Despite ongoing talks between Washington and the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan, US forces and their Afghan allies have killed more civilians than all insurgent groups combined so far this year.
The ongoing talks between the US Trump administration and the Afghan Taliban are being hyped as a significant step towards ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan.
In truth, though, the talks, if successful, may end up only ending one of the many wars currently being fought in the country. The US-led intervention has passed its 17th year, but conflict and chaos in Afghanistan have been taking place for the past 40 years.
Afghan occupation an old story
Recently, the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal passed. During the almost ten-year-long occupation, around two million Afghans died. After the withdrawal, the war in the country far from ending evolved as different Mujahidin warlords jockeyed for power. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians were killed during the civil war in the early 1990s.
And as we also know today, Moscow's withdrawal was just a pullback from the country. It is true that on February 15 1989, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan over the Amu Darya river. But it is also true that the Russians continued to back the Afghan Communist dictatorship, the government of Mohammad Najibullah, and that intelligence advisors stayed with the regime to support its continuing war against the Mujahidin groups.
A similar scenario could take place today. Apart from the fact that a real withdrawal plan is not on the table yet, many questions remain. Will all US and NATO troops leave the country? Will a small contingent stay? Will aerial operations stop? How will the Americans continue to support the Afghan National Army? And what will happen with American-backed Afghan militias that are not part of that very army?
The answers to these questions remain essential.
Different boots, same victims
A recent United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report stated that US forces and their Afghan allies killed more civilians during the first quarter of 2019 than all insurgent groups combined.
According to the UN, at least 1,773 civilians have been killed or injured between January 1 and March 31. At least 305 of them were killed by the US military, the Afghan National Army and CIA-backed militias.
At the same time, 227 civilians were killed by insurgent groups like the Taliban, which remains the most significant and most influential on the ground. Civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces rose by 39 percent compared to 2018. At least 140 civilians have been killed by airstrikes conducted by conventional aircraft and drones.
Since UNAMA started counting in 2009, it is the very first time that the Americans and their Afghan allies have killed more civilians than their enemies.
However, observers of the conflict should not be surprised. Over the last few years, there has been a substantial increase in both aerial operations and brutal night raids in Afghanistan. In 2018, the US military dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than ever before.
Often, it was even difficult to count since several operations followed each other or took place at the same time. Last but not least, it is well known that UNAMA is using a very conservative methodology to count casualties. To confirm every single victim, at least three different sources are needed.
In a country like Afghanistan, this is extremely difficult. I personally interviewed many people who lost their family members after night raids or airstrikes, and in many cases, I was the very first journalist who reached out.
Especially in remote rural areas, which are the main target of such operations. There, journalists and human rights activists are an absolute rarity.
As the Americans repeatedly stated, they do not want to see Afghanistan become another haven for terrorist groups. But at the very same time, a closer examination of their own policies on the ground does not take place.
Most, militants and extremists appear out of nowhere, they are the results of a process, and often, they are reactions to other forms of violence.
The US-backed warlords
Part of this violence is the American-backed Afghan militias who have been operating in different parts of the country for years. These militias have built a notorious reputation. I noticed this the very first time when I entered Khost province in Afghanistan's southeast, near the Durand Line.
Back then, I took a cab from Kabul and made the four-hour journey through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and the provinces of Logar and Paktia. When we – the cab driver, three residents of Khost and I – reached our destination, we first had to face members of the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a CIA-backed militia that is controlling large parts of the province.
"Where are you from?" a militiaman asked every one of us. Like the others, I told him that I was from Khost, while I successfully tried to imitate the local Pashto dialect. And of course, I did not tell him anything about my profession since I knew what the KPF did with journalists, especially with those who wanted to investigate their crimes, or those of their bosses, the Americans.
In the past, journalists were abducted and tortured by the militia. I visited Khost in 2017 to interview several victims of drone strikes in the region. "Don't tell anyone what you are doing here. This is a dangerous issue," a friend of mine told me immediately after I met him.
The KPF was founded in the early days of the Afghanistan war. Consisting of local Pashtuns from the region, all fighters are trained and armed by the CIA, which also has a base in the province, Camp Chapman.
The militia itself, which has become notorious among locals, mainly conducts joint night raids with US forces, tracks targets for drone operations, and often appears at the scene after airstrikes.
"They told us that our family members were terrorists. They threatened us to stay silent," Pasta Khan, a member of a local nomad tribe, told me. In 2016, a drone attack killed 14 of his fellow villagers, six of them were close relatives. All victims were civilians.
According to the nomads, the KPF attempted to cover up its crimes while both the Americans and the local government claimed that the strikes killed militants. Later, the UN also confirmed civilian casualties.
CIA backs local police state
Thanks to the CIA and the KPF, large parts of Khost have become a police state.
While many locals appreciate the fact that suicide attacks and other militant operations barely take place, they also do know that the strange calmness in their city has nothing to do with real peace or security.
"The militiamen [of the KPF] have high salaries. They get hundreds of dollars each month from the Americans. But once, many of them were thieves and criminals. If the US drops them, they will loot our city in a single night," Sangar, a local shopkeeper, told me back then.
He was probably right. Since the KPF directly operates under the CIA, it acts independently from the Afghan National Army. While most regular Afghan soldiers are poorly equipped, KPF forces are heavily armed with modern weapons, and on many occasions, the CIA does what it wants with them. Regularly, people are being abducted, tortured and killed by the militia.
The other US-backed forces
A similar force to the KPF also operates in the eastern Nangarhar province. The so-called 02 unit is a branch of special forces working under the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, and is also backed by the CIA. During operations, the group is often supported by airstrikes conducted by both the US and Afghan forces.
Similar to KPF operations, the 02 unit regularly kills civilians during its operations, as has happened many times during recent months.
"First, they attacked us with bombs. Then they entered the living room and started to shoot around,” Jamal Khan, a local from Nangarhar's Rodat district, told me.
“They didn't care about who they were killing. They killed my uncle and his nine-year-old son. His wife and his other child were injured.”
The operation took place last October when the unit in a single night raided three different houses. By the end, 13 civilians were dead, including at least four children. Shortly after the raids, the Afghan government claimed that only Islamic State fighters were killed.
However, the village that was attacked on that night was not controlled by militants but by the government. "We had many problems with militant groups in the past, and I know that most of us don't like them. But we cannot love the government too if their forces attack our homes and kill our children," one villager, who preferred to stay anonymous, told me.
The operations of both the KPF and the 02 unit will continue to fuel extremism, militancy and hatred towards the Afghan government and its American allies.
It is doubtful that their operations in Afghanistan will stop, even after a possible peace deal with the Taliban. The CIA backs both militias and other ones similar to them, and as history taught us, the intelligence services often doing what they want.
In this very moment, the CIA is involved in countless clandestine operations around the globe, and thanks to the Trump administration, the agency has become even more opaque. It has a free pass to continue conducting drone strikes and ordering shadowy special forces units to hunt and kill.
This will continue in Afghanistan too, and it will endanger not only a peace deal but also any peace in the country.