Elite CIA-backed special forces in Afghanistan are leaving a trail of carnage in the country. As such units do not operate under the umbrella of the Department of Defense, they have been given near-impunity despite standing accused of war crimes.
Last month, the New York Times cited "senior Afghan and international officials" who said that while most strike forces in Afghanistan have been put under the purview of Afghan intelligence since 2012, two of the most "ruthless" units are "still sponsored mainly by the CIA."
On Friday, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that at least one of these units has the capability of calling in air strikes.
Of the two special forces units that remain primarily influenced by the CIA, the name of only one was revealed: a group called "02" in the Nangarhar Province. The name of the unit in the Khost Province was not revealed. The units are trained and equipped by CIA agents and CIA contractors, and their fighters make three times the salary of a regular Afghan soldier. The unit in Khost is believed to have between 3,000 and 10,000 fighters while 02 is believed to be about 1,000 fighters strong.
A former senior Afghan security official told the Times that the strike forces were guilty of war crimes, while the United Nations has "expressed concern" about "consistent, credible accounts of intentional destruction of civilian property, illegal detention, and other abuses." The unnamed unit in Khost was even singled out by the UN, which said it operates "with an absence of transparency and ongoing impunity."
Brutality worthy of ISIS
In September, elders from the three Nangarhar districts gathered for a press conference in which they claimed that 100 civilians were killed by 02 in August. Elders are putting the number of civilians slain by 02 in the following two months, September and October, at 260.
One man who spoke at the conference said he and his two brothers were detained for three months as 02 tried to force video confessions of Taliban affiliation from him with threats of driving over him with a tank. He said he was placed in handcuffs and that they used needles to puncture holes in his veins.
In one case investigated by the Times, two brothers were killed as they watered their fields. In another case, a unit pursuing an alleged Taliban member entered the wrong home and killed a dozen civilians. In yet another case, 02 placed two brothers in handcuffs and spit hoods and interrogated them in front of their wives and children. After they were done being questioned, 02 dragged the brothers away and executed them in the corner of a bedroom, and then detonated the building.
According to "several current and former Afghan officials," Americans help the unit find targets and guide operations. Those detained by such units frequently claim they have been tortured and Afghan officials say that Americans have been present at bases during such abuses. In the Nangarhar province alone, human-rights workers registered 15 complaints of torture by 02, according to the Times.
One medical worker who lives in the Bati Kot district in Nangarhar said he initially mistook 02 for ISIS when they showed up at his village surrounded by orange orchards.
"I ran and got my weapon — I thought it was the caliphate people. I didn't know it was the government," Khoshal Khan said. "Then they started firing, and I heard the gate blown up. They were speaking English, also."
First, one man in the village, Mohamed Taher, was shot. According to his 16-year-old grandson, Sekander, one of Taher's sons was also shot while following orders to come out of the building with his hands up. Then, 02 shot one of the grandsons in the head. And then another one of Taher's sons.
"The women started crying. They called to be quiet, then they blew up the gates and came in," Sekandar told the Times.
As his father bled to death in the yard after being shot while following orders, Adel, Taher's 10-year-old grandson, was forced to take shelter inside. "They said, 'Don't come out — if the airstrikes hit you, then don't complain.'" Adel still has shrapnel wounds on his face from the raid.
A relative of some of the people killed in the raid, Mohibullah, said that he sees little difference between the Islamic State and 02, since they both attack civilians without warning.
More killing power than the Caliphate
But, as it turns out, the 02 group is far better equipped than the Caliphate ever was. That's because they have something Daesh lacked: air support. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found instances in which 02 raids were quickly followed by airstrikes. One man they spoke to said 16 civilians were killed in an 02 raid on his village, five of whom were family members.
"When my family members heard shots being fired outside, they went out to see what was going on and were hit by an airstrike that killed the five of them. The airstrike also destroyed part of our house," he said. The outlet claims that 02 called in the strike.
"Numerous residents and relatives" said that one month later 02 killed 13 civilians, including four children, in a raid that included airstrikes. The Interior Ministry claimed that Islamic State fighters were killed, not civilians.