On Political Amnesia: Afghan and American Elections Overlook Civilian Killings

Image credit: Jalil Jan Kochai

Image credit: Jalil Jan Kochai


By Mohammed Harun Arsalai and Hira Ausaf Shafi

October 7th, 2019 marks the 18th year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, the longest running foreign war in American history. Throughout the ongoing primary elections, current Democratic candidates are being pressed on their positions regarding the war. Their responses have largely focused on squandered resources and the plight of American troops.  Afghans and their suffering, however, have been entirely ignored. Though it is not surprising for American politicians to value commodities over Afghan lives, the total omission of even a reference to the recent surge in civilian killings points to an ominous pattern of political amnesia. Perhaps, what is even more concerning is the political amnesia of American citizens, their lack of attention, and their complicity in the ongoing War on Terror.

Afghanistan is also experiencing a transition in power as it awaits the results of the 4th Presidential election since the onset of the US invasion in 2001. In continuing trends of on-going violence, the month of September unleashed a spate of deadly attacks in Afghanistan. There was a sliver of hope that an intra-Afghan dialogue would initiate after a peace deal was established between the Taliban and the US. However, on September 7th, 2019, President Donald Trump seemingly cancelled peace talks (revealing the news through a series of tweets) just as both sides were on the brink of a new deal. In the wake of the failed peace deal, US forces intensified violence in Afghanistan. “Over the last four days,” Trump tweeted on September 9th, 2019 “we have been hitting our Enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years!”

Of course, this surge in airstrikes have led to an alarming increase in civilian deaths. According to New York Times casualty reports on Afghanistan—one of the few bodies still monitoring and recording civilian killings in Afghanistan—there were at least 65 civilian deaths from September 20th to the 26th. The actual figures are almost certainly much higher than those recorded in these reports (the discrepancies primarily stem from the difficulty in gaining access to authentic data in a conflict zone).

These killings have resulted in various protests among Afghans. On September 29th, residents protested against the killings from an airstrike in Khwaja Omari, Ghazni, that reportedly killed four civilians. The protest turned violent, security forces fired in the air, and at least 4 protesters were wounded. All of this unfolded just days prior to the much-touted elections. As Afghanistan awaits the election results, it was evident during polling that the majority of poor and displaced Afghans residing in Afghanistan did not care much for election theatrics. Despite President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to display a show of street power, most people were still demanding answers for the recent string of extrajudicial murders.

In the often-ignored and violence-ridden rural areas of Afghanistan, the CIA-backed Afghan intelligence forces known as the National Defense Services (NDS) 02 Unit (also known as “Strike Force,”) operated with impunity until recently, when an investigation by The Nation forced Nangarhar Governor Shahmahmood Miakheil to admit the 02 Unit had murdered two civilians, Lal Muhammed and Syed Wali, in a recent raid in Sherzad, Nangarhar. 

Within days of the admission, the NDS raided a home in Jalalabad City, Nangarhar. The raid became a national scandal. This time, the NDS’ target was the home to the father of four accomplished local men: Abdul Qadir Siddiq, 30, a government employee and advisor, Abdul Qadeer Bahar, 28, a lawyer, Jehanzib Omar Zakhilwal, 26, and Saboor Zakhilwal, 24, both money exchangers.

NDS forces tied the four brothers up, beat them mercilessly, and later shot them dead. The wives of two of the brothers were taken by female security to a neighbor’s house where they were forced to listen to the murders of their husbands. According to sources close to the family, the brothers had been separated into different rooms for interrogation and torture. The father of the boys, along with his eldest son, who had just come back from performing the Hajj pilgrimage, were taken to security trucks and brought in for interrogation. According to friends and family of the slain boys, the level of violence was worse than that of ISKP or anything else they had heard of. The NDS was accused of binding, beating, stabbing, and eventually shooting at least one of the boys through his eye.

"Look what they've done here-these boys had a life, families and they were murdered without cause. These people had lives... " says Attaullah, a family friend

While a killing like this might have gone ignored in a tucked-away village, this was in the middle of Jalalabad city, the capital of Nangarhar and one of the 5 largest cities in the country. The news spread rapidly across Afghanistan via social media, as photos of the brothers and their friends filled Facebook and Twitter feeds nationwide.

The NDS originally claimed the victims were Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) agents, but this was debunked, forcing Miakheil to condemn the attacks.

President Ghani was forced to fire NDS spy chief Masoum Stanikzai over the murders, marking the first known repercussion the NDS has faced since Ghani took office. The president’s sudden "shock" about civilian casualties is all theatrics, as this is not the first, second or 20th time government killings have taken place. His gesture seemed to be more of a campaign stunt, rather than a substantial change in policy, as Ghani has been confronted with similar stories throughout his tenure as president, which he consistently ignored.

At the fatiha in Jalalabad, a religious gathering to commemorate the brothers’ lives, NDS trucks flooded the neighborhood around noon—causing some panic of another raid—to clear the area for the governor to speak. "I swear here in front of all of you, we will investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice" Miakheil said, adding, "these were all our sons, we mourn together."

The governor’s words did not stop the community, nor a local Salafist Islamist leader, from threatening direct confrontation if swift action wasn't taken.

"We've had enough of the killing! What's the difference between you and Daesh? Nothing! I swear by Allah, we Salafis are in the 100,000s, we'll take care of all of your oppressors ourselves.”

Contacted by The Nation to inquire what a national investigation would look like—specifically if it would have any independent investigators, or oversight— the governor did not reply.

Before the investigation on the four brothers could conclude, the US military drone bombed hundreds of pine nut farmers in Wazir Tangi, a village in the Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, killing at least 40 people and injuring 70 others. The bombing made clear the negligence of the government and the US military, as the farmers had delivered a letter directly to the governor, stating that they would be harvesting the volatile area on those days. 

President Ashraf Ghani was confronted with questions about the strike by his main rival Dr Abdullah and Hezb-ul-Islami Leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – a famed hardliner of the Mujahideen factions. Ghani was a "no show", allowing for his rivals to both question his resolve, but to also claim that Ghani has no control over the on-going violence in Afghanistan. However, after years of avoiding questions, Ghani was forced to respond, claiming that civilian casualties were “unacceptable.” He further promised to end night raids by the National Defense Services (NDS), Afghanistan’s state intelligence agency, if “another civilian was harmed."

Then, once again—either from obliviousness or incomprehensible planning—US and Afghan government strikes caused the massacre of a wedding caravan in Musa Qala, Helmand, which once again brought Afghanistan back into the news. On September 23rd, the night of the raid, a large wedding was taking place next door to the purported target. The attack killed at least 40 civilians and wounded 12 others. There haven't been any answers as to why a raid was conducted with a wedding occurring directly next door to the alleged bomb making factory.

The everyday stories of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are being buried in the international news cycle; simultaneously sidelining the promises of "open investigations" of war crimes by the Afghan government. After another recent string of civilian killings by coalition forces, thousands of Nangarhar locals crippled the Jalalabad - Kabul highway, creating a massive loss in revenues and materials, a now common tactic used by angry locals of Nangarhar. Seeking answers, the protestors delivered dead bodies of innocent people to the governor.

The US and CIA have been implicated as the funders, trainers and suspected operational directors of night raids, yet this “training” provided by the US has led to numerous “botched” drone strikes and air raids that have led to the death of countless Afghan civilians. Although this has sparked some nationwide outrage, little has been done to fix the root of the problem.

The first six months of 2019 saw the deaths and injuries of civilians by the US and Afghan coalition rise 31 percent compared to the same period in 2018. Thus, US and Afghan forces have killed more civilians this year than all anti-government elements combined.

The truth is that Ghani was confronted by journalists, activists, and human rights organizations for many years about the ongoing abuses and turned a blind eye. In essence, Ghani was America's "Yes Man", only using tough rhetoric during his recent campaigning. However, equally culpable of the crimes being committed is Dr Abdullah, who has been able to sit on the sidelines while Ashraf Ghani takes these blows head on. Ashraf Ghani has thus far not just turned a blind eye to civilian casualties, his administration has actively worked against war crimes investigations. Regardless of his current decision to "bring the perpetrators to justice,'' his past already speaks for itself.

The question remains, will Ashraf Ghani disband night raids and the NDS 02 Unit or will he continue his legacy of broken promises and civilian murders?

Mohammed Harun Arsalai is a writer and co-founder of Documenting Afghanistan. Hira Ausaf Shafi completed her MPhil from NDU (Islamabad). She is interested in epistemic decoloniality, and liberation theology.


The authors thank Jamil Jan Kochai for his editorial support.