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“A Recipe for Civil War”: Journalist Matthieu Aikins on US Military Legacy and Afghanistan’s Future

Kabul-based journalist Matthieu Aikins talks about the disputed Afghan election, US-backed militias committing war crimes, and the future of the country after the US military drawdown.

In Part 2 of our conversation, Kabul-based journalist Matthieu Aikins talks about the disputed Afghan election, U.S.-backed militias committing war crimes, and the future of the country after the U.S. military drawdown.

Click here to watch Part 1 of the interview.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: “A U.S.-Backed Militia Runs Amok in Afghanistan.” That’s the title of Matt Aikins’ latest investigation exposing possible war crimes in Afghanistan. He wrote the piece for Al Jazeera.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthieu Aikins is a George Polk Award-winning journalist who lives in Kabul. He won the George Polk Award for his Rolling Stone article, “The A-Team Killings,” that uncovered convincing evidence that a U.S. Army Special Forces unit killed 10 Afghan civilians in Wardak province.

We’re speaking to you after the killing of a two-star U.S. general in Afghanistan. This hasn’t happened since the Vietnam War in 1970. You’ve been covering Afghanistan extensively, and this is also happening in the midst of these disputed elections for president. Can you talk about the situation now in Afghanistan?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure. Well, I think what this incident really highlights is the incredible vulnerability that Afghanistan has right now. It’s going through the last year of the ISAF troop mission, right, 2014.


MATTHIEU AIKINS: The International Security Assistance Force, which is the U.S.-led military mission that’s been in the country now for—well, there’s been an American military presence for over a decade. So that’s coming to an end. At the same time, we’re having a disputed presidential election where both candidates are claiming victory, and there’s been a massive showdown that nearly led to an attempted coup d’état. That’s happening right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Kerry did with that, the secretary of state.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, he flew to Kabul to broker a deal between the two leading candidates, the only two candidates who faced each other in the second round of the elections—Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. And so, what had happened was that Ghani was way ahead in the vote count, and Abdullah refused to accept it, claiming, with some basis, that there was widespread fraud. So, what the really critical thing is here that these two candidates represent different ethnic groups, roughly, in the country, north and south. And the nightmare scenario for Afghanistan has always been a renewed civil war, like you had in the 1990s, that would tear the country apart along, rather than, like in Iraq, sectarian, but ethnic lines. And so, that’s really been brought to the fore by the fact that these two candidates are both claiming to be rival presidents.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who represents which part of the country.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, Abdullah Abdullah is from the north, and he generally represents Tajiks—that’s the northern ethnic group. And Ashraf Ghani represents Pashtuns in the south, right? It’s a bit simplistic, but that’s the general breakdown. So, the fact they’re refusing to accept the results of the election has brought the nightmare scenario to the fore. And this is 2014. This is with a huge international and American presence in the country. So if this can happen right now, before the withdrawal has even happened, it’s made everyone extra nervous about what future years will bring.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So could you explain, Matt, what each of these—Abdullah Abdullah was the foreign minister of Afghanistan; Ashraf Ghani was previously the finance minister of Afghanistan—what their positions are on the bilateral security agreement, and what that means for the presence of U.S. troops and what shape it’s likely to take?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, they both realize, I think, that Karzai has pushed the international community and the Americans way too far. And the fact of the matter is, is that Afghanistan is massively dependent on international spending, especially for its oversized military, which we’ve pumped up to an unsustainable size—over 300,000 army and police. That’s extremely expensive, $4.5 billion a year. Afghanistan is not making—barely making a billion dollars in revenues, right? So, I’ll tell you, if the international troops pulled out, you know, tomorrow, I think the Afghan army and police might be able to make a go for it. At least it’s a plausible case. But if you cut off all the salaries, the country will disintegrate overnight. So, basically, both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have said they’re going to come cap in hand to Washington, sign the agreement and try to repair relationships with the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Karzai. Last month, a key ally of the president, the current president, Hamid Karzai, his cousin was killed in a suicide bombing in the southern city of Kandahar. What’s the significance of Hashmat Karzai’s death?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, there’s a lot of very byzantine internal power struggles within the Karzai family. Hashmat Karzai was actually sort of a rival branch of the Karzai family from President Karzai. But he was supporting Ashraf Ghani in this election. What it really shows is that the Taliban can still strike the topmost figures in the Afghan political elite. And so, they really are, I think, nervous about how their lives are going to be in jeopardy as the withdrawal continues.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you talk about your recent piece for Al Jazeera called “A U.S.-Backed Militia Runs Amok in Afghanistan”?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure. Well, I think the piece really has two important points to make. The first is that three men were rounded up by a joint U.S. Special Forces-Afghan Commando raid, right. They attacked this Taliban-held village. Taliban ran away. They pulled all the villagers out of their homes, collected them in a big courtyard, over a hundred of them, and from those they selected three men they thought were collaborating with the Taliban. And they handed them over—we’re not clear why—they handed them over to a local militia, an illegal militia that they had been working with. And those men were later shot dead. We have witnesses who saw them killed. We have the family members who buried them. We have the hundreds of—hundred villagers who saw them being handed over. And we have the militia commander himself. When we called him, he admitted to killing the three men, proudly, saying they were Taliban.

And so, the other point is that the U.S. claims that it doesn’t back illegal militias, that it only works within the Afghan Local Police program. There’s a lot of concerns over that program, about the idea of setting up militias as a way to fill the security vacuum when you leave the country, because those militias are just going to turn on each other, turn on the government, get involved in criminal activity. They’ve accumulated a lengthy record of serious human rights abuses, like murder, rape, abductions—been documented by the U.N. and Human Rights Watch and other groups. But even, you know, setting that aside, the whole idea of the Afghan Local Police program is there’s supposed to be some sort of system of accountability, that these militias will at least be integrated into the government nominally, that if they do commit crimes, there will be a system for investigating them. And when you have groups that work outside of that, right, then you have no system of accountability. And in this case, we established that this militia, called upriser militias locally, were not part of the Ministry of Interior, they’re not part of the Afghan Local Police program. The U.S. military, when we asked about them specifically, denied working with them, saying that they work only with legitimate Afghan security forces. But again, when we spoke to Afghan officials in this area, when we spoke to the militia commander himself, Abdullah, a sort of notorious fellow, he said that he received money, weapons, training from the U.S. Special Forces and not from the Afghan government.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this story relate to the one you won the George Polk Award for, “The A-Team Killings,” in Rolling Stone?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, the most obvious thread is that they both involve the U.S. Special Forces, who are really at the bleeding edge of this very dirty war of counterinsurgency, of arming local militias, who in many cases are former Taliban who’ve been bribed or induced somehow to fight against their erstwhile comrades. And this is a war that’s not being held accountable. There’s very few embeds. There’s very little transparency. There’s less restrictive rules of accountability and engagement that these Special Forces operate under. And this is actually the future of the conflict, because the people who are going to stay behind and remain involved in an active war are going to be American special operations forces, and they’re going to be in this region fighting for a long time to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten thousand forces, U.S. soldiers, are going to remain in Afghanistan, according to the current plan. Right now it’s around 30,000.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah, there’s going to be a force that’s going to be there for training. That’s what most of those guys are. But then there’s going to be an additional force of special operations who are there to pursue U.S. national security interests, to go after al-Qaeda, to go after anyone they deem to be a threat to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Beyond the 10,000.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: This is a separate mission. It’s the global war on terror, or whatever they’re calling it these days. It will be a perpetual mission, with drones and Special Forces, to go after people we deem a threat.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And will special operations forces be protected by the bilateral security agreement if it’s—or whenever it is signed?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yes, but they don’t require any sort of protection in general. I mean, they’ve been operating in places like Somalia and Pakistan and Yemen and other countries, Libya, right, going in, raiding, snatching people, assassinating them. And so, we don’t have bilateral status agreements with those countries. This is the extralegal realm of, you know, U.S. special operations and drone strikes. They do what they want, regardless of those countries’ laws.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And when you were working on the story and you got responses from the Afghan government, was there any sense of any kind of accountability for any of the militias who—I mean, you cited one, but of all the militias that have been operating, funded by the U.S., is there any sense that any of the people, members, will be held accountable in any way by the Afghan government?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: No, and they don’t have a mechanism for doing so, because it’s not an official militia. So it’s not clear who would investigate that, right?

AMY GOODMAN: The killing of the two-star general, General Greene—the attitude of Afghans to the United States right now?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, I think that there’s a huge sense of fatigue and of anger toward the Americans for a war that’s gone on for so long without any clear end in sight, without any clear resolution. If you look at the country today, so many of the problems that people wanted to address with the surge, right, this incredible amount of violence that occurred as a result of it, haven’t been addressed, right? The Taliban are still resilient. There’s massive corruption in the government. There’s huge problems with the Afghan security forces. So, I think people are frustrated.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, but then the other thing is, you mentioned earlier the problem with the bloated military, how large the Afghan security forces have grown as a consequence of U.S. funding. Is there anxiety in Afghanistan, given almost equivalent amounts of money that were spent on the Iraqi military and the way it’s responded to the Islamic State in Mosul, that something similar might happen in Afghanistan—in other words, faced with militias or ethnic violence in Afghanistan, the Afghan military also lacks the kind of institutional frame to keep it in place once U.S. forces withdraw?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Absolutely. I mean, you know, I so many times heard in Afghanistan from American military officers that the Afghans compared so poorly to the Iraqi military that they trained, and it was a much tougher job in Afghanistan because the level of education and training and background was much lower. So, Iraq had always been sort of a better example of how it was supposed to be done. So the fact that it’s gone completely pear-shaped there, yeah, absolutely. And, you know, you have—if you do the math, you have a massive military and police that the country cannot sustain economically in any possible scenario. So it’s reliant on international—huge levels of international aid. You have this—this report came out from the inspector general for Afghan reconstruction about hundreds of thousands of weapons that have been flooded in the country that we didn’t have accountability on, small arms, right? You have these militias, official and non-official, proliferating, and some of them involved in gross human rights abuses. So what is the scenario that’s being created by—this is the result of the surge strategy. “Go big. Go quick. You have three years to do—to win the war,” right? That was Obama’s whole idea. And it’s clear that we’re going to be leaving huge numbers of armed groups, weapons and a military that can’t sustain itself for the indefinite future. And that would seem to be a recipe for a civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Aikins is an award-winning reporter. His latest piece, “A U.S.-Backed Militia Runs Amok in Afghanistan.” He’s based in Kabul, Afghanistan. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.