US forces are increasingly being used to settle scores, it is claimed, carrying out raids on the homes of Afghan civilians who have been falsely denounced by their enemies.
Taken in the blackness of night
KABUL // When Samsor and Matin Gazi Alam were woken by foreign voices and barking guard dogs they guessed immediately who had come. As they rubbed sleep from their eyes, three shots silenced a dog and a bearded commando ducked in and out of their room with his weapon levelled. Five months earlier, American and Afghan special forces had come at night to seize their younger brother. Now, the commandos battering in the metal compound gate and clambering over ladders had come for them.
Over the next three days the brothers would glimpse a twilight world of huddled captives, interrogation rooms, threats and informant deals. They would see inside a strategy which the United States military says is successfully capturing Taliban and al Qa'eda militants in a district previously notorious for insurgents. But it is a strategy which tribal leaders say is instead locking up the innocent after being hijacked by malicious denunciations, greedy officials and disputes rooted in three decades of war.
They say it is feeding rebel propaganda rich with tales of disappeared brothers, missing fathers and grieving mothers. And it is a strategy which Pashtun villagers claim risks losing the battle for their hearts and minds. When Gen Stanley McChrystal, senior Nato and US commander in Afghanistan, addressed his officers after Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to the country, he held up Baraki Barak as a flagship of progress.
The district in Logar province, 80.5 kilometres south of Kabul, had been a no-go area earlier in the year. Gen McChrystal said: "It was almost completely insurgent-controlled - with some smart counter-insurgency techniques, violence is down 80 per cent." The area has been hailed as a beacon of US success and was visited by Gen Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador, in November. However, elders in the village of Gul Alam Qala painted a picture not of growing security, but of families living in fear of their doors being kicked down in the early hours of the morning.
Raids had become commonplace in the village long before Samsor and Matin were taken. The cluster of 15 mud-walled compounds that makes up their village had already been searched at least 10 times, they said. In one summer raid, their brother Zarghon, the 24-year-old elected leader of the province's prominent Stanakzai tribe, had been taken. Weeks of searching tracked him down to the Bagram US military prison. Released without charge after three months he returned with tales of sleep deprivation and psychological torture.
On November 7 it was the turn of his brothers to be handcuffed and blindfolded as they were bundled from their compound set in 700 acres of wheat and maize into the back of a helicopter to a nearby base for interrogation. For the next three days they were questioned in turn sitting at the feet of a bearded special forces interrogator who gave his name as "Jason". Jason was by turns threatening and cajoling. He would threaten them with disappearing into the darkness of Afghanistan's military prisons or offer freedom in return for lists of names as he scrolled through laptop pictures of wanted men.
Matin, a 36-year-old IT lecturer, said: "He told me: 'You don't exist, I don't exist, and you do not exist in this world - If you lie to me you are dead. You are dead, your brother is dead, Zarghon is dead. Whatever I ask, you tell me.'" Samsor, 34, added: "They said, 'Do you know what we do? Do you know about secret prisons? We are those people.'" That afternoon the raid was blandly listed in Nato's daily press update. It said the compound was used by a financier for the insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani and prisoners had been taken "after intelligence indicated militant activity".
"No shots were fired and no one was injured," the statement read. No more details were available. Between four-hour interrogation shifts, the brothers were kept with three other prisoners and watched by US soldiers. After 72 hours the doors were suddenly thrown open and they were released at dawn without charge and with Dh75 each to take a taxi. The US military would not tell The National on Saturday of the evidence or allegations against Zarghon Gazi Alam. A statement said: "[Nato-led] forces detain individuals when they present a credible threat to our forces or Afghan citizens."
The brothers said Zarghon was not an insurgent. Instead their predicament illustrated tribal jealousies and the grey areas of an insurgency. The Gazi Alam's prominent position means they are approached by many people for help and advice. Pashtunwali, the Pashtun tribal code, means they cannot turn them away. It also means they have envious and powerful enemies among a tribe split by disputes. "My tribe is not with the insurgents," said Matin, a father of two. "With Pashtunwali we have a tradition of hospitality, you can't turn people away and you don't know who is who."
Samsor added: "Sometimes the Taliban force people to help them. There was one guy a Taliban commander forced him to feed them. The same night the Americans raided his house and shot the commander and beat up the man. "Then the Taliban killed the guy's son in revenge. "People are stuck between two stones." The situation is exacerbated by the Americans being used as an unwitting tool to pursue local jealousies, revenge and land they claim.
Residents who have long-standing rivalries, often linked to farmland, can now denounce their foes for cash rewards. Corrupt Afghan security officials use raids to hold families to ransom. Several elders from Gul Alam Qala said a single corrupt official had been responsible for all their raids and had demanded money. Mohammed Gul, a 65-year-old retired brigadier with the Afghan army, had seen his own two sons seized and his house raided three times. The eldest son, Azim, who worked with United Nations election teams before the August presidential poll, had been in Bagram for four months. He said: "The Afghans with the Americans beat the children, they beat my wife and they tied up our servants with the cattle."
Mohammed Akram, administrative director of the country's National Commission for Peace, said the raids were alienating Pashtuns across the south. "Seventy per cent of the people in Bagram, they are not Taliban and insurgents," he said. "They are normal people taken when the United States received wrong reports. "Afghanistan has seen 30 years of fighting. Each house is an enemy with its neighbours."
* The National