Afghanistan’s Rape Crisis: Villagers Fear U.S.-Backed Militias

Afghans fear U.S.-backed militias—and allegations of sexual violence abound. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau report.

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

Jumadin, a 45-year-old farmer from the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, returned to his modest mud-brick home late one evening last January to find the front door shattered. He rushed inside, calling and searching for his 19-year-old daughter, Monizha, who had been home alone while Jumadin’s wife and three other children visited relatives in Pakistan. He was panic-stricken. The small house had been ransacked, and Monizha was nowhere inside. He finally found her just in time: she was outside in the animal shed, trying to hang herself.

Thin, grey-bearded and missing most of his front teeth, Jumadin says he wrapped his traumatized daughter in a blanket and cuddled her. “She was in shock. Her eyes were closed, and she would not open them to look at me,” he tells Newsweek /The Daily Beast. He finally coaxed from her the sordid details of the ordeal she’d just suffered. She had been raped repeatedly by three local Afghan militiamen wearing the khaki-colored uniforms of the American-trained and -supported Afghan Local Police (ALP). “I hugged her, and we both cried for hours,” he recalls. “I told her it was written in our destiny, so let’s try to cope with this dishonor.”

He continues, “In our cruel society, if a girl is raped by strong forces there is nothing left for the girl and the family … We can cope with being poor, with earthquakes and disease—but not with rape that steals a family’s honor. We are ruined.”

The next morning, Jumadin walked to the village mosque to find out if anyone knew what had happened. “People were talking about how yesterday the ALP, who are under the control of American forces, had raided a number of houses in the village looking for Taliban,” he says.

He called his family in Pakistan and told them not to return—and quickly decided to join them. Within a week, he had sold his animals and most of his possessions. “We could not stay any longer in the house and village where my daughter had lost her and the family’s future,” says a tearful Jumadin, who now lives with his family in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.

“My daughter is still in shock,” he adds. “She is only skin and bone. She won’t eat, and every night she cries out in her dreams: ‘baba jan (father), baba jan, protect me.’”

“I couldn’t protect her,” he continues. “But if there was a Taliban regime, not a single woman would be raped … I feel like joining the Taliban, getting a suicide vest to attack [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, the Americans and all these American-backed police militias.”

Monizha is far from the only victim: in northern Kunduz and Jowzjan provinces, locals call the ALP and the other arbakai, or militias, “the enemies of young girls’ virginity.”

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan looming in 2014, a key part of American strategy has been to organize the ALP as a village self-defense force—sort of a neighborhood watch with AK-47s to protect the local population from Taliban intrusions, freeing Afghan security forces to pursue the Taliban.

The ALP initiative began in 2010 and was the third U.S. attempt to form village watches—the other two programs were scrapped after the local police spent more time harassing, abusing, and extorting money from villagers than protecting them. The ALP are supposed to be different: better trained and led, more disciplined, and loyal to the state rather than local warlords and power brokers.

But it may not have worked out that way. The ALP are recruited by local elders, vetted and trained for three weeks by American Special Operations forces, given Kalashnikovs, radios and khaki-colored uniforms, and paid some $190 a month through American funds transferred to the Ministry of Interior. Currently, there are some 20,000 ALP officers operating out of 100 of the country’s 400 districts. This past February, the United States pledged to provide an additional $1.2 billion to grow the force to 45,000 and support it through 2018.

In many areas, the ALP have been a success, driving the Taliban out of villages once occupied by the insurgents, particularly in the north, where the guerrillas are trying to mount a comeback.

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But the advent of the ALP has also coincided with the worrying proliferation of private militias, or arbakai, that have been organized by former anti-Soviet mujahedin commanders, warlords and local power brokers to fight off the Taliban in advance of and after the coalition’s withdrawal. These arbakai are only answerable to their rich and powerful bosses, are largely undisciplined, and have been blamed for extortion, robbery, seriously abusing villagers, reprisal killings of suspected Taliban and insurgent sympathizers, and rape. In many villages, peasants have a hard time telling the difference between the ALP and the many arbakai.

Often villagers see both as potentially oppressive forces. As a result, a Pentagon report last December warned that the “proliferation of independent [non-government] sanctioned militias…threaten to undermine the legitimacy and progress of the (ALP) program.”

The report continued, “Many reports of abuse attributed to the Afghan Local Police are actually reports of abuse committed by non-ALP local defense forces such as local arbakai, warlord militias … that have taken the ALP name.”

ALP officers have also been involved in “insider” killings in which the Taliban have infiltrated agents into the ALP in an effort to create havoc. Last August, an ALP officer killed two U.S. soldiers in western Farah Province. And last September, Taliban infiltrators drugged and then shot 11 officers and six civilians at an ALP post in Ghazni, an act the caused the United States to temporarily suspend the ALP training program while U.S. military men “revalidated” the force’s active officers. The Taliban leadership makes no secret that it has targeted the ALP for attack and for infiltration. Over the past six months at least 180 ALP officers have been killed. ALP casualty rates are said to be double those of the Afghan National Army and National Police.

Jumadin believes that the militiamen who raped his daughter are affiliated with northern strongman Mir Alam Khan, an ethnic Tajik and a former anti-Soviet commander who, like many of today’s influential powerbrokers, fought against the Taliban in late 2001 with American military and financial support and has prospered ever since. A former police chief of Baghlan province, he has built one of the largest militias in the north, including some 3,000 armed men under his command in Kunduz. Some of his men, locals say, also serve in the ALP.

Seventeen-year-old Chaman Gul suffered a similar fate to that of Monizha. Relatives describe her as being a “healthy and attractive” young woman. In a phone interview with Newsweek/The Daily Beast, she described the ordeal she suffered two months ago in Aqsaee village, Darzab district, in the northern province of Jowzjan. As she, her relatives and other villagers tell it, she was brutally raped by seven men, including the local militia’s powerful commander, Murad Bai. “They broke down the door of our home and did to me, a number of times, horrible things that I can’t tell anyone or put into plain words,” she says from an undisclosed hiding place.

Other relatives and villagers confirm her account. One 60-year-old villager, who does not wish to be named for security reasons, says he watched as Bai and his men broke into Gul’s house. He says they were wearing the khaki-colored uniforms of the ALP. “They came just after noon and collectively raped her,” the villager says. “The village was so frightened no one could raise a voice against the ALP.”

Adds a close relative, who also wishes to remain anonymous: “The girl was raped for hours and was in such a terrible condition that we thought she would die.”

Rather than quietly hiding her suffering, as most victims and their families do, Gul took her case to the district and provincial authorities—but to no avail. “I complained to everyone in the concerned departments, but no one heard my voice,” she says.

The Darzab district police chief even threw her father out of his office. “The district police chief never offered any help or sympathy,” she says. “Another senior policeman told us the commander (Murad Bai) is the darling of the Americans and no one can touch him.”

Gul says that she and her father even traveled to the provincial capital of Sheberghan to register a complaint against the local police commander, but again no one agreed to help open a criminal case against Murad Bai and his men. Having lost all hope of any official intervention, she says she is contemplating suicide.

Local officials are striking back against Gul with their own version of events. The provincial police spokesman, Abdul Hai Razami, charges that Gul was not a virgin, that she is engaged to a Taliban—and even more preposterously, that she wanted to marry Bai. When Bai refused her proposal, he contends, the so-called Taliban fiancé concocted the rape story to cast blame on Bai. The district police chief says the police have arrested her fiancé for “making propaganda against the local police.”

One of Gul’s close relatives, whom Newsweek/The Daily Beast interviewed in Kabul, says that she was indeed engaged, but that Bai simply wanted to rape her. “Villagers say the commander boasts that he is allowed to take her virginity because he is boss,” the relative says. “Since she was a virgin, the commander has said, ‘I have to take the virginity of this 17-year-old girl.’”

Gul and her family received repeated death threats after brining her case to light, and she is now missing, a relative says.

With so many militias competing for riches, influence and territory, villagers say they are fearful that when the United States withdraws toward the end of next year, a destructive civil war will break out among the various armed groups, plunging the country back into the chaos it experienced in the early 1990s after the Soviet pullout. “I’m afraid Afghan Local Police and arbakai are the gifts that Karzai and the U.S. are leaving for us after 13 years of occupation,” the relative says.

Maghfirat Samini, the head of the Jowzjan office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, is sympathetic to Gul’s plight. She says that since Gul comes from a poor agricultural family, she has been ignored by the authorities. “The security forces are hiding the case,” she says. “They didn’t even let the poor girl go for a medical checkup.”

A U.N. official in the regional capital of Mazar-i-Sharif describes Bai as a “strongman with no limits.”

“Since they fight against the Taliban, the government and coalition forces give him a freehand to do whatever he wants,” the official says. “He is a terribly sick person who brags about taking the virginity of young girls.”

The official adds that young boys, too, are not immune from sexual assault by the ALP and arbakai. Early this month, the official says, two young boys were sexually assaulted by a militia group while they were tending their flocks. No one has been charged or arrested.

Even if ALP officers and arbakai militiamen are arrested for sexual or other crimes, chances are they will escape punishment as a result of their official connections. A Kunduz provincial military court officer told Newsweek/The Daily Beast that last year two ALP members were arrested for raping an 18-year-old woman. “The case was in court,” the officer says, “but due to pressure on the victim, the case is almost dead.”