TOR GHAR, Afghanistan — Months after the Obama administration declared combat operations over in Afghanistan, the CIA continues to run a shadow war in the eastern part of the country, overseeing an Afghan proxy called the Khost Protection Force, according to local officials, former commanders of that militia and Western advisers.
The highly secretive paramilitary unit has been implicated in civilian killings, torture, questionable detentions, arbitrary arrests and use of excessive force in controversial night raids, abuses that have mostly not been previously disclosed.
The elite Afghan fighters and their American handlers came to Tor Ghar one night in September. Shortly after midnight, wearing tan camouflage and black masks, they entered a village in this remote mountainous area straddling the Pakistan border in search of militants with a Taliban-allied group, said local officials and tribal elders who later spoke with the force’s commanders.
Within minutes, the armed men had arrived at Darwar Khan’s house.
“When my father opened the gate, they shot him dead,” recalled Khan, who was inside the house at the time. “Then, they tossed a grenade into the compound, killing my mother.”
His father was a farmer. His mother was a homemaker. It was not the first time the fighters had killed civilians in this strategic region. And it wouldn’t be the last allegation of wrongdoing.
This article is based on interviews with witnesses of six separate attacks by the militia in the past year, as well as court documents in the only known legal case filed against the unit, after one or more of its men shot a 14-year-old boy to death. Three former commanders of the unit, known as the KPF, tribal elders, lawmakers, lawyers, activists and local government officials with direct knowledge of the force and the CIA’s role were also interviewed.
In several attacks, witnesses described hearing English being spoken by armed men who had interpreters with them, suggesting American operatives were present during assaults where extreme force was used.
In an e-mailed statement, the agency’s spokesman, Dean Boyd, said that “we’ve taken significant steps to help the Afghan National Directorate of Security address allegations of human rights abuse.” The directorate, known as the NDS, ostensibly oversees the Khost force. Boyd declined to comment on any specific claims of abuse.
“We take seriously any allegation of abuse involving foreign liaison services and routinely work with them to rectify such matters,” Boyd said. “Our goal is always to improve the capabilities and professionalism of foreign counterparts.”
On Oct. 15, as President Obama announced that 5,500 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan past next year, he stressed that they would have just two missions: training Afghan forces and fighting al-Qaeda. Yet, throughout this year, there has been an aggressive American effort to stem Taliban territorial gains.
And the CIA, separate from the U.S. military, enjoys looser rules of engagement that have enabled it to expand targets to include the Taliban and its allies, the Haqqani network.
Here in this strategic eastern border province, which has long served as a key gateway for militants entering from Pakistan, the KPF fights in conjunction with the CIA out of Forward Operating Base Chapman.
The KPF “is one of the most effective elements fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and were it not for their constant efforts, Khost would likely be a Haqqani-held province, and Kabul would be under far greater threat than it is,” said a U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This is a group made up of thousands of soldiers who come from the area and consequently have the respect and insights necessary to operate in a professional manner despite the constant engagement with the enemy.”
Afghan government officials acknowledge that the KPF has killed civilians and committed other abuses. But they claim that the Taliban and other insurgents exaggerate the civilian toll. “The KPF has played a very important role in security, and we are happy for their sacrifices,” said Hukam Khan Habibi, the province’s governor.
In Khost, the KPF is more influential than the Afghan army and police, and is unaccountable to the provincial government, often acting outside normal chains of command. Locally, militias such as the KPF are called “campaign forces,” an informal name Afghans use for pro-government armed groups.
The KPF is so feared that several people interviewed spoke under the condition of anonymity because they worried for their lives. Others spoke on the record because they wanted their experiences told.
Reports surfaced last year that the CIA was dismantling its Afghan paramilitary units, especially the 4,000-strong KPF, amid the broader drawdown of U.S. forces. But a visit to Khost last month revealed that although there is coordination with the security directorate — the NDS — the CIA is still directing the KPF’s operations, paying fighters’ salaries, and training and equipping them. American personnel were gathering biometric data of alleged suspects, according to witnesses, former KPF commanders and local officials who regularly meet with the force and their American overseers.
One commander, who left the force last month, said that CIA operatives regularly hold planning sessions and that in October he received his salary directly from them. “The orders came from the Americans,” he said. They were “the real bosses.”
“Only in name is the KPF linked to the NDS,” said Mohammad Qadin Afghan, a provincial council member and former KPF fighter who maintains close ties to the force. “They still work for the CIA.”
On the night they killed his parents, Khan recalled, men outside the compound were yelling in English. Days later, the KPF commander acknowledged to Khan and village elders that the deaths were a mistake, and handed him $11,000 in compensation, Khan and other villagers said.
The target of the raid was Khan’s uncle, who lived next door. He bought and sold Kalashnikov rifles, his relatives said, hardly the high-level type of suspect the CIA typically targets. The fighters handcuffed him, took him away and later handed him to the NDS.
Today, his family does not know his whereabouts and has no contact with him. He has not been charged with any crime, and he does not have a lawyer.
“No one is telling us why they have taken him,” said Hekmata, his mother, who, like many Afghans, uses one name.
The CIA is not bound by the Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and Washington that, among other rules, limits the ability of U.S. military forces to enter Afghan homes. The night raids, for the most part banned in 2013 by former president Hamid Karzai, were quietly reinstated by the U.S.-brokered coalition government of President Ashraf Ghani in an effort to better combat the Taliban. But Afghans consider the intrusions offensive.
The CIA is not subject to human rights vetting procedures under the Leahy Law, which proscribes the use of American taxpayer dollars to assist, train or equip any foreign military or police unit perpetrating gross human rights violations.
The KPF was one of several large paramilitary forces created by the CIA in the months after the Taliban was ousted following the 9/11 attacks. Recruits were drawn from local tribes in Khost with promises of salaries, equipment and conditions that were better than in the Afghan military.
The force largely operates along the border with North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal region that is a nerve center for the Taliban, its ally, the Haqqani Network, and al-Qaeda. Fighters receive as much as $400 a month in salary, twice what a soldier in the Afghan security forces earns. Commanders earn $1,000 or more a month, as much as an Afghan army general. Equipped with night-vision goggles, they drive tan Humvees and armored trucks mounted with machine guns.
CIA operatives often travel along on raids with the KPF in order to call in airstrikes, from U.S. warplanes or drones, if needed, said Sardar Khan Zadran, a former top KPF commander who still maintains close links to the force.
“They are accountable to no one but the Americans,” Zadran said.
After the assault on his home, Khan said he and his brother were brought to the base, also known as Camp Chapman. (It was named after Sgt. Nathan Chapman, the first U.S. soldier to be killed by enemy fire in 2002, while he was fighting alongside CIA operatives.) Khan was interrogated by Afghans, but Americans fingerprinted him and scanned his eyes, communicating with him through an interpreter. Others who were detained in other attacks described the same procedure.
“They capture anyone they want for no reason,” recalled a local storekeeper, speaking partly in broken English, who was rounded up three months ago in a night raid in which he heard voices speaking English. A bag, he said, was placed over his head even after he informed his captors that he has asthma and had difficulty breathing. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.
A U.N. report on detentions this year found that five detainees arrested in 2013 and 2014 by the KPF together with “international military forces,” presumably American, were held at Camp Chapman and were “subjected to ill-treatment.” Two of them later experienced “torture or ill-treatment” when they were transferred to the custody of the NDS.
Hassan Shahidzai, the head of the NDS in Khost, declined to comment.
When the militia kills, justice is almost always elusive. Six months ago, a 17-year-old student named Javedullah was crossing a KPF checkpoint in Khost city while listening to his earphones. He didn’t hear the fighter order him to stop, and he kept walking. He was shot dead. There was no investigation, only a swift payment of $5,000 to compensate the family, said his father, Sahargul, a farmer.
“They are like the government,” he said. “The only thing I could say was, ‘I pardon you.’ ”
During a raid last December, 14 KPF fighters stormed into the compound of a man named Meerajudin and shot his 14-year-old son in the back, killing him, as the boy fled for cover.
“I was begging them to stop firing,” Meerajudin recalled. “I was yelling, ‘He’s only a child.’ ”
The house was not a Taliban redoubt. In fact, Meerajudin was a former mujahideen commander with powerful friends in the government, and he forced an investigation. The KPF, though, handed only three fighters over to the authorities. In an apparent effort to cover up their crime, the militiamen in court documents confessed they placed an AK-47 next to the boy’s corpse, at the order of their commander, to make it seem as if he was armed. One was released; the other two received 10-year prison sentences.
On Nov. 7, hundreds of angry villagers took to the streets of Khost city. There had been another night raid in which the KPF killed two people, described by the protesters as civilians. The corpses were placed in pickup trucks, and the crowd moved toward Camp Chapman. Some clutched sticks and tree branches. Others carried white Taliban flags.
“Death to Americans,” they chanted. “Death to American slaves.”
It was the latest sign of a growing backlash against the CIA and its proxy. Habibi, the governor, publicly condemned the assault and paid condolences to “the families of the martyrs, as well as the Khost people.” He promised an investigation.
On Nov. 20, less than two weeks later, in an incident first reported by the New York Times, KPF fighters killed a recently discharged Afghan army soldier and his wife in a night raid in Zazi Maidan district, widely considered a pro-government area, said Mirwais Zadran, the district governor, in a phone interview. On Tuesday, the KPF handed the couple’s relatives roughly $4,500 in compensation at Camp Chapman in front of tribal elders and local officials, added Zadran, who said he was at the meeting.
The provincial council, several of its members said, has received thousands of complaints about the KPF, not just about the deadly night raids, but also about strict roadblocks that can last for hours.
“If their problems are not solved, those people might start cooperating with the insurgents,” said Bostan Walizai, a human rights activist.
At the same time, he and others also worry about the future of the KPF — and the province — as the U.S. military scales down. Most of the fighters have known no other profession and are used to high wages. “If these people lose their jobs, they could join armed insurgent groups or form criminal gangs,” Walizai said.
Even the KPF’s victims want it to continue. They have little faith in the ability of the regular Afghan forces to protect the province. No one has forgotten the Taliban’s seizure of the northern city of Kunduz in September. “The campaign forces would be good, if they didn’t kill innocent people,” Darwan Khan said as he stood near the gate where his father was shot.