnamed for security reasons, contributed reporting from Andar.

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