With his broad cheekbones, hair swept back under a sequined cap, and the gentle manner of a well-to-do Pashtun, Atal Afghanzai might easily pass for a doctor or an engineer.
Instead, his career path led into a cloak-and-dagger world of covert armies and foreign agents, until a rare lethal run-in with an Afghan police chief landed him on death row in Kabul’s most notorious prison.
Young and motivated, Mr. Afghanzai is one of thousands of Afghan mercenaries believed to be working with the CIA to help America battle Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies. His story – confirmed by US diplomats, other Western officials, and Afghan authorities – illustrates the military advantages of this secret war. But, with the US poised to ramp up reliance on paramilitaries like Afghanzai as it pulls out frontline troops, the practice is raising the ire of Afghans who accuse the groups of human rights abuses.
Speaking from Pul-i-Charki prison, where he is appealing a murder conviction, Afghanzai described how the elite group he once led, that was raised by and answered to the CIA, launched raids on Taliban targets at a moment’s notice.
Recruits were cherry-picked from regular Afghan Army units and trained by US Special Operations Forces at a place called Camp Gecko, he says. Blackhawk helicopters would deliver them to targets in neighboring Zabul and Uruzgan provinces, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai even sent the strike force letters of thanks after successful missions.
When troops leave, what's left?
Part of the job description for Americans left behind after 2014, in the words of the US government’s latest counterterrorism strategy document, will be tackling Al Qaeda and its adherents by using covert tactics that go “beyond traditional intelligence, military, and law enforcement functions.”
Security analysts say that the practice of raising paramilitary units, trained by US Special Operations Forces, run and funded by the CIA, and working closely with local intelligence officials, fits that bill perfectly.
There is, however, a down side to this light-footprint, low-visibility warfare.
Militias are not popular in Afghanistan. They stand accused of murder, rape, and extortion across the country.
In 2009, one of Afghanzai’s comrades was detained. It sparked a shootout that killed Kandahar’s provincial police chief, the head of the province’s criminal investigations department, and several more officers. Afghanzai and 40 of his men were convicted of murder and then imprisoned. It was a rare example of the Afghan judiciary coming down on a US bankrolled mercenary – and likely only happened because Afghanzai and his men killed a well-connected Afghan Police commander in broad daylight.
Other allegations of wrongdoing, such as armed robbery, have been impossible to properly investigate because of the group’s clandestine nature and connections.
“These kinds of forces are the most shadowy and the most unaccountable in the country, and it’s a really serious problem [that] nobody’s quite taking responsibility for it,” says Rachel Reid, a senior policy adviser to the New York-based Open Society Foundation with extensive experience in Afghanistan.
Groups raised and bankrolled by the CIA or Special Operations Forces have repeatedly run into allegations of extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and larceny – even though US law prohibits tax dollars going to units facing credible accusations of rights abuses.
The 'ugly reality'
The ugly reality, says Matt, a Green Beret captain who gives only his first name because of protocol security concerns, is that if the US wants to prevail against the Taliban and its allies, it must work with Afghan fighters whose behavior insults Western sensibilities.
“There are no good guys by our standards. There is no standard to begin with. There is no justice system or rule of law to hold people accountable,” Matt says. “The Taliban are not horribly bad and the Afghan farmer is not an innocent victim.”
In this moral twilight, refusing to work with paramilitaries accused of rights abuses accomplishes nothing, he argues. Instead, as relationships develop, so do the possibilities for altering the “moral calculus” of the Afghan fighters.
“I don’t like this reality,” says Matt. “But I do not have the power to make Afghans conduct themselves like Americans in matters of politics and warfare. I can only influence it over time.” The alternative is to “go home now.”