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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