On the night of March 8, 2019, four staffers at a Swedish-run health clinic in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province ate together, talked around a thermos of tea, and bedded down for the night in the guard’s room. They were awakened some time later by the thump of helicopter rotors followed by distant explosions echoing from farther up the Tangi Valley. The sounds were not unusual in Wardak, where for 20 years there has been little respite from war, and the four went back to sleep.
The men were jolted awake again sometime after midnight. The main gate to the clinic, which was next to the guard’s room, had been blown in, and the staff heard hurried footsteps in the ruined entryway. The intruders ran past the guard’s room and into the clinic’s main building. The clinic staff huddled in the darkened room as several doors were kicked in across the compound yard. After what one of the clinic workers described as five or six minutes, the staffers, worried that they’d surprise the intruders when they eventually reached the guard’s room, called out, “We’re in here!”
Seconds later, the door to the guard’s room crashed open. The soldiers who burst in wore night-vision goggles and told the clinic staffers to face the wall. They bound the men, covered their heads with hoods, and led them to a room that one of the workers, who The Intercept is identifying only as Hashmatullah for his safety, believed was the clinic’s pharmacy. Hashmatullah couldn’t see, but he guessed that there were five or six soldiers in the room.
“You’re here to serve the Taliban,” the soldiers alleged. They spoke in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s two main languages, but the detainees also heard English.
“We know when they use English that they’re foreigners,” Hashmatullah told The Intercept.
The March raid on the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, or SCA, clinic in Wardak, which has not been previously reported, was one of a growing number of assaults by CIA-backed Afghan militia units on medical facilities in Afghanistan, according to witnesses and documents seen by The Intercept.
The secretive, pro-government Afghan militia blamed for several such attacks in Wardak is known as 01. Ostensibly overseen by the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the unit and its counterparts across the country are trained and directed by the CIA.
The 01, which operates in central Afghanistan, including in Wardak, Logar, and Ghazni provinces, is known for rolling into villages at night and leaving a trail of death and destruction. The units are “responsible for extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, indiscriminate airstrikes, attacks on medical facilities, and other violations of international humanitarian law or the laws of war,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who wrote a report to be released Wednesday night on abuses by CIA-backed militias in Afghanistan. Many witnesses to night raids say 01 is deliberately targeting civilians.
The U.S. government is prohibited by law from using its money to train or equip foreign military units when there is “credible information” that those units have committed serious human rights abuses. However, that restriction only applies to the State and Defense departments; there is no analogous law for intelligence operations.
In response to detailed questions from The Intercept, CIA Press Secretary Timothy Barrett said that the agency “conducts its global operations in accordance with law and under a robust system of oversight. The Taliban does not operate with any similar rules and — even worse — conducts an extensive propaganda campaign to discredit those who support the legitimate Afghanistan government.”
But survivors of the raids, relatives of the dead, and some Afghan officials take a different view. “The only thing creating distance between the people and the government are these night raids,” said Amir Mohammad Malikzai, the governor of Wardak’s Sayedabad District, where the March 8 attack occurred.
The extent of American involvement in the raids varies, but on the same March night that the SCA clinic was raided, at least three houses and a mosque near the clinic were destroyed by airstrikes or explosives in what appears to have been a related operation. Those attacks killed four men who locals described as Taliban fighters, as well as at least five civilians, including a woman and a 12-year-old girl. One resident told The Intercept that he saw Americans when a group of soldiers led him and his family out of their house before leveling it with an airstrike as they watched.
Airstrike data provided publicly by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, which has since been removed, showed that three strikes hit an unspecified location in Wardak on March 8 and three more targeted Sayedabad District on March 9.
In response to concerns raised by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, about civilian casualties from the strikes, the U.S. military “conducted a thorough investigation into these incidents, including a thorough review of all available intelligence collected from air and ground forces shortly after the strike,” a spokesperson for the American NATO contingent, known as USFOR-A, told The Intercept. “Based on this assessment, USFOR-A determined no civilians were injured or killed in these strikes.”
The rise in attacks on medical facilities, which constitute war crimes unless the clinics are being used to conduct hostilities, follows President Donald Trump’s directives to his military and spy chiefs soon after his inauguration to ramp up the fight against the Taliban. Trump loosened rules of engagement introduced during the Obama administration to reduce civilian casualties, expanded the authority of battlefield commanders, and deployed 3,000 more American troops. In October 2017, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo said the agency “must be aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless. … We must every minute be focused on crushing our enemies and providing unfair advantage for our diplomats, our military, and our president.”
The changes may have been intended to create battlefield conditions that would force the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement with the U.S. Instead, the peace deal is off and civilians continue to pay a higher price than ever. A recent report by UNAMA documented the highest number of civilian casualties recorded in a single month — July — since it began counting a decade ago. The number of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes this year increased by 71 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the report.
UNAMA also reported a rise this year in the number of civilians killed and wounded in so-called search operations, otherwise known as night raids. More than half of the casualties UNAMA documented (147 in total) were attributed to NDS special forces units, including 01.
Nowhere has the violence been worse than in Wardak, where since January, staff at Swedish Committee clinics have reported 20 security incidents. In one of the most egregious, soldiers believed by NGO staff to belong to 01 raided a clinic in Wardak’s Tangi Saidan, which is in a different part of the province from Tangi Valley, forcing their way into the clinic and shooting a person accompanying a patient. Four others were taken outside and three, including two SCA employees, were executed; another SCA employee was detained and forcibly disappeared before being released. Only Afghan soldiers were present during this raid, witnesses said.
“This is a shocking violation against international humanitarian law and we urge warring parties to immediately stop targeting civilians and health facilities,” Dr. Khalid Fahim, SCA’s program director, said in a statement after the raid.
Afghan militia units routinely accuse clinic workers of caring for Taliban fighters or sympathizers. “If they believe the Taliban are able to utilize services, then they try to disrupt that,” SCA Secretary General Andreas Stefansson said. “It’s very disturbing that health services are instrumentalized like this.”
The same clinic had been raided before, in February 2016, when Afghan troops executed two patients and a visiting boy, according to an SCA report on the incident. In that instance, the Afghans were “almost certainly” accompanied by international soldiers. The report does not say the foreign troops were Americans, but the U.S. was the only country to continue combat operations in Afghanistan after NATO officially transitioned to a training, advising, and assisting mission there in 2014.
The Swedish Committee and the Swedish government demanded that the Afghan government and foreign forces conduct an independent investigation. Afghan officials have since told the SCA that an investigation was done but have not provided information about who conducted it, how, or what the findings were, Stefansson told The Intercept.
“Accountability,” Stefansson said, “is a big question mark.”
The Swedish Committee has a long history in Afghanistan. When the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, the group employed 11,000 staff countrywide. Its roots are especially deep in Wardak, where it has operated since the 1980s; since 2003 it has run all 77 health facilities, including the provincial hospital in Maidan Shahr.
After the SCA clinic in Tangi Saidan was raided in July, rumors began to surface that it had been targeted because it was seen as a “Taliban hospital.” But the clinic’s data refutes that. In the first six months of 2019, Fahim told The Intercept, the clinic’s medical staff performed 279 deliveries, 1,374 vaccinations for women, 453 prenatal visits, and 343 postnatal visits, as well as 39 family planning visits and 12 cesarean sections. In the first four months of the year, in the Tangi Valley clinic, 3,270 cases of general child morbidity were treated.
Nevertheless, the SCA has found itself caught between parties to the conflict, unable to appease either side. The day after the 01 raid in March, the Taliban’s local health commission representative told SCA staff that if they didn’t shut the clinic down, “the Taliban would make sure all SCA health facilities in [the] Wardak region and all of the country would need to be shut down,” according to an internal SCA report.
The SCA closed the clinic for three days, but according to a staff member from SCA’s office in Wardak, that was mainly because the staff were “under huge stress” after the raid and “a lot of equipment [had been] destroyed.” After the raid on the SCA clinic in July, the Taliban forced the NGO to close all 42 of its Wardak clinics located in territory under Taliban control for five days. If SCA didn’t comply, they were told, there would be consequences.
During night raids, Afghan militia members berate civilians for giving food and shelter to the Taliban, survivors say. But the situation is complicated, Fahim said. “This is the hospitality of people in the villages … [and] it’s also the inability of people to say ‘no.’ They allow entry [to their homes] as a survival strategy.”
By 3 a.m. on March 9, Tangi Valley had fallen silent. All the helicopters and warplanes had left. The explosions had ceased.
As color returned to the sky, a handful of villagers emerged warily from their homes. They had survived the night’s explosions, but some of their neighbors had not.
Earlier that evening, an airstrike had grazed a house, shaking the building and knocking boiling water from the stove onto a 12-year-old girl named Sana. Sana’s father, Mohammad Wali, was cradling her when a second bomb hit and “everything vanished,” according to a cousin who spoke to Wali on the morning of March 9 and later relayed his account to The Intercept.
Beneath the ruins, Sana struggled for breath a few meters away from where her mother lay dead. She beat her father’s chest as the weight of the roof bore down on them. Grievously wounded himself and blind beneath his destroyed home, Wali felt Sana die in his arms.
At least three other buildings had been destroyed with people inside. In the house next to Wali’s, villagers pulled the bodies of three young men — two recently returned from working in Iran and a friend who was staying with them at the time — from the rubble. The bodies of three men believed to be Taliban fighters were found in pieces beneath the ruins of a mosque. “We didn’t know which hand belonged to which head,” one villager told The Intercept. “We put all the body parts in plastic bags and distributed them across three coffins.”
Wali had suffered serious injuries and was covered in blood. Sana still hadn’t been recovered from the ruins. “I’m fine,” he implored the cousin who had come to help. “Just find my daughter.”
At the SCA clinic that morning, local men arrived to help the staffers who had been left behind after the raid. They had been beaten and were still hooded and bound to chairs with plastic zip ties. One of the survivors told the villagers that the soldiers had taken Hashmatullah and an ambulance driver named Mujahid.
The Afghan militia members who raided the SCA clinic had seemed particularly interested in Mujahid, perhaps because his name means “Islamic warrior” (the name is not uncommon in Afghanistan). They had questioned Hashmatullah and the other clinic staffers about Mujahid. One of the clinic workers, who The Intercept is identifying only as Farid, told the soldiers that the ambulance driver was “a good guy” who only earned about $190 a month, a relatively low salary.
The soldiers had led Hashmatullah and Mujahid, bound and hooded, out into the frigid night air. Hashmatullah had walked for half an hour, falling up to his chest in snow before being lifted onto a helicopter, he later recalled. The soldiers seated him on the steel floor. He had no idea whether his three colleagues were with him. He shook from the cold. If he spoke, he was struck. The helicopter lifted off and landed a half-hour later.
He was flown to a prison facility where he was interrogated and refused access to a phone to call his family, who had no idea where he was or whether he was alive. After 12 days, he was driven for 20 minutes, handed the cellphone and roughly $9 he’d been carrying on the night of March 8, and deposited at a traffic circle in Kabul. He arrived home after a five-hour taxi ride on the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. He spent the holiday with his family and returned to work at the clinic the following day. It was only then that he learned what else had happened the night he was detained.
Mujahid, the ambulance driver, was still missing. His colleagues had hoped that Mujahid and Hashmatullah had been detained together. They were disheartened when Hashmatullah returned alone.
In late April, seven weeks after the raid, the owner of a house destroyed the night of the assault returned to Tangi Valley to begin rebuilding. The body of a suspected Taliban fighter had already been recovered from the ruins of the house, and now the owner discovered another body under a slab of collapsed wall.
“It was hard to recognize him after so long,” said Hashmatullah, but the Afghan soldiers “had taken all [the clinic workers’] documents, put them in plastic bags, and tied them with string around their necks. Mujahid still had his around his neck.”
Correction: November 4, 2019
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Swedish Committee staff had reported 51 security incidents in Wardak since the beginning of 2019. In fact, SCA staff reported 51 security incidents throughout Afghanistan in 2019; in Wardak alone, there have been 20 reported incidents this year.