KHOST, Afghanistan – Members of a CIA-backed paramilitary group allegedly killed 14 civilians in raids in Afghanistan's troubled Khost province. In one case, he broke into the home of a man in his forties, Muhammad Shawkat, and dragged him into the street and shot him for no apparent reason after interviewing several residents of the area.
At least one woman was among the dead, residents said. They declined to be identified in the description of the murders because they feared retaliation from the group known as the Khost Protection Force (KPF). News of the killings also spread on social media last month.
The PCF controls much of Khost in southeastern Afghanistan, one of the more volatile parts of the country. The CIA founded the force in the first days of the war in Afghanistan in late 2001 and relied on fighters from local Pashtun tribes for its membership. Nineteen years later, CIA agents continue to train and arm the PCF despite the fact that they have repeatedly entangled investigate atrocities against civilians, including torture and homicide Human rights groups.
As the United States steers towards a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, many residents fear that the PCF and other CIA-backed paramilitary groups will step up their attacks to assert themselves across the country.
“Those who attacked us brutally killed him for no reason. They are violent criminals, ”one of Shawkat's relatives said in an interview. He said PCF troops searched the house in mid-October and killed eight other civilians in similar operations that day.
“Shawkat was not a member of a terrorist group. He was just a normal Afghan who worked in the city, ”said a resident of Khost's Lakan area, where Shawkat lived. "There's not much you can do if something like this happens – just hope they aren't after you," added the resident. He said the PCF had gone unpunished because of its close association with the US armed forces.
The PCF operates independently from the Afghan National Army and often conducts joint operations with US forces. While most regular Afghan soldiers are poorly equipped, PCF members are armed with modern weapons. In addition to raids and patrols, they are also pursuing targets for US drone strikes.
The CIA has covered Khost with surveillance equipment, set up reconnaissance balloons and wiretapped antennas across the province.
About two weeks after the raids, Taliban troops attacked a PCF convoy in the area, said Hazrat Wali Sabir, a resident of the area. In response, the paramilitary group launched another series of attacks, according to local residents, in which five civilians were killed. Sabir said one of the victims was Mohammad Amin, the son of former Afghan MP Amir Khan Sabarai. The raids took place in various villages in the district.
Reporters and human rights groups in the area have also been reached out in recent months, including: Rahim Sekander, a local radio journalist who frequently spoke out against legal violations. Sekander was arrested in August by the National Security Directorate, an Afghan intelligence agency that works closely with the PCF and is also funded by the United States. The secret service, largely manned by officers from its brutal Soviet-era predecessor, KhAD, has also become known for attacks on civilians and government critics.
Sekander, who used his social media platform to report abuses to both the Taliban and the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani, has been detained without trial since August. In particular, Sekander has criticized the air strikes that killed civilians and the violent night attacks by the PCF and other CIA-backed units across the country. These attacks on civilians have often fueled the militancy.
"I don't understand why he was arrested. You didn't give us a reason," said Sekander's mother Shamal Gul in an interview.
“The worst criminals in this country are free, but my brother was arrested for criticizing the government on Facebook,” said Sekander's brother Siddiqullah. In the absence of his brother, Siddiqullah helps look after Sekander's six children.
Saifullah Hayat, chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists in Khost Province, said in an interview that the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture should intervene on behalf of Sekander, but has shown no interest in the case.
Patricia Gossman, an Asian associate director of Human Rights Watch, said the Afghan government promised to investigate murders by the PCF and other clandestine forces a year ago but has not yet investigated. “For nearly two decades the Khost Protection Force has been responsible for executions and other abuses, including the detention of journalists. It has never been held accountable – neither by the Afghan authorities nor by the US, ”she said.
The New York-based rights group published a 60 page report last year Documentation of violence by CIA-backed Afghan militias with details 14 cases in nine provinces. The report concludes that the CIA-trained and funded Afghan armed forces have paid little attention to civil life or international law. The militias are active across the country, most recently in the provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Nangarhar and Wardak.
Journalists based in Khost and Kabul contributed to this report, including the photograph, but refused to be identified because they feared retaliation by Afghan forces.