In Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban increasingly involves covert operations

In Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban increasingly involves covert operations


JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to Afghanistan and our
exclusive look behind Taliban lines.
The U.S. has been fighting there since the
9/11 attacks by al-Qaida.
They were hosted in Afghanistan by the Taliban,
a movement of radical militant Islamic extremists
that ruled with a harsh interpretation of
Islam.
A U.S.-led coalition ousted them in 2001,
but the Taliban quickly formed into an insurgent
group, fighting the American military and
democratic Afghan government that replaced
them.
Now, 18 years later, fighting there rages
more violently than ever.
And some are drawing attention to the tactics
used in the fight against the Taliban.
Our special correspondent Jane Ferguson recently
met members of the Taliban in Wardak province,
near the capital, Kabul, to report, with their
constant presence on the shadow war that rages
largely out of view.
JANE FERGUSON: These are the faces of America’s
most persistent enemy.
U.S. soldiers have been battling the Taliban
for nearly two decades in the nation’s longest
war.
Leading up to 9/11, the Taliban ruled over
most of Afghanistan, giving refuge to al-Qaida
and its training camps.
American troops were sent to destroy the Taliban.
Yet, 18 years later, their fighters roam freely
across more of this country than at any point
since 2001, and these commanders say they
are close to victory.
MOTMAEEN, Taliban Commander (through translator):
I am fully confident that America is being
defeated and will be defeated.
And they will be humiliated when they leave.
JANE FERGUSON: They talk with us face to face
out in the open, even as, nearby, we hear
the sound of their fighters clashing with
Afghan government forces.
After months of serious negotiations, Taliban
leaders and the Trump White House came close
to doing a deal in September that would have
seen some of the 13,000 American soldiers
withdraw from Afghanistan, in exchange for
peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed
Afghan government.
It fell through at the last minute, and the
group continues to fight Afghan forces and
their American advisers every day, but they
know President Trump still wants America out
of this war.
MAN (through translator): Yes, we have won.
They are definitely leaving, whether by force
of through negotiations.
JANE FERGUSON: Our journey to meet with the
Taliban began at sunrise, traveling far outside
the capital, Kabul, to Wardak province.
It’s so dangerous for Westerners in these
regions now, the only way I can travel safely
is by disguising myself as an Afghan woman,
in a full burka to cover my face and completely
shroud my body.
These roads show the scars of conflict, smashed
by explosions.
Each crater marks the spot of an IED.
Government forces are hunkered down in small
outposts on one side of the road.
On the other, the Taliban occupy everything.
So, our escorts came and met us, and they
are in a motorcycle leading our car away off
the main road and into the mountainous area
here.
This is one of the most violent parts of the
country.
Just as we have arrived here, where we are
going to be interviewing the Taliban commander,
ironically, we are very close to government
positions, and gun battles can be heard in
the distance.
Despite the Taliban’s confidence, this war
is far from over.
In fact, it is more brutal than ever.
We came to find out what’s happening to the
people here.
Village elders greeted us.
Their communities are trapped between government
forces and the Taliban, and they pay a heavy
price for it.
Airstrikes in Afghanistan, largely by the
U.S. military, are the most intense since
nearly a decade ago, when 100,000 American
troops were in the country as part of a surge
ordered by President Obama.
These Afghans are suffering under the results.
We visited several villages, all of them partially
destroyed by the war from above.
But it’s not the planes that people here fear
the most.
MAYIN, Afghanistan (through translator): Afghan
Special Forces came in the night.
They blew off the door and said we were Taliban
and they would kill us.
JANE FERGUSON: This is an increasingly covert
war, mostly fought by Afghan and American
Special Forces against the Taliban, with little
access for the outside world to see what’s
going on.
Few have had a chance to tell their story.
MAYIN (through translator): They said I was
a liar.
And I said, “No, I am telling you the truth.”
Then they beat me.
It was a terrible moment.
They blindfolded me and put me on the ground
over there.
They set fire to my car and motorcycle, like
this one here, see?
This is not a Taliban bike.
There was another guy with them, and he was
asking me questions in English.
Then they threw me in this room and left.
JANE FERGUSON: He was lucky.
Some of these night raids are conducted by
Afghan Special Forces connected to the country’s
intelligence agency, backed by the CIA.
Human Rights Watch says these forces, in their
hunt for the Taliban, are unlawfully executing
people.
In many cases, innocent civilians are also
killed because of mistaken identity, poor
intelligence or even political rivalries in
the community.
In a report released last month, the U.S.-based
organization says: “These troops include Afghan
strike forces who have been responsible for
extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances,
indiscriminate airstrikes, attacks on medical
facilities, and other violations of international
humanitarian law or the laws of war.
They largely have been recruited, trained,
equipped, and overseen by the CIA.
They often have U.S. Special Forces personnel
deployed alongside them during kill-or-capture
operations.”
Because these forces come under intelligence,
rather than the military, getting answers
on alleged abuses is difficult.
KATE CLARK, Afghanistan Analysts Network:
The CIA are absolutely unaccountable.
You or I can’t go and see them.
Afghans can’t go and see them.
JANE FERGUSON: Kate Clark runs the Afghan
Analysts Network, which monitors the war here
closely.
KATE CLARK: So, in terms of accountability,
they are unaccountable in this country.
And considering the fact that they seem to
be breaking the Geneva Conventions on a regular
basis, that is really concerning.
And it’s not just journalists saying that
or Afghan families.
It’s also the U.N.
JANE FERGUSON: The CIA-linked Afghan Special
Forces are often referred to as strike forces.
They are technically part of the country’s
National Defense and Security Forces, called
NDSF, but their chain of command is not clear.
Even Afghan government officials appear to
know very little about them.
How many are there?
Who funds them?
Who are they?
FEROZ BASHARI, Afghan Government Spokesperson:
Well, those small number of issues are not
policy-level issues.
I don’t have the information.
But, in general, we talk about the…
JANE FERGUSON: Can you tell us anything about
them?
FEROZ BASHARI: Well, for the moment, I don’t
have any information.
I don’t know about that particular one, but
I assure you that any force that operates
in Afghanistan operates under Afghanistan’s
laws.
JANE FERGUSON: So who do they answer to?
FEROZ BASHARI: Well, if they work for NDSF,
they work for NDSF.
JANE FERGUSON: I’m talking about the special
forces linked to your intelligence services.
Who is their boss?
FEROZ BASHARI: Well, I have to ask.
JANE FERGUSON: These strike forces have been
increasing their night raids and airstrikes
since 2017.
And places like Wardak province, a Taliban
stronghold, are on the front line of this
war.
As America, the Afghan government and the
Taliban all scramble for stronger positions
in any future peace negotiations.
Violence has intensified, making Afghanistan
the deadliest conflict on Earth right now,
according to the U.N., with civilian casualties
in record numbers, caught between the U.S.-backed
Afghan military and the Taliban.
On the ground, our Taliban escorts are fearful
of attracting attention from above.
They are telling us now that we need to keep
moving.
We can’t spend too long in any village or
any house, because these areas are being constantly
surveyed by drones.
And any kind of gathering of people for any
period of time could attract an airstrike.
In the next village, even more gun battles
can be heard in the distance.
Shir Hasan came out to speak with us.
He can barely get the words out.
Last winter, he tells us, an Afghan special
forces team arrived here and came to his house.
SHIR HASAN, Afghanistan (through translator):
I told them: “We are not Taliban.
Don’t do this to us.”
JANE FERGUSON: Hasan says the soldiers took
his two nephews away, one of them a teenage
boy.
SHIR HASAN (through translator): After some
minutes, I heard the sound of bullets fired.
Their father here asked: “Why did you kill
my children?”
One of them was so small.
JANE FERGUSON: Another neighbor, an elderly
man, was also executed, we are told.
SHIR HASAN (through translator): One American
was standing here at the door.
I saw him myself.
I don’t know if the Americans shot them or
the others did.
There were a lot of them.
When the shooting happened, my brother shouted:
“They killed my little children.”
JANE FERGUSON: Hasan says, although the Taliban
control these areas, no one from the village
is a member of the insurgency.
And when he went to the local governor to
complain, he was told the killings were a
mistake, and nothing could be done.
The CIA responded to a request for comment
by the “NewsHour” on alleged abuses, stating:
“We neither condone nor would knowingly participate
in illegal activities, and we continually
work with our foreign partners to promote
adherence to the law.
“The U.S. government routinely reviews such
serious allegations to determine their validity.
Although Human Rights Watch didn’t provide
the CIA time to study the particular allegations
in this report, without confirming or denying
any particular role in government of Afghanistan
counterterrorism operations, we can say with
some confidence that many, if not all, of
the claims leveled against Afghan forces are
likely false or exaggerated.”
January to July of this year marked the first
time in this long conflict that U.S. and Afghan
government forces have killed and injured
more civilians than the Taliban, according
to the U.N.
Yet, because of their brutal tactics, the
Taliban are still killing and maiming thousands,
like in this September attack in Kabul, when
a Taliban member detonated a car bomb, killing
both an American and a Romanian soldier and
eight Afghan civilians in the street.
We challenged their commander on this.
Why does the Taliban target areas where civilians
are in the neighborhood?
MAN (through translator): The martyrs try
to hit their targets and not harm civilians.
But it happens.
There is a clear order from our senior leaders
not to harm any civilians.
JANE FERGUSON: The people living in these
villages have nothing but mud walls between
them and the war outside.
Reduced to labels like Taliban supporters
or pro-government, those in Afghanistan’s
hidden battlegrounds fight their own personal
battles to survive every day, sometimes against
anonymous, shadowy killers.
America’s longest war is theirs too.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jane Ferguson
in Wardak, Afghanistan.

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