Impunity for U.S.-Funded Warlords in Afghanistan

The Case of Abdul Raziq

The war in Afghanistan will cost the United States approximately $45 billion this year, according to Pentagon estimates. About $5 billion of that will go towards paying the budget of the Afghan security forces. A report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) last month revealed that the United States is unable or unwilling to stop funding units that engage in torture, summary execution, and other serious human rights violations, despite Congress’s efforts to restrict that aid.

A dramatic illustration of this is the case of Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, the chief of the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Kandahar. Raziq is a valuable enough ally for the U.S. military to be photographed with threestar U.S. generals when they come to Kandahar, and he and his forces have received millions of dollars in U.S. aid in the last decade. But there are credible allegations of his involvement in murder and torture of detainees that date back to 2006 and continue to today.

In 2017, the United Nations wrote that the worst torture in Afghanistan occurred in ANP jails in Kandahar, “where a staggering 91 percent of detainees interviewed gave credible and reliable accounts of being subjected to the most brutal forms of torture and ill-treatment.”

The United Nations Committee Against Torture took the unusual step of specifically calling for an investigation and prosecution of Raziq in its 2017 report on Afghanistan’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture.

Congress has attempted to cut off aid to units of foreign security forces when the United States has credible information of their involvement in gross violations of human rights through statutes sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which are more commonly known as the “Leahy Law.” SIGAR reported that the Pentagon used a loophole in the law to continue funding at least 12 Afghan Interior Department units despite evidence that they had violated human rights with impunity.

The details about the units and the violations they committed are blacked out of the SIGAR report, and neither SIGAR nor the Defense Department would disclose any additional information about their identity. But based on reporting from human rights groups and journalists, Afghan National Police units under Raziq’s command are among the most likely candidates.

Erica Gaston, a human rights attorney for the Global Public Policy Institute, said in an interview with the Project On Government Oversight that “the question that has come up for years was why is Raziq still not blocked” under the Leahy Law. Gaston reported in March 2017 that multiple U.S. officials had confirmed to her that Raziq had “failed Leahy vetting and the law has been enforced against him,” although the United States was continuing to fund Afghan police in Kandahar. She noted it was possible that the Defense Department had relied on a statement in Congressional appropriations for security aid to Afghanistan, which stated that the funds “shall be available to the Secretary of Defense, notwithstanding any other provision of law.” SIGAR suggested that Congress consider eliminating this exception, a step that Leahy supports and the Defense Department opposes.

Raziq, who is not yet 40 years old, was an unknown exile in Pakistan on September 11, 2001. Thanks in part to U.S. aid, he is now one of the most powerful people in southern Afghanistan. His rise poses fundamental questions about the effectiveness of both the Leahy Law and the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

A Massacre in Spin Boldak

One of the earliest public allegations against Raziq appears in the State Department’s annual human rights report for Afghanistan for 2006:

In March Commander Abdul Razaq of Kandahar province was removed from his post for allegedly attacking 16 rivals under the pretext that they were Taliban militants. The 16 men were Pakistani citizens who had traveled to Afghanistan for Afghan New Year celebrations. They belonged to a clan in Pakistan that Razaq blamed for the death of his brother two years earlier.

In 2011, journalist Matthieu Aikins confirmed the State Department’s reporting in far more detail. Aikins wrote in The Atlantic that on March 20, 2006, a smuggler named Shin Noorzai and 15 friends and acquaintances of his stopped at a guest house in Kabul. They intended to travel to Mazar-e Sharif to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Instead, they were apparently drugged by an ally of Raziq in Kabul, bound, and driven over 300 miles to Spin Boldak, a border district where Raziq was a colonel in the border police.

Raziq and his forces placed the captives, still bound, into SUVs, drove them to a dry river gully near the border with Pakistan, and shot them at close range with automatic weapons.

Raziq told a different story to his superiors and the press, reporting that his unit had killed at least 15 Taliban fighters after a gunfight. A tip from a European Union (EU) employee stationed in Afghanistan, combined with diplomatic protests from Pakistan that innocent citizens had been killed, led the Afghan government to investigate what had happened more closely.

Aikins viewed photographs and documents from that investigation, and interviewed a number of witnesses, including one victim’s family, a member of the Afghan Criminal Investigations (CID) team that first responded to the scene, and the EU employee who had helped spark the initial investigation.

The EU employee, Michael Semple, told Aikins that the Afghan Interior Department’s final report “documented the killings in such a way that would leave no reasonable person in doubt that these were summary executions carried out by the Border Police” under Raziq’s command. But no charges were ever brought, and Raziq was soon reinstated.

By the time Aikins wrote his story in 2011, Raziq had been promoted to brigadier general and appointed chief of police for Kandahar province. (Raziq also maintained command in Spin Boldak, at his own request.) Aikins interviewed two young men who said they had recently been tortured by Raziq’s forces in Kandahar, and still had burn scars on their toes from being given electric shocks. He also spoke to two family members of two other men who were summarily executed in 2011 after being detained by Raziq’s border police in Spin Boldak. Raziq, however, categorically denied all allegations of wrongdoing, and a State Department official in Kandahar told Aikins in 2011 that “[n]o Leahy Amendment issues have come to me” regarding Raziq’s activities.

In an interview with the Project On Government Oversight, Aikins said that it was hard to know exactly why it took so long for the allegations against Raziq to raise red flags about his legal eligibility for U.S. assistance.

“The history of the Leahy Law in Afghanistan is a mix of neglect, chronic understaffing, and creative interpretation of the law,” he said. “It’s difficult to say what exactly was at work in specific cases.”

Aikins noted that, as documented by SIGAR, “the U.S. underwrites the budget for the Afghan security forces. It’s only very recently that there’s been any sort of system to track gross violations of human rights for Leahy Law purposes.”

Systematic Torture                       

In 2010, the Obama Administration deployed 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of U.S. forces there close to 100,000. The troop surge centered on Kandahar, and the United States needed to bring its supplies through the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan that Raziq controlled. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who at the time was the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, flew to meet Raziq in 2010 to implore him not to hold up vital supplies fueling the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts.

Military officers acknowledged to Members of Congress that Raziq had made millions of dollars by taking “a major cut of all trucking that passes through” the Spin Boldak border crossing. But the United States found that he was a valuable ally in clearing Taliban-held villages in Kandahar. By the fall of 2010, U.S. officers were describing him to reporters as a “Robin Hood figure” and a “folk hero,” and previous efforts to sideline or try to reform him were abandoned.

One anonymous Army officer told the Washington Post that “[i]f we didn’t have him, we’d be screwed,” and that “[a]s long as we don’t catch him moving trucks full of opium through the desert, we’ll let him slide… If his men are shaking people down on the highway, well, that’s just the way it’s done here. It’s no different from tollbooths on the highways back home.”

In October 2011, the United Nations published a report documenting widespread torture of Taliban suspects by Afghan security forces, based on interviews of over 379 detainees throughout the country. The U.S. military took the United Nations’ findings seriously: Gen. John Allen, who had become head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, suspended detainee transfers to a number of prisons where the United Nations had documented systematic torture, and began a monitoring program that attempted to ensure that captives transferred by the United States into Afghanistan’s control were not tortured.

But biennial follow-up reports by the United Nations in 2013, 2015, and 2017, based on hundreds more detainee interviews, found that Afghan security forces continued to torture prisoners, and that torture was particularly brutal and pervasive at ANP prisons in Kandahar.

The 2013 U.N. report found that all six of the Afghan police detention facilities where torture was found to be “systematic”—meaning that more than 50 percent of detainees interviewed made detailed and credible allegations of torture—were located in Kandahar. The report noted that “ANP officials in Kandahar province have increased the level of brutality and the use of torture” since Raziq’s appointment as the acting chief of police for the province in May 2011. The United Nations also said it “received credible reports of the alleged disappearance of 81 individuals who reportedly had been taken into ANP custody in Kandahar province from September 2011 to October 2012.”

The 2015 and 2017 reports made similar findings of extremely widespread torture, disappearance, and summary executions.

Human rights groups and journalists have also documented widespread torture and extrajudicial killing by Raziq’s forces. According to a 2014 report by Anand Gopal in Harper’s Magazine, over 40 unidentified bodies appeared in Kandahar province in October 2013 alone, bearing signs of torture.

Gopal wrote that “because of smashed teeth and missing noses, eyes, or heads, many could not be identified.”

An ANP commander under Raziq, Abdul Wadood Sarhadi Jajo, was alleged to be responsible for many of the killings. Gopal had a great deal of difficulty finding witnesses and victims willing to speak to him about Jajo’s crimes because of fears of retaliation, and was himself briefly detained by Jajo’s forces. He was released unharmed, but ordered to leave Kandahar the next morning and never return. Gopal said in an interview with the Project On Government Oversight that he had no doubt of Raziq’s awareness of his forces’ abuses: “Nothing happened without his knowledge.”

During the summer of 2014, according to the State Department’s human rights report for Afghanistan for that year, “Raziq told the media he had ordered his forces to execute militants on the spot, rather than take them prisoner,” though he “later retracted his comments.” In general, though, Raziq has consistently and categorically denied the allegations against him. In 2017 he said, “I strongly reject such claims and they are made to defame me. If anyone or any entity have any proof, they should present it but I am sure there is none.”

“A Drop in the Ocean”

SIGAR reported that during the time period of its report, the Defense Department withheld a total of $212,120 from Afghan Ministry of the Interior forces under the Leahy law. Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, stated that as of June 2017, the amount withheld had risen to $707,154. But even that higher number is, in Aikins’ words, “a drop in the ocean” when compared to the over $70 billion that the Defense Department has provided to Afghan security forces over the years.

Asked to comment on the allegations against Raziq and his status under the Leahy Law, Andrews said that while “DoD takes compliance with the Leahy Law seriously,” it does not publicly discuss allegations against Afghan security forces or their status under the law because of “the sensitive bilateral security cooperation relationships with the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”

Leahy has called the Defense Department’s use of the “notwithstanding” language “inexcusable,” and is seeking to change it. In an interview with NPR, he said that “the notwithstanding authority was intended to be only rarely used,” and that its overly broad use signaled to foreign security forces that “We’ve got this law. But you go ahead and do everything you want to do. You do the most outrageous thing you want to do, extrajudicial killings and everything else. And don’t worry—we’ll keep sending you U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.”

While that was likely not the signal DoD intended to send, it seems to have been the message that Raziq received. In a 2015 interview with NPR, Raziq was asked about the possibility that the United States would withhold aid due to the widespread reports that his forces had tortured, killed, and disappeared captives. He replied, “[y]ou don’t have to worry about that. They will give us…Are they going to hand over this area back to the Taliban?”

Raziq’s sense of impunity extends to the Afghan government. He asserted in a radio interview in January that “[t]his government has neither appointed me, nor it can remove me. I have been appointed based on the demands of Kandahar people and I will leave based on Kandahar residents’ demands.”

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After 2001, the U.S. government determined that security needs required it to partner with warlords like Raziq, even as it acknowledged the long-term costs. But as the years pass, it becomes harder to justify disregarding the long-term effects of empowering rights abusers. Some of the troops deploying to Afghanistan this year were toddlers on September 11, 2001, and there is no end in sight. At a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), said he worried that “we may be there the rest of my life”; Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) asked whether “we [are] going to be discussing this in 250 years.”

The U.S. reliance on and assistance to foreign proxies with questionable human rights records is not limited to Afghanistan. It also includes support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi and Kurdish regional government forces in the conflict with ISIS; conducting joint raids with the United Arab Emirates and refueling Saudi jets in Yemen; and training and advising African forces to fight al Shabab, Boko Haram, and ISIS.

Figuring out how to address human rights violations by forces we assist is not simple. But it should not be postponed any longer, or avoided by using an artificially narrow definition of “assistance” or by pretending not to notice the worst abuses of our allies. One logical first step, as Dan Mahanty suggested in Just Security last June, would be to improve the U.S. government’s own capacity to document human rights abuses by the forces we assist, and to record and analyze credible reports of violations from local and international sources.

 

Image: U.S. Department of Defense

 

About the Author(s)

Katherine Hawkins

Investigator for the Project On Government Oversight, Former Investigator for the Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment, Former Policy Advocate for the Constitution Project and Open the Government Follow her on Twitter (@krhawkins5).