Meanwhile, The Pace Of US War Crimes In Afghanistan Accelerates Dramatically

Jim here.

Some of you might remember that long ago, I used to blog nearly daily on the never-ending US military misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The issues of torture, night raids, death squads, secret prisons, and then drones all made it obvious to anyone who was paying attention that the senseless crimes carried out under cover of the US “war effort” were creating new enemies faster than our forces were removing them from the battlefield. Spencer Ackerman today noted a new report from Human Rights Watch that gave me a serious flashback to the days of following those issues closely. What I saw there was jarring. It is clear that under Trump, what Obama had tried to pretty up and hide (even though it still went on) came back into more openness than at any time. Human Rights Watch pulls no punches in labeling many of the things they found as war crimes.

In a post nearly ten years ago, I noted, as usual, that things in Afghanistan were going poorly. That post, as I’m sure many of my posts around that time did, linked to one of the most seminal pieces of work describing what was really going on in the war effort their under the Obama Administration: Anand Gopal’s piece describing how the night raids that played such a crucial role in McChrystal’s COIN programs in both Iraq and Afghanistan were hidden by moving them to raiding parties comprised of Special Operations forces often supplemented with private, CIA-trained militias:

The American troops that operate under NATO command have begun to enforce stricter rules of engagement: they may now officially hold detainees for only ninety-six hours before transferring them to the Afghan authorities or freeing them, and Afghan forces must take the lead in house searches. American soldiers, when questioned, bristle at these restrictions–and have ways of circumventing them. “Sometimes we detain people, then, when the ninety-six hours are up, we transfer them to the Afghans,” said one marine who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They rough them up a bit for us and then send them back to us for another ninety-six hours. This keeps going until we get what we want.”

A simpler way of dancing around the rules is to call in the Special Operations Forces–the Navy SEALs, Green Berets and others–which are not under NATO command and thus not bound by the stricter rules of engagement. These elite troops are behind most of the night raids and detentions in the search for “high-value suspects.” Military officials say in interviews that the new restrictions have not affected the number of raids and detentions at all. The actual change, however, is more subtle: the detention process has shifted almost entirely to areas and actors that can best avoid public scrutiny–small field prisons and Special Operations Forces.

And Gopal shows just what these actions do to the locals:

If night raids and detentions are an unavoidable part of modern counterinsurgency warfare, then so is the resentment they breed. “We were all happy when the Americans first came. We thought they would bring peace and stability,” said Rehmatullah Muhammad. “But now most people in my village want them to leave.” A year after Muhammad was released, his nephew was detained. Two months later, some other residents of Zaiwalat were seized. It has become a predictable pattern in Muhammad’s village: Taliban forces ambush American convoys as they pass through it, and then retreat into the thick fruit orchards nearby. The Americans return at night to pick up suspects. In the past two years, sixteen people have been taken and ten killed in night raids in this single village of about 300, according to villagers. In the same period, they say, the insurgents killed one local and did not take anyone hostage.

The people of Zaiwalat now fear the night raids more than the Taliban. There are nights when Muhammad’s children hear the distant thrum of a helicopter and rush into his room. He consoles them but admits he needs solace himself. “I know I should be too old for it,” he said, “but this war has made me afraid of the dark.”

So that was how, after claiming to have stopped torture and embarking on building a new shiny prison at Bagram Air Base, Obama allowed much of the same activity that bred resentment of the US presence to carry on unabated. But now we have Trump in charge, and the CIA under him was led first by Mike Pompeo and now by Gina Haspel, who first gained notoriety running the most infamous CIA torture site in Thailand under George W. Bush. Trump was not kidding when he said he was going to take of the gloves in Afghanistan.

From the HRW report:

This report documents 14 cases in which CIA-backed Afghan strike forces committed serious abuses between late 2017 and mid-2019. They are illustrative of a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war violations—some amounting to war crimes—that extends to all provinces in Afghanistan where these paramilitary forces operate with impunity.

It continues:

In the course of researching this report, Afghan officials, civil society and human rights activists, Afghan and foreign healthcare workers, journalists, and community elders all described abusive raids and indiscriminate airstrikes as having become a daily fact of life for many communities—often with devastating consequences. Speaking to Human Rights Watch, one diplomat familiar with Afghan strike force operations referred to them as “death squads.”

Afghan paramilitary forces nominally belong to the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s primary intelligence agency. However, these forces do not fall under the ordinary chain of command within the NDS, nor under normal Afghan or US military chains of command. They largely have been recruited, trained, equipped, and overseen by the CIA. They often have US special forces personnel deployed alongside them during kill-or-capture operations; these US forces, primarily Army Rangers, have been seconded to the CIA. Afghan paramilitary strike forces generally carry out operations with US logistical support and are dependent on US intelligence and surveillance for targeting.

A big change came when, according to the report, the US in 2017 allowed Afghan special forces to call in their own airstrikes, with devastating consequences due to the lower quality of detailed intelligence on which the strikes were based.

And yes, the report details that these groups have become death squads:

In many cases, paramilitary strike forces summarily executed persons taken into custody or forcibly disappeared them, not telling their families about their fate or whereabouts. In none of the cases Human Rights Watch investigated did the civilians who were killed offer resistance or act in any way that justified the use of force.

Ackerman closed his piece with a quote from John Sifton of Human Rights Watch:

Sifton called on the U.S. to exercise accountability over the paramilitaries it operates alongside in Afghanistan.

“If the U.S. government was functioning properly, Congress and the Department of Justice would be investigating alleged war crimes involving the participation of U.S. forces, and where appropriate prosecuting U.S. personnel implicated in war crimes,” Sifton said. “And Congress would be cutting funding to all abusive forces as it did, for example, with funding for the Contras in the mid-1980s.”

Sifton nails the issue. Our government, of course, has not functioned properly on these issues since the Bush Administration was allowed to turn 9/11 into a vendetta against Muslims. It became unpatriotic to question any part of the war effort or any of the military and civilians in charge of creating the policies surrounding it. Perhaps today there is a glimmer of hope with the House passing the formal vote to authorize the impeachment investigation of Trump, but things have gone so far downhill in those nearly two decades that it will take a long time to restore honor to anything the US does in the Middle East.

Finally, there is one last small detail to show just how bad the situation in Afghanistan has become. I used to await each of the quarterly reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, as they would be packed with data on how many regions in Afghanistan had fallen under Taliban control or wrested back under Coalition control. Also, the vaunted “training” of Afghan forces and the resulting Afghan force size was important to track over time. Yesterday, SIGAR released its 45th (!) quarterly report (the war in Afghanistan had already been long underway before SIGAR started the reports), but the reports now have zero data of this sort. Things are so bad there that SIGAR no longer can report on these distressing statistics. I haven’t checked, but I’m assuming they are now classified, which is what the military has done throughout the Afghanistan war for the most embarrassing information.

26 replies
  1. Rugger9 says:

    In too many cases we do not know which warlord is on our side. Remember the Taliban was A-OK for the GOP until they sheltered OBL, because they also kept women in their place and were effective about reducing opium production. The destruction of ancient monuments and Buddhas was OK too since none of it was Fundie Dominionist fetish stuff.

    Unless you know who the enemy is, you have no business being in the combat zone.

    • Jim White says:

      Indeed. And the various alliances among the warlords is also a nightmare to track, as those can shift very quickly and unexpectedly.

      Its been clear from after the time OBL was run out of Afghanistan that we had no further business there and our continued presence did more harm than good.

    • Midwest says:

      In a book by a NYT journalist (I think, but don’;t recall the name, I think the book is called The Forever War but when I googled it I found a sci fi novel) describes tribespeople shifting sides depending on who is coming out ahead. Around a century ago two railroads (one was the Northern Pacific, I forever the other) were building track in NW Minnesota where my great grandparents homesteaded starting in 1882. Local men would work on the crews; when one railroad got further than the other they would go work for the competition to keep it going longer). He describes reunions of relatives who went from one side to the other and ran into their cousins.

  2. MissingGeorgeCarlin says:

    It’s too bad the average American is too busy with sports, TMZ and social media to care about the carnage being unleashed on innocents in our name.

    I fear someday, the American people will have to answer for our (mostly) silent approval of this sick circus of death. It’s amazing…in the 21st century with all of our technological advances, that a great carnage could be hidden from the bulk of 325,000,000 people.

  3. sand says:

    What are our objectives in Afghanistan, and how do we know whether we’re achieving them?

    I’m going to research a bit. I am not hopeful that we have any coherent framework.

    • Jim White says:

      Be prepared to find the objective stated very differently over time, even from individual military officers and politicians charged with developing them and especially as those in charge have changed over time. Initially, of course, it was to go after bin Laden. But he was run out of Afghanistan quickly and the justifications for staying usually were along the lines of removing terrorists over there so we wouldn’t have to over here. Just who those terrorists are has evolved dramatically, with many of them created in situ by our actions.

      • Pete T says:

        It has always seemed to me that from the PoV of the non coms mostly getting by on the ground that we are terrorists.

        You can’t kill them all but maybe if we had supported breeding grounds before they became as such with non military support it could have been different.

        But where’s the profit in that?

    • JayKay says:

      The US objective throughout the region appears to be “Bomb them until we win” where

      Bomb = Kill
      Them = not formally defined
      Win = not really defined at all

      Or, put another way, “we’re going to keep killing people we think oppose us until they stop opposing us”.

      • bmaz says:

        You know, I have problems with a LOT of US activity over the years in the Middle East, but this is a ridiculous generalization.

        • JayKay says:

          OK. Put more formally, US doctrine has always been to substitute firepower for casualties. Since Vietnam, we have evolved a system where we minimize domestic political opposition by utilizing the All Volunteer Force in a way that reduces potential losses. We do this through drones, air strikes, and a smidgen of SOF boots on the ground.

          However, firepower is only good for destroying things. It doesn’t really address the security needs of the civilians in these areas. It doesn’t create or sustain stable democratic governments, provide for basic human needs, or win the “hearts and minds” of these people.

          Since there isn’t any domestic political pressure, there is no need to define what “victory” is or how we would obtain such a “victory”. And the factions we’re dealing with are not nation-states that we can force to sign and comply with a peace treaty. Does this mean that as long as ISIS or AQAP can put up messages calling for terrorism against the US, we still need to be trying to defeat them? Does this mean we need to kill or capture anyone who might put up such messages?

          I also see no evidence that we have any better sense of how to further US security interests in the wake of the deposing the Syrian or Iranian government than we did when we invaded Iraq.

          The reduction in “metrics” referred to in this article, IMO, also shows that the US government either doesn’t know what “success” looks like, or recognizes that by any rational measure we’re not obtaining what could be described as success. Yet, we still engage in raids, “targeted killings”, drone strikes, and training death squads in the belief that all of this application of firepower will somehow secure some sort of “success”.

          Hence my flippant remark of “kill them until we win”. Eh, maybe I’m too much of a cynic and am missing something, but this all feels like it’s been going on for ever so long and is basically a remake of Vietnam with better special effects.

        • bmaz says:

          You sure this is your hill, and you want to stand on it here? You might want to think about that. And, if so, duly noted.

  4. Valley girl says:

    Jim, please don’t think that I am making light of any of these events. But, oddly enough, after reading Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser I had a much better feeling for the geography of Afghanistan than I had before. I’m wondering if you’ve read it, and it so, your opinion.

      • Jim White says:

        Not sure, but I freed it. But I do have to laugh about Afghanistan geography. For several months, I kept re-using a photo of Stanley McChrystal giving a talk at a whiteboard because his drawing sure seemed to me to be an attempt to draw a whale.

        It may well have been a year later when I finally realized that his fail whale was actually his attempt at a schematic of the shape of Afghanistan.

    • Rugger9 says:

      One of several Flashman novels (i.e. Flashman and the Mountain of Light talks about Punjab and how the Koh-I-Noor came to Great Britain) and written like a Munchhausen diary with some historical references tossed in. Quite entertaining but usually NSFW.

      • Valley girl says:

        A few years ago, a friend confessed to our favorite college Eng. Lit. professor that he thoroughly enjoyed the Flashman books. He was quite chuffed that prof approved heartily of the books. (Prof. is now well known Kipling scholar.) I read Flashman, and 2 or 3 other Flashman books (can’t remember which, but none of the US ones). Maybe the one you mentioned. I found them hugely entertaining, but didn’t read more b/c I figured they would get rather “samey”. But now I am thinking that I might at least read one more- Flashman and the Great Game.

        I must say that I enjoyed the take-downs of various pompous twits, probably b/c I lived in Cambridge UK for 10 years, and well knew the types.

        • Tom says:

          Fraser also wrote an excellent WWII memoir, “Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma” published in 1992. The title is taken from a line in Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din”. Fraser’s account of his service in the British Army in India and the Far East helps explain the note of authenticity in the Flashman novels, including his “take-downs of various pompous twits”.

        • Valley girl says:

          Thanks much for the book mention & and the info. Putting on my list to buy from Powells (hope they have it).
          Also interested b/c I’ve been to Burma, as was, in 1986. Quite the adventure, including coming down with rubella. My travel mate (a she) was convinced I was just being a bad sport, not ill at all.

        • Tom says:

          You’re more than welcome! Fraser writes in a blunt and colourful style, including lines such as, “The things one does for a living: trying to determine the age of Jap crap, for eighteen rupees a week.” This was in describing how punji stick booby traps work. Alas, I haven’t travelled much, the farthest I’ve ever gone in the direction of the Far East is Lake Louise.

        • Valley girl says:

          It was happenstance that I got to go to Burma (and Thailand) then. Brit friend had planned this trip with her sister, but sister bailed out on short notice. Miranda asked me if I wanted to go instead. I did!

          It was not a trip I would have had a clue how to plan. And growing up I was always encouraged to travel- by my mother- “while you’re young enough to enjoy it” she said. My first trip outside Cali was to the Gambia for a summer, when I was 18. It was transformative.

          I enjoy the adventure, I suppose. And it takes me out of my normal self. Nothing really bad has ever happened to me while on one of my (relatively few) trips to far away places. I learned to have eyes in the back of my head while traveling. And I am never inclined to panic, thank goodness.

          I guess some are inclined to travel far from home, and some not. A matter of personal taste, that’s all.

          That part you referenced above about Fraser’s blunt and colorful style goes a long way to explain the tone of the Flashman novels! Thanks again.

  5. Savage Librarian says:

    As they say, follow the money. And money usually leads to animals (including humans), plants, or minerals. In Afghanistan it seems to be all about the minerals. We wouldn’t have the lifestyles we so depend upon without the minerals. No transportation, cell phones, and computers without minerals.

    Afghanistan’s development from an ancient shift in plate tectonics has made it uniquely valuable due to its wealth of minerals. Trump certainly knows this. I think that might also be why he wants exploration of the moon and Mars.

    In any event, it seems probable that we will continue to be in Afghanistan and pretend it is for reasons other than what it is really for.

    “Mining in Afghanistan” – Wikipedia

    “Afghanistan has large untapped energy and mineral resources, which have great potential to contribute to the country’s economic development and growth. The major mineral resources include chromium, copper, gold, iron ore, lead and zinc, lithium, marble, precious and semiprecious stones, sulfur and talc among many other minerals. The energy resources consist of natural gas and petroleum. The government was working to introduce new mineral and hydrocarbon laws that would meet international standards of governance.”
    “In 2001, the September 11 attacks in New York led to the United States invasion of Afghanistan. According to Mark Lander and James Risen, in 2007 U.S government sent geologists to explore the mining potential in Afghanistan. Using old Soviet maps of mining locations, America created a more precise map of mineral locations. President Trump has agreed to remain in Afghanistan to help mine for minerals because he believes it will be a “win-win” for both countries.”

  6. posaune says:

    Completely totally OT:
    Congratulations, Jim, on the arrival of beautiful baby grand daughter!
    Very happy for all of you!

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