Sgt. Justin P. Morelli / US Army

Who will police Afghanistan’s policemen?

Impunity for Afghan security forces is hampering the country’s counterinsurgency campaign

March 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

The commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, is bullish about the country’s future. Last month he cited the Afghan people’s trust for their security forces as one of the positive trends in Afghanistan.

But Campbell was clearly not referring to Commander Azizullah, the longtime leader of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in the country’s southeastern province of Paktika. As with all other ALP units, Azizullah and his forces have been armed and equipped with a portion of the $104 billion that the United States has spent on Afghanistan since 2002. His hallmark is fear, not trust.

For example, in 2009 his forces shot dead three farmers during a search operation for the Taliban in Paktika’s Urgun district. Azizullah then strapped the men’s corpses to the hood of one of his vehicles and drove through a local market proclaiming the dead men as terrorists. He refused to allow the family to bury them until eight days later. The incident was not an aberration: His forces have been linked to thefts, kidnappings, beatings and the arbitrary killing of civilians, including children.

Former President Hamid Karzai’s government turned a blind eye to Azizullah’s viciousness. The U.S. military is as myopic about his counterinsurgency efforts as the Afghan government. Azizullah has worked closely with U.S. special forces on anti-insurgency in Urgun. But in 2011 the U.S. military dismissed calls for a probe of its relationship with him, saying there was “little information to substantiate what were essentially claims.”

The cozy relationship between the U.S. and other Afghanistan allies and Afghan commanders implicated in human rights abuses are not exceptional. In a report released on March 3, Human Rights Watch details the abuses of eight strongmen from the Afghan National Police, the ALP and government-affiliated militias. The atrocities perpetrated by people, from local militia commanders to ministerial rank officials, underscore a pervasive lack of accountability for Afghanistan’s security forces.

Among them is Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq, the Kandahar province chief of police who has been directly implicated in ordering extrajudicial executions. Another recipient of U.S. government largesse has been the former head of Afghanistan’s security agency, Asadullah Khalid, who maintains a close relationship with the U.S. government despite numerous credible reports that he has participated in torture, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence against women and girls. In December 2013, when he sought medical care in the United States for wounds incurred in a suicide bomb attack, he received a visit from President Barack Obama, reaffirming U.S. support for a notorious human rights violator.

Strongmen such as Azizullah, Razik and Khalid should be fully and fairly prosecuted for their crimes, not enlisted in a counterinsurgency strategy.

That impunity is no accident. It is rooted in the failure of Karzai’s government and his foreign donors to disarm various militias that formed in the wake of the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. Instead of taking steps to address the lack of impunity, the international community and Afghan political leaders have routinely dismissed accountability as a luxury that the country cannot afford. For example, in August 2002 the United Nation’s special representative for Afghanistan at the time, Lakhdar Brahimi, asserted accountability had to take “second place to peace and stability.”

But instead of peace and stability, the toxic codependency between the Afghan government, its allies and strongmen such as Azizullah has deepened the country’s insecurity. At a time when the Taliban insurgency is intensifying, this tolerance for violence, corruption and unaccountability is undermining support for the new Afghan government.   

Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, appears to have made the connection between accountability and security. In a Jan. 7 letter to Human Rights Watch he pledged that his government is “serious about addressing allegations of torture in our security sector.”

But his administration needs the full support of Afghanistan’s international backers, particularly the United States, to carry out this politically sensitive task. That will require the U.S. and other donors to the Afghan security forces to link continued funding to improved accountability, including prosecutions for killings, enforced disappearances and torture. For its part, the U.S. should fully implement the Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S. government from providing military assistance to abusive foreign military units.

Strongmen such as Azizullah, Razik and Khalid should be fully and fairly prosecuted for their crimes, not enlisted in a counterinsurgency strategy. Until the Afghan government and its allies take decisive steps against those who kill, rape and kidnap without consequence, the security dividend sought by the Afghan people will remain ever elusive.

Phelim Kine is the deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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