War on Terror eroding rule of law
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Islamabad July 10, 2008
On July 4, another 22 civilians, including women and children, fell to an air strike by U.S.-led forces on Friday in Afghanistan's eastern province of Nuristan. International wire services reported that the attack happened on a road in Want district while the noncombatants were traveling in two vehicles.
The U.S. military confirmed the mission, but said there was no report of civilian injuries. It said the strike was in response to an attack by militants against NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops.
It was response-as-usual by the Coalition and US troops. Beginning with attacks on wedding parties in 2002 to schools and religious seminaries in the Afghan and Pakistani tribal regions like Kandahar, Helmand, Bajaur, and Waziristan including the latest incident in the mountainous Nuristan province, the international coalition has moved with impunity, killing people here and there under the reuse of "hunt for terrorists."
With the passage of time the issue of civilians killed by foreign troops has become sensitive in Afghanistan as it undermines public support for the presence of around 71,000 international troops in the country and the government of President Hamid Karzai, who also had requested the UN to investigate civilian killings as well as extrajudicial murders by foreign forces based in Afghanistan.
In the first six months of this year, 698 civilians were killed, 255 of them by Afghan government and foreign forces. In the same period last year, a total of 430 civilians were killed, the United Nations said last week.
After a two-week investigation into alleged murders and imprisonments, for instance, Australian Professor, Philip Alston, United Nations special envoy for summary, arbitrary, and extrajudicial executions, denounced the use of "death squads" composed of "irregular Afghan militias" by foreign occupying forces to fight a dirty war against Taliban guerrillas.
"I've gathered numerous accounts of violent raids against alleged insurgents conducted by heavily armed Afghan militias taking orders from foreign military," Alston had said in Kabul on May 15 at the conclusion of his investigation. Much of the information related to Alston's findings, and published in papers like The Independent, London, is available on the net.
"I have spoken with a large number of people in relation to the operation of foreign intelligence units. I don't want to name them but they are the most senior level people in the relevant places. These forces operate with what appears to be impunity." The location of the incidents cited in the report indicate that the intelligence agencies in question include the CIA or US Special Operations Forces, claims the Independent.
The report cited a few incidents as examples of extra-judicial killings. In January 2008, two brothers were killed in Kandahar province in a raid led by "international personnel." Alston found that the victims "are widely acknowledged, even by well-informed Government officials, to have had no connection to the Taliban, and the circumstances of their deaths are suspicious.
"These actions often end in execution of the suspects without any army or institution taking responsibility. These secret units, known as Campaign Forces, are placed under a regular chain of command, but they operate outside the law and with utter impunity. The situation is absolutely unacceptable". The UN special envoy explained that these militias are operating in all of the country's "hot" zones from Helmand and Kandahar province in the south to Nangarhar province in the east.
Two years ago in May 2006, PeaceReporter, conducted an investigative report on the topic from Helmand province. The following are extracts from that report.
Just outside of Grishk stands a US military base: a small fortress in the middle of the desert with the stars and stripes atop a wooden tower. The base is home to one of the many "unofficial" US prisons where suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda members are interrogated and tortured before being sent off to Kandahar, Bagram, and eventually Guantanamo.
But the base is manned by Afghan mercenaries, not American troops. The locals call them khakhprush, "men who have been sold to the enemy." They are kids from nearby villages. They don't wear a uniform. When they're not out on a mission for or with the Americans, they're hanging out on the carpets they put down in front of the barracks surrounding the walls of the base. They spend their days drinking tea, smoking hashish and maintaining their arsenal of rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers.
Alston's report provides a partial glimpse into the illegal actions of intelligence agencies, occupying forces, and Afghan police, as they seek to repress opposition to the US-led occupation and US-backed government.
Alston focused on civilian killings by US and other international military forces, citing 200 reported deaths in the first four months of 2008. This figure, however, was based on tabulations by the United Nations and other international organizations, and is undoubtedly a serious underestimation.
In addition to civilians killed in air raids—often targeted indiscriminately at civilian dwellings—Alston reported on "a number of raids for which no state or military command appears ready to acknowledge responsibility."
"It is absolutely unacceptable for heavily-armed internationals accompanied by heavily-armed Afghan forces to be wandering around conducting dangerous raids that too often result in killings without anyone taking responsibility for them," the report stated.
The British Independent newspaper provided some additional information. It noted: "A Western official close to the investigation said the secret units are still known as Campaign Forces, from the time when American Special Forces and CIA spies recruited Afghan troops to help overthrow the Taliban during the US-led invasion in 2001. 'The brightest, smartest guys in these militias were kept on,' the official said. 'They were trained and rearmed and they are still being used.'"
The Independent went on to cite one incident involving British forces. "In Helmand, where most of Britain's 7,800 troops are based, Special Forces were accused of slitting a man's throat in a botched night raid last year. Security sources now claim the operation was mounted by a secret spy unit."
Alston also reported on the actions of Afghan police. "They function not as enforcers of law and order, but as promoters of the interests of a specific tribe or commander," he reported. He cited one incident in which Afghan police massacred a group from a rival tribe. There was no investigation by the government or the occupying forces. In another incident, police killed nine and wounded 42 unarmed protestors in Sheberghan in May 2007.
In general, Alston found little to no interest among US or Afghan officials in monitoring or following up on civilian deaths. "The level of complacency in response to these killings is staggeringly high," he said.
According to the WSWS.Org, a website of the International Committee of the Fourth International, "the fact that the CIA is involved in covert operations in Afghanistan is neither new nor surprising. Already by the 1970s, the CIA had developed ties to sections of the Afghan population, and in particular Islamic fundamentalist elements, in an effort to undermine the Soviet-backed government. Later, the CIA was heavily involved in developing ties to anti-Taliban warlords prior to the US invasion and occupation in 2001.Quoting the Independent and other sources, the website says that following the invasion, Afghanistan—and in particular the Bagram Air Force Base near Kabul—became a transit point for prisoners captured by the United States and destined for Guantánamo Bay, secret CIA prisons, or US-allied countries that practice torture. US intelligence agencies were reportedly also involved in the interrogation of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
In 2005, US media reported on the operations of US-backed deaths squads in Iraq, deployed to kill suspected opponents of the US occupation. Yasser Salihee, a special correspondent for news agency Knight Ridder, who was investigating the death squads, was killed with a bullet to the head in June of that year. Separate reports related how the US military had modeled Iraqi units on the death squads deployed in Central America during the 1980s to eliminate left-wing opposition to US policies.
While most of the CIA's actions remain shrouded in secrecy, one CIA contractor was prosecuted for torturing an Afghan prisoner to death in 2003. The contractor, David Passaro, interrogated and beat the prisoner, Abdul Wali, for two days, injuring him so severely that he died two days later.
The situation in Pakistan, as far as over 560 missing persons and the conduct of intelligence services is concerned, is not different either; the ordeal of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry also stems from the fact that based on repeated appeals by Amna Masood Janjua, whose husband remains missing for over three years. Mr. Chaudhry took officials to task and asked for whereabouts of the missing persons, whose list had swollen to over 1,000. No body knows how many remain missing in Balochistan.
One of the reasons for continued US indifference, if not opposition to, the restoration of Chaudhry and his five dozen colleagues, is most probably embedded in the fear that judicial activism might undermine the "unquestioned arrests and imprisonments" of terror suspects.
"That a country like USA, which champions democracy and fundamental human rights should work in cahoots with Pakistani and Afghan intelligence and army establishments in flagrant violation of law is extremely regrettable," Talat Masud, a renowned analyst, commented. Extra-judicial detentions and murders are a stigma for all those advocating democracy, he said.
Amna Masood Janjua, a traumatised figure, who now also heads the "Human Rights Defense" organization to pursue the missing persons, told this scribe that all the affected families had lost faith in the rule of law. Most of them wonder whether any law exists at all, she said.
As a whole, the war on terror and the ensuing "extra-judicial acts" of the US-led international coalition (of which Pakistan and Afghanistan are the most active members) has only eroded the rule of law and also severely dented people's faith in the law, observed Mrs. Janjua.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.