Tag Archives: Afghanistan human rights

War under the Cover of Training and Advising: Afghanistan

Soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard and the Latvian army patrol through a village in Konar province . Image from wikipedia

Months after President Obama formally declared that the United States’ long war against the Taliban was over in Afghanistan, the American military is regularly conducting airstrikes against low-level insurgent forces and sending Special Operations troops directly into harm’s way under the guise of “training and advising.”…[I]nterviews with American and Western officials in Kabul and Washington offer a picture of a more aggressive range of military operations against the Taliban in recent months, as the insurgents have continued to make gains against struggling government forces.

Rather than ending the American war in Afghanistan, the military is using its wide latitude to instead transform it into a continuing campaign of airstrikes — mostly drone missions — and Special Operations raids that have in practice stretched or broken the parameters publicly described by the White House.

Western and military officials said that American and NATO forces conducted 52 airstrikes in March 2015 months after the official end of the combat mission. Many of these air assaults, which totaled 128 in the first three months of 2015, targeted low- to midlevel Taliban commanders in the most remote reaches of Afghanistan.,,,“They are putting guys on the ground in places to justify the airstrikes,” one of the officials said. “It’s not force protection when they are going on the offensive.”…Gen. John F. Campbell, vehemently denied accusations that he was putting troops into harm’s way just to enable more airstrikes.….“Washington is going to have to say what they say politically for many different audiences, and I have no issue with that,” General Campbell said. “I understand my authorities and what I have to do with Afghanistan’s forces and my forces. And if that doesn’t sell good for a media piece then, again, I can’t worry about it.”

The operations are continuing during a troubling stretch for the Afghan security forces, as the Taliban are continuing to make gains…Mr. Ghani, who has yet to name a minister of defense, has in many ways outsourced much of the running of the war to General Campbell.

Excerpts from AZAM AHMED and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, Taliban Gains Pull U.S. Units Back Into Fight in Afghanistan, NY Times, Apr. 29, 2015

Let them Kill Each Other, the US Doctrine on Afghanistan

The head of the U.S. special forces has revealed a likely controversial plan to triple the number of armed Afghans paid by NATO to protect their villages under a plan once described as “a community watch with AK-47s”.  In a rare meeting with journalists Saturday, (Dec. 10, 2011) Adm. William H McRaven, the architect of the daring U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said the plan could go into effect over the next two years.

The number of Afghan Local Police, or ALP, could go up from 9,800 to 30,000, if the Afghan government supports it.American commanders consider the groups a local and cost-effective solution to shoring up security in Afghanistan’s sprawling and lawless rural communities. They were active in 57 districts now, but could cover 99 by the end of 2013.  “The real advantage for the ALP and what it provides you as opposed to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is the ability for Afghans from their local districts to protect their own homes,” he said. “The ALP allow guys to stay at home and protect their families and their villages.”  The ALP created “a network out there that can respond to any potential threats,” he said.  Former NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, first introduced the plan 17 months ago, describing it to the U.S. Congress as “a community watch with AK-47s.”

But Human Rights Watch accused the groups of “committing serious human rights abuses” and not being held accountable by the Afghan government.  These reports have raised fears that the armed groups might turn on the communities they protect or neighbor, particularly if their coalition wages falter after the NATO drawdown.  There are also concerns they could enter into rivalries with neighboring groups, instead worsening security for local Afghans. McRaven said he had only heard anecdotal talk of these groups fueling local tribal rivalries, but has not seen evidence on the ground to support that.

Col. John Evans, deputy commanding officer of Combined Forces Special Operations, said at 30,000 in number, the groups would cost an estimated $170 million to maintain annually, making them significantly cheaper than the police or army as an Afghan method of providing security locally.  While he said the ALP could not provide all the same skills as the police and army, he added: “There is an economy aspect for the ALP for a government of Afghanistan that is going to continue have to meet financial commitments as a young democracy. It does give them some options.”

Evans added that basic training and local accountability were in place to keep the ALP in order. “There are several check and balances: a vetting at the local level by the Shuras”, or groups of village elders  “It allows for people to say that a man would be a good guardian for them as they have known them all their lives. And secondly if this young man turns out not to be an honest man now he is accountable to that village elder as that’s how the culture works.”  Evans added the ALP were under the remit of the Afghan Ministry of Interior and answerable to local police chiefs.

McRaven defended NATO’s controversial tactic of night raids in Afghanistan, which have become a sticking point in negotiations over the US’s long term military presence in the country. He said there have been 2,800 raids on insurgents in the country in the past year alone, only 15% of which fired a shot.  McRaven added that of all the casualties caused by coalition special forces raids, only 1% were civilians killed in error. The intrusive nature of the raids, and the civilian deaths they cause, have made them deeply unpopular in the nation. President Hamid Karzai has frequently demanded that they stop.  “I think you would find that night raids are very valuable when you are trying to get somebody who is trying to hide,” McRaven said. “It’s an important piece of security and I think we have to continue to have this discussion with the Afghans. I’m not sure I know if it’s essential but I know that it’s important.”

On special forces raids in general in Afghanistan, McRaven said: …..”A common mission of for the guys is they will helicopter into an area and the Afghans will get on bullhorns and they will say “please come out we are coalition forces.”  Previous reports have suggested raids happen on average 10 times a night, but sometimes as often as 40. McRaven’s remarks lower that average slightly, but still provide an official confirmation of how common such operations have become.  McRaven said moves are under way to ensure that future night raids are led by Afghan commandos, a possible compromise in the face of complaints here from the presidency. McRaven insisted elements of the Afghan government were in favor of raids.

McRaven also addressed the changing nature of the insurgency after a decade of war in Afghanistan. An operations officer with his team said that since the bin Laden raid and other operations, al Qaeda’s “relevance in Afghanistan is becoming less and less. Their leadership has been impacted significantly. Each time they try and put somebody up there, we take them down. That has really put a hurt on al Qaeda.”  Afghan insurgents “see al Qaeda more as a liability now. They [the Afghan Taliban] see it was a mistake to ever partner with” al Qaeda, he said.

McRaven added the Haqqani network – a sophisticated part of the insurgency considered responsible for various raids into Kabul and believed to have significant Pakistani military support – were tough fighters who are well-supplied.  But he added the network was not entirely dependent on Pakistani support.  “I think the Haqqanis are fairly autonomous. That’s not to say that support that they get living in Pakistan certainly makes them more difficult for us to get at. They have been around for quite some time. So they have developed a pretty extensive network in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. I don’t think they would go away quickly regardless who went after them.”…

Excerpt, By Nick Paton Walsh,Tripling Afghanistan’s ‘community watch with AK-47s’, CNN, Dec. 11, 2011

How to Criminalize a Whole Nation:the United States Supports Biometrics in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has many dubious distinctions on the international-rankings front: 10th-poorest, third-most corrupt, worst place to be a child, longest at war. To that may soon be added: most heavily fingerprinted.  Since September, Afghanistan has been the only country in the world to fingerprint and photograph all travelers who pass through Kabul International Airport, arriving and departing.

A handful of other countries fingerprint arriving foreigners, but no country has ever sought to gather biometric data on everyone who comes and goes, whatever their nationality. Nor do Afghan authorities plan to stop there: their avowed goal is to fingerprint, photograph and scan the irises of every living AfghanIt is a goal heartily endorsed by the American military, which has already gathered biometric data on two million Afghans who have been encountered by soldiers on the battlefield, or who have just applied for a job with the coalition military or its civilian contractors.

The Kabul airport program is also financed by the United States, with money and training provided by the American Embassy. Americans, like all other travelers, are subject to it.  “Some of the embassies are quite exercised about it,” one Western diplomat said. Such a program would be illegal if carried out in the home countries of most of the occupying coalition. The United States and Japan fingerprint all foreigners on arrival; South Korea plans to start doing so in January. (Brazil retaliated against the American program by fingerprinting arriving Americans only.) Officials at the American Embassy declined to comment specifically on the program; a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security denied it had anything to do with it.

Biometric data is also being gathered by the American military at all of Afghanistan’s eight major border crossings, in a program that it plans to hand over to the Afghan government at the end of this month. So far, that program gathers only random samples at border crossings, because traffic is so heavy, but since it began in April it has already added 200,000 people to the military’s biometrics database.  The military wants to use biometrics to identify known or suspected insurgents, and to prevent infiltration of military bases and Afghan security forces. “The technology removes the mask of anonymity,” said Capt. Kevin Aandahl of the Navy, a spokesman for the military’s detainee operations, which include the biometrics program.

Gathering the data does not stop at Afghanistan’s borders, however, since the military shares all of the biometrics it collects with the United States Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security through interconnected databases.  Even the civilian-run airport program collecting fingerprints and photographs feeds its information into computers at the American Embassy, as well as at the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and its intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, according to Mohammad Yaqub Rasuli, the head of the Kabul International Airport.

Mr. Rasuli acknowledges that the airport screening has had a rocky start. “We are happy with the system, but the airlines and the passengers are not that happy,” he said.  Delays of up to two hours have resulted from the screening, which takes at least three minutes per passenger. With six screening stations at most, the process becomes laborious, and so many travelers recently have been missing their flights that the airlines routinely delay takeoffs.  “Someone who is not used to this system, it can take 10 to 15 minutes each,” said Mohammed Fawad, deputy director of immigration at the airport.

Reporters at the airport have on several occasions witnessed immigration officers just waving through some passengers as crowds backed up; others were allowed to skip their thumbprints to speed things along. One man had his hand fingerprinted upside down, with nails facing the scanner.  “It is some sort of cultural deficiency,” Mr. Rasuli said. “After six months, everyone will be happy with it.” The next step will be a national identity card with biometric data on every citizen, he said. “A lot of our problems will be solved with this.”….

The military has done somewhat better with its program, according to Col. Fred Washington, director of the United States Army’s biometrics task force. Since 2007, when biometric collection began in Afghanistan, biometrics have been used to identify 3,000 suspects on either Watch List 1 or Watch List 2, the American military’s two most serious classifications for possible insurgents or terrorists. In many cases, fingerprints found on bomb remains have identified the bomb maker, he said.  “People are accepting it because they know it’s making their country secure,” Colonel Washington said.

Mohammad Musa Mahmoodi, executive director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said, “Given the circumstances in Afghanistan, fighting terrorism and insurgency, government can take measures to protect its citizens.” “To be honest, we’ve got more important problems to worry about,” he said.  Civil liberties groups abroad are more concerned. “The situation in Afghanistan is unprecedented, but I worry that we could move into that situation in the United States without even realizing we’re doing it,” said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

There have been some signs of Afghan sensitivities as well. A military-financed program to gather biometric data in the city of Kandahar in 2010, during the push to control insurgency there, was so unpopular that President Hamid Karzai promised local elders to have it canceled, which it was, according to Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the governor in Kandahar Province.  And the Afghan government has yet to pass legislation providing for the biometric screening of the entire population that it has announced it plans to carry out for the national identity card.

As a result, the military has not conducted wholesale sweeps of communities to gather biometrics, Colonel Washington said, although in just the past year 12,000 soldiers have been trained to use the B.A.T. — the Biometric Automated Toolset. “We can’t go door to door,” he said.  The Commander’s Guide to Biometrics in Afghanistan, however, encourages documenting as many Afghans as possible.  “Every person who lives within an operational area should be identified and fully biometrically enrolled with facial photos, iris scans, and all 10 fingerprints (if present),” the guide says. (That was apparently a reference to Afghanistan’s many amputees.)  While the B.A.T. equipment is portable, it is not always easy to use, and the results can sometimes be unpredictable.

A reporter from The New York Times, an American of Norwegian rather than Afghan extraction, voluntarily submitted to a test screening with the B.A.T. system. After his fingerprints and iris scans were entered into the B.A.T.’s armored laptop, an unexpected “hit” popped up on the screen, along with the photograph of a heavily bearded Afghan.  The “hit” identified the reporter as “Haji Daro Shar Mohammed,” who is on terrorist Watch List 4, with this note: “Deny Access, Do Not Hire, Subject Poses a Threat.”

By ROD NORDLAND, Afghanistan Has Big Plans for Biometric Data, NY Times,Nov. 19, 2011