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

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. They wore Taliban-insignia, drove a stolen green pickup truck that was previously given to Afghan police but now only used by the Taliban.

The two men had served as border police under the previous Afghan government, according to the former officer. He heard the attack group shout “You killed many Mujahedeen” and the gunmen raised their weapons and fired multiple shots into the chest and face of both of them.

The bodies were left on the side of the street. After the families had buried their sons that night, they ran away and changed their telephone numbers. The former officer said that no one knew where their sons were. He, along with others, was speaking anonymously due to fear of being retaliated by 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. According to the New York-based research organization, the crimes are increasing and being 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. He said that there may be incidents [of abductions and killings],, but this could be because of personal conflicts or somebody [unaffiliated with the Taliban] might have used the Islamic Emirate’s name.

The former officer who witnessed the late-night raid on his street also lost three family members to targeted killings since the Taliban takeover. Witnesses who spoke to the family said that his brother, uncle, and cousin were former intelligence and police officers and picked up by Taliban fighters at the central bazaar. A Facebook photo showed them lying on top of a large statue of a dove at a roundabout.

When the family retrieved the bodies, “they all still had the amnesty letters in their pockets,” the former officer said. He considered running that day but could not. He is the only remaining child and must provide care for his parents, who are far too weak 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.

Many former Afghan soldiers were allowed to return to their homes after handing over their weapons and applying for amnesty. After a surrender agreement was reached, a Kunduz ex-police officer was permitted to return home with several Afghan soldiers stationed at the base near the airport.

“Sometimes the Taliban comes to my house to check again for weapons or government cars,” the officer said. Although they are not always friendly with him, the fighters never beat him or threatened to use violence against him.

“It’s just harassment,” he said. He is left unnerved by the frequent visits and wonders how much longer the amnesty promise will be kept.

For one 20-year-old police officer in Helmand, amnesty lasted about a month. He returned home to his family’s farm after registering with the local Taliban commander. While rumors of Taliban night raids in nearby villages and capital city had roiled, there was no indication that he was worried about being a target.

“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. He rushed into the garden and answered the door. His father was not able to see the kidnappers. The house was shook by gunfire minutes later.

“At that moment, I already knew they had killed my son,” the father said. We didn’t go to sleep 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. According to the father, the reason that he didn’t flee with his family was because he couldn’t afford it. The only income that supported the family was his son’s.

“Where would we even go?” the father said, shaking his head. This is what it shows me that the Taliban didn’t bring the system promised. They won’t 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. Numerous family and elder members begged the Taliban to free them. This didn’t occur.

“After 49 days, my uncle was tortured to death,” said his nephew, adding that he saw the corpse of his uncle. The Washington Post withheld his name due to security concerns. “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. The nephew said that Taliban leaders had told him that he was the one who was suspected of torturing and arresting 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. Other people were taken into custody, and others are still missing.

“There is no way to investigate the killings and arrests of the former government police,” he said. The Taliban does not allow media outlets to publish such information. The Taliban has not been formally admitting such incidents.”

For many, the prospect of registering for amnesty was too risky. After the Taliban tookover, one elite intelligence officer moved among the houses of his family members for several weeks. His younger brother said that he then took the chance and traveled to Mazar-e Shariff in hopes of getting an evacuation flight.

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. According to security guards at the hotel, they relayed to their brother what they had seen. Three days later, he was found dead in his hotel room’s high-rise window. The brother claimed that his body also had marks of torture, including multiple knife injuries and extensive beatings.

“For my brother, there was never any such thing as amnesty,” he said. He said that everyone knew he had worked with Americans and was currently applying for a special immigrant visa.

“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. These men used the group to exchange unverified information about targeted killings or 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. The former officer was approached by two men who identified themselves as Taliban fighters.

“They were very polite. “They just told him we needed to speak to you and he agreed,” stated the brother of the intelligence officer, who was present in the shop. He was shot four times by the fighters as they walked around him.

“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. One cousin said that the shooting outside the shop of an officer killed in Kandahar was a way to settle past scores.

“But it’s not all revenge. He said that the Taliban would also like to eradicate anyone they consider a problem in the future, and he was referring to resistance movements against militant rule. He also worries that the deaths could go sour.

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

Raghavan reported from Ghazni, Afghanistan. This report was contributed by Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Islamabad (Pakistan), Aziz Tassal, Houston, and Haq Khan, Peshawar, Pakistan.

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