Khost Protection Force Accused of Fresh Killings: Six men shot dead in Zurmat

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Author: Kate Clark
Date: 21 January 2019

There has been a fresh attack on civilians by armed men whom the victims’ family and the Paktia provincial governor’s spokesman have said were from the Khost Protection Force, an irregular militia supported by the CIA. A survivor of the attack carried out in Surkai village in Zurmat district, in Paktia province, described to AAN how five men in his family, including three university students, and a neighbour, were summarily executed and how he was questioned by an American in uniform accompanying the Afghan gunmen. The Paktia governor’s spokesman has also confirmed that ‘foreign troops’ were involved in the operation (and the US military spokesman has said the US military was not involved). As AAN Co-Director, Kate Clark, reports, the incident raises yet again the unaccountability of such forces and the impunity with which they act. It also raises the question of motive – this particular family was a bulwark against Haqqani influence in Zurmat.

What happened in Zurmat

On the night of 30 December 2018, Ghulam Muhammad told AAN he was at home in the large compound he shared with his brother, Naim Faruqi, in the village of Surkai, in Zurmat.

I was listening to the ten o’ clock news on the radio. I thought I heard a drone, then, I was not sure – did they make the hole with a bomb or a rocket? – in any case, [a detonation] left a hole in the [compound] wall. I understood this was a raid, as I have seen many before… Then, there was shouting that no-one should move or turn on the lights.

Uniformed men with night vision goggles and head-mounted lights had forced their way into his home.  “When they came into my room,” he said, “I stuck my hands up.” He said one of the girls of the house who is disabled cried out in Pashto and the men said they would not harm her as they took him outside. From the room came the sound of a muffled shot. He would later learn his younger brother, Sayid Hassan, had been shot dead.

With the armed Afghans, he said, was an American who asked, via a translator, if Ghulam Muhammad knew the Taleban commander, ‘Sargardan’. He said he told the American that there was no one by that name in Paktia or Paktika. The name is indeed strange. Then, he said the American told him Commander Sargardan had come to the house the previous day and sat with his brother. Ghulam Muhammad said he had been trying to explain how the previous day he had met someone very different, the “tough anti-Taleban” border commander from neighbouring Matakhan district of Khost province, Commander Wadud. Ghulam Muhammad said they had discussed security and he had suggested to Wadud there should be a checkpost in his area – evidence, presumably, that he and his household could not possibly be a threat or supporting the insurgency. He said the American had been listening to this conversation when he asked about the commander.

According to Ghulam Muhammad, the men of the house were separated into different groups. One of the armed Afghans revealed they had orders to kill him, but instead, he was going to spare him. Saying “Pray for me, as I am saving you,” he sent Ghulam Muhammad to a ruined building nearby, telling him to wait there. He waited a long time, until concern over one daughter with a heart problem sent him back to the house. 

I heard her voice [so knew she was alright]. When I got into the house, I went to my room and saw that Sayid Hassan had been killed. I went to the guest room and found Atiqullah and Fath al-Rahman, also dead. [In another room] were Naim and Karim, both killed – one of my nieces, the daughter of Naim, was with them. Naim was sat on the floor – he had been shot in the eye. Karim had been shot in the mouth and his face was destroyed…

The wolf from the mountains doesn’t carry out such actions. They shot them in the eyes and mouths, where the women were sitting, a mother was sitting. I can’t explain… And those young people, they were the future of Afghanistan, students at university. 

Later, at around 1.30 am, a phone call came – it was the son of a neighbour, Muhammad Omar. He said his father had been martyred. Then, at dawn, Ghulam Muhammad said, neighbours came with lanterns.

In all, six men had been killed: Naim Faruqi and Sayid Hassan (Ghulam Muhammad’s brothers), Muhammad Karim (his son and Naim’s son-in-law), Fath al-Rahman and Atiqullah (Naim’s sons) and Muhammad Omar, a farmer and neighbour of Naim. Ghulam Muhammad had five bodies to prepare for burial.

In our culture, the bodies of martyrs do not have to be washed… But Islam says that if someone says a word after they have been wounded [and before they die] then they must be washed. We had not seen the martyrs die, [so we didn’t know if they had said anything]. So we agreed that, to be careful, we should bathe them.

The funerals, however, were delayed. The family decided to go with the bodies to the governor. They could have gone to see the governor either of Paktika where they believed the armed men had come from, or their own province, Paktia. They chose their own provincial capital, Gardez, said Ghulam Muhammad:

We decided that ten cars should go. But when people got to hear of it, 100 vehicles came. The deputy governor [Alhaj Abdul Wali Sahi] met us on the steps and told us that he understood a terrible thing has been done. We have no response for you. This was oppression.

A later delegation went to see the Paktia governor himself, Shamim Katawazi who, Ghulam Muhammad reported, was hostile. He fully defended the operation and criticised the people of Zurmat for, he said, not resisting the Taleban. Ghulam Muhammad said the governor also told him there was a ‘kill list’ of 16 other men and he was on it. The governor’s spokesman denied the governor had said this or that the Khost Protection Force has a kill list.

A government investigation team from Kabul, including head of the Senate security commission Hashim Alakozai has visited the house. The Paktia governor’s spokesman also told AAN that the provincial authorities, including the deputy governor, local NDS and other security institutions were also investigating. As of now, nothing has been reported back to the family or the public.

Who was killed

The brothers, Naim Faruqi and Ghulam Muhammad, had seen many night raids, more than one hundred, since 2001. Both had been commanders with the mujahedin faction, Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami, fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and the third brother, Sayid Hassan, a younger man had been a junior commander in the later stages of the war. After the PDPA government of Dr Najibullah lost power to the mujahedin in 1992, Naim became district governor of Zurmat and Ghulam Muhammad became the district police chief, staying on in these posts when the Taleban captured Paktia in 1995. Many Harakatis, including the sub-faction the brothers belonged to, led by Mawlawi Nasrullah Mansur, joined the Taleban (see AAN reporting here), so the fact that the brothers kept their posts under the Taleban government was unremarkable. After 2001, however, they were among the many civilians caught up in the madness of the campaigns of mass arbitrary arrests carried out by the United States military and CIA in the first two years of the intervention.

Those detained in Zurmat and sent to the US prison camp in Guantanamo (many more were sent to Bagram or held locally) ranged from prominent elders and mullahs to criminals to a twelve year old boy, a victim of bacha bazi. They included reconciled Taleban, those who had opposed (and been jailed and tortured) by the Taleban when the movement was in power, and men who had tried to stand up to the corrupt provincial government officials appointed by President Karzai and then defence minister Marshall Qasim Fahim in 2001. Details of these detentions can be read in Anand Gopal’s book “No Good Men Among The Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes” (pages 133-139). Details of the disastrous government appointments and ensuing corruption and abuses that fed rebellion and insurgency can be found in this AAN dispatch, “2001 Ten Years on (3): The fall of Loya Paktia and why the US preferred warlords”. 

Those sent from Zurmat to Guantanamo included Naim Faruqi, as Gopal writes:

Commander Naim was an eminent tribal elder who had been elected security chief of Zurmat following the Russian departure, stayed on through the Taliban years, and was reelected in 2002. An ardent supporter of the Americans and one of the most popular figures in Zurmat, he nonetheless discovered one day that some men under his command had been detained by US troops. When Naim showed up to ask why, he, too, was arrested, blindfolded, and handcuffed. “They stripped me naked, out in the open, where everyone could see,” he told a reporter. “I was thinking that these are infidels who have come to a Muslim country to imprison us, just like the Russians.” Taken from one base to the next, Naim eventually found himself shackled in the wire-mesh cages of Kandahar Airfield. “We were without hope because we were innocent,” he recalled. “I was very sad because I could not see my children, family, friends. But what could we do?” 

Naim suspected that a rival, Mullah Qasim, had given false information to the Americans and got him detained (see also documentation from Guantanamo). Such false tip-offs, made by Afghans for money or to get the US military and CIA to target their personal rivals were common in this era. Naim was eventually assessed as “neither affiliated with al-Qaeda nor being a Taliban leader” and as not posing “a future threat to the U.S. or U.S. interests.” He was recommended for release on 18 January 2003 and transferred to Afghan custody, and, Gopal writes, finally released “following intense tribal pressure.” Sources in Paktia said Karzai offered Naim the Zurmat district governorship after his release, but he declined, saying that, having lost everything, he did not want to be further involved, and that the government and the people of Zurmat should adhere to a policy of mutual non-interference.

Naim was detained, yet again, in 2010 and this time taken to the US detention camp north of Kabul at Bagram airfield, as Gopal describes:

[In 2010], Naim attended a meeting with the governor to discuss how they could convince insurgents to come in from the cold and support the government. Upon leaving, he was arrested by American special forces. Angry protests swept the province, and merchants carried out a three-day general strike in his support. 

Naim was in Bagram for more than two years. Ghulam Mohammad and Sayid Hassan (the other brother killed on 30 December) were also both jailed in Bagram, in 2002, for two and three years respectively.

‘Naim Faruqi’s is a well-known, landowning family. A sign of their standing in the province is that Ghulam Muhammad was one of Paktia’s representatives to the Emergency Loya Jirga of 2002. The process of selecting and electing these representatives was easily the cleanest exercise in democracy Afghans have experienced since 2001 with the majority of those sent to Kabul genuinely popular and representative (see AAN reporting here). Throughout the years, despite the raids and detention, Naim maintained relations with the provincial authorities and participated in jirgas. One source said he had been due to see Paktia’s governor Shamim Katawazaithe week after his death. None of those killed in the raid were combatants. If the authorities had wanted to question any of them, they could have asked them to come to Gardez. 

Killing civilians is, of course, a war crime. Even if it was not, politically and militarily, the killing of these six men makes no sense. In a province like Paktia where the Haqqani network is powerful, such families as Naim’s, with their strong background in the anti-Soviet jihad and standing in the community provide a bulwark against the insurgents – not just politically, but also militarily.

Naim and his brothers, the older Ghulam Muhammad and the late Sayed Hassan, have repeatedly blocked Haqqani expansion from the network’s base to the south in the Shahi Kot highlands area of Zurmat district. There were clashes five years ago between the brothers and other local men, and Sulaimanzai Kuchis whom, Paktian sources said, had been armed and supported by the Haqqanis. The Kuchis were claiming government land on the western side of the Shahikot escarpment (between Sahawza and Shahikot). The Zurmatis interpreted this as an attempt by the Haqqanis capture their area and extend the Haqqanis’ sphere from Shahikot deeper into Zurmat. They forcibly expelled the Kuchis. 

Later, there were demands for transit ‘rights’ through the Zurmat valley by the Haqqanis and their allies, who locals call ‘Kafkazis’, often translated as ‘Chechens’, but more accurately Muslims from the north Caucasus or, even more broadly, former Soviet Union (see earlier AAN work on the difficulty of defining ‘Chechen’ during the Afghan war (here and here). The foreign fighters, members of al-Qaeda, have established bases in Shahi Kot and, with the Haqqanis, wanted to be able to travel through Zurmat and on to Gardez and potentially Kabul. Naim and his brothers rejected this, on the basis that it was their territory and that no one had the right to enter or operate in it but them, and they did not want their area further affected by the conflict or the Haqqanis expanding. In the summer of 2017, AAN was told, the foreign fighters established a post near Surdiwal on the junction linking Shahikot, Nek, Surkai and Gardez. The Zurmatis set up three posts to block them. They refused to move and the Zurmatis attacked, with men lost on both sides and the Haqqanis and foreign fighters forced to retreat. There were similar clashes in the summer of 2019 with again the Haqqanis and their allies withdrawing. 

All this makes the motive behind the killing of Naim and his family members and neighbour baffling. The KPF and the CIA, counter-insurgency forces bent on battling the Haqqanis, have succeeded in aiding their enemies. Also, when considering the future of places like Zurmat and Paktia, the loss of the three sons, all at university, is troubling. Zurmat is a conservative province and most families send their sons to the local madrassa to get educated. Naim and Gul Muhammad were from the small handful of families sending their boys to college. In a country where the cultural and political split between modern and madrassa education is sharp, killing off university students who are the sons of traditional madrassa-educated men undermines future hopes for social reconciliation.

The victims

1. Naim Faruqi

Around 60 years old, former front commander with Haraqat-e Enqelab and district governor of Zurmat.

2. Sayid Hassan

Mid-40s, brother of Faruqi and Ghulam Muhammad, a businessman. He had served as Harakat commander in the latter stages of the fight against the Soviet army and PDPA government. During Rabbani’s mujahedin government (1992-1996), he was head of an intelligence unit (qeta-ye kashf)in the Gardez Army Corps. 

3. Muhammad Karim

Son-in-law of Naim Faruqi and son of Ghulam Muhammad. In his twenties. Student in his fourth year at Gardez university. 

4. Fath al-Rahman 

Son of Naim. In his twenties. Student in third year of Khost university.

5 Attiqullah

Son of Naim, In his twenties, student at the Sharia faculty, University in Khost. 

6. Muhammad Omar,  a farmer and neighbour of Naim.

Who carried out the killings?

The armed men who came to Naim’s house were uniformed and well-equipped. They were accompanied by a foreigner who spoke English and asked questions through an interpreter. Ghulam Muhammad said he had been told by one of his sons in Sharana, the provincial capital of neighbouring Paktika, that a convoy of 50 vehicles had come from there that evening. The family believe the armed men who carried out the raid were from the Khost Protection Force (KPF) which is under nominal NDS command, and operates with CIA support out of its base in Camp Chapman in Khost province. It also has battalions, AAN was told, in Sharana and Gardez. (1) The Paktia Governor’s spokesman, Abdullah Hasrat, confirmed to AAN that those carrying out the operation were from the Khost Protection Force and also that “foreign troops” were involved. The US military spokesman, David Butler, told AAN that US military personnel were not involved in this operation. 

The allegation is reasonable, that the KPF carried out the killings, and also that the American accompanying them was from the CIA. Allegations against the Khost Protection Force are longstanding and include extrajudicial killing, torture, beating and unlawful detentions. The occasional presence of CIA personnel or ‘Americans’ or ‘foreigners’ when atrocities have been carried out has also been alleged before.

The KPF is a ‘campaign force’, one of the Afghan militias established after 2001 under international (usually CIA or US special forces) control. Other examples include the Kandahar Strike Force and Paktika’s Afghan Security Guards. The Khost Protection Force emerged out of the 25th Division of the ‘Afghan Military Forces’, the term used to describe the various Afghan armed forces that came under formal Ministry of Defence command in 2001 and 2002 and received US funding. This was before the creation of the Afghan National Army. The Afghan Military Forces encompassed a wide range of militias and forces drawn from the Northern Alliance and those loyal to pro-US Pashtun commanders. The 25th Division in Khost was unusual in that it had a high proportion of former members of the PDPA army, from the party’s Khalqi wing, including its commander, General Khialbaz who is from Khost’s Zazi Maidan district.The 25thDivision was spared Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) because of its good links to the CIA, although Khialbaz claimed to this author in 2004 it was because of its success as a “non-partisan grouping.” Over the years, accusations against the KPF have been numerous and their modus operandiconsistent:

In 2014,UNAMA found that five detainees who had been arrested by the Khost Protection Force together with international military forces and detained at the US Camp Chapman basein Khost had been subjected to ill-treatment

In December 2015, The Washington Post  and New York Times both reported allegations against the KPF of killing civilians, torture, questionable detentions, arbitrary arrests and the use of excessive force in night raidsand the presence of what the papers called “American advisors.” The Washington Post described a raid carried out in October 2015 similar to that which was carried out on Naim Faruqi’s house.

“When my father opened the gate, they shot him dead,” recalled [Darwar] Khan, who was inside the house at the time. “Then, they tossed a grenade into the compound, killing my mother.” His father was a farmer. His mother was a homemaker… (2)

UNAMA’s 2016 mid-year report cited particular concerns about the number of civilian casualties caused by the Khost Protection Force.

In 2018, UNAMA, in its third quarterly report into the protection of civilians, again named the Khost Protection Force, along with NDS Special Forces, which are also backed by the CIA and operate outside formal ANSF command.

In the first nine months of 2018, UNAMA documented 222 civilian casualties (178 deaths and 44 injured) caused during search operations by Pro-Government Forces, more than double the number recorded during the same period in 2017. UNAMA attributed 143 civilian casualties (124 deaths and 19 injured) to search operations involving National Directorate of Security (NDS) Special Forces, either alone or partnered with international military forces. 

UNAMA said it had also received “consistent, credible accounts of intentional destruction of civilian property, illegal detention, and other abusescarried out by NDS Special Forces and pro-Government armed groups, including the Khost Protection Force.” 

Most recently, in December 2018, The New York Times reported how ‘campaign forces’ including NDS special forces and the Khost Protection Force were leaving “a trail of abuse and anger.” The newspaper reported the a night raid on a house in Nader Shah Kot in Khost province by the KPF in which two men and a woman were allegedly shot deadand the house burned down, within it a three year old girl who burned to death.

Lack of accountability

It has proved impossible for Afghans to hold forces like the KPF and NDS special forces to account. This is due partly to their murky chains of command and partly to the power and secrecy of their backer, the CIA. 

UNAMA has highlighted both issues. In 2018, for example, it said:

These forces are of particular concern as many of them appear to operate outside of the Afghan National Security Forces’ chain of command, resulting in a lack of clear oversight and accountability given the absence of clearly defined jurisdiction for the investigation of any allegations against them.

It has called for the KPF’s integration into regular ANSF “with clear reporting lines to the Government and that jurisdiction for the investigation of any allegations against them are clearly defined in law.” (see here). Until such time as these forces are regularised, it said “their activities are contrary to the laws of Afghanistan and the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”

In its third quarterly report for 2018, UNAMA mentioned the problems it was facing just trying to talk to NDS special forces and the KPF and their backers: “The mission urges NDS and international military forces working with NDS Special Forces to provide a point of contact through which UNAMA may engage with these groups.” Humanitarian agencies working in Khost have also faced similar problems trying to get the sort of protocols they have with other parties to the conflict so that, for example, they can get through KPF checkpoints or have a point of contact if something goes wrong. 

Yet, the problem is not only with the KPF’s murky chain of command, but also the secrecy with which its backer operates. Since late 2001, the CIA has operated out of the Ariana Hotel, between the Presidential Palace and the US Embassy and NATO/US military headquarters. Unlike the US military, it can not be contacted by Afghan MPs or their constituents, the media or NGOs. Again, unlike the military which publishes its training and legal manuals, we do not know whether agency operatives get training in the Laws of Armed Conflict or are disciplined for breaching them. The only monitoring of the CIA is in the United States and is domestic, through the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. Moreover, different US legislation governs the CIA and the military. The CIA, as opposed to the military, has extensive license to run secret programmes and the government is legally restricted from providing information about them. This has also meant the NDS is excluded from monitoring by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), one of its officials told AAN, because its funding comes from the CIA. The agency is also not subject to human rights vetting procedures under America’s Leahy Law, which proscribes the use of American taxpayer dollars to assist, train or equip any foreign military or police unit perpetrating gross human rights violations. (See AAN reporting on the use of this law against the late General Razeq, former police chief of Kandahar province and reporting on the CIA in Afghanistan (here  and here).

What happens next?

In the early years of the intervention, hubris and ignorance led to many civilians being targeted, detained and tortured by the CIA and its allies (as well as by the US military) for unfathomable reasons. One would assume those days were long over. Yet, the reported presence of an American at the house where the six civilians were killed on 30 December 2018 suggests this was not the work of a ‘rogue group’, but authorised. From a counter-insurgency standpoint, the killings in Zurmat make no sense whatsoever; they will hamper attempts to curb Haqqani influence in Zurmat district. The killings look to be the consequence of bad intelligence and the lack of even rudimentary knowledge of provincial politics and military history. They are also the consequence of the secrecy and lack of accountability surrounding both the CIA and the Khost Protection Forces, which make abuses and breaches of the Laws of War more likely to happen. 

Who ordered these killings and why needs to be investigated and those responsible held to account. Also, of immediate concern to civilians in the province is the suggestion that the KPF is operating a ‘kill list’. If Afghans are not to fear more extrajudicial killings from this and similar forces in their country, there needs to be a full, public and judicial investigation into the deaths of the six men in Surkai village on 30 December. 

(1) As well as the KPF having a record of committing extrajudicial killings, one friend of the family from Zurmat said that, while he was sitting with elders from Sharana, received a call from someone identifying himself as the “secretary of Tanai,” presumed to be Nemat Tanai, commander of the KPF. He reportedly warned the elders not to hold the large memorial service they were planning and said there were 12 more people from Ghulam Muhammad’s family who should be eliminated (“Bayed gilim jam shawa”).

(2) Darwar told the Post he was taken with his brother to Camp Chapman where he was “interrogated by Afghans, but Americans fingerprinted him and scanned his eyes, communicating with him through an interpreter.” His uncle who lived next door appeared to have been the target of the raid. He bought and sold Kalashnikov rifles, his relatives said, “hardly the high-level type of suspect the CIA typically targets,” reported the Post. He was also detained and was still unaccounted for when the Post reported the raid two months later. 

(3) The killing of Naim Faruqi brings to mind the targeted killing of another civilian who had huge potential for peace-making, but was tarred by his having been a pre-2001 Taleban commander, Zabet Amanullah. He was killed while campaigning as an agent for his nephew in the 2010 parliamentary elections in Takhar province. Our granular investigation revealed the extent of the bad intelligence behind the targeting.