At a checkpoint on a dirt road in southeastern Afghanistan in 2012, Rahim Sarobi, a farmer, braked to a stop behind a knot of idling cars. Up ahead, Afghan gunmen were piled into the back of a Toyota Hilux. On the ground, tied to the rear fender by their wrists, lay two bloodied men, laboring to breathe.
Everyone was ordered out of their vehicles. The burly checkpoint commander, known simply as Azizullah, said the unfortunate pair had not slowed sufficiently at the checkpoint, and only the Taliban don’t slow down. But Mr. Sarobi and fellow motorists recognized the men as farmers from their village. They pleaded, but Azizullah would not listen. The motorists were ordered to follow the pickup as it dragged the men along six miles of rock-studded road. By the time the convoy reached Azizullah’s base, the pair were dead. Their bodies were left decomposing for days, a warning to anyone who thought of disobeying Azizullah.
Mr. Sarobi told me that story in Paktia Province last February. It echoes ominously against President Obama’s announcement on Tuesday that about 9,800 American troops will stay in Afghanistan after most have withdrawn this year. Special Operations Forces will continue training Afghans and assisting in counterterrorism. And if the current pattern holds, we can expect them, alongside the Central Intelligence Agency, to keep partnering with commanders like Azizullah to fight the Taliban.
Bear in mind that Azizullah is not a member of the Afghan army. He does not work for the Afghan National Police. He is not, in fact, under the authority of the Afghan government at all.
Instead, his militia, which has been supported by the Special Operations Forces, is part of a network of semi-independent rural paramilitary groups that owe their funding, weapons and very existence to America’s war on terror. By backing this network, the United States is fostering an environment of lawlessness and impunity, exacerbating Afghanistan’s longstanding problems, and creating fertile ground for the Taliban insurgency to survive. Using such strongmen seems to run counter to the doctrine laid out in 2006 in a much publicized Army/Marines counterinsurgency manual, which emphasized the need to convince citizens that America’s fighting forces will keep them safe.
On my trip to Paktia last winter, I met with other villagers who shared stories about the commander. A university student said he was at a village bazaar with his teenage cousin, who had fled his own village to escape Taliban threats. Azizullah’s militiamen accused the cousin of having ties to insurgents. He was arrested, taken to Azizullah’s compound, chained to a wall, raped repeatedly by militiamen, and released the next morning.
Azizullah’s crimes are detailed in a confidential dispatch, sent in 2010 to the United States military by United Nations officials, asking the Americans to sever ties with him. “A boy aged 16 was arrested by Commander Azizullah approximately four months ago in the Angur Ada area in Bermal district” states a copy of the dispatch that I obtained. “His father tried to intervene and told Azizullah he could arrest him instead of his son. The boy was released after 25 days, during which Azizullah sexually abused him.”
Afghans tell similar tales about other American-backed commanders, who hold sway over villages, districts or provinces. In southern Afghanistan’s Khas Oruzgan district, residents accuse Abdul Hakim Shujayee of going on multiple killing and raping rampages. Afghan officials in Kabul said their government tried to arrest him, but failed because he was protected by American Special Operations Forces. American officials say they have cut their ties with him, a claim that has been met with skepticism from residents. In 2011, in the village of Khosh Khadir in Daikundi Province, villagers told me that an American-supported strongman known as Lalay let his forces rampage through the village in response to a Taliban attack, hanging civilians from trees, abducting women, and setting homes and shops ablaze.
American authorities insist there is no proof of such allegations, and experts on Afghanistan often attach the caveat that enemies in Afghanistan tell wild tales about one another. But it is unclear whether an investigation has ever been conducted in any of these cases. American officials have told me that Azizullah and those like him are essential for combating the Taliban, and even the strongmen’s detractors acknowledge their Taliban-hunting prowess. Maj. Michael Waltz, a former Special Operations Forces officer who worked with Azizullah, put the argument this way in an interview: “We can’t sacrifice security for this multigenerational effort to build rule of law.”
In fact, the United States has favored counterterrorism over building Afghan state institutions and promoting the rule of law. Less than 10 percent of American funding in Afghanistan has gone to nonmilitary expenditures, even as Washington has poured millions into the coffers of regional strongmen with human rights records arguably as poor as the Taliban’s. One result: The writ of Hamid Karzai’s weak government is concentrated in the cities, while power brokers like Azizullah unofficially rule the countryside — especially the rural south and east. So villagers like those I met feel they have no recourse to justice or protection from predation — just the sort of grievance the insurgency exploits.
The Afghan government has tried to co-opt the strongmen by anointing them as governors and police chiefs. And in recent years, the United States has rebranded hundreds of militias as “Afghan Local Police,” placing them under nominal government authority. In most cases, though, the strongmen retain independent sources of revenue, including drug money or American patronage, as well as control over the militias. Their corruption infects the whole government; a Joint Chiefs of Staff report says the state has sometimes become, in effect, a collection of “criminal patronage networks.” The report also quotes an unnamed member of an interagency task force network as explaining: “The corruption piece is hard because security reigns supreme. We won’t remove corrupt officials if it looks like it will interrupt security.”
“Security,” in this context, does include protecting citizens from the Taliban — but not from predatory American-backed strongmen. Rural Afghans consistently told me they wanted freedom from both. But that is unlikely if American proxies continue the war on terror as it has been fought.
The most effective weapon against the Taliban would be a strong centralized state, responsive to citizens’ needs. This would require Americans to sever unilateral patronage relationships with rural power brokers and militias, and direct all funding to the state. (To deter corruption, international donors and Kabul could manage disbursement jointly, through trust funds.) The Afghan government should then absorb these forces into its ranks; with the strongmen stripped of American protection and independent revenue sources, integration should be easier.
Success will take great resolve, however, to meld the militias with a more cohesive state. When American-backed militias in Kunduz Province lost their funding in 2011, they resorted to banditry and bloody turf battles. If the United States continues to ignore state-building, similar outcomes could be a dark legacy of Western intervention.
“We are happy the Americans are leaving,” Muhib Shah, a student in Paktia Province, told me. “But they have left a terrible gift for us.”
Anand Gopal is a journalist based in New York, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes.