CIA-backed Afghan security units are carrying out illegal killings, Human Rights Watch says

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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan security units backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have carried out extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, indiscriminate air strikes and other rights abuses and should be disbanded, a rights group said on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch said it investigated 14 cases in which CIA-backed Afghan counterinsurgency forces committed serious abuses in Afghanistan between late 2017 and mid-2019.

"They are illustrative of a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war violations — some amounting to war crimes — that extends to all provinces in Afghanistan where these paramilitary forces operate with impunity," the group said in a report.


A CIA spokesman said the agency conducts its operations "in accordance with law and under a robust system of oversight".

"The Taliban does not operate with any similar rules and -even worse - conducts an extensive propaganda campaign to discredit those who support the legitimate Afghanistan government," said the spokesman, Timothy Barrett.

The Afghan government declined to comment until after publication of the report, but a military official acknowledged that the Afghan special units at times make mistakes.

"Because they carry out the most complicated operations but we are not assassins and there is oversight and accountability," said the official, who declined to be identified.

The CIA-backed paramilitary forces are notorious in Afghanistan, often drawing complaints from villagers and district authorities for their brutal raids, often under the cover of night.

But the rights group said the Afghan government lacked the capacity and the political will to investigate incidents involving the forces. The group cited a diplomat referring to them as "death squads".

While Afghan paramilitary forces nominally belong to the main National Directorate of Security (NDS) intelligence service, the CIA-backed forces do not fall under the agency's normal chain of command, nor those of the Afghan or U.S. militaries.

"They largely have been recruited, trained, equipped, and overseen by the CIA," Human Rights Watch said.

"They often have U.S. special forces personnel deployed alongside them during kill-or-capture operations; these U.S. forces, primarily Army Rangers, have been seconded to the CIA."

Mistaken identity

The forces have also been allowed to call in air strikes, which is likely a factor behind a rising toll of civilian casualties in the war. They have also attacked medical facilities and killed staff, the group said.

Human Rights Watch said that in many of the raids it investigated, the Afghan forces seem to have unlawfully targeted civilians because of mistaken identity, poor intelligence or political rivalries.

One case involved the killing of 11 men in the eastern province of Paktia in August.

The NDS said at the time 11 militants were killed in a raid on a Taliban hideout but villagers and a politician in the area said the dead included students celebrating the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday and other innocent civilians.

"The strike forces might have targeted the wrong house, or operated on faulty intelligence, possibly fueled by local rivalries," the rights group said.

The government ordered an investigation but no findings have been released.

While the United States and the Taliban have been discussing the withdrawal of U.S. troops, some U.S. officials have called for the clandestine Afghan forces to be maintained as a bulwark against al Qaeda and Islamic State militants.

Human Rights Watch said the CIA-backed forces should be disbanded and allegations of abuses investigated.


Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.

When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division, board a C-130J Super Hercules, assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on January 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

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The Defense Department just took a major step towards making the dream of a flying drone carrier a reality.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's air-launched and recoverable X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle finally conducted a maiden flight in November 2019, Gremlin contractor Dynetics announced on Friday.

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