Human Rights Watch released a report on Thursday documenting how Afghan paramilitary forces backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have carried out extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, indiscriminate airstrikes, and other human rights abuses without accountability. The report, a culmination of nearly two years of reporting, details 14 deadly raids resulting in rising civilian deaths. Local residents, journalists, officials, human rights activists, and more have all concluded that these abusive raids and airstrikes have become a daily and devastating fact of life for many communities in Afghanistan.
“I believe the 14 [raids we investigated] are only a fraction of the cases of this kind … but because they occur in remote areas most go unreported,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “In ramping up operations against the Taliban, the CIA has enabled abusive Afghan forces to commit atrocities including extrajudicial executions and disappearances. In case after case, these forces have simply shot people in their custody.”
Since 2001, the CIA has recruited, equipped, trained, and deployed Afghan forces in pursuit of Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, and since 2014, ISIS. Throughout much of 2019, the United States government and Taliban insurgents were engaged in peace talks that could have led to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. These negotiations halted on September 7, 2019, over what President Donald Trump said was the insurgents’ unacceptable level of violence. The talks failed to address the future of the Afghan special forces – dubbed “death squads” by locals – that work as part of the covert operations of the CIA. Many U.S. military officials have fought to retain these forces in Afghanistan as a shield against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, but the continued presence of these forces would pose a serious threat to communities that have already been victimized by them.
Night raids have often been accompanied by airstrikes, disproportionately targeting and killing Afghan civilians. The U.S. authorized Afghan forces to call in airstrikes for support without U.S. forces present to identify the targets. This resulted in airstrikes hitting more residential buildings at a time where decreased ground presence meant limited information about the presence of civilians in those buildings. The accompanying night raids carried out by U.S. and Afghan forces, which are aimed at killing or capturing insurgents, have been “severely and maybe sometimes intentionally underreported”, said an Afghan NGO staff member based in Kabul. In many of the night raids investigated, Afghan paramilitary forces seem to have unlawfully targeted civilians because of mistaken identity, poor intelligence, or political rivalries in the locality. The report also documented increasing raids by Afghan special forces on medical facilities between May 2018 and July 2019. During these operations, the forces involved assaulted and, in some cases, killed medical staff and accompanying civilian caregivers, while also causing damage to the facilities. The laws of war protect patients, medical personnel, as well as hospitals and facilities from attack. Commanders and combatants who willfully violate these protections are responsible for war crimes.
“The U.S. and Afghan governments should cooperate with independent investigations into these allegations,” Gossman said. “These are not isolated cases but illustrative of a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war violations – and even war crimes – by these paramilitary forces.” Currently, the U.S. military, without addressing specific cases, blames the suffering of civilians on the Taliban, ISIS, and Al Qaeda. “We are fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of accuracy and accountability, and we are looking into this,” a Resolute Support spokesperson said in a statement that was included in the report. John Sifton, Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director said in an interview with The Daily Beast, “There isn’t a rule written somewhere at Langley that says the CIA can only train and fund militias that commit atrocities … the CIA could have used its funding and leverage to insist that militias working with it follow the rules of law.” Witnesses and survivors have claimed that forces responsible for these atrocities have at times been accompanied by American soldiers and translators.
Ensuring justice for these serious violations is the responsibility of the country whose nationals are implicated in the crimes. The Afghan government should impartially investigate all allegations of abuse by Afghan security forces and prosecute those responsible for war crimes and serious abuses. The U.S. government, for its part, should investigate any U.S. personnel involved in these abuses, prosecute those responsible for war crimes, and stop supporting these Afghan forces that have been the cause of so much death and destruction.
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