- Andrew QuiltyAustralian journalist and photographer based in Afghanistan.
A shocking exposé in The Intercept reveals CIA-backed death squads in Afghanistan have killed children as young as 8 years old in a series of night raids, many targeting madrassas, Islamic religious schools. In December 2018, one of the death squads attacked a madrassa in Wardak province, killing 12 boys, of whom the youngest was 9 years old. The United States played key roles in many of the raids, from picking targets to ferrying Afghan forces to the sites to providing lethal airpower during the raids. The Intercept reports this was part of a campaign of terror orchestrated by the Trump administration that included massacres, executions, mutilation, forced disappearances, attacks on medical facilities, and airstrikes targeting structures known to house civilians. “These militias … were established in the very early days of the Afghan War by CIA officers, many of whom had been brought back into the fold after the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 who had previously been working in Afghanistan during the 1980s,” says reporter Andrew Quilty. “This network of militias was set up and appear to be entirely under the control of the CIA but made up entirely of Afghan soldiers.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
A shocking exposé out today in The Intercept reveals CIA-backed death squads in Afghanistan have killed children as young as 8 years old in a series of night raids, many targeting madrassas, Islamic religious schools. In December 2018, one of the death squads attacked a madrassa in Wardak province, killing 12 boys, the youngest 9 years old. The killers are believed to be from a CIA-trained and -funded paramilitary unit known as 01.
The United States played key roles in many of the raids, from picking targets to ferrying Afghan forces to the sites, to providing lethal airpower during the raids. The Intercept reports this was part of a campaign of terror orchestrated by the Trump administration that included massacres, executions, mutilation, forced disappearances, attacks on medical facilities, and airstrikes targeting structures known to house civilians.
The Intercept has documented 10 night raids that resulted in at least 51 civilian deaths in the months leading up to the peace talks with the Taliban. The campaign of terror appears to have been timed to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. The 01 death squad all but vanished earlier this year, after the U.S. and Taliban signed the Doha Agreement. Earlier this week, General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Taliban negotiators in Qatar for unannounced talks.
We go now to Kabul, Afghanistan, to speak with the journalist Andrew Quilty, Australian reporter and photojournalist who has been based in Afghanistan for many years. His new piece is just out, titled “The CIA’s Afghan Death Squads.”
Andrew, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what you found. And describe the boy, the young man, 12 years old, Bilal, and the horror he described.
ANDREW QUILTY: Thanks for having me, Amy.
Yeah, you’ve given a great synopsis there of what me and The Intercept found in our reporting over several months, this year and last. Bilal, who was one of the survivors and one of the witnesses of the worst raid of the 10 that we documented in great detail, was, as you said, 12 years old. And he was one of about 25 young Islamic school students who stay overnight in these madrassas because they live too far away to go back and forth each day.
So, on this night — in fact, it was two years to the day that this raid occurred, and he was there with, as I said, 25 other students. They had eaten a basic meal of beans and bread and gone to sleep, when at about 10:00 or 10:30 at night they started hearing the buzz of drones overhead. And soon after that, a number of soldiers burst through the door. They had detonated an explosive device to enter the building. And soon after that, a couple of soldiers burst into the room where he was staying with about another 10 boys.
And they dragged the two oldest-looking boys out of that room, took them into another room, along with 10 other older-looking students. But as you already discussed, some of them were as young as 8 or 9 years old. And minutes after that, he and another boy, who were in the madrassa, described hearing multiple gunshots from what they described as several different weapons. And what they discovered early the next morning, when people from the village came to their rescue after the raiders had left the site and left the village, was that those 12 boys that had been taken out of the several dormitories had been massacred in a room.
Bilal and five other witnesses from that night, including another boy who survived the massacre and four other villagers who either saw or heard the events of the night, described hearing or seeing Americans or English speakers amongst those who committed the raid.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about — and, I mean, you’ve delved deeply into this massacre and others — the connection between the Afghan forces that are carrying this out, who they are, and their U.S. backers.
ANDREW QUILTY: It’s a very shadowy organization and very difficult to find out information. But from all the reporting I’ve done and others have done over the years, we understand that these militias, this network of militias — and there’s about six or seven of them throughout the country — were established in the very early days of the Afghan War by CIA officers, many of whom had been brought back into the fold after the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, who had previously been working in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when the CIA was helping to fund the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation at that time. So, this network of militias was set up and appear to be entirely under the control of the CIA but made up entirely of Afghan soldiers. They are better trained, better paid, better armed than their conventional force counterparts in Afghanistan.
And it’s actually not often that you hear about them. Often the only time you do hear about them is when atrocities like those that we have documented in Wardak in the last couple of years make headlines. And in fact, it’s very rare that they do make headlines, because the places that these militias tend to operate are deep in Taliban-controlled territory, where often there’s very limited access to communications and media. And often the information that does come out is denigrated as propaganda, which the Taliban are well known for using.
But it’s been in more recent years, in fact, since the Trump administration started to undertake peace talks with the Taliban regime in Doha, Qatar, that these militias have come back to the fore and been extremely active in certain parts of the country, and in particular in Wardak province, which neighbors Kabul. You can drive to the capital of Wardak from where I’m sitting right now in an hour.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Mike Pompeo speaking in 2017. At the time, he was the head of the CIA, before becoming secretary of state.
MIKE POMPEO: We can’t perform our mission if we’re not aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless — you pick the word. Every minute, we have to be focused on crushing our enemies.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is President Trump speaking about Afghanistan in 2017.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have it, Pompeo and Trump in 2017. And it makes me think about what you write in your piece: “The prevalence of boys among those killed in Wardak indicates that 01” — that unit that did the massacre — it makes me think that 01 “was trying to eliminate not only existing enemies, but potential future foes as well.” Talk more explicitly about what Trump and Pompeo are doing right now, and at this point when Milley has just met with the Taliban in Qatar.
ANDREW QUILTY: What they’re doing right now, well, they’re coming to, potentially, the end of their involvement in Afghanistan, something that President Trump had campaigned on back in 2016. And from all my reporting, it’s my understanding that Trump wanted to get out, as we all know, of Afghanistan, get his forces out of Afghanistan, by the end of his term, in a four-year term. A four-year term, in the context of a 20-year war, is not a lot of time at all. And as it’s often said, it’s much easier to get into war than get out of one.
So, the way I see it is that Trump wanted to exert maximum force in a minimum amount of time to coerce the Taliban at the negotiating table and put them in a position where they had to concede to their terms in the negotiating process. So, while these raids were going on and while the Taliban were being pummeled all over Afghanistan and being pressured at the negotiating table, yeah, you had this strange contradiction of the rhetoric of peace in Doha, in all the public pronouncements and public rhetoric, contradicted by what was going on on the ground in Afghanistan, which was far from — far from this rhetoric, as I say.
What the peace talks led to in February this year was the signing of what’s known as the Doha Agreement, which was a — it wasn’t a peace deal, but it was an agreement that was hoped would lead to a peace deal down the track. It mandated the timeline for withdrawal of American forces, and that is coming up to end, in theory, in April or May next year.
Now, since then, since the February signing of the Doha Agreement, it was hoped [inaudible] by the American government and the Afghan government that it would coincide with a decrease in violence in the country. That has not occurred. So it seems as though Trump’s theory that pummeling the Taliban into submission has not worked. And in fact, the Taliban seem to be as strong now as at any other time in the war, this at a time where they can see the end of the road for the American involvement in the country, and certainly an opening, a greater opening than they’ve ever witnessed before, to regaining the power that they had in the late ’90s and 2001.
AMY GOODMAN: I just want to express how important it is to be speaking to you in Kabul. You have been doing this work for, what — this one investigation for about 18 months. Internet access is not easy. The threat that journalists face, like you, and particularly Afghan journalists? One TV broadcaster, she was just gunned down, assassinated with her driver recently. And also, what questions you want to see answered right now, coming out of this investigation? And finally, the kind of pressure the president, Ashraf Ghani, is under for working with the U.S. government, at a time when, while we have not heard about 01, certainly in Afghanistan they know about these shadowy forces, the people themselves, because of the number of raids and massacres, and word gets around?
ANDREW QUILTY: Look, strangely enough, I think the questions that I want answered would also be the questions that the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, and his national security adviser and his Cabinet would want answered. And that is: Who on Earth controls these units who are operating in their country without their permission?
I spoke to the national security adviser here, and he was at a loss to explain how these units operated, let alone who controls them. He did admit that the CIA were in control of them. But beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be [inaudible] understanding or correspondence with their Afghan counterparts.
These units, just to go back to a little bit about how they operate and how little oversight there is, they’re paid in U.S. dollars in cash, so they’re not even — the Afghan government isn’t even aware of who is making up the numbers in their units, whereas with their conventional forces, all the units are paid through an electronic system, which is backed up by biometric data, which none of the members of these units have to undertake.
You mentioned the risk to journalists here. And yeah, it’s been something that has come about particularly in recent months. In Kabul and other provincial capitals, you’ve seen —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
ANDREW QUILTY: — a big increase — a big increase in targeted attacks, many of which are targeting journalists and human rights activists.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrew Quilty, we want you to stay safe. Thank you so much. Australian photojournalist based in Afghanistan. We’ll link to your Intercept exposé at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Wear a mask. Stay safe.