Today’s story in the Washington Post covering Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s decree expelling US Special Operations forces from a province just outside Kabul illustrates how completely the upper levels of the US military have been ignoring reality in Afghanistan. The Post reported that the “announcement appeared to come as a surprise to American military officials”. For those who have been paying attention, it has been clear that Afghanistan has been upset for years over a program tied to US Special Operations forces that develops what amounts to private militias which are sometimes under the Afghan Local Police name and sometimes not. These groups are particularly lawless and have been reported to participate in revenge killings, disappearances and torture (which are also the specialties of JSOC). And this program was at the heart of David Petraeus’ operations when he took over in Afghanistan:
Jack Keane, a former Army general and a mentor to David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Afghanistan when the program began, said that “the brilliance of the program is also the vulnerability” because recruits are selected by elders, not by Americans. Although there has always been some form of NATO vetting, “we’re totally dependent on their judgment as to who they’ve selected.”
And some groups continue to warn of the dangers of reintroducing militia-like forces to a country long bedeviled by warlords. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported instances of killing, rape, theft and other abuses among the local police that raised “serious concerns about the A.L.P. vetting, recruitment and oversight.” The group added: “Creation of the A.L.P. is a high-risk strategy to achieve short-term goals in which local groups are again being armed without adequate oversight or accountability.” (At the time, NATO said that some aspects of the report were dated or incorrect.)
Although a short pause in Special Operations forces training of Afghan Local Police took place back in September when the article quoted above came out, it is clear now that the “re-screening” of ALP personnel was a sham and that the abuses under this program continue. Here is Khaama Press describing Karzai’s decision:
After a thorough discussion, it became clear that armed individuals named as US special force stationed in Wardak province engage in harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people. A recent example in the province is an incident in which nine people were disappeared in an operation by this suspicious force and in a separate incident a student was taken away at night from his home, whose tortured body with throat cut was found two days later under a bridge. However, Americans reject having conducted any such operation and any involvement of their special force.”
“The Ministry of Defense was assigned to make sure all US special forces are out of the province within two weeks,” the statement said adding that “All the Afghan national security forces are duty bound to protect the life and property of people in Maidan Wardak province by effectively stopping and bringing to justice any groups that enter peoples’ homes in the name of special force and who engage in annoying, harassing and murdering innocent people.”
This comes as US special forces and their interpreters were accused of misbehavior and humiliation of innocent local residents in Nekh district of Maidan Wardak province earlier in January.
Most of the news reports covering this move by Karzai do note that Special Operations forces are expected to play a key role after the “withdrawal” of coalition forces planned for the end of 2014. As noted in the Guardian: Continue reading
On Saturday, we learned that US Special Operations forces have suspended training of Afghan Local Police while a re-screening of the backgrounds of those already in the force is carried out. I noted then that only Reuters dared to connect the ALP program to David Petraeus, who put it in place, presumably because the news on the program was not good. Yesterday, the New York Times also linked Petraeus to the program, and, remarkably, this came only one day after running an article exposing further problems with the ALP program.
Sunday’s article on problems with the Afghan Local Police program informs us that a number of atrocities have been linked to groups some claim have been enabled by the ALP program:
It was the second time in a month that one of the controversial militia groups, known as arbakai, had carried out reprisal killings of people believed to be Taliban sympathizers.
In both cases, residents complained that the groups received support and protection from American Special Operations forces, which the United States military has denied. The Special Operations units train arbakai militiamen only when they are enrolled in official programs for recruits of the Afghan Local Police, American officials insist.
Although the term “reprisal killing” has a specific definition in International Humanitarian Law (see this comment by joanneleon), the article linked by the Times when they used the term discusses what looks like a case of revenge killing fueled by ethnic hatred:
At least nine Afghans and perhaps many more were forced out of their homes in rural Afghanistan and executed in what Afghan officials called an act of revenge by one ethnic group against another, underscoring the long shadow cast by the country’s ethnic hatreds.
So, while at least some of the atrocities attributed to the ALP may be due to ethnic tensions, what seems clear is that in many cases these groups claim a relationship to US Special Operations forces that the US sometimes disputes. From this same early August article:
Two Afghan officials, including a member of Parliament, asserted that the man who is accused of leading the executions has had a relationship with American Special Operations forces — an assertion that an American spokesman denied. The other Afghan official, the provincial police chief, said the authorities in the area had tried to have the man arrested on past accusations of killing civilians, but that “foreigners” provided refuge for him.
The spokesman for the Special Operations Command, Lt. Col. Todd Harrell, said there were no Special Operations forces in the area and emphasized that it remained unclear if those who were killed were civilians or Taliban.
That is a very interesting dual-level denial by Harrell. First, he denies a link to the leader of the group carrying out the executions, but, just in case that claim later becomes non-operational, he throws in the suggestion that those killed may have been Taliban, presumably making the fact that they were executed okay.
The article goes on to state that perhaps some ALP units have direct links to Special Operations forces rather than operating under Afghan control. Complicating matters further, it appears that although the ALP program got a large push under Petraeus’ command, the practice of buying off militia groups has been going on from the beginning of our presence in Afghanistan and may go beyond Special Operations: Continue reading