Secret Afghan death squads are acting on the orders of foreign spies and killing civilians inside Afghanistan with impunity, a senior UN envoy has claimed. Professor Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on illegal killings, said "foreign intelligence agencies" had used illegal groups of heavily armed Afghans in raids against suspected insurgents.
He said the attacks were beyond the legitimate military chains of command, and they were "completely unacceptable" and "outside the law".
At the end of a 12-day fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, Professor Alston said: "There have been a large number of raids for which no state or military appears to take responsibility. I have spoken with a large number of people in relation to the operation of foreign intelligence units. I don't want to name them but they are at the most senior level of the relevant places. These forces operate with what appears to be impunity."
Professor Alston said he knew of at least three recent raids. In one, two brothers were killed by troops operating out of an American Special Forces base in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. Afghan government officials admitted neither was linked to the Taliban, but no army has claimed responsibility for the raid.
Another group, known as Shaheen, operates out of Nangahar, in eastern Afghanistan, where US forces are in charge, Professor Alston said. "Essentially, they are companies of Afghans but with a handful, at most, of international people directing them. I'm not aware that they fall under any command."
In Helmand, where most of Britain's 7,800 troops are based, Special Forces were accused of slitting a man's throat in a botched night raid last year. Security sources now claim the operation was mounted by a secret spy unit.
In a preliminary report, Professor Alston added: "It is absolutely unacceptable for heavily armed internationals accompanied by heavily armed Afghan forces to be wandering around conducting dangerous raids that too often result in killings without anyone taking responsibility for them."
He refused to name the spies behind the secret units, or their nationality, but most of the provinces he identified where these raids have been mounted fall under American command. He also refused to rule out the possibility that raids may have been made in Helmand, where British troops are in command.
A Western official close to the investigation said the secret units are still known as Campaign Forces, from the time when American Special Forces and CIA spies recruited Afghan troops to help overthrow the Taliban during the US-led invasion in 2001. "The brightest, smartest guys in these militias were kept on," the official said. "They were trained and rearmed and they are still being used."
A British embassy spokesman in Kabul said UK officials were "examining the independent expert's report closely". But they refused to comment on whether MI6 was involved.
Professor Alston accused the international community, the Afghan government and the insurgents of "gratuitous civilian killing". He attacked the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force for not keeping better records of civilian casualties, criticising it for the complex and at times deliberately "opaque" processes that stop victims' relatives finding who raided their house or bombed their village.
"The level of complacency in response to these killings is staggeringly high," he said. "They [international military forces] have not taken the steps which are necessary, at the political level, to ensure a degree of transparency and accountability."
He said Nato commanders he met kept records only for the duration of their tour, in some cases just four months. Isaf officials rejected the report's claims, insisting they are as accountable as they can be "in a very complex situation".
Afghan police also faced strong criticism for killing civilians, and Professor Alston criticised the impunity afforded the "wealthy and the powerful" by the endemic corruption in Afghanistan's legal system. His full report is due out by autumn.