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 Kandahari and his unit in the killings or disappearances of 15 Afghans in Wardak. Kandahari is of Afghan descent, they say, but he was born and raised in the United States. Included in the evidence, the Afghan officials say, is a videotape of Kandahari torturing one of the 15 Afghans, a man they identified as Sayid Mohammad.
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 Qassim's family and Afghan officials.
Afghan officials who have seen the videotape say that a person speaking English with an American accent can be heard supervising the torture session, which 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 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 Kandahari was 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 Kandahari appeared to be in a leadership position in the unit.
Afghan investigators say that 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.
They 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, 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 Kandahari over to Afghan authorities.
According to a senior Afghan official, Allen personally promised Karimi that the American military would do so within 24 hours, but it 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 that the military was not trying to shield Kandahari. "The SF 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 that 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 CIA 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 Kandahari on charges of murder, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, but he could not be located. The Afghan attorney general filed a formal criminal case against him last week, Sharaf said. Another Afghan official confirmed that those charges had been filed.
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. 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 Kandahari, said his tormentor had a tattoo of a large green sword on his upper right arm.
Hikmatullah said he was picked up with two of his brothers, Sadiqullah and Ismatullah, from the village of Amer Kheil. He said that whenever he denied being an insurgent, Kandahari beat and kicked him until his shoulder was dislocated. He was released after three days, he said, but his brothers are missing.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service