Dispatch

Atrocities Pile Up for CIA-Backed Afghan Paramilitary Forces

Many Afghans want the groups disbanded when the United States withdraws.

The children of the radio journalist Rahim Sekander display a photo of him in their home in Khost on Oct. 27.
The children of the radio journalist Rahim Sekander display a photo of him in their home in Khost on Oct. 27. For Foreign Policy.

KHOST, Afghanistan—Members of a CIA-backed paramilitary group have allegedly killed some 14 civilians during raids in Afghanistan’s restive Khost province in the past month, in one case bursting into the home of a man in his 40s, Muhammad Shawkat, dragging him into the street, and shooting him dead for no apparent reason, according to interviews with several residents of the area. 

At least one woman was among the dead, the residents said. They declined to be identified in describing the killings because they feared retribution from the group, known as the Khost Protection Force (KPF). Word of the killings also spread on social media in the past month.

The KPF controls much of Khost in southeastern Afghanistan, one of the more volatile parts of the country. The CIA established the force in the first days of the war in Afghanistan in late 2001, drawing on fighters from local Pashtun tribes for its membership. Nineteen years later, CIA operatives continue to train and arm the KPF, though it has been implicated repeatedly in atrocities against civilians, including torture and killing, according to human rights groups.

As the United States moves toward a total withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, many residents fear that the KPF and other CIA-backed paramilitary groups are stepping up their attacks to assert themselves across the country.

“Those who attacked us killed him brutally without any reason. They are violent criminals,” one of Shawkat’s relatives said in an interview. He said KPF forces raided the home in mid-October and killed eight other civilians in similar operations that day. 

“Shawkat was not a member of any terrorist group. He was just a normal Afghan who worked in the city,” said a resident of Khost’s Lakan area, where Shawkat lived. “You cannot do much if something like that happens—just hope that they won’t come after you,” the resident added. He said the KPF has come to operate with impunity because of its close ties to U.S. forces.

The KPF operates independently of the Afghan National Army and often conducts joint operations with U.S. forces. While most regular Afghan soldiers are poorly equipped, KPF members are armed with modern weapons. In addition to raids and patrols, they also track targets for U.S. drone strikes.

The CIA has blanketed Khost with surveillance equipment, posting reconnaissance balloons and listening antennas across the province.

Some two weeks after the raids, Taliban forces attacked a KPF convoy in the region, according to Hazrat Wali Sabir, a resident of the area. In response, the paramilitary group launched another series of attacks, according to residents, killing five civilians. Sabir said one of the victims was Mohammad Amin, the son of former Afghan parliament member Amir Khan Sabarai. The raids took place in several different villages across the district. 

Reporters and human rights groups in the region have also been targeted in recent months, including Rahim Sekander, a local radio journalist who frequently spoke out against rights abuses. Sekander was detained in August by the National Directorate of Security, an Afghan intelligence service that works closely with the KPF and is also funded by the United States. The intelligence agency, staffed largely by officers from its brutal Soviet-era predecessor, KhAD, has also become known for attacks on civilians and government critics.

Sekander, who used his social media platform to call out abuses perpetrated by both the Taliban and the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani, has been held without trial since August. Specifically, Sekander has criticized the aerial bombardments that killed civilians and the violent night raids carried out by the KPF and other CIA-backed units operating throughout the country. These attacks on civilians have often had the effect of fueling militancy.

“I don’t understand why he was arrested. They did not tell us any reason,” Sekander’s mother, Shamal Gul, said in an interview

“The worst criminals in this country are running around freely, but my brother was arrested just for criticizing the government on Facebook,” said Sekander’s brother Siddiqullah. In his brother’s absence, Siddiqullah is helping to look after Sekander’s six children.

Saifullah Hayat, who heads the Committee to Protect Journalists in Khost province, said in an interview that the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture should intervene on Sekander’s behalf but has shown no interest in the case.

Patricia Gossman, an associate Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the Afghan government a year ago promised to probe killings by the KPF and other clandestine units but has so far failed to conduct any investigation. “For nearly two decades, the Khost Protection Force has been responsible for summary executions and other abuses, including imprisoning journalists. It has never been held accountable—neither by Afghan authorities nor the U.S.,” she said.

The New York-based rights group published a 60-page report last year documenting the violence caused by CIA-backed Afghan militias, with details of 14 cases across nine provinces. The report concludes that Afghan forces trained and funded by the CIA have shown little regard for civilian life or international law. The militias are active all over the country, most recently in the provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Nangarhar, and Wardak.

Journalists based in Khost and Kabul contributed to this report, including photography, but did not want to be identified, fearing retribution from Afghan forces.

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist, author, and the founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims. Twitter: @Emran_Feroz

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