21 December 2010, NYT: U.S. Military Seeks to Expand Raids in Pakistan
MARCH 17, 2015
Afghan Militia Leaders, Empowered by U.S. to Fight Taliban, Inspire Fear in Villages
By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Rahimullah used to be a farmer -- just a "normal person living an ordinary life," as he put it. Then he formed his own militia last year and found himself swept up in America's exit strategy from Afghanistan.
With about 20 men loyal to him, Rahimullah, 56, soon discovered a patron in the United States Special Forces, who provided everything he needed: rifles, ammunition, cash, even sandbags for a guard post in Aghu Jan, a remote village in Ghazni Province.
Then the Americans pulled out, leaving Rahimullah behind as the local strongman, and as his village's only defense against a Taliban takeover.
"We are shivering with fear," said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimullah's militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion.
Mr. Ahad ran afoul of them in January, he said in a telephone interview. Militiamen hauled him to a guard station and beat him so badly that neighbors had to use a wheelbarrow to get him home.
Scattered across Afghanistan, men like Rahimullah continue to hold ground and rule villages. They are a significant part of the legacy of the American war here, brought to power amid a Special Operations counterinsurgency strategy that mobilized anti-Taliban militias in areas beyond the grasp of the Afghan Army.
From the start, some Afghan officials, including former President Hamid Karzai, objected to the Americans' practice of forming militias that did not answer directly to the Afghan government. They saw the militias as destabilizing forces that undermined the government's authority and competed with efforts to build up large and professional military and police forces.
Now, many of those concerns have become a daily reality in Afghan villages.
"For God's sake, take these people away from us," Mr. Ahad, 36, said of Rahimullah's militiamen. "We cannot stand their brutality."
About 50 miles northeast of Mr. Ahad's village, other anti-Taliban fighters arrested a 13- or 14-year-old boy in January and then killed him, the boy's father said.
And in the northern province of Kunduz, men in a militia that had received American support raped a 15-year-old boy last year after forcing him to join, according to a United Nations inquiry.
From the beginning of the American presence here, the United States doled out cash to militias and warlords. Paramilitary forces were raised to guard American bases. The C.I.A. trained and funded at least six paramilitary  forces, with names such as the Khost Protection Force and 0-4, to pursue the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The Afghan Local Police program, with nearly 30,000 Special Forces-trained militiamen nominally answering to the central government, is the biggest and best-known result of the American counterinsurgency strategy, and it has been successful in places. But reports of abuses and banditry by units in the program have hurt its reputation.
Then there are militia groups like Rahimullah's that have also received American training or support over the years but operate under even less oversight.
In Ghazni Province, the drive to create militias gained momentum after a series of anti-Taliban uprisings in 2012 emerged in areas once considered lost. Until they pulled out of Ghazni's districts last year, American Special Operations units gave cash, ammunition and even armored vehicles to men who had little or no official connection to the Afghan government and were often former insurgents themselves.
One of them is Abdullah, a militia commander with a chiseled, almost gaunt face, who wishes "my brothers," as he still calls the American Special Forces soldiers, had not left late last year. "Whatever they wanted me to do, I would do for them," he said. "If they tell me to kill someone, I will kill them."
The Americans, he said, had once fought alongside him in Ghazni's Andar district, offering a sense of discipline -- not to mention firepower and air support.
Abdullah described the growing desperation and brutality of a war he and his 150 men now fight mostly alone against the Taliban. Abdullah said 11 of his men were killed in their sleep in late January by a Taliban infiltrator posing as a new recruit. Then the Taliban followed up with a coordinated attack on his guard post.
"In this attack, the Taliban hit me hard," Abdullah said during an interview last month in Kabul. He had come here to get medical treatment for a gunshot wound he received in the attack, and to seek support from Afghanistan's intelligence agency.
Human rights groups portray Abdullah as being among Afghanistan's most notorious militia commanders. Human Rights Watch and the human rights division of the United Nations have censured his militia in the past year, citing extrajudicial killings. In an episode in January, one of Abdullah's sub-commanders killed the 13- or 14-year-old after questioning him about roadside bombs, the boy's father, Khial Mohammad, said.
"After they killed my son, they said he was involved in planting bombs on roadsides and cooperating with the Taliban fighters," Mr. Mohammad said. But he added that his son had had no involvement with the Taliban.
Abdullah insisted that he did not kill civilians. The Taliban, he said, not he, were responsible for escalating the brutality.
Abdullah recalled the Americans lecturing him about the laws of war and human rights, but those notions barely seemed to register. He admitted to desecrating the bodies of his enemies.
"Yes, dead bodies are left on the ground," he said. "We drag their dead bodies with a car."
The last time he saw the American Special Forces team was some five months ago. " 'You did great work with us,' " Abdullah recalled the soldiers telling him in parting. " 'If we stay in Afghanistan and we need something to get done, we need people like you to do it for us,' they said."
Since the Americans left, many of these militias have become more predatory, officials in Ghazni say, partly to feed themselves and partly because there is no one to stop them.
"These uprisers, they are like roundworms in your stomach," said Khial Mohammad Hussaini, a tribal elder from Ghazni Province. "They are eating everything."
In another part of Ghazni, Rahimullah became a militia leader last year, starting with about 20 men who joined him after the Taliban kidnapped and killed his son.
In an interview, he expressed pride: In the eight months since he had come to power, a school had reopened, and a new road was being built in Aghu Jan, home to about 1,500 families, he said.
Asked about his militia's treatment of the people, he acknowledged expelling several of his men who had abused villagers. "I warned them several times not to rob or harass the people," Rahimullah said. But in the same interview, he also claimed that many of the accusations against his men were part of a pro-Taliban conspiracy.
He said that he had the support of Afghanistan's intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, as well as the people of Aghu Jan. But tribal elders routinely travel from Aghu Jan to the district and provincial capital to complain about the heavy-handed ways of his men.
In January, when a roadside bomb wounded Rahimullah, retribution was swift -- and random. Militiamen rounded up over a dozen people and brought them to the guard post the Americans had helped construct.
Mr. Ahad was one of those who was arrested. But he insists that he and the others had nothing to do with the roadside bombing. Their innocence was corroborated by the district police chief, Mohammad Hashem, who described the men rounded up as day laborers and farmers. In the guard station, the men were beaten with chains taken from motorcycles.
Rahimullah's men told them the only thing they could do to save themselves, Mr. Ahad said: "They started asking each of us to pay 50,000 or 100,000 rupees, depending on who we were."
Ahmad Shakib contributed reporting.