Did U.S. Special Forces Commit Atrocities in a Key Afghan Province?

The Karzai government has decreed that the American commandos cease operations in Wardak. But it isn’t quite clear what exactly happened there—and who is being accused.

  • Share
  • Read Later
John Wendle for TIME

Elders and villagers from Maidan Shahr, Nerkh, Jalrez and Chak districts rallied at the Wardak provincial governor's offices in support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decree banning U.S. Special Forces from the province in Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan on Feb. 26, 2013.

A cold wind blew through the bomb-shattered windows of the provincial governor’s offices, wetting with snow the woolen shawls and eyelashes of the men packed into the meeting room. Around 200 elders from some of the most embattled districts of Afghanistan‘s strategic Wardak Province had gathered there to show their support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai‘s decree earlier this week that NATO Special Forces must halt operations in the province.

Tightly wedged into the snowy room, they shouted chants against the U.S. Special Forces. In the center of the villagers a young man carried pictures of a university student recently found dead under a bridge in the province and of nine men who had disappeared–and whom they believe were unjustly detained by the commandos. The anger and frustration was palpable–but less obvious were details on the implementation of Karzai’s order, and exactly which units were being accused of the abuses and what had specifically happened to the men in the pictures.

What is known, through all of the confusion, is that Kabul has put yet another NATO commanding general on his back foot, that the move–if implemented—could jeopardize security in nearby Kabul, that Afghans are sharply divided on the value of the Special Forces, and that the decree brings into question America’s strategic plans for counterterrorism operations here after conventional troops leave by the end of 2014.

Although the recent death of the student and the disappearance of the nine men finally triggered the Karzai government to act, Afghans in the province have lodged numerous complaints in the past. “We have received more than 500 complaints from people, by telephone and by people coming in to the provincial governor’s office,” Mohammed Rafiq Wardak, head of the Provincial Council, tells TIME.

(PHOTOS: War/Photography by Geoff Dyer)

In a statement from Karzai’s National Security Council, the government said that, “It became clear that armed individuals named as U.S. 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 laterunder a bridge. However, Americans reject having conducted any such operation and any involvement of their special force.”

The council stated that the Ministry of Defense would be responsible for ensuring that U.S. Special Forces are “out of the province within two weeks,” that Afghan forces would be responsible for “effectively stopping and bringing to justice any groups that enter peoples’ homes in the name of Special Forces” and that NATO would have to stop all its Special Forces operations in Wardak immediately.

In a hurriedly convened press conference after the meeting, government spokesman Aimal Faizi clarified that it was not specifically US Special Forces, saying that, “There are some individuals, some Afghans, who are working within these cells, within these [U.S.] Special Forces groups” in Wardak province. “But they are part of U.S. special forces according to our sources and according to our local officials working in the province,” he said.

The U.S. and NATO have denied any wrongdoing. NATO officials on Monday said they had found “no evidence connecting U.S. troops to allegations of abuse, torture, harassment and murder of innocent Afghans in the region,” while on Tuesday Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said that a joint commission made up of Afghan and NATO officials would be formed to review Kabul’s accusations.

(MOREAfghanistan: US Special Forces Must Leave Province)

“It is very difficult to get beyond the level of rumor on this stuff. There’s enough smoke so that it looks like there certainly must be some fire. But the U.S. government has been anything but forthcoming,” says Heather Barr, Afghanistan Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “What the government seems to be alleging is that these are forces under U.S. government control. The Afghan government seems to think that they are under the Special Operations Command,” says Barr. “So, it’s very difficult to untangle, but this is certainly not the first time that there’s been evidence that these kinds of forces are operating. Forces that are, in a sense, vigilante forces assembled by the U.S. And since there is so little transparency it is very difficult to know even which part of the U.S. government would be involved: whether these are a child of special operations forces, or whether potentially there is a situation where they are operating without the knowledge of the U.S. military and are supported by the CIA, for example.”

And the shadowy nature of the situation may only be a herald of more to come. “It’s pretty much inevitable that, as we move towards the 2014 deadline and the drawdown of conventional forces, rather than actually seeing a disengagement from Afghanistan by the international military forces, by the U.S. military, what we are actually going to see is the conflict here sort of change from being a conventional conflict to being an unconventional conflict,” says Barr. “Meaning that the U.S. will be replacing their soldiers with drones, CIA and contractors. What all of this adds up to, obviously, is a serious drop off in transparency and accountability. And this [incident] is kind of an example of that. Is this group really operating? Was it set up by the U.S. government? Was it funded by the U.S. government? If so, is it under military control? It’s very, very hard to imagine that were really going to get clear answers to those questions. And that may well be part of a situation of a total lack of transparency that seems likely to come up more and more in the years ahead.”

The decree may shed light on the government’s stance toward future counterterrorism operations on its territory after 2014, but with so many uncertainties remaining, the order may prove to be an instance of Karzai forcing General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, into a weaker role, rather than any indication of a future path. “The style in which Karzai has decided to deal with the issue, which has taken the form of a public shaming of NATO, fits in with the way that that relationship has been going in the last year or two. But I don’t think that that is necessarily a reason to discount the possibility that this violence really has happened,” says Barr.

Afghans, too, are worried about the situation – though for different reasons, reasons that could have an impact on security in Kabul, come the summer fighting season. In an upstairs room of the provincial governor’s offices, elders had gathered from Chak, one of the embattled districts who had mobilized to support Karzai’s decree. Holding forth over the rest of the elders, Senator Samir Shirzada, had a warning for NATO. “The Special Forces in Chak district are causing a lot of insecurity. They are causing problems for the people. In the winter there is no insurgency in our area. The insurgents go back to Pakistan or Iran or wherever they come from. But the Special Forces in the winter still arrest people,” says Shirzada. “They cause problems for the families and so the young men go and join the insurgency. Because the Special Forces disturb the people, this causes the people to join the insurgency. They are killing people, they are arresting people, and so the family members get angry and they go and join the insurgents.”

(MORE: NATO Kills Insurgent Behind U.S. Soldier’s Death)

Yet some Afghans disagree with Karzai’s decree and with Senator Shirzada’s analysis. “Most of the time when we work together with the Special Forces, we do not arrest anyone without evidence, without any reports,” says Lt. Mashouq of the Afghan National Army, who, like many Afghans goes by only one name. “Most of the time, people make problems for themselves by keeping in touch with insurgents, and then, when we arrest them, they say they are innocent. I think the presence of Special Forces is very important for us in Wardak because the Afghan army and other Afghan security forces are not that well equipped. If the Special Forces leave the province tomorrow, Nerkh, where I am right now, will fall the next day to the Taliban. We need the support of the Special Forces in Wardak,” says Lt. Mashouq.

If Lt. Mashouq’s analysis proves correct, Kabul could be in trouble. “First, Wardak is only 25 km from Kabul. If there is security in Wardak, then there will be security in Kabul. If Wardak is not secure, then Kabul will not be secure. Secondly, parts of Wardak province are very mountainous and there are many infiltration routes for insurgents to use and there are no Afghan army or police in these places. The Taliban are in power in many of these areas, so it would be easy for insurgents to attack Kabul.” With Afghan forces spread thin and special operations forces possibly on their way out, Kabul could be more threatened than it has been in more than a year.

In the end, regardless of who has been carrying out these attacks, the people of Wardak feel a lack of justice. In the jostling crowd one man reaches out to us and tells us that he too has lost family. In a quiet office upstairs with plastic sheets flapping in the place of windows, Sher Mohammed tells us that his 23-year-old son, Sayeed Mohammad, was riding his motorcycle home after visiting relatives in Nerkh, when he was taken from the road in broad daylight. He has been missing for three months.

“I have been to every prison, to every lockup, asking about him. No one has any information. No one can help me,” says Sher Mohammad. “If he was guilty, he should be in prison – I’m not trying to get him out if he is guilty. But just tell me where he is. If he is not guilty and he is missing, the security forces are responsible. They should give me his dead body or tell me where he is, if he is alive.” Before tears welled in his old man’s eyes and he choked up and could not speak any further, he adds, “For three months I have been looking for my son. There is no justice.”

MORE: Light Footprint Becomes No Footprint