Death squads and underresourced COIN in Khost

The New York Times published an excellent report today on insurgent intimidation of the populace in eastern Afghanistan, with a focus on the Sabari district of Khost province:

As targeted killings have risen sharply across Afghanistan, American and Afghan officials believe that many are the work of counterintelligence units of the Haqqani militant network and Al Qaeda, charged with killing suspected informants and terrorizing the populace on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Military intelligence officials say that the units essentially act as death squads and that one of them, a large group known as the Khurasan that operates primarily in Pakistan’s tribal areas, has been responsible for at least 250 assassinations and public executions.

Another group, whose name is not known, works mainly in Afghanistan and may be responsible for at least 20 killings in Khost Province over the summer alone, including a mass beheading that came to light only after a video was found in the possession of a captured insurgent. The video shows 10 headless bodies evenly spaced along a paved road, while their heads sit nearby in a semicircle, their faces clearly visible.

As I argued extensively in Small Wars Journal, the underresourcing of ISAF’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in eastern Afghanistan has led to an undesirable side effect: the continued ability of insurgents to take revenge on and freely intimidate the local population. The relative scarcity of US troops in the Afghan east necessarily confines many of them to a patrol schedule that is punctuated by bedding down at a centralized combat outpost. In contrast, Marines and soldiers in southern Afghanistan had decentralized their forces with patrol bases near key population centers, which makes the Americans better able to protect locals and to develop relationships with them.

Insurgents in Sabari can kill with near-impunity when the Afghan and US soldiers go home for the day:

One chilling case attributed to the second death squad came after American forces captured the senior Afghanistan-based leader for the Haqqanis, Hajji Mali Khan, and killed his top deputy this summer. Just days later, the bodies of two men accused of helping the Americans turned up near the village where Mr. Khan was captured. Scalding iron rods had been shoved through their legs. One victim had been disemboweled, and both had been shot through the head and crushed by boulders. Fear shot through the entire village.

“You could hardly recognize them,” said a witness who viewed the bodies.

In places like Sabari, a rural district in Khost that sits about a dozen miles from the Pakistan border, the targeted killings are producing their intended effect. After a daylight execution of three men in a bazaar in the village of Maktab about four months ago, shop owners were so traumatized that they never reported the killings to the authorities.

Often, the victims may have had little more than passing encounters with coalition forces, or no involvement at all, according to officials, witnesses, and friends and relatives of victims.

Additionally, attempts by ISAF to legitimize the area’s skeleton government are insufficient to diminish the ranks of shadow government officials and insurgent-affiliated tribal leaders:

According to four officials familiar with the questioning, the Haqqani leader told his interrogators that the Taliban had been approaching Afghan government and military officials throughout the summer, persuading them to sign a five-page document secretly pledging their loyalty to the Taliban leadership. Mr. Khan boasted that he had signed up 20 officials himself.

“They tell the officials that the Taliban is going to be back in power within 20 days of NATO leaving, so if they want to live, they’ll sign,” said one of the American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified interrogations. Officials say they have found no confirmation of such oaths, however.

During my embed coverage of Sabari, some Long War Journal commenters reacted strongly to reports of locals aiding insurgents or looking the other way when insurgents conducted attacks on Americans. For example, some questioned the actions of a farmer who had asked two roadside-bomb emplacers to plant their trap farther away from his house. Why didn’t the man resist or report the men to Afghan or American authorities? A rational question to be posed in response: Given factors such as the villager’s limited relationship with US and Afghan forces, a looming ISAF withdrawal, and the repercussions for merely being suspected of collaboration, who would intervene?

An American military official who saw the video said he was not surprised that local villagers failed to report the episode.

“People in Sabari are living in abject terror, 24 hours a day,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the death squad. “When we conduct a raid on a Haqqani leader,” he said, a group of about 15 death-squad members “go in and massacre people.”

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  • mike merlo says:

    Not only is this old news its a dead beat strategy(using death squads) doomed to failure. Historically use of Death Squads have a low success rate unless targeting one’s own population.
    Pakistan has repeatedly employed this tactic; ‘Einsatzgruppen’ in East Pakistan, culling & vetting of Kashmiri’s reluctant to acquiesce to Pakistani control, singling out of Balochi’s & Pathan’s etc.,.
    While there is certainly a legitimate case to made concerning manpower & application of resources. The British overcame this problem during The Emergency in Malaysia with The Hamlet Program.
    It is my understanding that it’s been applied in a limited fashion in parts of Afghanistan & has proven successful. Sabari & similar locales meet the criteria I guess its a matter of whether or not they are willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

  • Mr T says:

    Given factors such as the villager’s limited relationship with US and Afghan forces, a looming ISAF withdrawal, and the repercussions for merely being suspected of collaboration, who would intervene?
    Someone who rejects killing. Someone who abhors mob rule. Someone who wants peace in their land. Someone with moral courage. Someone with character who would not let others die to save his own skin. Someone who recognizes the alligator will eat them last but will still eat them.
    Doing the right thing isn’t always easy but it is still the right thing. Perhaps he was doing the “right” thing by helping his kinfolk kill Americans. In the end, that is what he did.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    “Doing the right thing isn’t always easy but it is still the right thing. Perhaps he was doing the “right” thing by helping his kinfolk kill Americans. In the end, that is what he did.”
    1. He wasn’t “helping his kinfolk kill Americans”; he was asking two men to plant the IED away from his house, perhaps so his children didn’t get killed when they walk outside.
    2. Given limited US presence within his village, we have no idea whether that man even had the means to drop a dime, though it’s possible he did.
    3. And if he did, what’s to say his whole family doesn’t pay the price the next day? After the ANA and US soldiers leave and run a patrol in another area?
    4. I’m not arguing against doing the right thing when it’s “not easy.” I’m arguing that what constitutes doing the right thing to you and me can be impossible, and suicidal, without adequate relationships, protection or personal means to defend oneself. This is the point of proper counterinsurgency doctrine: giving people the means and opportunity to “do the right thing.”
    That villager could have been a collaborator with the insurgents or just a guy in their way. We don’t know, but we can’t assume to judge based on the information in that story.

  • mike merlo says:

    you’re spot on. There is no ‘right or wrong’ when faced with such circumstances. There is only ‘life or death!’

  • gerald says:

    The thing I don’t get is given that the Afghanis are reputed to be such great fighters,why hasn’t an Awakening style resistance to the Taliban emerged?

  • Mr T says:

    He wasn’t “helping his kinfolk kill Americans”; he was asking two men to plant the IED away from his house, perhaps so his children didn’t get killed when they walk outside.
    A distinction without a difference.

  • Bungo says:

    Yeah, this is how it will go. Terror and intimidation and i.e.d.s are really the only tools the Taliban have left in their toolbox.
    The Viet Cong did the exact same thing. I’m not saying it wins the war for them but what else are they gonna do?
    As in all wars the civilians are the ones who get the worst of it. This is going to be a Looooooooonnnng war.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Gerald – that is a great question, and one I’ve asked myself. Complicated answer I’m not entirely certain of, but here are some factors to consider:
    1. In many areas of Afghanistan, lesser ties, more tribal heterogeneity and infighting.
    2. More geographic heterogeneity (tied to above)
    3. More sympathy for the Taliban (certain swaths of insurgency) than there was for al Qaeda, which had uniformly angered everyone
    4. Possibly greater overall dilution of tribal authority b/c of Afghanistan’s history of war (Soviets decimated major tribes; in contrast, Saddam Hussein had a complex relationship with Sunni tribes, but in the end he legitimized, enabled *and* coopted them)

  • mike merlo says:

    see ‘anomie’ plus these Afghans/Pathans are not all the media has tried to frame them as. ‘Blood feuds’ withstanding they’re actually quite sedentary with an agricultural predisposition. This media fixation for sensationalism has & continues to contribute to the general public’s skewed vision of what the reality actually is.

  • Richard says:

    For those that remember Vietnam—silence of the villager was used as a very effective weapon system by the VC.

  • Devin Leonard says:

    The Brisith tried to use Loyalist Terror groups as proxies to kill IRA operatives during the early 90’s in Northern Ireland, and it backfired horribly. The UDA and UVF manged to kill only about 20 or so IRA men While the IRA killed about 50 UVF and UDA men. Because of the the UVF and UDA started killing innocent catholics and created an unintended bloodbath that the Brtish were ultimately held responsible for. Death squads, no matter whcih side sets them up, are doomed to fail. T he columbian government tried it with the AUC against the FARC and the AUC killed thousands of civillians. the Spannish tried it against the ETA and the Spanish created GAL killed dozens of innocent Basques. The list goes on and on.

  • mike merlo says:

    re:D Leonard
    good observations. La Mano Blanco was one of my ‘favorites.’ It looks like they’re being used in Mexico.

  • James says:

    Interesting article here:

    Five key Afghan officers visit California

    This shows that a lot of training the ‘good’ afghans can be done ‘off site’ (like at NATO installations in Europe).


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