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World

U.S. Weighs Its Responsibility When Afghan Forces Commit Abuses

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, they're handing off responsibility to Afghan forces. And for Afghan forces, that means taking responsibility for their actions, even when they commit abuses. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: To hear the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan tell it, combat with the Taliban may be getting worse. But the Afghan security forces are up to it.

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GENERAL JOHN CAMPBELL: Afghanistan is the good news story among all these other bad things that are coming out.

WELNA: General John Campbell told the House Armed Services Committee this month he's made it his mission to get that word out.

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CAMPBELL: I give President Ghani a good news story storyboard that I collect each week. My commanders provide me a good news storyboard that talks about the good things that Afghans are doing in different areas.

WELNA: The aim, Pentagon officials say, is to bolster confidence in Afghanistan's ability to defend itself as what's been an international conflict evolves into a civil war. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress President Ghani is key to that transition.

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ASH CARTER: In partnership with him over the next couple of years, our objective is to stand the Afghan security forces up on their feet so that we can have a very small presence there in the future - not the big force we've had.

WELNA: And those U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan security forces, Carter added, have taken the lead.

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CARTER: They're conducting operations as we speak in the Helmand Valley which are very impressive and unprecedented in the scale and complexity of an operation that the Afghan security forces do by themselves.

WELNA: But handing over the fighting to the Afghans also means relying on forces with problematic human rights records. Carter Malkasian spent years in Afghanistan as an advisor to U.S. forces. And he's been following that offensive in the Helmand Valley closely. Attacks there by the Taliban, he says, could prompt ugly reprisals.

CARTER MALKASIAN: As police and soldiers see their comrades die and see the Taliban doing them, there's a chance they'll get frustrated and do things that they shouldn't do. There's a dark side to these things, and hopefully we don't go too far down that road.

WELNA: A senior Pentagon official tells NPR the U.S. has already investigated and substantiated about a dozen incidents of human rights abuses by Afghan security forces and militias they created. Most involve the mistreatment of villagers. So far, they've only taken action in one case, cutting off ammunition supplies for three days. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch issued a report titled "Today We Shall All Die." It accuses the Afghan police and intelligence services of carrying out torture and summary executions with impunity. Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch says Afghanistan's new leader has promised to act on the report.

SARAH MARGON: President Ghani has actually been very clear. He sent a letter to Human Rights Watch that said, we intend to deal with this. We want to hold individuals accountable, which was a tremendous first step.

WELNA: But Margon says there have not yet been any signs of action. For example, she points to cases of Afghans with domestic arrest warrants still pending against them.

MARGON: They haven't actually been arrested, so it continues to bolster this culture of impunity with support from the U.S. because the money continues to flow.

WELNA: Indeed, Afghanistan remains the largest recipient of U.S. military aid. General Campbell, the U.S. commander there, says more than $4 billion will flow this year from Washington to Kabul.

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CAMPBELL: They are very dependent upon the U.S. and all the other donor nations to have this army and police they have.

WELNA: Under what's called the Leahy Law, U.S. aid could be cut off from abusive security units. Doing so might shield the U.S. from accusations of complicity. It could also spur Afghan officials to crack down on abuses. But human rights monitors and congressional officials say they're still waiting to see that law applied to Afghanistan. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.