Fear and loathing in Afghanistan

US Special Forces were meant to bring stability to Maidan Wardak. But a recent string of atrocities - and now a murderous assault by a disgruntled local police officer - reveal a province in crisis as their mission nears its end

Maidan Shahr

Sayeed Agha woke just before 4am to pray. In the moonlight, he opened the door of his home and began to walk down the dirt road to his village mosque, passing the apple orchards that his province, Maidan Wardak, is famous for.

As he neared the mosque, he says he was stopped by a group of men in what he described as US military uniforms. “What are you doing here?” they asked him.

“I told them that I wanted to go to the mosque and pray. So I kept walking and went into the mosque. Then they shouted at me again. They told me to come out,” said 45-year-old Mr Agha. “They all had long beards, and the guy speaking Pashto had a red beard. They were dressed like foreign soldiers.”

They called to him again, telling him to come out. When he refused, he says the men began beating him. The “soldiers” handcuffed him and put him on the back of a four-wheeler, a kind of motorcycle only used by foreign military forces in Afghanistan. There were nine other prisoners with them, Mr Agha said.

“They were beating me and I was telling them that I am just a worker at the mayor’s office,” he said.

Eventually, they took him to a foreign military base near Nerkh, one of four highly unstable districts in Maidan Wardak. It is a province seen as a coveted strategic prize because of it sits just south-west of the capital, Kabul, and is known to be used by the Taliban as a staging ground for attacks on the city.

Mr Agha’s seemingly arbitrary detention (he was released the next afternoon) is an everyday story in today’s Afghanistan. But in Maidan Wardak, the tensions between local people, foreign forces, and particularly the Afghans who work for those forces, have reached boiling point.

The latest example came on Monday, when two US special forces soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan police officer in Maidan Wardak’s restive Jalrez district. Two Afghan policemen were also killed and four others wounded before the shooter was gunned down, according to the provincial deputy police chief Abdul Razaq Koraishi. Other sources said that as many as five Afghan soldiers and police were killed in the attack.

Some “green-on-blue” attacks – the term used when Afghan security forces turn their guns on their Nato counterparts – are blamed on Taliban infiltration, but many others are the result of local anger directed at foreign forces and those who work with them.

Two weeks earlier, the Afghan President Hamid Karzai had ordered US special forces to leave Maidan Wardak within a fortnight, after hundreds of complaints from locals accusing them and their Afghan allies of taking part in assaults, disappearances and killings. Monday’s attack came less than a day after Mr Karzai’s deadline passed.

Announcing the move on 24 February, the President’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, accused US special forces in the area of abetting “insecurity and instability”. A statement posted on the President’s website said the decision was taken after “it became clear that armed individuals named as US special forces stationed in Maidan Wardak province engage in harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people.”

It went on to highlight specific examples. One involved an incident in which it claimed that nine people had “disappeared”. In another, separate incident, “a student was taken away at night from his home. His tortured body with throat cut was found two days later,” it said.

However, little else is known about specific allegations levelled at US special forces, and the Afghan people who work with them.

“It is very difficult to get beyond the level of rumour on this,” said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Some observers have suggested that the Afghans allegedly involved could be from militia groups unrelated to the US forces. But it seems Mr Karzai believes there is enough evidence to justify the demand that US special forces leave the area.

“There’s enough smoke so that it looks like there certainly must be some fire,” said Ms Barr. “This is 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 US.”

Much of the work done by American Special Operations forces in Afghanistan is classified. Ms Barr says this lack of transparency makes it difficult to know whether such groups “are a child of Special Operations forces, or whether they are operating without the knowledge of the US military and are supported by the CIA, for example”.

Both the US military and CIA are believed to have organised and trained clandestine militias since the US-led invasion in 2001, whose operations are not declared to the Afghan government. Mr Faizi said it was time foreign forces handed over control of “parallel structures” to the government.

With the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan looming, most conventional Nato forces in eastern Afghanistan have now taken on purely advisory roles, while special forces are increasingly taking on offensive operations.

“It’s pretty much inevitable that, as we move towards the 2014 deadline and the drawdown of conventional forces what we are actually going to see is the conflict here change to an unconventional conflict, meaning that the US will be replacing their soldiers with drones, CIA and contractors,” said Ms Barr.

In his statement, Mr Faizi said the security situation in Maidan Wardak had not improved in years, despite the involvement of US special forces in operations to kill or capture high-ranking Taliban insurgents.

“Those operations have failed to reduce the violence”, he said.

US officials have denied the allegations its elite units have been involved in the torture and disappearance of Afghan civilians. In response to the ban, they have also said they are working with their Afghan counterparts on finding a solution that will answer Mr Karzai’s concerns, while maintaining security in Maidan Wardak. There appear to be no moves to heed the ban.

But Mr Karzai’s actions have certainly shown that the Afghan government is now willing to take a harder line against abuses linked to foreign troops than previously. It also highlights the deep distrust of international forces in Afghanistan, and reflects the sentiment that it is not only the insurgents who stoke the violence that plagues the country.

For the Afghans on the ground, the situation has become increasingly complex and divisive.

Senator Samir Shirzada held the floor amongst other elders who had come from Chak District to gather in an upstairs room of the Wardak provincial governor’s offices to support the decree against the US special forces. The room is still windowless after a bombing in November killed three and wounded around 90.

Mr Shirzada had come with a warning. “Right now, there is no such thing as militias. But when the Special Forces carry out raids in the winter it makes it more likely that people will join the insurgents. This makes it more likely that when the insurgents return in the spring or summer that they will have more support among the people. And if the special forces do not leave this province, next summer all of the province will fall into the hands of the Taliban.”

Not all Afghans agree – especially those in the Afghan National Army. “If tomorrow the special forces leave the province, the next day, where I am right now in Nerkh district, this place will fall to the Taliban. We need the support of the special forces in Wardak,” said Lt Mashouq, an officer in the Afghan National Army.

Besides the villagers’ feelings of anger, helplessness and lack of justice at crimes committed against civilians by shadowy forces is the fact that Kabul is only 25km from Wardak by road. The people know that instability here could spill over into the capital, destabilising a period of relative peace – a major setback for the international forces, the Afghan government and people.

“If there is security in Wardak, there is security in Kabul,” said Mohammed Rafiq Wardak, head of the provincial council. “If Wardak is not secure, then Kabul will not be secure.”

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