Militias in Afghanistan funded by the United States are terrorizing the communities they were supposed to protect, murdering, raping and torturing civilians, including children, extorting illegal taxes and smuggling contraband, according to a damning new report from Human Rights Watch.
In a 102-page report entitled 'Just Don't Call It a Militia' the group documents how the Afghan government and the U.S. military have provided guns and money to paramilitary groups without adequate oversight or accountability. Because of their links to senior Afghan officials, many of these groups operate with impunity.
Their behavior fuels support for the Taliban, and creates insecurity rather than decreasing it. But, under U.S. General David Petraeus, who recently left Afghanistan to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, NATO aggressively pursued a strategy of raising militias as a security quick-fix ahead of its departure in 2014.
Because U.S. law, makes it illegal to finance groups facing credible allegations of human rights abuses, the report's findings could, potentially, put at risk a central plank of NATO's exit strategy if U.S. lawmakers would have it so.
The report follows an investigation earlier this year by The Independent that found U.S. special forces were bankrolling an Afghan mercenary called Commander Azizullah in Afghanistan's south-eastern Paktika province. Under their patronage Azizullah had embarked on a spate of rights abuses including murders, rape, theft, torture, the mutilation of corpses and the desecration of a mosque, according to internal UN documents and testimony from a number of Afghan and Western sources.
Azizullah has always maintained his innocence. Despite the severity of the allegations and the questions they raised about the lack of oversight Azizullah was subject to, NATO refused to launch a formal inquiry.
After riding out the storm caused by the revelations, Azizullah was alleged to have killed again at the start of June. The victim was a teenage student who had been traveling the road from Urgun to Sarhawza in Afghanistan's southeast when Azizullah and his men stopped him, shot and killed him.
"Afterwards he placed an AK-47 on the body and took a photo," an Afghan official, who heard the story from local elders, told the Independent.
The official echoed concerns in the Human Rights Watch report about the lax oversight and lack of accountability militias are subject to, and worried that by now, Azizullah's terror campaign had been so effective that "however many investigations special forces or [NATO] conduct, it doesn't matter. No one is going to corroborate any of this evidence because people are too scared."
What makes the Human Rights watch report so important is that it provides credible evidence that behavior like Azizullah's is the norm rather than the exception. In one instance cited in the report, Afghan paramilitaries abducted two teenagers and drove nails through the feet of one. Another group gang-raped a 13-year-old boy.
On 24 January 2010, a band led by one Mullah Rahmatullah allegedly raided a house in northern Afghanistan. "There were five people, all armed. They came to my house and they tied my hands and my brother's hands. Then they raped my wife and my brother's wife," a family member told Human Rights Watch.
NATO's plans to raise militias has been controversial from the start. U.S. General Dan McNeil, a former commander of the NATO mission to Afghanistan, said in 2008 that NATO had worked hard to disband militias and "we shouldn't seek to go back there."
Afghan officials have been equally critical and President Hamid Karzai only authorized the creation of a new raft of militias called Afghan Local Police under extreme pressure from Nato.
A NATO spokesman said it would evaluate the Human Rights Watch report and "take necessary steps".