On the night of 11 and 12 August, what seems to have been a mixed US-Afghan commando raided several homes in Kulalgo, a large village in Zurmat district, Paktia. Eleven people were killed, civilians who had nothing to do with the insurgency, according to family members and local elders. They were ‘Taleban’ according to official sources. After protests and petitions, the authorities have said they are investigating the killings. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and several AAN colleagues have spoken to relatives, elders, officials and other sources in the area and compiled the following picture of what could amount to a new war crime committed by units effectively led by US military forces, probably the CIA (with input from Kate Clark and Sayed Asadullah Sadat).Gathering in Kolalgo, Paktia in protest against a night raid that killed 11 civilians in that village in the night of 11-12 August 2019. Photo: private.
The shop Rahatullah, Nasratullah and Hekmatullah were running in Ghazni city’s bazaar will not open after Eid-e Qurban, the Islamic festival that ended on 13 August. Nor ever. In the early morning hours of 12 August 2019, the three brothers were shot dead during a ‘night raid’, a type of commando operation that Pashto speakers call tsapa and Persian speakers chapa. The three were the only sons of their elderly father, Abdullah. The eldest son, Rahatullah, had married just a few months ago and leaves behind a pregnant wife.
The brothers were from neighbouring Zurmat district in Paktia province. Accordingly, they had named their shop, that sold water pumps and other irrigation equipment, Furushgah-e Zurmat – Zurmat Store. They had closed it for the three-day festival, during which family members working or studying elsewhere return to their families, sacrifice an animal, mostly a sheep or a cow, have dinner together on one day and with friends on another. The brothers operated the shop together; Nasratullah was simultaneously studying at Ghazni University to become a teacher, while Hekmatullah was a teacher at a high school in their home village of Kulalgo.
Furushgah-e Zurmat, the shop of the killed brothers Rahatullah, Hekmatullah and Nasratullah in Ghazni city. Photo: private.
The killing of the three brothers was part of a larger operation during which, according to AAN enquiries in the area, 11 civilians, altogether, were shot dead. (1) The operation covered various parts of Kulalgo village which is a cluster of hamlets with large, fortified compounds, so-called qalas, within which are separate homes of close family members.
- Ustad Shafiullah, son of Dr Ulfatullah (25) physics teacher at Kulalgo High School and owner of a pharmacy in Kulalgo; he was going to get married after Eid
- Ansarullah Waqas, son of Qudratullah (19) second year student at Paktia University, Gardez; married with a small daughter
- Hayatullah, son of Muhammad Mokhtar (25) employee of the Ministry of Education in Kabul (also teaching at a private school in Kabul), unmarried
- Qari En’amullah, son of Dr Ulfatullah (19) who had learned to recite the Quran (therefore his title); he was helping his father at his local pharmacy; unmarried
- Rahatullah, son of Abdullah (26) shopkeeper; he was just recently married and leaves behind a pregnant wife
- Nasratullah, son of Abdullah (22) shopkeeper in Ghazni and simultaneously studying at the city’s university
- Hekmatullah, son of Abdullah (24) shopkeeper in Ghazni and teacher at Daulatzai High School, Zurmat
- Akhtar Muhammad, son of Azizullah (20) shopkeeper in the Bagrami area of Kabul; from Suri village (Zurmat); brother of the director of the district’s Daulatzai High School;
- Fathullah, son of Juma Muhammad (‘Patol’) (35) farmer; he leaves behind several small children
- Feda Muhammad, son of Muhammad Yosuf (38) farmer; he was engaged and had planned his wedding for after Eid
- Nasrullah, son of Durdak (38) farmer (2)
(Find photos of most of the victims at the end of this dispatch.)
The brothers Rahatullah, Nasratullah and Hekmatullah were killed, together with the young Akhtar Muhammad who was known as ‘disco boy’ as he was fond of stylish haircuts, in their father’s place, called Porta Qala (the Upper Fort). They had eaten dinner together earlier at Akhtar Muhammad’s home in the village of Suri, some four kilometres away, and then walked to the brothers’ home at around 10pm.
Four more men, all cousins – Shafiullah, Ansarullah, Hayatullah and Enamullah – were shot dead at their grandfather’s house, De Khanano Qala (the Khans’ Qala). Shafiullah and Enamullah were brothers; they and Ansarullah lived in Kulalgo. Hayatullah had come to visit. According to family members, the men had come together for dinner and then gone to bed. When taken out by the soldiers, two together were put in two separate rooms and shot. Another, younger brother of Ansarullah and Hayatullah, Ikramullah, who is 16 or 17 years of age, was rescued by his sister. She threw herself on top of him and stopped the soldiers taking him out.
The farmer, Feda Muhammad, was killed in his home in Zur Kelay (the Old Village, also called Zur Kulalgo, or Old Kulalgo).
The other two farmers, Fathullah and Nasrullah, were killed at their home in Sha Qala (the Rear Fort).
These different locations are not close to each other. Some lie a few kilometres apart. There were no reports of resistance from those killed or anyone else in Kulalgo that night.
Eight of the victims belonged to one ‘tribe’, locally called ‘Tajiks’ by some, ‘Dehgan’ by others but, according to one of their leaders, they are formerly Farsi-speaking Mohsenkhel Pashtuns who had relocated from Ghor province some generations ago. These were the three shopkeeper brothers and their guest and the four cousins staying at their grandfather’s house. The four cousins were from the extended family of a well-known local tribal elder; they were the grandsons of two of his brothers. This family is known not to be associated with the Taleban or any other armed opposition group. Indeed, the family patriarch, who died some years ago, was openly critical of the Taleban and had been forced to live out the last years of his life in Kabul. Of the three remaining victims, the farmers Fathullah and Nasrullah were Khodayarkhel Pashtuns and Feda Muhammad a Sayed.
How did the raid unfold?
AAN has talked with several eyewitnesses, local community elders and officials, as well as family members of those killed who had spoken to relatives present at the scene. We spoke to some of these interviewees repeatedly to properly understand what had happened. Their statements and several reports in Afghan media and social media have contributed to the following picture of the operation.
The commando raid started at around 10.30pm on 11 August, the first day of Eid, and lasted until about 3am. According to the interviewees, the commando’s fighters were dropped by at least two helicopters at three different locations around Kulalgo. There were possibly other aircraft in the area. The commandos split up into groups of five to six people, each led by an ‘American soldier’, and went to several different qalas, including the ones indicated above. Each qala consists of a large, walled compound with several homes and other buildings inside. Altogether, they searched more than 15 houses. There were no victims in some of the searched compounds.
At the various homes inside the compounds, the commandos knocked at the doors and asked males to present their ID cards. In Porta Qala, the attackers blew up the front gate, setting ablaze vehicles and motorbikes parked inside the compound. One AAN source said the attack started with an air attack which could explain the ferocity of the explosion at the gate.
When the residents complied – there was no resistance – some were asked to come out of the rooms they were staying in. They were then separated from other family members and taken to separate rooms and later shot dead. No one saw who exactly did the shooting, but multiple family members said their relatives were shot in the eyes or the mouth.
The same modus operandi – asking for IDs, then separating some of the men out and shooting them – was used by the commandos in the other places raided.
One eyewitness quoted by an Afghan media outlet said, the attackers “read their [victims’] names from a tool [possibly an electronic device] and then asked for their IDs and after some delay and when they check[ed] their IDs… shoot [sic] them.” Some of AAN’s sources also described names being checked off a list. But one source came to the conclusion this name checking was a “pretence” and the killing was actually random, as some men initially called out were rescued by female family members protecting them either with their bodies or by holding Qurans in front of their brothers or sons.
Many details, including that the victims were civilians and that it was a US-Afghan operation, were also reported by Afghan media reports, which quickly picked up the case. They also reported an initial denial by the National Directorate for Security (NDS), the country’s main intelligence service, that civilians had been killed. The Pajhwok news agency quoted “residents” that “at least 11 civilians(…) from two families” were killed in a “foreign and Afghan forces operation.” It also quoted a local resident, Haji Qahir, saying that four members of his family had been killed in the operation. He told the news agency that some of those killed “were students who came to home on Eid holidays and some were teachers. My cousin who was an employee in the education sector was among the dead.” Pajhwok also quoted a “reliable source in the Police Headquarters” (not clear whether in the district or the province) saying those killed had been civilians. Reuters quoted Allah Mir Khan Bahramzoi, a provincial council member in Paktia, as also confirming the killings of civilians:
A university student had invited his classmates for dinner. Late in the evening, security forces surrounded the house, brought out the victims from the guesthouse and shot them one by one.
A second raid?
Some sources told AAN there was a second, unsuccessful raid in Zurmat district the same night at a house in a place called Astogena, approximately ten kilometres away from Kulalgo. According to these sources, a group of four Taleban has been present in one of the local madrassas which is frequently used by the local Taleban group of a certain Mullah Qassim. Reportedly, there was resistance to this raid – but the four Taleban managed to slip out. The raiding commandos then, according to our source, burnt a nearby house and may have captured some weapons and ammunition. The NDS statement quoted above contained claims that weapons and ammunition were captured during the reported operation, and this raid might explain why the NDS statement used the plural, “operations.”
Who was behind the raid?
It appears, according to various eyewitnesses, that the unit that carried out the raid – all wearing uniform – was mixed US-Afghan. For example, among the Americans seen during the Kulalgo raid, several eyewitnesses noticed a “tall black” officer who was accompanied by a translator and did the name-checking.
There are two types of force which have a record of carrying out this sort of raid, with people shot dead in their homes: the Khost Protection Force (KPF) which is one of the militias known by Afghans as ‘kampain’ (campaign forces) which answer to a foreign chain of command, in this case the CIA. AAN reported on allegations that it killed six civilians in a similar raid in Zurmat on 30 December (read details here) .The other are the NDS special forces: the 01 unit which operates in the central region, mainly in Wardak and Logar, 02 based in the east, operating mostly in Nangrahar and Kunar, and 03 unit in Kandahar; it is synonymous with the Kandahar Strike Force (AAN background here). NDS officials have told AAN that these units come under effective CIA command and they have no authority over them. This is also the conclusion of reporting by The New York Times, on both the NDS Strike Forces and the Khost Protection Force:
Those fighting forces, also referred to as counterterrorism pursuit teams, are recruited, trained and equipped by C.I.A. agents or contractors who work closely with them on their bases, according to several current and former senior Afghan security officials, and the members are paid nearly three times as much as regular Afghan soldiers.
The Afghan ownership of those two units is only nominal, a liaison relationship in which intelligence headquarters in Kabul has representatives on the mission for coordination. But the required pre-approval for raids is often last-minute, or skipped until afterward, the officials say.
People in the province told AAN they believed the recent raid in Zurmat was carried out by the 01 unit of NDS special forces; they call it the quwa-ye zarbati (strike force). All stressed that, after countless night raids, they are fully familiar with the different types of uniforms worn and able to distinguish between the various forces active in the region. If it was the 01 unit, it would be unusual; 01 usually operates in Wardak and Logar provinces, which are part of the central region, while Paktia belongs to the southeast. However, their base in Logar seems to be the closest to Zurmat district (also, in the eyes of the Afghan military, at least for a time, Logar was also considered southeast). Tolonews also identified the commandos as members of the NDS 01 unit.
Eyewitnesses also said the members of the commando unit were in uniform and “very well-dressed and shaven”, different from the appearance of the main local force which works to a foreign command (the CIA), the Khost Protection Force. Its men also wear uniform but, according to local sources, some members sport long hair and “wild-looking” beards.
One of our sources told AAN that KPF members had also participated in the Kulalgo operation, setting up a “the second ring” of security, ie sealing off the area. Apart from Khost province, the KPF possibly has other bases near Kulalgo, along the road connecting the provincial capital Gardez with Zurmat district centre, Tamir; AAN reported in 2018 that there were new posts of a “strike unit” (quwa-ye zarbati) that, local sources say, works closely ‚ with the Americans’ (possibly the CIA-led Khost Protection Force).“ Kabul-based journalist Stefanie Glinski recently found that the KPF also operates beyond its original home turf, Khost province, including in neighbouring Paktia. Relatives of the civilians killed in Zurmat in December said the KPF fighters had driven to their district from neighbouring Paktika.
Another detail given by eye-witnesses is that they recognised different local dialects among the Afghan members of the commando unit, Urguni (from neighbouring Paktika), Dzadran and Tani (from Khost). Local dialects are very strong and distinctive.
Even more important in determining who was responsible for the raid is the fact that the NDS owned up to it early on. If the NDS’ control over its special forces units is as weak as described above, it is astonishing that it chose to take responsibility for this operation. Yet that is what the Afghan intelligence agency did.
In the morning of 12 August, hours after the raid finished, the intelligence agency posted a tweet claiming “eleven members of the terrorist Taleban group were killed, including two group leaders (sar grup).” The NDS tweet was accompanied by two photos of two apparently dead men with their faces blurred to anonymise them, in civilian clothes and with AK-47s leaning against their bodies. NDS followed up with a somewhat longer press release reported by Jomhor News later the same day, saying that “this directorate’s special forces” had conducted “targeted operations” (amaliat-e hadafmand – plural in the original) in Kulalgo at what it called a “Taleban hideout” in the night of 11 and 12 August. The statement gives the alleged group leaders’ names as “Assadullah and Feda, known as Fedagai” or ‘Little Feda’. (3) Only one of these two names concurs with the lists of victims compiled by AAN and the Afghan media – if the farmer Feda Muhammad was identical with “Feda, known as Fedagai” (more on this below). There is no Assadullah on any of the lists compiled by AAN and the media.
Eye-witnesses also spoke of Americans in uniform being present at the raid. It seems most likely these were CIA (given who the Afghan soldiers were), rather than the US military. (Its spokesman also told AAN during research into the 30 December night raid, also in Zurmat district, that it had not been involved in that operation.)
The local context
Zurmat, a district with an official population of 95,000 (but up to 150,000, according to elders), is ethnically extremely diverse. Although most inhabitants, apart from the ‘Tajiks’ already mentioned, are Pashtuns, there are, according to one local elder, “a thousand tribes” in Zurmat. Most of these tribes and sub-tribes – such as the Daulatzai, Salukhel, Surkhel, Mamozai-Ahmadzai, Andar, Uryakhel and Khodayarkhel – are small and many have long-standing conflicts among each other. The population of Kulalgo itself is mixed with ‘Tajiks’ and several of those Pashtun tribes.
Zurmat is a known Taleban stronghold. During the Taleban regime, it was dubbed ‘Little Kandahar’ as there were many Zurmatis in high-ranking positions in the ‘Emirate’ administration; it represented one of the largest non-Kandahari groups in the movement. Currently, the areas of influence of the Taleban’s three major insurgent sub-groups overlap in the district, the Mansur and Haqqani networks, as well as the ‘Kandahari’ (or Quetta shura) mainstream Taleban. The Mansur network Taleban are said to be the strongest component by far; they are heavily represented in local madrassas and many of their leaders are considered well-educated, not only religiously. They do not allow Haqqani fighters to establish themselves in ‘their’ area. However, a Haqqani commander from Gardez is said to be regularly visiting. Kulalgo, with its strong ‘Tajik’ element, is the least pro-Taleban part of the district, according to elders.
The government’s influence is limited to parts of Tamir, Zurmat’s district town (AAN 2018 election reporting from Zurmat here). For approximately a year, there has been no government presence – civilian or military – in Kulalgo itself. In mid-2018, the local Afghan National Army base was closed and its staff of 40 relocated, as part of the government’s strategy to give up scattered bases and concentrate on securing the district centres.
The withdrawal of the ANA, however, led to an upsurge in Taleban presence in the district. The elder already quoted and several other sources told AAN that the Taleban’s Haqqani network has a hideout in the immediate vicinity, “a couple of hundred metres from the house” of De Khanano Qala where the cousins were killed; that groups of Taleban use local madrassas and mosques as bases; that there is a Taleban office in Kulalgo bazaar, and that weapons and ammunition are sold in the bazaar, some of which – one elder said – had been sold by the soldiers and their officers, and others were brought in and sold “in truck loads” from Waziristan, another said.
What were the reactions?
As an immediate response to the raid, tribal elders gathered and a local youth council demanded the NDS disclose the intelligence upon which it acted. There was also large protest in Kulalgo on 15 August itself (see photo above).
A group of elders and other mutanafezin (people of influence) went to Kabul “to seek justice,” as they said. Those whom AAN spoke to, repeated time and again that “it was not the first time that innocents have been killed.” In Kabul, they linked up with influential Zurmatis living there and set up a committee to decide what action to take. They managed to obtain a meeting with Defence Minister Asadullah Khaled, which took place on 15 August. No Afghan army units seem to have been involved in the operation, but Khaled was deemed possibly sympathetic by the complainants due to his tribal background in nearby Ghazni province. Also, a meeting with NDS chief Muhammad Massum Stanakzai is planned, and President Ghani was reportedly planning to meet parents.
The elders and civil society activists have decided that there will be a “three stage reaction”: meetings with government representatives, press briefings in Gardez and Kabul today (17 August) and – “if the government does not react” – either a protest march from Zurmat to Kabul after Independence Day, which is on 19 August, or blocking the Gardez-Kabul highway. However, Zurmati leaders involved told AAN that, so far, the reactions were “very positive” and “beyond our expectations.” Khaled reportedly expressed his regret about the operation, and was said to have even talked about it as a possible crime.
Before the meeting with Khaled, on 14 August, Afghanistan’s National Security Council had said it had ordered a “thorough investigation” into the killings. It said the government was taking “any incident alleged [sic] of civilian casualties very seriously, those who are responsible must be prosecuted.” An investigation team is already in Paktia, with Khaled also visiting.
The elders also told AAN that the local Taleban authorities had come to Kulalgo on the first day after the killings, 12 August, and urged the families to take the bodies of their relatives to Gardez or Kabul on a protest march, but they had refused. They said they did not want to repeat the experience of earlier cases where relatives had used that form of protest, Taleban had infiltrated the ranks of the mourners and provoked clashes by pelting the police with stones.
Local elders told AAN that, even though they recognise that “some night raids are justified,” they are concerned about their sheer frequency in their area. This is reflected by a statement reported by Tolonews, of Gulab Khan Baz, a tribal elder: “There is no news of reconstruction in Zurmat, but murder is always.”
UNAMA, in its July 2019 mid-year report on the protection of civilians, had found that “civilian casualties from aerial and search operations continued to rise” compared with the same period in 2018 and that of the 218 civilian casualties (159 deaths and 59 injured) [inflicted] as a result of search operations, more than half… were caused by NDS Special Forces” – a 79 per cent increase from the first half of 2018.
AAN’s sources in the area also reported that many young men have left Zurmat, for the cities of Gardez, Ghazni and Kabul and even to Pakistan, because they feel vulnerable. The fact that most of those killed were students and teachers made them believe, as one source said, “that they are trying to killing the educated”.
UNAMA also issued a statement on Twitter on 12 August that it was “gravely concerned by reports indicating 11 civilians killed during Eid by pro-government search operation” and that their human rights team was “monitoring” the situation.
Legal implications: was this potentially a war crime?
The NDS allegation that those killed were Taleban carries little weight. AAN sources, who usually know and are frank about who, locally, is with the Taleban and who not, said the eleven were all civilian. As one elder from nearby Gardez said, “We all know each other, who has been in the Taleban in which position in the past, or is [in the movement] today, and [also] who is against them.” Our sources said that two of those killed had some relation with the Taleban, but only through relatives. Sources said the farmer Feda Muhammad had three younger brothers with the Taleban. One of them, Eidagai (Little Eidi) was an active Taleban group commander in Zurmat. He and the two other brothers had visited Feda on the night of the raid, but had left by the time it started. Feda Muhammad had, reportedly, refused to join the Taleban – and this is why he had the confidence to stay at home. AAN’s local sources assume that the NDS might have confused ‘Eidagai’ and ‘Fedagai’. (4)
Another of those killed, one of the four cousins, Ansarullah, has a brother who used to be with the Taleban. Aziz (nom de guerre Sahar) had been the Taleban’s shadow district governor for Zurmat but quit the movement when his family urged him to sever his links with them between two and three years ago. He now lives in Pakistan.
Whether those killed were combatant or civilian, eye-witness accounts from different locations agree that there was no resistance; the men all came when asked and were separated from other family members and shot dead. Reported injuries also do not suggest a fire-fight in Kulalgo or any threat to the commandos. This means that whether or not those killed were combatants or civilians, killing them was a potential war crime.
If the commando soldiers believed the eleven men were combatants, possibly because of faulty intelligence (which is not unknown – see AAN reporting here), those planning the operation would appear to have shown grave shortcomings in their ability or intention to distinguish between civilians and combatants, as International Humanitarian Law demands. However, even if those killed had been Taleban, from what eye-witnesses said, they appear to have been hors de combat (‘outside the combat’), something the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) defines as:
(a) anyone who is in the power of an adverse party;
(b) anyone who is defenceless because of unconsciousness, shipwreck, wounds or sickness; or
(c) anyone who clearly expresses an intention to surrender
Eye-witness accounts suggest the eleven did not pose a threat, were not behaving in a hostile manner and did not resist. They were also in the power of ‘an adverse party.’ The ICRC says that “provided a person hors de combat abstains from any hostile act and does not attempt to escape,” attacking them is “prohibited.”
The illogicality of this operation (5) – not raiding known Taleban locations with a Taleban presence nearby to the homes raided, and the impression created that they killed people on the bases of lists of names of people who were known not to be Taleban, and their killing people when they could easily have detained them and interrogated them for evidence – has left local people bewildered. In particular, they asked: why kill the eight ‘Tajiks’, who belong to a community, and a family, known for its rejections of the Taleban? Some wondered if the strike force received bonuses for killing people, but then why not kill more?“ Maybe it is intended to strike terror into the community,” one of our sources said.
Killings of the Kulalgo type are not unusual, nor limited to Zurmat or Paktia. Maidan-Wardak province seems to be another hot spot for such operations; AAN has received various reports similar to the Kulalgo case in recent times. There were popular protests against civilian killings during night raids in that province as recently as July 2019. AAN has also reported, not only the 30 December killings in Zurmat, but also abuse of the civilian population there. (6)
As the New York Times’ correspondent Mujib Mashal tweeted, the latest raid shows “the continuation of gruesome pattern with no accountability: civilians suspected of being Taliban held & then shot dead in front of their families in their homes.” Recent head of UNAMA’s human rights unit, Richard Bennett, tweeted that, “Clearly this needs investigating, not only the incident but the pattern… Lack of accountability among all parties continues to drive the conflict; only by reversing this pattern will sustainable peace be possible.” Yet, the relatives of the 30 December massacre were refused admission even to see their provincial governor. The lack of interest by their government in the killings of their relatives has left them angry, distressed and afraid. As to taking up their case with the CIA, it remains completely unaccountable to Afghans and journalists. This is something that only President Ashraf Ghani can possibly stop – if he is listening.
Edited by Kate Clark
Please click on the following photos to enlarge them:
Hekmatullah, brother of Nasratullah and Rahatullah
(1) Pajhwok and Tolonews (on their official websites) also published the names of the killed in the night raid. There was also a third, separate list by Abdulhaq Omari, a Tolonews reporter, on his private Twitter account. Omari’s and the Pajhwok lists concur (with some minor differences on the names), while the official Tolonews report has 12 names (while initially also talking of 11). AAN has managed to consolidate the list and eliminate contradictions, such as the incorrect mention of Daulatzai school director Muhammad Asef as one victim, instead of his brother Akhtar Muhammad.
(2) Most ages given are approximate, as many people in Afghanistan and particularly in this area do not know their exact dates of birth.
(3) The NDS statement, as reported – in direct quote – by Jomhor News (AAN translation):
Special forces units of the National Directorate of Security have conducted targeted operations against the Taleban terrorist group in Kulalgo village in Zurmat district of Paktia province. As a result, 11 members of the Taleban terrorist group including two group leaders named Assadullah and Feda, known as Fedagai were eliminated, and a large number of weapons and ammunition fell into the hands of the forces involved in this operation.
(4) There are also other possible explanations: the commandos either covered up that they missed Eidagai, or they killed Feda for not reporting his brother – then called him “Fedagai.”
(5) Also politically, the raid does not make sense for the government. The three provinces making up Loya Paktia have voted in mass and almost entirely in favour of President Ghani during the 2014 presidential election (although this also involved mass fraud). In any case, such action could alienate many local Pashtuns way beyond Zurmat from him in the forthcoming election on 28 September.
(6) In 2018, AAN has reported, in its analysis of a UNAMA report, about record numbers of civilian casualties, including from air strikes:
Search operations by pro-government forces, said UNAMA, caused 353 civilian casualties (284 deaths and 69 injured) in 2018, a 185 per cent rise from 2017, when 92 civilians were killed (63) or injured (29). The vast majority of the casualties were caused by the NDS Special Forces and the extra-legal Khost Protection Force, both of which, says UNAMA “are supported by international military forces.”
Most of the casualties caused by search operations were by NDS special forces (see reporting by AAN from 2013 on them here). In 51 incidents documented by UNAMA, 19 of which were joint operations with international military forces, 240 civilians were killed (203) or injured (37). All took place in central, eastern and southern regions (teams are known as NDS-01, operating in the central region; NDS-02 in the eastern region; and NDS-03 in the southern region). UNAMA also documented 51 civilian casualties (41 deaths, 10 injured) caused during 13 search operations conducted by the Khost Protection Force. Such incidents have also been documented by AAN, including how the Khost Protection Force was accused of intentionally killing in a joint operation with US forces, presumed to be CIA, in Zurmat district of Paktia on 30 December 2018, the media (for example here and Human Rights Watch).
UNAMA said “[t]he high number of fatalities compared to the number of injured suggests that force was employed indiscriminately.”
Additionally, UNAMA raised concerns
…about the significant increase in incidents of human abuses, criminality and damage to civilian property by the Khost Protection Force. UNAMA has also received reports of unlawful and arbitrary detention, including following mass arrests, by different National Directorate of Security Special Forces, and the Khost Protection Force. It received credible accounts of detainees having experienced torture or ill-treatment while held in places under the authority of these entities.
UNAMA reports that 21 per cent of all civilian casualties caused by pro-government armed groups were carried out intentionally, mostly by the Khost Protection Force.
Overall, civilian casualties attributed to the Khost Protection Force in 2018 increased by more than ten-fold compared to 2017, with 107 casualties (70 deaths and 37 injured) in 22 documented incidents, compared with five (three deaths and two injured) in 2017. Some of those civilians were deliberately killed, said UNAMA, while others were incidentally harmed during search operations and others were harmed in ground operations. UNAMA says the group’s area of operations expanded in 2014, with 14 incidents documented in Khost, four in Paktia and four in Paktika. It has also intentionally damaged civilian property, including homes and vehicles, and illegally detained people. UNAMA calls on the government to
… either formally incorporate the Khost Protection Force into its armed forces, and hold its members accountable for any potential violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of international human rights law, or to disband the group and investigate and prosecute members for acts allegedly contravening Afghanistan’s criminal law.
What is significant in looking at these search operations is that Afghan army special forces also carries them out, but is not reported as causing civilian harm. As AAN understands it, they are mainly supported by the US Special Forces while the NDS paramilitaries and the Khost Protection Force are supported by the CIA, although this is, of course, a very murky area (see AAN reporting here). The Khost Protection Force is not even part of the formal Afghan government apparatus, but a ‘campaign force’ ie, it has a foreign chain of command, answering to the CIA. As UNAMA says, its operations, along with those of NDS special forces, “appear to be coordinated with international military actors, that is, outside of the normal Governmental chain of command, which raises serious concerns about transparency and accountability for these operations.” That the NDS and Khost Protection Force are problematic and Afghan army special forces are not implies systemic problems with the former in terms of command and control, and impunity.
One thing to note is that, like ISAF before it, it is NATO’s Resolute Support mission which answers to queries from UNAMA on civilian casualties, even though Resolute Support is non-combat (with a mandate only to use lethal force in self-defence). It is not the US military, which has its can-be-combat Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, nor the CIA which respond to enquiries about civilian casualties either from US air strikes or from search operations by CIA-supported armed groups.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020