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Afghan Leader Told U.S. About Abuses, Aide Says

Military reportedly was warned over a year ago that its guides were attacking villagers.

October 31, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai told U.S. military commanders more than a year ago that Afghan militias working for U.S. troops were committing abuses against villagers and that their actions were undermining the effort to combat terrorism, the president's spokesman said Thursday.

But the Afghan militia fighters, who are paid to guide U.S. forces, have continued to assault and rob villagers -- including during a search operation last week in the village of Dai Chopan, spokesman Jawed Ludin said, confirming a report of the incident in Wednesday's editions of The Times.

"The story is true," Ludin said in an interview. "We know that this thing happened. Much of what [villagers] have been saying has some basis in reality."

The militias wear U.S. military camouflage fatigues on the missions, and Dai Chopan villagers say that besides serving as guides, they also have conducted searches.

The villagers emphasized that U.S. soldiers on the mission last week did not witness the abuses. But elders said they had asked U.S. unit commanders not to bring their militia guides into the village because the guides had beaten and robbed people during two previous operations there.

Karzai began hearing complaints from villagers about alleged crimes during U.S.-led search operations at least a year ago, and the president asked U.S. military commanders not to use Afghan militia members, at least in noncombat situations, Ludin said.

"The coalition commanders are coming to brief the president every so often," the spokesman said. "Issues that come up have always been debated very openly. And one of them has been this issue.

"At least a year ago, we had come to this understanding that, of course, it was essential that even if you have to collaborate with some kind of local forces, or commanders, then you need to be careful what the implications might be, in the wider sense," Ludin said.

The commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan was not available for an interview Thursday, spokesman Col. Rodney Davis said. The colonel repeated a brief statement issued Monday that confirmed that Afghan militias sometimes take part in specific coalition missions, and added that the military had no reports that they had acted in an unprofessional manner.

A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Capt. David Romley, said, "The United States maintains a strong commitment to human rights and the people of Afghanistan.

"The relationship we share with the Afghan people is built on trust and goodwill. We make every attempt to extend that goodwill through our Afghan military partners."

Human rights groups say U.S. commanders have a legal responsibility to ensure that forces under their command don't engage in looting or beat noncombatants, and that they must be especially wary of a pattern of abuse.

Magda Kowalczuk, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, said allegations of abuse by the militias should be independently investigated. She said the U.S. military has not cooperated with previous outside efforts to look into problems.

"The U.S. government doesn't somehow feel the need even to respond to what we have to say," Kowalczuk said from London, where the rights group is based.

The legal liabilities of U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are complicated because there often is a loose command-and-control relationship between U.S. troops and Afghan militias, said John Sifton, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"We understand that a lot of these things happen on a sort of ad hoc basis of cooperation," he said. "It's not as if there is a memo that spells out the command and control -- that this person reports to this person reports to this person."

But if U.S. troops did have command and control over their militia guides, and knew they were beating and looting, "then the people in the command situation are implicated in the war crimes," Sifton said from New York.

Human Rights Watch is trying to gain information from the U.S. military on its investigations of alleged use of excessive force against Afghan civilians, Sifton said.

"We've been stonewalled on all our requests for information about instances in which U.S. forces, or Afghan forces, have been involved in excessive use of deadly force or things like that," he said. "So we don't feel very strongly that investigations are taking care of the potential problem. We have reports of problems from all over Afghanistan."

Ludin, Karzai's spokesman, said the Afghan government has investigated a number of complaints against Afghan militiamen serving alongside U.S. forces. An Interior Ministry team is investigating the Dai Chopan incidents, and Karzai may order compensation paid to the victims, the spokesman said.

He added that the problem was slowly being brought under control as the new Afghan National Army is trained by coalition forces and takes a more central role in operations against suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

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