Months of reported abuses in Wardak by armed groups and individuals apparently linked to a US Special Operations base, and the failure of ISAF to take responsibility or to adequately respond, has led the National Security Council to announce that all US Special Operations Forces are to be removed from Wardak within two weeks. Although it is yet unclear to what extent the Afghan government intends the decision to be actually implemented, it is part of a wider push towards greater control and a stronger position within the partnership. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look, in five snapshots, at what the decision tells us.
1. The NSC decision took everyone by surprise and does not seem to have been premeditated
The NSC decision seems to have been taken without any forewarning and seems to have resulted from the flow of the meeting. The palace press release describes how on 24 February 2013, per its agenda, Afghanistan’s National Security Council discussed the security situation in Wardak and Logar and was briefed the security institutions, both governors, and a delegation that had been tasked to investigate the causes of insecurity in the area.
The NSC found that “armed individuals named as US special force stationed in Wardak province engage in harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people” and decided to act decisively. They ordered (1) ISAF to immediately stop all Special Forces operations in Wardak; (2) the Afghan Ministry of Defence to ensure that the US Special Forces would leave the province within two weeks; and (3) all Afghan security forces to effectively stop and bring to justice “any groups that enter peoples’ homes in the name of special force and who engage in annoying, harassing and murdering innocent people”. However, the NSC does not appear to have really thought through the feasibility, consequences or implications of its decision.
2. The NSC decision may have been sudden, but it stems from a long-standing frustration and follows earlier similar decisions
President Karzai and others within the Afghan government have felt a long-standing frustration – that seems to be genuine, although it is at times exaggerated and instrumentalised – that they cannot control what international armed forces are doing on Afghan soil, or whom the international presence is empowering.
This frustration has prompted President Karzai to insist on the disbandment of all private security companies, and more recently to take the international forces head on, demanding that all US and ISAF forces refrain from unilateral night raids, detentions, and air strikes. Last week he additionally announced a ban on Afghan forces requesting air support (although the decree has not yet materialised). And now he has set his sights on the irregular Afghan auxiliary forces, who due to the blurry lines of command and their close links to the international military can often misbehave with impunity.
Just last week the NSC instructed security institutions to “impede operations by all the armed groups and units established in some provinces by the coalition forces outside the Afghan armed forces’ structures” and to ask the coalition forces to integrate these groups into the security institutions of Afghanistan”. But although this signaled the government’s intent, it was unlikely to affect the operations of the armed groups in question, or the reliance of the international troops on them. The current decision, however, is phrased in a way that is a bit more difficult to ignore.
3. The details of this specific case may be murky, but the dynamics are well-known
The NSC press release describes the disappearance of nine people “in an operation by this suspicious force” and the death of a student who “was taken away at night from his home, [and] whose tortured body with throat cut was found two days later under a bridge.” ISAF in its response has indicated that they have looked into the allegations and have not been able to confirm them.
An in-depth Reuters investigation in Wardak unearthed reports of serious abuses said to be linked to a Special Operations Forces outpost in Nerkh, and in particular to a group of ‘translators’, but in many cases it still proved difficult to pin down exactly who was involved or responsible.
But even though it is not exactly clear which armed groups are operating in Wardak, or what they have done, the dynamics are well-known: armed groups and/or individuals that are above the law and can harass at will, because of their involvement in the international war effort. They are the source of deep local resentment, in many places (see for instance here and here).
There is a whole array of irregular forces in Afghanistan, with lines of command and control that are unclear, blurry or hidden from view. These include the ‘campaign’ forces linked to the international military (in particular to the Special Operations Forces and, in some cases, the CIA), the forces involved in convoy security or the protection of critical infrastructure and construction projects, private security companies protecting international sites, and the various local forces such as the ALP. In particular those who have close ties to the international forces that are involved in counter-terrorism – whether they are commanders of campaign units, key informants or even translators – tend to be the most powerful and most ruthless.
Some of these groups have prescribed formal roles and contracts, like for instance the Afghan Security Guards (ASG) who are formally contracted to do base security only, while in reality they were however hired to participate in offensive counter-terrorism operations. Some of these forces have been merged into the ALP or the ANP (or have entered fighters from their network into the ALP), but their working relationship with the Special Operations Forces partners tend to remain very close, albeit under a different label and in a different uniform.
The relationship with the US forces and the excuse to use violence – against insurgents, but often also against relatives and communities that are seen as allied to suspected insurgents, or against personal rivals – has provided opportunities for abuse that many of these groups have found impossible to resist. Accusations tend to centre on acts of excessive retaliation and intimidation: including the killing of non-combatants and/or rivals (there tends to be an ongoing controversy over what is a non-combatant, given that most men have at some point in their lives taken up arms, and many continue to do so on an on-and-off basis), looting and destruction of property, unlawful detention, severe beating and mistreatment, detention of people to extract bribes (often money or weapons, under the guise of ‘disarmament’), kidnappings and rape.
This behaviour is not new, it has been found during all phases of the conflict among commanders and combatants who have found themselves above the law – either because they were the most powerful in the area, or because they had linked themselves to a patron that nobody can stand up to. It is this kind of behaviour that has greatly increased the suffering of Afghanistan’s population over the last decades. And although this behaviour is most probably not sanctioned by the international military forces that they are linked to, it is time that ISAF and the US military take responsibility for their role in enabling and sometimes protecting these groups.
4. The NSC decision, as well as the US reaction signals a fundamentally changing relationship
The NSC decision illustrates an increasing sense of conflictedness that many within, and also outside, the Afghan government feel towards the international presence. There is great nervousness about what may happen if the international forces would indeed leave and if international aid decreased considerably; many Afghans fear that their government may fragment under the weight of predatory politics. But at the same time, many are also not sure whether a continued international presence will lead to greater stability.
On top of that, is a growing sense in government circles that Afghanistan may be able to look after itself, after all. This is partly wishful thinking, partly a sign of growing confidence, and partly of form of inverted paranoia by a government that believes that the bleak assessments in the Western press are part of a consorted campaign to weaken the Afghan resolve.
US reactions have been very low-key and there have so far been no open signs of exasperation, as there had often been in the past (compare for instance this exchange in 2010). It seems that the sense that this is a relationship in which both sides are stuck with each other, whether they like it or not, has somewhat subsided. President Karzai and his entourage no longer seem convinced that the continued presence of a large number of international forces is a prerequisite for stability in Afghanistan, or that is at least how they choose to behave and want to be treated. And the US administration, in turn, no longer seems intent on staying and making this work at all costs, or at least chooses to behave that way.
5. Finally – and obviously – the order has been given, but it may well not be implemented
The decision to have all US Special Forces removed from a province that is of strategic importance to Kabul security is obviously a serious one – if that was indeed what was intended. In that case intense negotiations will ensue, which are likely to result in a murky compromise.
The US Special Operations Forces are key to any post-2014 US counter-terrorism combat effort, along with the CIA and whatever Afghan partners they choose to work with, and it is unlikely that the US will agree to a continued military presence without some kind of continued free hand. The Afghan government is aware of this. It will probably use the fact that it has now gotten everybody’s attention to seek greater control over the irregular Afghan auxiliary forces and to get assurances from the US that it will be more cooperative in dealing with abuses by armed groups that are, or used to be, linked to their military campaigns. It seems unlikely that at this stage ISAF and the US will indeed be forced to seriously curtail their Special Forces operations. But it will remain an ongoing discussion.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020