Afghans fearful as CIA-backed militias patrol the ground and U.S. drones haunt the skies

A girl helps her brother down from a security barrier in the eastern Afghanistan city of Khost, April 3, 2014. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

KHOST, AFGHANISTAN — When his vehicle, an old Toyota Corolla 1998, finally arrived at the entrance of the Afghan province of Khost, Isaaq exuded a visible sense of relief — he, once again, managed the four-hour journey from Kabul to the eastern province without incident.

The rideable road to Khost, which has been well built over the last few years, passes through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and the provinces of Logar and Paktia, with heavy Taliban presence. This means that passengers have to pass through several Afghan Army check posts as U.S. blackhawks hover above them, all while avoiding potential Taliban checkpoints that have been known to spring up along such roads.

But for the province’s 500,000 residents, the fear does not subside upon entering Khost.

This fact was made clear by the unease with which the passengers responded to a sunglass-clad, heavily-armed soldier who stopped their vehicle.

“Where are you from?” the soldier asked in the distinctive Khosti dialect of Pashto. The aggression in his voice led the passengers to keep their answers short and direct. Satisfied with the replies, the soldier allowed the car to head into the city.

To an outsider, even residents of neighboring Afghan provinces, the stop may have seemed like a routine encounter — yet another hostile soldier, at yet another checkpoint. The people of Khost, however, know that the checkpoint is manned by the violent Khost Protection Force (KPF), an Afghan militia backed by the CIA.

“You have the feeling of always being watched and monitored. It’s weird and you don’t really feel free.”

As the CIA deepens its involvement in the Afghan war by increasing drone strikes and covert operations with small elite commando units, local villagers who live near their bases complain about living under a regime of fear and constant surveillance.

A local walks on a busy street in Khost. (CREDIT: Emran Feroz)

Khost has become one of the main settings of this development. Controlled by the KPF, Khost is one of the hearts of the CIA’s shadow war in the region.

The KPF was founded in the first days of the war in Afghanistan. Consisting of local Pashtuns from the region, all fighters are trained and armed by the CIA, which also has a base in the province. The militia itself, which has become notorious among locals, mainly conducts joint night-raids with U.S. forces, tracks targets for drone operations, and often appears at the scene after airstrikes. Since the KPF directly operates under the CIA, it acts independently from the Afghan National Army. While most regular Afghan soldiers are poorly equipped, KPF forces are heavily armed with modern weapons.

The intelligence’ surveillance complex has become part of the people’s daily life in Khost. Surveillance balloons, antennas on every hill, and KPF militias on the ground dominate the landscape of many parts of the province. The center of this dystopian reality is the CIA base in the city, Camp Chapman, where the militia is being trained.

“You have the feeling of always being watched and monitored. It’s weird and you don’t really feel free,” said Zaeef, a student from Khost City.

“They literally control every corner of the province. You cannot get out of their sight easily,” he told ThinkProgress, referring to the KPF fighters who patrol the streets.

Drone warfare creates atmosphere of terror

While the militia is controlling the ground, American drones are haunting the skies, and increasingly, these aerial strikes leading to civilian deaths. As a local tool of the Americans, the KPF is directly involved in these developments.

Like in many other Afghan regions, the U.S. drone war in Khost increased largely during the presidency of Barack Obama. However, according to locals, strikes continued to increase after Donald Trump took over the White House.

Pasta Khan, a 50-year-old resident of the Bati Tana village in Khost, is a victim of drone warfare. His voice shook as he spoke about the loss of his relatives. “The whole world knows it,” he said, when he described how a drone strike took the lives of his family members and tribesmen near the village of Bati Tana in June 2015. While sitting in a dusty hotel room in the middle of the town and drinking green tea, the nomad recounted the day when he would forever fear the clear sky.

“They appeared after the strike and told us that our relatives have been terrorists.”

Hellfire missiles hit two pick-ups near his village. All the passengers, 14 men, were killed by the strike. The nomads — in Afghanistan known as Kuchi — returned from preparing a funeral for one of their relatives on the other side of the border. Traditionally, the Kuchi, like many other Pashtuns in Afghanistan, do not fully recognize the British drawn Afghan-Pakistani border called Durand Line which was created at the end of the 20th century. Thus, they move as freely as desired to attend tribal assemblies, funerals or other occurrences.

When Meer, a relative of the Kuchi from Bata Tana died, Pasta Khan’s family members drove over the border to prepare the old man’s grave. While Pasta Khan himself was not present, his father, his four brothers and a nephew left the village — but they never returned. All of them died in the fire of the Hellfire missiles, together with the other nomads. When Pasta Khan returned to his village, he found that most of his male relatives were killed.

Since then, Pasta Khan must look after more than 50 people — most of them women and children — who lost their breadwinners. He also suffers heavily from PTSD. He now fears the sky, especially when he hears planes or the buzzing sound of American drones. Regularly, the Predators and Reapers are patrolling over Afghanistan, especially in the border areas of Khost, which the Taliban have used as hideouts in the past.

“The children in our village still fear to play outside. They are petrified,” said Nura Jan, of Bati Tana.

Pasta Khan (left) and Nura Jan (right) discuss the impact of drones on their lives. (CREDIT: Emran Feroz)

He added that strikes in his region have increased in recent months but, “it seems that nobody cares.”

Nura Jan recalled the day of the deadly U.S. strike, when he was one of the men who helped gather the remains of their tribesmen.

“There wasn’t much left. We used their hands and feet to identify them somehow. We didn’t know what belonged to who. Many faces were burnt to their skulls.”

Locals in the region maintain that none of the victims had any connection with a local militant group. However, Afghan government officials and NATO forces claimed that the strike did indeed kill “militants.” The United Nations said it was civilians, not militants, who were killed.

To this day, the villagers say they have not been visited by journalists or human rights groups.

According to Pasta Khan, one of the main reasons for that was the KPF.

“They appeared after the strike and told us that our relatives have been terrorists. Days later, they prevented human rights activists from Kabul from entering Khost,” Khan recalled.

In fact, the KPF’s behavior and its role in the CIA’s secret war are well known among the international community.

“The track record of the KPF, including illegal detentions, assaults on journalists, torture, and killings shows how destructive and counterproductive the CIA’s secret operations in Afghanistan have been. They have fuelled new grievances, alienated the local population, and ultimately contributed not to an end to terror, but to a continuation of the conflict in Afghanistan,” Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher of Human Rights Watch, told ThinkProgress.

In Khost, many people know that the militiamen are not their friends. “These men don’t work for Afghanistan, but for the American intelligence. For many people, that’s reason enough to not trust them,” said Mustafa, a restaurant owner in the provincial capital.

Like many people in town, Mustafa believes that the KPF fighters are untouchable.

“Nobody, not even the president, can do anything against them. They are free of any kind of charges because they work for the Americans.”