The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taliban wages campaign of targeted killings against former members of Afghan security forces

The father of the former police officer outside his home's front gate in Helmand, where a group of men he said were Taliban fighters abducted and killed his son. (Susannah George/The Washington Post)
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LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — It was dark and the streets deserted one night in late August when the former intelligence officer heard banging on his neighbor’s gates. Then, women screaming.

“Please don’t kill them,” they pleaded, “have mercy.” The former officer crawled to his roof to see three attackers pulling two men out into the street below him. The gunmen wore Taliban insignia and drove a confiscated green pickup truck, previously issued to Afghan police and now used exclusively by the Taliban.

The two men had served as border police under the previous Afghan government, according to the former officer. “You killed many of our mujahideen,” he heard one of the attackers say as the group raised their guns and shot both men multiple times in the face and chest.

The bodies were left on the side of the street. The next morning, after the family buried their sons, they fled and changed their phone numbers. “No one knows where they are,” said the former officer, who, like others in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals from the Taliban.

Scenes like this became a near-nightly occurrence in southern Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country in August, according to more than a dozen family members of victims and former Afghan officials, as fighters carried out a broad campaign of targeted killings against their former foes.

The stories in Helmand, Kandahar and elsewhere were echoed in a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday that documented more than 100 killings and abductions of former Afghan officials since August. The New York-based research group described the violations as on the rise and deliberate.

The killings come despite a pledge to grant amnesty to former Afghan security forces and government officials, demonstrating that building international pressure for the group to respect human rights has done little to sway the Taliban from the use of indiscriminate violence to respond to groups and individuals perceived as threats.

Bilal Karimi, a deputy Taliban spokesman, denied reports of large-scale arrests or killings of former government officials, calling them “part of a propaganda campaign.”

He added that hundreds of thousands officials of the former regime have accepted the offer of general amnesty and live peacefully in Afghanistan. “There may be some incidents [of abductions and killings], but that may be due to personal conflicts or someone [unaffiliated with the Taliban] may have used the name of the Islamic Emirate,” he said.

The former officer who witnessed the late-night raid on his street also lost three family members to targeted killings since the Taliban takeover. His brother, uncle and cousin, former police and intelligence officers, were picked up by Taliban fighters from the central bazaar, according to witnesses who informed the family. Days later, a picture posted to Facebook showed the men dumped at a prominent roundabout beneath a statue of a dove.

When the family retrieved the bodies, “they all still had the amnesty letters in their pockets,” the former officer said. That day, he considered fleeing but couldn’t. As the oldest remaining son, he has to provide for his elderly parents, who are too frail to travel.

“Of course I’m afraid the knock at the door will also come for me one night,” he said.

Patricia Gossman, an associate director and co-author of the Human Rights Watch report, said the violence was unlikely to be carried out by rogue Taliban fighters.

“The Taliban have always prided themselves on command and control of their ranks, so it would be pretty hard to believe that killings on this scale could go on without senior officials in Kabul even being aware,” Gossman said.

If senior Taliban officials are aware of the killings but doing nothing to stop it, she said, “in every respect they are condoning” the actions of their fighters.

The promise of amnesty

Many former Afghan soldiers were allowed to return to their homes after handing over their weapons and applying for amnesty. A former police officer in Kunduz was allowed to walk home along with dozens of Afghan army soldiers from the military base beside the city’s airport after a surrender deal was struck.

“Sometimes the Taliban comes to my house to check again for weapons or government cars,” the officer said. While not always friendly, the fighters have never beaten him or threatened him with violence.

“It’s just harassment,” he said. But the visits leave him unnerved, wondering how long the promise of amnesty will last.

For one 20-year-old police officer in Helmand, amnesty lasted about a month. After registering with his local Taliban commander, he returned to his family’s farm, never appearing worried that he would be a target despite rumors of Taliban night raids in the provincial capital and neighboring villages.

“He trusted that piece of paper,” said the former police officer’s father, a retired truck driver. “But I was scared for him every day.”

The knock came at the door in mid-September about 10 p.m. The former police officer walked into the garden to answer and was whisked away so quickly that his father didn’t have time to confront the abductors. Minutes later, the sound of gunfire rippled through the house.

“At that moment, I already knew they had killed my son,” the father said. “We didn’t sleep at all that night. At sunrise I walked out to the mosque for prayers, and that’s when I saw the crowd gathered in a nearby field.”

The young man had been shot three times, once in the forehead and once through each eye.

“No one except the Taliban could do something like this,” the father said, referring to the group’s strong control of the area. The father said the only reason he hasn’t fled with his family is because he cannot afford to. His son’s income was the only money supporting the family.

“Where would we even go?” the father said, shaking his head. “What this shows me is the Taliban did not bring the system they promised. They are not going to build this country. … Things will only go from worse to worse.”

While the Taliban used summary executions and arbitrary detention for years to maintain order in areas under its control, the number of incidents is up and the group is employing the tactics more widely, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

“This is much worse than what we saw previously,” Gossman said, explaining that she thinks the increase in killings and arrests is a combination of revenge-seeking in the aftermath of war, Taliban intolerance of any dissent or criticism, and the group’s control of more territory, leaving those under threat fewer places to hide.

As the Taliban pushed into Ghazni, one of the provincial capital’s senior police officers was imprisoned, along with scores of other police, despite being granted amnesty, according to his nephew. A stream of elders and family members pleaded with Taliban officials to release the men. It didn’t happen.

“After 49 days, my uncle was tortured to death,” said his nephew, adding that he saw the corpse of his uncle. The Washington Post is withholding his name for security reasons. “He was brutally killed.”

The Taliban initially refused to hand over the man’s body to his family and did so only after tribal elders intervened, the nephew said. He added that Taliban leaders told the tribal elders he was killed because he was accused of arresting and torturing Taliban fighters.

From the small room where he is hiding, an Afghan local police member said he had a list of 60 names of former colleagues killed by Taliban fighters in Ghazni alone after the province was overrun. Others were arrested and many remain missing.

“There is no way to investigate the killings and arrests of the former government police,” he said. “The Taliban is not allowing media to report such news. The Taliban has not been formally admitting such incidents.”

High-risk targets

For many, the prospect of registering for amnesty was too risky. One elite intelligence officer who worked closely with foreign forces moved between the homes of friends and family for weeks after the Taliban takeover. Then he took a chance, traveling to Mazar-e Sharif in the hopes of getting on an evacuation flight, his younger sibling said.

But when the planes were delayed, he called his brother and said he was told to find a hotel room in town where he could wait. Three days later he was dead, thrown from the window of his high-rise hotel room, according to the hotel’s security guards who relayed what they saw to the brother. When the family collected his body, the brother said, it also bore marks of torture: extensive beatings and multiple knife wounds.

“For my brother, there was never any such thing as amnesty,” he said. “Everyone knew he worked with the Americans” and had a pending special immigrant visa application.

“They didn’t help my brother,” he said, referring to the United States. “They betrayed him.”

Members of Afghanistan’s special forces and many prominent commanders fear they are at greater risk of revenge killings because they were more likely to have killed, imprisoned or interrogated Taliban members than the Afghan military’s rank-and-file.

The Taliban also has more information now about such elite units and others who worked for the Afghan government from extensive employment records left behind at key ministries.

A senior employee of Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency said he tried to destroy employment records at his headquarters, but he estimates that most of the information made its way into Taliban hands.

“There was everything: names, addresses, phone numbers,” said the employee, who is now in hiding outside Kabul. “I feel guilty about this the most.”

Over the months since the fall, the intelligence employee has kept in touch with a few dozen former colleagues on a WhatsApp channel. The men use the group to share unverified reports of targeted killings and arrests. During the first few weeks of Taliban rule, about 20 reports of killings of former security forces filtered through the group each week.

“Most were in the south and the east,” the employee said. “That is where the Taliban has its strongest source networks and where the Afghan intelligence was most active in the public, most exposed.”

One of the intelligence officers killed in Kandahar, a 30-year-old man, was sitting inside his family’s shop when three motorbikes pulled up carrying six fighters. Two men entered the store, identified themselves as Taliban fighters and asked the former officer to come with them.

“They were very polite. They just said we need to talk to you, and he went willingly,” said the intelligence officer’s brother, who was in the shop at the time. The fighters walked the man around the corner and shot him four times in the head and chest.

“After that incident, we knew the Taliban are just manipulating us with the amnesty agreement,” the brother said. “And now we see the number of killings rising each day in Kandahar.”

Southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s traditional heartland, has also been the scene of some of the most brutal phases of the past two decades of war. A cousin of the officer shot outside his family’s shop said he thinks many of the killings in Kandahar are attempts to settle old scores.

“But it’s not all revenge. The Taliban also wants to eliminate anyone who will be a headache for them in the future,” he said, referring to the potential for resistance movements to rise up against the militant rule. But he also fears the killings could backfire.

“It could turn into another cycle,” he said, “just like the last 40 years of war.”

Raghavan reported from Ghazni, Afghanistan. Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Islamabad, Pakistan; Aziz Tassal in Houston; and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.