ISLAMABAD — Heavily armed men burst into the home in the middle of night, hustling four brothers into separate rooms, their hands bound. Afghan special forces then shot them in the head and heart. The operation, the CIA-trained Afghan unit said, targeted Islamic State militants in a remote region of eastern Nangarhar Province.
In reality, the raid took place in the province's capital of Jalalabad, within earshot of Justice Ministry offices. In an interview with The Associated Press, the family said the dead brothers included a school teacher and an assistant to a member of Afghanistan's parliament. The truth of their deaths was eventually revealed by local and international media and the country's intelligence chief, Masoom Stanikzai, was forced to resign.
But that's not enough, says Human Rights Watch in a new report released Thursday documenting what it says are mounting atrocities by U.S.-backed Afghan special forces and rising civilian deaths by both American and Afghan forces. It calls for an investigation into whether the U.S. has committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
The report says U.S.-led peace talks to end the 18-year-old war have omitted addressing the fate of the Afghan special forces that work "as part of the covert operations of the Central Intelligence Agency." The report suggests either disbanding them or bringing them under the control of the Defense Ministry.
"These troops include Afghan strike forces who have been responsible for extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, indiscriminate airstrikes, attacks on medical facilities, and other violations of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war," it says.
Speaking with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, several Afghan, Taliban and U.S. officials, including some who are involved in trying to resuscitate peace talks, said the Taliban won't agree to reduce attacks without a reduction in violence from the U.S. and Afghan side.
President Donald Trump ended negotiations with the Taliban over what he said was the insurgents' unacceptable level of violence.
According to HRW and several U.N. reports, Afghan special operations units are now partly responsible for rising civilian deaths and rights abuses. They operate with seeming impunity under Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Security Directorate, and hold nondescript names like Unit 01 or Khost Protection Forces.
HRW's report, the culmination of a nearly two-year investigation, documented instances of families terrorized by night raids, summary executions and disappearances of people, some of whom are never heard from again. In preparing the report, researchers interviewed 39 Afghans directly impacted by offenses and several witnesses in nine different provinces.
The report tells of raids in Zurmat in eastern Paktia Province. Witnesses said Afghan and U.S. strike forces blew open the door of one home and shot dead four men as the family watched. In a second house, three shopkeepers and a guest, all home for a holiday, were shot and killed, said a witness. In a third incident in Zurmat, a religious teacher and two construction workers were killed.
Quoting the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization, the report said the three brothers operated a shop in the center of the city of Ghazni.
In southern Kandahar province in March, an Afghan strike force arrived in Panjwai in the night and took away two men. One has not been heard from since. A few weeks later in a nearby village, witnesses said a 60-year-old school principal was shot and killed by the strike force after separating him from the women in his household. The body was left in the courtyard.
The incidents prompted demonstrations by local residents who complained to researchers: "Why are we always being killed by them? What's our mistake?"
Human Rights Watch shared its findings with both the U.S. and Afghan authorities.
Kaber Aqmal, spokesman for the National Security adviser, refused to respond to the report directly but said "the Afghan government is doing its best to safeguard lives of the Afghan civilians, we are looking for all those possible ways to avoid civilian casualties." He blamed the casualties on Taliban insurgents.
The U.S. military, without addressing specific cases, blamed the suffering of civilians on Taliban, Islamic State and al-Qaida fighters and called the Taliban violence "pointless." The U.S. says it holds itself to a higher standard of accountability than IS or the Taliban.
"The battlefield is complex_the fighting is in crowded cities and in populated villages," the U.S. military said in a response included in HRW's report. "Our challenges are immense because we face enemies who do not wear uniforms, who hide among women and children, and who use lies about the death of civilians to try and check our effectiveness."
HRW Associate Asia Director Patricia Gossman, the report's author, said the U.S. has failed to investigate the "raid incidents" by Afghan forces and its probes into civilian airstrike deaths have been "shockingly deficient."
The U.S. has taken a more aggressive approach to the conflict since 2017, according to the report. It quotes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said the CIA "must be aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless."
The Human Rights Watch report also called for an investigation into allegations that U.S. military personnel were with Afghan forces when possible war crimes were committed.
Previously, the U.S. has flatly denied any accusation of war crimes. It rebuked the International Criminal Court for even suggesting an investigation and denied one of its prosecutor's a U.S. visa. The ICC later stated it would not investigate war crimes allegations in Afghanistan by any party to the conflict, including America.
HRW is seeking an investigation, though it did not specify what organization should carry out the probe.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.