March 18, 2018


[Nazim Jan, the commander of the local police unit in the village, confirmed that his forces had been informed by the farmers that they were going out to irrigate. It apparently made little difference that the crop was opium, which is grown extensively across the country despite more than $8 billion in American efforts to curb the industry.]

By Zabihullah Ghazi and Mujib Mashal

Security forces in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan,
on Saturday. In a tangled conflict of many players on both sides, civilians
are bearing the brunt. Credit Ghulamullah Habibi/EPA, via Shutterstock
CHAPARHAR, Afghanistan — There was no military curfew in the villages, but, as a precaution, the farmers still informed the local police outpost that they would be in their fields before dawn, with lanterns and shovels, to channel water to their crops.

In a chaotic war of many players on both sides and with civilians bearing the brunt, the advance notice did not save their lives.

On Saturday morning, an elite unit of the Afghan intelligence agency descended on two villages in Chaparhar district in the eastern province of Nangarhar, killing as many as eight farmers in their fields, local elders said.

Provincial officials at first denied that civilians had been killed in the raid. But when villagers carried the bodies to the district center hours later, with nearly 200 protesters accompanying them and chanting, “Death to the government” and “Death to America,” senior officials privately acknowledged that government forces had caused the casualties.

Making things worse, the police guarding the district compound opened fire on the protesters, killing one and wounding two others.

Afghanistan has experienced a rise in violence in recent weeks even before the official start of what is expected to be another bloody fighting season, when violence intensifies as the cold weather relents. In two weeks, 170 security forces have been killed, according to local news reports. The government says more than 500 insurgents were killed in about the same period.

Fighting has raged across the country, with some of the heaviest coming in the western province of Farah, where insurgents are once again at the gates of its capital city and in the northern Faryab Province, where dozens of local militia fighters have surrendered to the Taliban. More than 100 advisers from the American-led NATO coalition have arrived in Faryab to help.

The increase in violence is bound to once again test the resolve of the country’s government, which recently presented an extensive peace offer to the Taliban. Even as President Ashraf Ghani and his international allies prepare mechanisms for what they see as an opening for talks, with American officials reporting signals of willingness from some Taliban leaders, they are wary of another bloody year ahead.

Last year, 3,438 civilians were killed and 7,015 wounded, according to the United Nations. As the war spreads across the country, often deep into populated villages, the effects are taking a heavy toll on civilians. When the violence is perpetuated by friendly forces, it highlights the deadly bind in which civilians find themselves.

“It was 4 a.m. My two brothers were out to channel the water, and we had informed the security post that we would be out watering our plots,” said Mohammed Israr, whose two brothers were killed in Mano, one of the villages attacked. “I was upstream, and the helicopters came and fired at my brothers. They were killed, shovel in hand.”

Mr. Israr said that a bit farther from their plot, five others who were taking a break for morning prayer, putting their lanterns by the mosque, had also been targeted. They had also informed the local security forces before going to the fields, he said.

The victims ranged in age from 14 to 40, including Atiqullah, 20, who had gotten married three months ago. According to Hukum Khan Dawlatzai, a local tribal elder, 29 others were arrested in the raid. Officials from the country’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, could not be reached for comment.

Nazim Jan, the commander of the local police unit in the village, confirmed that his forces had been informed by the farmers that they were going out to irrigate. It apparently made little difference that the crop was opium, which is grown extensively across the country despite more than $8 billion in American efforts to curb the industry.

“Yes, they had informed us that they would be out watering their fields,” Mr. Jan said. “The helicopters came and shot them. We saw the helicopters coming — they did it unilaterally, they killed innocent civilians.”

The Afghan intelligence agency has long been accused of abuses, particularly torture and mistreatment in detention centers. Although a recent United Nations report said the government had shown commitment to improving such practices, the agency continues to draw criticism.

The intelligence force has sometimes carried out the clearing and holding work of regular army and police personnel, who are stretched thin by the fighting. The force behind Saturday’s killings has been identified as the elite “02 Unit.”

“Before this incident, too, the 02 Unit has carried out multiple operations in which civilians have been killed or wounded,” said Sabrina Hamidi, head of the Afghan human rights commission in the east. “This is an issue of concern for us.”

In the west of the country, officials in Farah Province said the provincial capital, Farah City, remained surrounded by the Taliban.

“Over the last two weeks, we have lost more than 40 security forces,” said Dadullah Qani, a member of the provincial council in Farah.

Fighting has also raged in Faryab Province, which has recently drawn more than 100 coalition advisers in support, according to local security officials. Other coalition forces are waiting for the main highway to be cleared before they can join the defense efforts, senior Afghan security officials in the north said.

A government militia commander in the province’s Gerzywan district, with about 80 of his fighters, surrendered to the Taliban on Friday, according to Naqibullah, a fellow militia commander in Gerzywan, and several other officials. But a spokesman for the Faryab police played down the episode, saying the commander, Ghulam Nabi Shuja, had surrendered with only 15 fighters.

Mohammed Taher Rahmani, head of the provincial council in Faryab, described the problems. “From 14 districts, the roads to only four districts are open,” he said. “Nine districts are facing collapse, the roads are blocked, and supplying the forces is difficult.”

Coalition forces have used extensive airstrikes in Faryab and in neighboring Jowzjan Province, according to Afghan officials. In the Darzab district in Jowzjan, they deployed B-52 bombers, a hallmark of the early years of the American-led invasion, the district governor, Baz Mohammed Dawar, said.

Capt. Tom Gresback, a spokesman for the American-led NATO coalition, said, “As a result of our alignment of air power, we will maintain relentless pressure on the Taliban using a variety of aircraft to conduct daily strikes, including B-52s” and other aircraft. “These strikes continue to support a capable Afghan ground force,” he added.

Zabihullah Ghazi reported from Chaparhar, Afghanistan; and Mujib Mashal from Kabul, Afghanistan. Reporting was contributed by Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan; Najim Rahim from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan; and Fahim Abed from Kabul.