Afghan Army Killings Threaten U.S. Aid

The Afghan army is struggling both to provide security and prosecute illegal killings carried out by its own soldiers, officials say—and millions of dollars hang in the balance.

09.02.14 9:45 AM ET

The White House has called on the Afghan government to investigate up to 15 suspected cases of illegal killings by its security forces—with seven incidents this year, according to U.S. and Afghan officials in Kabul and Washington.

The incidents occurred in units in virtually every regional area of Afghanistan, with two of this year’s alleged extrajudicial killings reported by U.S. soldiers who witnessed the events, one of the officials said. The seven incidents were winnowed from more than 30 suspected cases, with a cluster of the reports concentrated in eastern Afghanistan and units of the 201st Corps near Kabul, which just received human rights training, several U.S. officials said.

The officials said many of the suspicious killings were reported by locals or Afghan soldiers themselves, in units that U.S. troops had largely left as part of their staged departure in preparation for an almost complete troop drawdown by the end of 2016 that could be accelerated to a drawdown by the end of this year, if an Afghan president isn’t chosen in time to sign a security agreement with the U.S.

If the Afghan government fails to act quickly enough to find and punish those responsible—or prove the charges groundless—it could lose millions, if not billions, of dollars in U.S. aid under the terms of the Leahy Amendment of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. It faces a similar provision in the Defense Department Appropriations Act, which essentially blocks American aid to governments or security units that commit human rights abuses.

The incidents could also spur other NATO members to reconsider their commitment to the country, with the NATO security agreement with Afghanistan expiring at the end of this year and NATO leaders meeting this week to discuss what they’re willing to invest in money and manpower going forward.

The reported killings also strengthen the arguments of critics of President Barack Obama’s drawdown plan, who say it shows the quarter-million-strong army still has not developed the “higher order” functions of a modern military. The Afghan army still lacks experienced investigators or military prosecutors able to ferret out abuse and make charges stick, in addition to lagging on even more pressing needs like logistics.

The Pentagon budget passed tightened Leahy Amendment restrictions for 2014, triggering a review of allegations stretching back to a single incident in 2011, as well as seven reported killings last year and seven more this year.

None of the officials would estimate how many people may have been killed, although the number of incidents being looked into indicates it’s at least 15. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The reports of possible abuse were enough to spur U.S. military commanders to reach out to their Afghan counterparts and tell them they needed to act. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, also sent out a reminder to all troops in early spring to watch for such abuse, and to report it.

“It’s not clear that it’s systemic,” a senior U.S. administration official said. But the charges have to be investigated, “to say whether the reports constitute credible information,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s one incident or 20,” the senior administration official added. “You can’t provide funding or U.S. assistance to that unit unless they take corrective action, and that’s where the process is right now.”

The White House referred questions to the Pentagon. Defense spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby would not comment on the specific cases, but said, “We take seriously all allegations of misconduct and extrajudicial killings, and fully support the investigation of such incidents.” Afghan officials publicly dismissed the charges, but said they would investigate nonetheless.

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“To my knowledge, there has been nothing like that committed by our troops,” said Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Dawlat Waziri, when asked about the inquiry this summer. The Afghan Defense Ministry refused to update his comment for this story.

Another Afghan official said his government takes the charges seriously, but the military is tied up trying to maintain security in the face of a fierce Taliban fighting season. It is also distracted by the political uncertainty of who is going to end up running the country, as a second-round election recount drags on weeks longer than planned.

“There have been units with issues for some time,” the official said. “We’re struggling with these problems, but we can’t do it overnight.”

While U.S. troops and trainers have harped on human rights issues, teaching Afghans how to fight to survive came first—at least in the minds of many of those being taught. The idea of following and enforcing the rule of law in addition to maintaining security hasn’t yet soaked down to some of the mid- to lower-level commanders, the U.S. officials said.

An Afghan official concurred that the idea of policing one’s own has developed slowly, just as the Afghan army has struggled to build its own logistics and medical system.

Those excuses would do little to dissuade those enforcing the statute, if the U.S. had concrete proof of the suspected killings. But beyond those few incidents witnessed by U.S. troops in the field, most of the other reports are from Afghans often located in remote villages where there is no longer a U.S. presence, either based there or accompanying the Afghan troops in the area.

They sometimes hear radioed orders that give them pause, get word from Afghan soldiers themselves or the villages the security forces enter. The reports are often unreliable, however, leading to confusion.

“Afghan tipsters tell us they heard a commander order everyone in a village killed, but we go to the village, and no one there has been harmed,” a U.S. military official said. “Or at least, we can’t find a body.”