Afghanistan's Dirty War: Why the Most Feared Man in Bermal District Is a U.S. Ally

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Sgt. Justin P. Morelli / US Army

Azizullah, in Afghanistan's Paktika province on Sept. 23, 2010, leads a ferocious 400-man militia of Afghan security guards

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That's hardly surprising, say human-rights experts. Getting to the bottom of allegations like these is difficult at the best of times. It took me months to organize meetings with sources from the area and persuade them to speak out. Terrified as they are, villagers are going to be even less likely to complain to the U.S. forces they hold responsible for empowering Azizullah. Exacerbating that, NATO "doesn't bring a great deal of healthy skepticism" to investigations, which might include statements by troops on the ground, a review of video footage or signals intelligence — and not much else, says Erica Gaston, a human-rights lawyer for the Open Society Foundations. "That's not a bad methodology to start out with," says Gaston, "but if you really want to get the whole story on accusations of misconduct — particularly when they involve local warlords — you need to get out and talk to the community. That just isn't how [NATO] investigations work generally."

Meanwhile, a blistering report by Human Rights Watch, published last month, provides credible evidence that far from being the exception, behavior like Azizullah's is commonplace in Afghanistan. It found that militias, many of them created by NATO despite reservations by President Hamid Karzai, are murdering, raping and torturing civilians (including children), extorting illegal taxes and smuggling contraband. In one instance, Afghan paramilitaries allegedly abducted two teenagers and drove nails through the feet of one. The 102-page report titled Just Don't Call It a Militia documents how parts of the Afghan establishment and the U.S. military have provided guns and money to paramilitary groups without adequate oversight or accountability. Because of their links to senior Afghan officials or U.S. special-operations forces, many of these groups operate with impunity.

In Azizullah's case, the allegations and the military's response offer an uncomfortable glimpse of the clandestine war that Afghan paramilitaries bankrolled by the U.S. are waging against al-Qaeda and the Taliban — and the lack of accountability they're subject to. The dirty war is "very poorly understood," says Michael Semple, a Harvard fellow and leading expert on Afghanistan, even though it's been "a central part of the strategy for the past decade." A Special Forces captain called Matt, who has served in Afghanistan but has no involvement with Azizullah, described Afghan security guards — which is a generic term — as "the most effective fighting formation in Afghanistan" for the extent of the war. "This is undisputed fact," he said. Yet groups like the Afghan security guards have remained steadfastly off the radar. Semple says that, when he was working on security-sector reform in Afghanistan, it was only "with great difficulty" that you could get the NDS — the country's security service — on to the agenda. As for the private militias run by special forces or the CIA? "Never."

On paper, Azizullah and his Afghan security guards exist to protect Firebase Lilley, a remote outpost in eastern Paktika province that doubles as a listening post for the CIA and a training hub for some of the agency's 3,000 private troops (known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams). But the Afghan guards do a bit more than pull guard. Battlefield reporting published by WikiLeaks suggests they act with a degree of autonomy, sometimes running their own missions despite Azizullah's claim that he can't go "10 meters" without a Green Beret in tow. And whatever the degree of oversight he's subject to by his military advisers, even Azizullah accepts that his main job is killing Taliban. "Recently I was injured again when we set an ambush for people firing rockets onto [Firebase Lilley]," he said in his February phone interview with TIME. "When we saw them, we started shooting at each other and I was hurt [along with] Nick, a U.S. special-forces guy, and a soldier called Shazaman." He also used the interview to deny all allegations of wrongdoing.

"Since the Taliban and al-Qaeda couldn't kill me with their suicide attacks or land mines, they're now using propaganda against me. I have never killed anyone innocent. I'm a very religious person; I respect my religion, so how could I desecrate a mosque or kill a civilian? ... You won't find a single person who can prove that I've done anything you mention, like raping boys, desecrating mosques or killing innocent people."

During the interview, the leader of the U.S. special-forces detachment supporting Azizullah, who called himself Dan, came on the phone. "We've gone a huge way as far as collateral damage and civilian casualties [go]," he said. "That's gone down quite a bit. We have quite a bit of control over our partner's force and ... we do everything we can to [avoid civilian casualties]. There's been really no civilian casualties, at least since I've been here."

Azizullah's relationship with U.S. special forces began soon after the 2001 invasion, when he was one of the first Afghan security guards to sign on. As an ethnic Tajik born and bred in a largely Pashtun area, Azizullah had suffered under the predominantly Pashtun Taliban — and possessed the kind of social geography that may have appealed to his new American mentors. "Right from the early days, the Americans seemed to work with people from that enclave," says Harvard's Semple. Special forces "want to work with people from a minority community that's never going to go over to ... the Haqqanis, that [has an] interest in maintaining the patronage of the outside force."

But if the upside of working with collaborators from Urgun, Azizullah's home district, is that they will never go over to the insurgents, then the downside is that patronage bestowed on them by American forces stirs ethnic jealousies. Friends say Azizullah saw American patronage as a sign that his time had come, and battlefield reporting from 2007 allegedly had him intervening in local business disputes. Analysts, merchants and villagers say the Pashtun majority feels marginalized by what they see as an unfair distribution of the money pouring in, in the shape of contracts from Firebase Lilley. "The perception is [the Tajiks] get all the contracts, all the jobs," one source said. That perceived hoarding of the spoils, and Azizullah's apparent impunity, are paving the way for violent repercussions. "People are so angry with him that when the U.S. Army stops supporting him, his body will be hacked into 1,000 pieces by the people," an acquaintance of Azizullah said. Vengeance will likely be visited on the whole Tajik community.

The shadowy war waged along Afghanistan's eastern border is certainly no place for armchair morality. The conflict "is not pretty," cautions Matt, the Green Beret captain. "It insults our Western morals and perspectives on life, [which are] a modern luxury, born of hundreds of years of vicious fighting and ... not shared by 80% of the world today."

But the allegations of persistent human-rights abuses aren't just embarrassing from a moral perspective. They also showcase the biggest drawbacks of militias — which NATO wants to expand aggressively across Afghanistan in the shape of "Afghan local police," and has made a hallmark of its exit strategy. Critics say that although the plan may temporarily help dent the Taliban, the consequences are too awful to contemplate: resurgent warlords, deepening ethnic tensions, widespread bloodletting and the erosion of what little authority the government in Kabul has left. The cost of some short-term success in the military fight against the Taliban could, over time, become a return to Afghanistan's darkest days.

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