(New York) – The Afghan government and US military should investigate reports that Afghan special forces summarily executed civilians in Kandahar province during military operations from January 31 to February 1, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. Security personnel found to be responsible for abuses, including failing to report possible war crimes, should be held accountable.
On the evening of January 31, the Special Forces Unit of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) backed by US airstrikes began an offensive against Taliban insurgents in the Band-e Timor area of Maiwand district and the Reg area of Panjwai district, according to official reports. Local residents told Human Rights Watch by phone that Afghan security forces opened fire on men as they attempted to flee, killing about 50 Taliban fighters and at least 20 civilians. One witness said, “when the airplanes came we fled. But as the people were running away the forces were shooting them.” Security force personnel allegedly dragged some men from their homes and then shot them. The NDS reported that 38 men were detained following the operation.
“The alleged deaths of at least twenty civilians in Band-e Timor demands a prompt and impartial investigation,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher. “Summarily executing people in custody, whether they are fighters or civilians, is a war crime. Only a full investigation can uncover all who may be responsible.”
Unlawful killings at Band-e Timor, a long-time Taliban stronghold located on a strategic transportation route, may have been in retaliation for recent Taliban atrocities. In a speech to the nation, President Ashraf Ghani said that in response to the two recent attacks on civilians in Kabul, the government had already begun operations against Taliban bases. “Afghans will take their revenge, even if it takes 100 years,” he said. He praised the operation in Band-e Timor as “more successful” and said, “it will continue.”
The head of the operation was the police chief of Maiwand, Lt. Col. Sultan Mohammad, who reports to Gen. Abdul Raziq, the head of the Kandahar police, who has been accused of systematic human rights violations.
In its February 2018 report, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted that search operations involving NDS Special Forces, either alone or alongside international forces, caused 61 civilian deaths and 25 injuries in 2017. In one case, NDS Special Forces in Nangarhar entered a home and shot dead seven civilian men inside. In another operation in Kandahar, NDS Special Forces shot dead three men and a boy and injured seven others by firing inside a house. UNAMA found that “these forces appear to operate outside of the regular NDS chain of command, resulting in a lack of clear oversight and accountability given the absence of clearly defined jurisdiction for the investigation of any allegations against them.”
Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Afghanistan, the government has an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes by its forces and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Foreign forces taking part in the operation also need to conduct an investigation. Commanders who knew or should have known about crimes committed by their subordinates but took no action can be held criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.
“The Afghan government’s failure to investigate past possible crimes by Kandahar’s security forces makes an investigation of this incident all the more important,” Gossman said. “Unlawful killings won’t stop unless there is real accountability.”