Under US Watch: What Really Happened in Wardak?

PHOTO: A lone woman in a burqa walks past the rubble from a November 23 suicide truck bomb in the capital of Wardak province, Dec. 2, 2012.

In a string of villages in eastern Afghanistan, it's no longer the threat of Taliban suicide attacks that keeps residents here up at night.

More than a decade after this war began, the villagers said they have a new fear.

"The helicopters," one villager told ABC News. "Our children start crying the moment they hear them flying low over our houses."

ABC News spoke to a number of residents of Wardak province, the restive area east of Kabul where Afghan President Hamid Karzai has given U.S. Special Operations forces two weeks to leave. The deadline follows accusations of gross misconduct carried out by a shadowy group of irregular Afghan forces -- men allegedly recruited and trained directly by U.S. Special Forces -- who are widely seen as operating outside the law.

Though the U.S. military said they haven't seen any evidence to support those claims, the allegations are backed up by local villagers who spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity – all said they fear reprisals from the men who come at night.

None of the villagers could name specifically what unit, brigade, or division to which the Afghan forces belong. There are many irregular units in Afghanistan who are not answerable, whether directly or indirectly, to the Afghan government. They include local guards hired to provide security to military and civilian installations, Afghan local police recruited by the U.S. military to provide security in remote regions, and irregular Afghan forces known as "campaign forces" that accompany U.S. Special Operations forces on joint, highly secret missions, often including helicopter night raids.

In Wardak province, some residents said they live in constant fear that the campaign forces will come knocking on their doors – or barging in, as the case may be – in the middle of the night. Some accuse the campaign forces of being made up of petty thieves, criminals, and militia members who use their shadowy status to settle tribal vendettas or extort villagers.

Earlier this week, a statement issued by Karzai accused these forces of "harassing, annoying, torturing, and even murdering innocent people."

One resident told ABC News, "Many people have been arrested in the past few months… [but] nobody knows anything about where they've been taken."

"It's hard to get any information about their whereabouts. When we go to the governor's house and check with Afghan Security officials, they tell us they have no information," the resident said.

In some cases, residents said the disappearances and the lack of information surrounding them have caused so much fear that families have left their villages and moved to the capital, Kabul, where raids and detentions are far less common.

It's unclear how many villagers have disappeared over the past few months, or why. While the villagers' accounts roughly match those offered by the provincial governor and those given by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office, ABC News could not independently verify their accuracy.

"In most cases they [Afghan officials] tell us that the Americans are beyond our control," one resident says. "They say they'll try to find out more but then we never hear back."

At a press conference this week, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan, General Gunter Katz, insisted that coalition officials have "no evidence that would support these allegations" but would work with Afghan officials to alleviate the concerns of local residents.

"We take all allegations of misconduct seriously and go to great lengths to determine the facts surrounding them" Katz said.

Today ISAF commander Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. met with Karzai "to discuss the security concerns of the citizens of Wardak province and the progress of the campaign," ISAF said.

Senior coalition officials, ISAF said, will be meeting with Wardak leaders to discuss the circumstances surrounding the allegations.

Student Allegedly Snatched, Body Found Under Bridge

Attaullah Khogiani, a spokesperson for the governor of Wardak province, described a series of recent incidents of the alleged misconduct.

The first involved a university student who was visiting his relatives in a village for the holidays. According to Khogiani's account, which he says is based on witness reports, a joint team of U.S. and Afghan forces took the student from his home. Days later, the student's body was reportedly found under a bridge with torture marks and a slit throat.

In a second incident, a bus driver was shot, and in a third, nine villagers were rounded up and taken away by a joint team of U.S. and Afghan forces, never to be seen or heard from again. Khogiani said their whereabouts are still unknown.

"When we investigated further, we found that the Afghan forces behind this were not part of the Afghan National Army, the NDS [Afghanistan's intelligence agency], or any other department within Afghanistan's national forces," Khogiani said.

Khogiani said that when local officials realized the Afghans behind the disappearances were working directly under U.S. Special Forces – with no official Afghan oversight – they raised the issue with the country's National Security Council, which in turn dispatched a team to investigate. That team quickly verified the claims were true, Khogiani said.

Khogiani declined to name the villages or any local elders who could authenticate the accusations, saying they were afraid of reprisals.

Pentagon spokesperson Commander Bill Speaks declined to comment today on Khogiani's specific allegations except to say that ISAF is looking into them and similar claims made in the past were found to be unsubstantiated.

Regardless, many Afghan officials said the lack of clarity surrounding the shadowy campaign forces is unacceptable.

Still, the provinces that the U.S. Special Operations forces have been ordered to abandon are just outside of Kabul and are considered transit ways for militants to the south and east to enter the capital. The expulsion has already raised concerns of more terrorist attacks in Kabul, particularly with the annual summer fighting season set to begin.

ABC News' Lee Ferran contributed reporting from New York.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...