Afghan Translator Links US Forces to Civilian Killings

July 17th, 2013 - by admin

Hamid Shalizi | Reuters & Jason Ditz / & Rod Norland / The New York Times – 2013-07-17 00:30:20

Afghan Translator Links US Forces to Civilian Killings
Hamid Shalizi | Reuters

KABUL (July 16, 2013) — An Afghan interpreter for US special forces arrested on accusations of torturing and killing civilians has denied involvement in the murders to Afghan investigators, and said he was always acting on orders from his US military handlers.

Afghan authorities detained Zakeria Kandahari six weeks ago following allegations he was involved in atrocities against civilians in Wardak, a strategically important province close to Kabul.

In a record of the interview being prepared by military investigators and obtained by Reuters, Kandahari said he had worked for US special forces across Afghanistan for nine years, most recently in Wardak’s Nerkh district, where the allegations surfaced in February.

“I was a low-rank translator and had no access to roam around inside the base, or in interrogation rooms,” Kandahari told the investigators, according to the three-page document which carried his photograph on the front page, dressed in camouflage fatigues and a hat.

The Afghan government has in the past said that Kandahari is Afghan-American, although his exact background remains unclear.

In the document, Kandahari identified three US special forces soldiers as “Dave, chief of the operations, Hagen and Chris” and told Afghan military interrogators that the trio had been fluent in both of Afghanistan’s major languages, Dari and Pashto.

“Kandahari rejects all allegations levelled to him and links the three soldiers to the killings,” the interview document said, citing Kandahari, whose case threatens relations between the government and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), already tense over the issue of civilian deaths.

US military officials have consistently denied special forces participated in, or turned a blind-eye to, torture and illegal killings by Afghans working with them in Nerkh.

“US forces conducted several investigations which determined there was no credible evidence to substantiate misconduct by ISAF or US forces,” a senior spokesman for the force told Reuters on Tuesday.

“Having said that, ISAF takes all allegations of detainee abuse seriously and we will continue to cooperate with the Afghan government on this matter,” he said.

Investigators said in the document Sayed Mohammad, a Wardak resident, was seen in a mobile phone video being beaten by Kandahari, who the investigator said was a senior interpreter for US special forces. Mohammad was later found dead.

“I also kicked him several times while I was taking him to the base. I handed him over to Mr Dave and Mr Hagen, but later I saw his body in a black body bag,” Kandahari told his interrogators, according to the record, written in Dari.

Afghan officials in Wardak and relatives told Reuters earlier that Mohammad’s body was found near the Nerkh special forces base in May with both feet cut off. Mohammad first disappeared in November last year.

The abuse allegations prompted President Hamid Karzai in March to bar elite US troops from Wardak, a potentially risky move because it could give Taliban insurgents more room to operate in an area near the capital.

Karzai later agreed to a compromise with NATO forces entailing a more limited and gradual pullout from Wardak than he had initially demanded.

Atrocities against civilians have been a flashpoint in relations between the government and NATO-led forces since an American soldier was accused of murdering 16 civilians in Kandahar province in March last year, complicating negotiations on a US military presence in the country beyond NATO’s 2014 combat exit.

Afghan authorities have already arrested an Afghan army colonel who allegedly handed prisoners over to Kandahari. That arrest came after the bodies of three men detained in joint US.-Afghan raids since November were last month found close to the Nerkh military base.

Reuters has seen a list compiled by the Ministry of Defense of 18 men allegedly detained in Nerkh. The three whose bodies were found in June were among 10 listed as missing, villagers and officials said. The other eight were listed as dead.

Additional reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Robert Birsel

American Accused of Torturing, Disappearing Afghan Civilians
Jason Ditz /

(May 12, 2013) –Two months after the initial Afghan government demands for the US to withdraw its forces from Wardak Province, the troops are still there, and the government is still unhappy about it. But new details may mean an additional push after their first effort failed to convince the US to go.

Afghan officials now say that they have a specific suspect, an Afghan-born American citizen named Zakaria Kandahari, who they have implicated in at least 15 different killings or disappearances, and who they have on video torturing a detainee.

Kandahari appears to have been affiliated with the Special Forces in Nerkh District, which were the source of a lot of complaints. Among the 15 he is accused of killing is Mohammad Qassim, whose body was found in a trash pit just outside the base after being detained.

US officials confirmed the existence of the video tape showing Kandahari, but denied that he was an American citizen, insisting “everyone in that video is Afghan.” Afghan officials say Kandahari was speaking English in the video, and an unseen supervisor is also heard speaking English in an American accent.

Kandahari’s putative Special Forces Team A group was said to move in and out of the base with impunity, and Afghan officials say the group regularly wore US military uniforms, with long beards, and rode around on motorized four-wheel bikes hunting for “insurgents.” The group regularly detained people, accusing them of working with either the Taliban or the Hezb-i Islami.

Afghan officials claim Gen. Allen, the top US commander, promised to hand over Kandahari to Afghan officials. The US insisted they tried but he got away, then later claimed Allen never had any conversations about Kandahari at all.

Afghans Say an American Tortured Civilians
Rod Norland / The New York Times

MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan (May 12, 2013) — The authorities in Afghanistan are seeking the arrest on murder and torture charges of a man they say is an American and part of a Special Forces unit operating in Wardak Province, three Afghan officials have confirmed.

The accusations against the man, Zakaria Kandahari, and the assertion that he and much of his unit are American are a new turn in a dispute over counterinsurgency tactics in Wardak that has strained relations between Kabul and Washington. American officials say their forces are being wrongly blamed for atrocities carried out by a rogue Afghan unit. But the Afghan officials say they have substantial evidence of American involvement.

They say they have testimony and documents implicating Mr. Kandahari and his unit in the killings or disappearances of 15 Afghans in Wardak. Mr. Kandahari is of Afghan descent but was born and raised in the United States, they say. Included in the evidence, the Afghan officials say, is a videotape of Mr. Kandahari torturing one of the 15 Afghans, a man they identified as Sayid Mohammad.

Mr. Mohammad was picked up by the unit in Wardak six months ago and has not been seen since, the officials said. The partial remains of Mohammad Qassim, another of the 15 Afghans, were found in a trash pit just outside the fence around the unit’s base in the Nerkh district, according to Mr. Qassim’s family and Afghan officials.

Afghan officials who have seen the videotape say a person speaking English with an American accent can be heard supervising the torture session, which Mr. Kandahari is seen conducting.

An American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with official policy, confirmed the existence of the video showing Mr. Kandahari but denied that he was an American citizen. “Everybody in that video is Afghan; there are no American voices,” the official said.

At the center of the Afghans’ accusations is an American Special Forces A Team that had been based in the Nerkh district until recently. An A Team is an elite unit of 12 American soldiers who work with extra resources that the military calls “enablers,” making it possible for the team to have the effect of a much larger unit.

Those resources can include specialized equipment, air support and Afghan partner troops or interpreters. The American official said Mr. Kandahari had been an interpreter working for the team in the Nerkh district without pay in exchange for being allowed to live on the base.

Afghan officials give a different account of his role. They say he and others working with the team wore American-style military uniforms, but had long beards and often, bizarrely, rode motorized four-wheeled bikes on hunts for insurgents. The Afghan officials said Mr. Kandahari appeared to be in a leadership position in the unit.

Afghan investigators say the team detained the 15 Afghan civilians in sweeps, apparently on suspicion of having ties to insurgents, although their family members deny any association with either the Taliban or Hezb-i-Islami, another group fighting the government in Wardak. The investigators say that 7 of the 15 are known to have been killed and that the other 8 are still missing and almost certainly dead.

The American official said the team was not to blame. “We have done three investigations down there, and all absolve ISAF forces and Special Forces of all wrongdoing,” the official said, referring to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. “It is simply not true.”

Relatives of the victims and their supporters have staged noisy protests in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. They say the International Committee of the Red Cross has been investigating the disappearances. In keeping with standard practice, the Red Cross has made no public comment on the matter.

In February, President Hamid Karzai ordered all American Special Operations forces to leave Wardak Province, an area near the capital where insurgents have been active. Afghan and American officials then reached a compromise under which the A Team was removed from the Nerkh district but that allowed other Special Operations units to remain in at least four locations in the province. It is not known where the team that left the Nerkh district went.

Afghan officials investigated the events in the Nerkh district, and when they concluded that the accusations of misconduct by the team were true, the head of the Afghan military, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, personally asked the American commander at the time, Gen. John R. Allen, to hand Mr. Kandahari over to the Afghan authorities.

According to a senior Afghan official, General Allen personally promised General Karimi that the American military would do so within 24 hours, but the promise was not kept, nor was a second promise a day later to hand him over the following morning. “The next morning they said he had escaped from them and they did not know where he was,” the official said.

The American official said the military was not trying to shield Mr. Kandahari. “The S.F. guys tried to pick him up, but he got wind of it and went on the lam, and we lost contact with him,” the official said. “We would have no reason to try to harbor this individual.”

And a spokesman for the American military, David E. Nevers, said General Allen “never had a conversation with General Karimi about this issue.”

The Special Forces A Team originally moved into its Nerkh district base in Wardak in the autumn of 2012, around the time that a bomb wiped out much of the provincial government center here in Maidan Shahr, the provincial capital.

The senior Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities about the case, said that top Afghan officials understood that the unit had been transferred from Camp Gecko in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. Afghan officials and human rights investigators say Camp Gecko, formerly the home of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, now includes a C.I.A. paramilitary base and some Special Operations facilities.

Gen. Sharafuddin Sharaf, a senior official of the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service, said that his agency has issued a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Kandahari on charges of murder, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, but that he could not be found.

The Afghan attorney general filed a formal criminal case against him last week, General Sharaf said. Another Afghan official confirmed that those charges had been filed.

Mr. Kandahari is described by Afghans who have seen him as in his late 20s or early 30s and fluent in Pashto, which he speaks with a Kandahar accent, and English. General Sharaf said that it was not known whether Zakaria Kandahari is his real name or an alias, and that the authorities had no information about his family or original home.

A 16-year-old student named Hikmatullah, who said he was tortured by Mr. Kandahari, said his tormentor had a tattoo of a large green sword on his upper right arm.

Hikmatullah said he had been picked up with two of his brothers, Sadiqullah and Ismatullah, from the village of Amer Kheil. Whenever he denied being an insurgent, he said, Mr. Kandahari beat and kicked him until his shoulder was dislocated. He was released after three days, he said, but his brothers are missing.

Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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