KABUL — As American special operations forces counter allegations of torture in Wardak province, analysts say American troops’ lack of understanding of the complex local politics may lead to more problems across the country. Even the head of Special Forces for the NATO-led coalition acknowledged being “befuddled” by the Afghans’ political machinations to the detriment of military operations.
The International Security Assistance Force has been plagued by accusations, both from local villagers and national Afghan leaders, that its allies in Nerkh district bore responsibility for the disappearance and murder or torture of 15 people there. Those allegations initially arose in February, leading President Hamid Karzai to demand that all ISAF special operations forces leave the district posthaste. ISAF and the Afghans reached a deal in March handing over Nerkh to Afghan National Security Forces.
Last week, The New York Times reported that an ISAF translator of Afghan descent, who might be an American citizen, was filmed torturing one of the 15 missing people. ISAF admitted that its investigators had seen such a tape and the perpetrator had worked with Americans, but said U.S. personnel had nothing to do with the incident.
In a news conference last Wednesday, the commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, also argued that accusations against Americans in Wardak were fabricated. However, he acknowledged that special operations forces in Nerkh failed to get a handle on complex Afghan political dynamics.
Thomas said ISAF special operations forces in Nerkh never had a unified Afghan partner there to work with. While they had Afghan allies on the ground, including Afghan local police and sometimes Afghan special forces, Thomas said those groups never had any unified oversight on the Afghan side.
“What we did suffer from is that we were in Wardak almost by ourselves,” he said. “There was no overarching Afghan security official in charge, and we suffered from that.”
Special operations forces across Afghanistan often work closely with the Afghan Local Police, militias made up of locals and initially supplied by ISAF who are meant to guard the areas from insurgents. According to ISAF’s official statement in March when it agreed special operations forces would leave Nerkh, the ALP was asked to leave as well.
Thomas admitted ISAF may have made a mistake in selecting its ALP allies in Wardak. He referred to the “mixed composition” of the ALP, and said that may have made them a poor choice for defending the local populace.
“Truthfully, I don’t think we were as wary and as attuned to the political lines in that particularly contentious district … politics that almost to this day kind of befuddle me,” he said. “We were not as discerning as we probably should have been.”
Mara Tchalakov, of the Institute for the Study of War, said ISAF’s problems in Wardak are not unique and also played into suspected abuses in Uruzgan involving Afghans allied with the coalition.
Frequently, Tchalakov said, Afghans who work with ISAF feel they are immune from the law, so they use their power to settle personal scores. Earlier this year, the police chief of Uruzgan told the Sydney Morning Herald that nearly 1,000 people in detention may have been falsely accused for interpersonal reasons.
When ISAF troops don’t understand which local factions are set against each other, they can’t tell who has been arrested because of possible insurgent activity, and who has been arrested over grudges.
Navigating those waters is no easy feat, she added.
“Sifting through and piecing out who precisely all of the armed parties (are) in the accusations of abuse in places like Nerkh district has proven quite challenging,” Tchalakov said.
Wardak ‘a nightmare’
The relatively small province is a battleground for at least three military forces: the government, the Taliban, and a smaller militant group, the Hezb-e-Islami.
The array of armed groups in the coalition’s corner can be dizzying. In addition to uniformed troops with the ANSF, an analysis from the Afghanistan Analysts Network earlier this year listed the ALP, convoy security personnel, private security companies, and groups called Afghan Security Guards who are formally tasked with guarding bases but allegedly are used by Special Forces to carry out other operations as well.
A journalist at a Kabul news agency from Nerkh district who asked to be identified only as Haqib out of fear for his own safety and that of his family, said some Afghans from Kandahar and Uruzgan who worked with the special operations forces were abusive toward civilians. On joint night raids, instead of targeting a single house, they would blast down the door of every house in the village and detain all the men, he said.
Haqib said that during the eight months of special operations forces occupation, living in Wardak became “a nightmare,” and that hundreds of families had fled.
The forces, he said, also hired local informants, said Haqib, who is considered an expert on covert operations in the region. Those informants would single out people from enemy families based on grudges dating to Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s. Informants also might accuse random people of being insurgents just to keep payments flowing from the Americans.
Haqib said villagers could not go onto the military base to complain in person nor to determine the fate of loved ones because the special operations forces would never talk directly to village leaders. Instead, the villagers went to the district governor as a liaison. He usually would be told by special operations forces that they knew a captive was an insurgent because his fingerprints had been found on a gun, he said.
“In that kind of place, everyone used to have a gun with them for their safety,” Haqib said. “That doesn’t mean they’re insurgents.”
The villagers had appealed to the provincial governor and the chief of police, and then to officials in Kabul. They also held demonstrations cutting off a major highway. That was when Karzai intervened.
ISAF officially has denied any involvement in disappearances in Nerkh.
“The allegations against US and/or ISAF forces in Nerkh District are untrue,” they said in a release following The New York Times story. “After thorough investigation there was no credible evidence to substantiate misconduct by US or ISAF forces relating to the detainees or deaths in Nerkh.”
An ALP commander in Wardak, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety, said a new special operations forces team entered the area about a year ago, and relations between them and the ALP declined rapidly, with communication and support between the two dwindling.
But he denied that the special operations forces had been manipulated by informants. The unit only hired knowledgable and respected people as informants, he said, and had enough background information to know when they were lying.
Afghan interpreters who worked with the forces, however, had great power. Most of them, the ALP official said, were Americans of Afghan descent. American interpreters sometimes are required for missions that demand a high security clearance. The official said they were trusted to walk around inside American bases with weapons.
“A person who is roaming inside the base with a gun … you can imagine how much power or authority he will have in his job,” he added.
The official said special operations forces treated civilians well when they operated during the day with the ALP, but he often heard complaints about their behavior after night raids.
Haqib said the people of Nerkh get along much better with the Afghan National Army.
“They cooperate with the Afghan Special Forces,” he said. “They are very humane. And the Afghan Special Forces go to risky areas where (Americans) would not go.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.