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Afghanistan’s U.S.-Funded Torturers and Murderers

The United States continues to fund and support a network of abusive Afghan strongmen in the name of security. It's time to stop.

Published in: Foreign Policy

In October 2013, police in Kandahar — the Afghan province that is the birthplace of the Taliban and home to some of the fiercest fighting in the war — picked up “Tariq” for alleged ties to the insurgents. Whether those allegations were true will remain unknown. Tariq, whose name has been changed for security purposes, died in custody days later from wounds inflicted on his skull with an electrical drill. His case is not unique. Over the past two years, dozens of Kandahari residents have been tortured to death by the province’s police — one of a range of forces in Afghanistan that the United States supports and equips.

As the Obama administration continues its ongoing troop withdrawal, one area of support remains steadfast: material, training, and billions of dollars in financial assistance to Afghanistan’s security infrastructure. Local officials and their U.S. mentors have tasked these forces — which include police units, intelligence services, and the paramilitary Afghan Local Police (ALP), among others — with rooting out the Taliban insurgency. But these groups, who are often led by or linked to former warlords, have also exhibited a pattern of violence for which Afghan victims have obtained no official redress.

Afghan women wait to receive winter relief assistance donated by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in the outskirts of Kabul on February 3, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented systematic, gross human rights violations by some of these forces that has included numerous cases of torture, extrajudicial executions of civilians, and forced disappearance of detainees. The findings raise concerns about Afghan government and U.S. efforts to arm, train, vet, and hold accountable the country’s security apparatus — run by a network of strongmen, many of whom attained official authority as allies of the United States in the fight against the Taliban.

The ALP, a local security force established in 2010 to work alongside the police, has been particularly destructive. In many parts of Afghanistan, governors or members of parliament run their own militias under the banner of ALP, using the pretext of fighting insurgents to terrorize the local population. In Paktika province in the country’s southeast, for example, HRW documented the case of ALP commander Azizullah, who only goes by one name, who detained and tortured a teacher for 11 days in the summer of 2012. “You must tell us that you are Taliban, that you have weapons,” Azizullah’s men told the teacher. “It is very easy for us to kill you.” Azizullah has worked closely with U.S. Special Forces, accompanying them on patrols and raids. Although the United Nations, according to information provided to Human Rights Watch, documented nine separate incidents of abuses by Azizullah’s forces from 2008 through early 2010, he has never been investigated by the Afghan authorities, let alone prosecuted.

Abdul Hakim Shujoyi, a militia leader in central Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, became an ALP commander in 2011 at the insistence of U.S. forces. He personally murdered civilians, including a rampage in July 2011 when he shot dead 7 villagers and set fire to their crops. After a further attack in which he killed at least 9 civilians in 2012, the Ministry of Interior issued a warrant for his arrest. Nevertheless, he remains at large, apparently protected by senior government officials.

While these examples are among the most notorious, they typify an abusive state security apparatus. Corruption and abuse have crippled efforts to build rights-respecting judicial and security institutions in Afghanistan. Instead, with the backing of the United States and other international supporters, Kabul has empowered rather than apprehended them.

Meanwhile these abuses, and the ongoing impunity for the warlords that perpetrate them, have fueled local support for the Taliban — undermining the justification for the forces’ international support. Afghanistan’s foreign allies appear oblivious to that peril. When Human Rights Watch raised this in mid-February with a European diplomat, he shrugged: “But we need these guys. To carry out our projects, they’re the only ones with the power.”

In a sense, the diplomat was right: It will not be easy to confront foreign-bankrolled strongmen who have had years to consolidate their power. They have had the behind-the-scenes backing of powerful figures, inside and outside of the Afghan government. And for many years, the United States has deemed them essential to the fight against the Taliban. Under then President Hamid Karzai, the Afghan government failed to bring these individuals and their forces to justice. Now President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in Sept. 2014, has pledged to hold security forces accountable for their actions, and end official tolerance for torture. Ghani will need not only the full support of Afghanistan’s international donors, but more importantly, their pressure to convince his administration to deliver on that politically sensitive promise.

To that end, the Obama administration should fully implement the often-ignored Leahy Law, which prohibits military assistance to any foreign unit implicated in gross human rights violations. The Leahy Law offers the United States a powerful tool to help curb human rights violations by foreign forces bankrolled by U.S. taxpayers.

The United States, as well as Afghanistan’s other international donors, should also ensure that direct assistance to Afghan security forces is benchmarked to improvements in justice mechanisms, such as prosecuting those responsible for torture and extrajudicial killings. Kabul and its supporters should recognize that the official backing of corrupt security personnel inflames insecurity. Without reform, it won’t simply be insurgents, but people like Tariq who pay the price for abusive and unaccountable forces.

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