While the Afghan peace process has been stalled and the US forces have been busy dropping more bombs on the Afghanistan than any other time in the last one decade or so of the Afghan war, the story of gross human rights violations and even potential war crimes, too, continues to unfold in the country. With more civilian and unarmed innocent people dying at the hands of the US and Afghan forces, including the CIA-trained, funded and backed paramilitary militias, the question of which side actually follows barbaric methods has gained an unusual significance. According to the UNO, only during the first half of 2019, the US and Afghan forces killed more civilians than the Taliban or ISIS, known as IS-K in Afghanistan, did. This figure does not include the number of innocent people who die due to heavy bombing in isolated areas of Afghanistan, where documenting these deaths is almost impossible.
Ever since the so-called ‘reduction’ of US forces from Afghanistan–a sugar-coated pill that the US policy makers fed their public with—the US war strategy has put on a much secretive and a lot less accountable veil. The organisation of the US and Afghan elite units that mainly operate in Afghanistan tell the story of how the war is being fought. For one thing, there is little to nothing that people generally know about them. There is no clear information available about how many Afghans and Americans belong to them, how members are recruited, what their budget is, how their hierarchy functions, or if they are subject to oversight. These groups have been organised regionally: Zero-One in central Afghanistan, Zero-Two in the east, Zero-Three in the south, and Zero-Four in the north.
While these groups, as Afghan officials themselves claim, have been effective in killing both the Taliban and ISIS fighters, they also frequently engage in extra-judicial killings. Significantly enough, these groups operate solely under the command of the CIA and are answerable not to the Afghan authorities or the Afghan military forces but to the CIA. Therefore, what they do and how they do must directly be attributed to the CIA.
Thus the story of their activity, as recently documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) not only reveals their atrocities but also brings to light the ugly face of the Afghan war after the so-called ‘withdrawal’ of a huge bulk of US forces first under the Obama administration and then the Trump administration.
This withdrawal has only led the CIA to not only expand its role but also turn itself into a rather independent actor in Afghanistan. Therefore, as many reports even in the main stream western media have reported, these operations are not “military operations” and it is not clear if laws governing military operations can apply to these militias.
Perhaps, they don’t and that explains the impunity with which these groups operate and shoot people summarily or disappear them for a long time. The said HRW report has documented at least 14 cases from 2017 to 2019 which clearly show the trail of abuse and anger that these ‘special operations forces’ leave behind.
However, while these operations are not technically “military operations”, a US policy shift in 2017 created a provision for these groups to call in air-strikes as and when needed, thereby implying that these operation still had US military’s blessings and aren’t just an exclusive affair of the CIA. The “zero” groups, according the 2017-policy, can call for air strike even without the US forces present on the ground alongside them to identify targets.
According to HRW report, this change of policy and discretion given to the militias has “meant that airstrikes are hitting more residential buildings, while a decreased US ground presence and a reliance on local Afghan intelligence sources has meant there is less information available about the possible presence of civilians in those buildings.”
According, the report claims, “in many of the night raids that Human Rights Watch investigated, Afghan paramilitary forces seem to have unlawfully targeted civilians because of mistaken identity, poor intelligence, or political rivalries in the locality”; hence, an increasing number of the loss of innocent lives at their hands, explaining why the Taliban continue to receive support from the public. As it stands, in many of the cases the New York Times had investigated back in 2018, one of the primary reasons behind “night raids” and disappearance and killing of people by them was their support for the Taliban, which was often confined to just providing food and shelter out of fear.
The militias’ inability to wean people away from the Taliban explains why these groups engage in what the HRW report calls “willful violation of the law” and unjustifiable use of force.
As is evident, the long trail of abuse that these operations leave behind will never let the US win the war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, a deliberate policy followed by the highest US officials, including the president, continues to encourage these acts through a systematic blockade of any attempts at war crimes investigation. In 2018, when the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested an investigation of possible war crimes by the US forces in Afghanistan, including abuses by the CIA, the US State Department bullied the ICC into silence by revoking the chief prosecutor’s visa and threatening the court with sanctions, thus unwittingly posing serious questions about the sincerity of usual US concerns and claims about human rights and liberty. Obviously, these concerns don’t apply to the US-occupied and CIA-managed Afghanistan.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.