Stepping down from his role as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, general John Allen declared: ‘Afghan forces defending Afghan people, and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory, this is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.’
However, fresh reports of atrocities by Afghans linked to US special forces – and moves by the Afghan government to rein in both – have thrown a stark spotlight on the role of these forces when the US ‘combat’ mission supposedly ends at the end of 2014.
On 22 February, NATO defence ministers announced a draft proposal that envisions 9,500 US troops – and 6,000 troops from other NATO countries – staying in Afghanistan post-2014. There are currently around 100,000 NATO forces in the country, of whom roughly two-thirds are from the US.
Two days later, the Afghan national security council (NSC) issued orders for an immediate halt to all US special forces operations in Wardak province, west of Kabul, and for these same forces to leave the province within two weeks. The announcement followed months of reported abuses by groups and individuals apparently linked to a US special operations base in Wardak.
Reuters interviewed dozens of residents and Afghan government officials who claimed that Afghans working with US special forces had been detaining, torturing and killing suspected insurgents. Bibi Shereen’s son was seized in a night raid, his body later discovered under a bridge with his fingers cut off and his throat slit.
One week earlier, the NSC had ‘instructed relevant security institutions to impede operations by all the armed groups and units established in some provinces by the coalition forces outside the Afghan armed forces’ structures’, and created a panel to ‘ask the coalition forces to integrate all those groups and units into the security institutions of Afghanistan.’
SOF + CIA
The two developments – NATO’s drawdown proposal and the NSC orders – are related. For, as the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network’s Martine van Bijlert notes: ‘The US Special Operations Forces are key to any post-2014 US counter-terrorism combat effort, along with the CIA and whatever Afghan partners they choose to work with, and it is unlikely that the US will agree to a continued military presence without some kind of continued free hand.’
NATO is currently considering plans to continue bank-rolling the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces – consisting of both army and police units – until 2018, and: ‘Special forces are also training tens of thousands of civilians for the Afghan Local Police’ a village-based militia that has become ‘a central part of the effort to shore up security in rural areas’ (Economist, 2 March).
However, what NATO means by ‘security’ is another matter.
Reporting from the Sangin district of Helmand (where most British troops are based) for the BBC’s Panorama, Ben Anderson writes that the Afghan police are ‘often illiterate and drug-addicted’, using child soldiers, kidnapping civilians, firing indiscriminately, and selling the weapons NATO pays for.
‘Try working with child molesters, with people who are robbing people, murdering them. It wears on you after a while’, US major Bill Steuber, leader of the police advisory team in Sangin, told him.
Echoing other media reports dating back many years, Anderson writes: ‘it would not be a surprise to see local people welcoming a return of the Taliban, seeing them as a bulwark against spectacular corruption and violence, just as they did when the Taliban first swept to power.’
The use of Afghan proxy forces ‘date[s] from the earliest stages of the American war, when bags of dollars were handed to local strongmen to buy the services of their militias’ (Economist), and atrocities such as those in Wardak have a similarly long history.
Together with other factors this makes it ‘unlikely that at this stage [NATO] and the US will ... be forced to seriously curtail their Special Forces operations’ (van Bijlert).
One thing is clear, however: under current plans, the withdrawal of US and British troops will not terminate US and British responsibility for the ongoing carnage in Afghanistan.