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Investigating a Monster: What We Found and How We Did It

WorldEuropeInvestigating a Monster: What We Found and How We Did It


The only thing faster than the American withdrawal from Afghanistan might be how quickly the world moved on.

The Biden Administration largely stopped talking about it. Most news organizations were already scaling back in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over.

But a question remained, at once basic and vast.

How did it come to this? How did the group that the United States invaded Afghanistan to eviscerate wind up back in charge?

With the war’s end, The New York Times could finally reach people and places that had been off-limits during the fighting — to figure out what really happened.

We found that one of America’s most important partners in the war against the Taliban — a celebrated general named Abdul Raziq — had carried out a systematic campaign of forced disappearances that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

General Raziq’s story was not just a familiar one of tragedy and loss in a faraway war. Across Afghanistan, the United States elevated and empowered warlords, corrupt politicians and outright criminals to prosecute a war of military expediency in which the ends often justified the means.

It helps explain why the United States lost.

General Raziq was the police chief responsible for security across Kandahar. The U.S. military lionized him for years as a fierce combatant and a loyal partner. American generals made pilgrimages to see him.

But his battlefield prowess was built on years of torture, extrajudicial killings and the largest-known campaign of forced disappearances during America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, The Times found.

We obtained hundreds of pages of ledgers belonging to the former U.S.-backed government. In them, we identified almost 2,200 cases of suspected disappearances in Kandahar Province alone, with families reporting missing relatives.

Working off that list, we collected detailed evidence of 368 cases of forced disappearances and dozens of extrajudicial killings attributed by families, witnesses and official records to American-backed forces under General Raziq.

That is almost surely a gross undercount. The Times only logged cases that were corroborated by at least two people. Many of the families who had reported missing loved ones were impossible to locate, and many others never filed complaints.

A mechanic and a rickshaw driver. Tailors and taxi drivers. The human tally helps explain why many Afghans so quickly embraced the Taliban after the American withdrawal.

“None of us supported the Taliban, at least not at first,” said Fazul Rahman, whose brother was abducted. “But when the government collapsed, I ran through the streets, rejoicing.”

When the Taliban took over the country, they inherited nearly everything that had belonged to the U.S.-backed government. The computers, rickety office chairs, even tea glasses.

They also inherited documents, at least those that hadn’t been destroyed.

The Times obtained and combed through a decade’s worth of handwritten ledgers, made available to us by the Taliban, stretching from 2011 until the American-backed Republic of Afghanistan collapsed in 2021.

Using the ledgers as tips, local Times researchers searched for the families of the disappeared. Each was asked to fill out a form with the details of the disappearance and provide records to substantiate the claim: police reports, affidavits, medical files, government documents, whatever they had.

We spoke with nearly 1,000 families and narrowed that list to hundreds of verified cases of forced disappearance.

In each case, the person is still missing.

General Raziq was one of the United States’ most important allies in Afghanistan. When he took charge of units in Kandahar, he managed to beat the Taliban there.

He was always dogged by accusations of human rights abuses. But the Americans stood by him until the last.

When he was gunned down by an undercover Taliban assassin in 2018, he was standing next to the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, who celebrated him as a “great friend” and “patriot.”

He was seen as the only partner capable of beating the Taliban in the heartland of the insurgency.

“We knew what we were doing, but we didn’t think we had a choice,” said Henry Ensher, a former State Department official.

But many Afghans say General Raziq used his position, and his American support, to pursue personal vendettas and decades-long tribal rivalries. To many everyday citizens, General Raziq was the cruel hand of the American government. Even the Taliban seemed preferable.

Like so much about the war in Afghanistan, this is something that former top American officials say they never truly understood.



#Investigating #Monster

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