More than 122,000 people, including tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who collaborated with US and NATO forces during the 19+ year war and occupation of Afghanistan, were evacuated from Kabul in the second half of August after the country fell to the Taliban.
Members of the so-called ‘Zero units’, a shadowy Afghan paramilitary force sponsored and controlled by the US Central Intelligence Agency, enjoyed priority status for evacuation to safety to the United States, former senior US and Afghani intelligence officials and a former Afghan commando with direct knowledge of the situation have told The Intercept.
As many as 7,000 of the ex-commandos and members of their families are believed to have been flown out of Afghanistan, most of them first taken to a US military base in Qatar, and later flown to bases in Virginia and New Jersey, Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and the United Arab Emirates prior to permanent resettlement, according to the sources.
Collectively known as ‘National Strike Units’, Zero unit commandos assisted US forces in guarding Hamid Karzai International Airport in the final two weeks of evacuation operations from Kabul, where they reportedly engaged in shaking down Afghans who had assisted US and NATO forces during the 19+ year war by demanding money to get through the airport gates. Al Jazeera reported on one such incident, in which an interpreter was beaten by commandos, and told that she, her husband and their three children would not be allowed through the gates unless she paid them $5,000 for herself and each member of her family. The woman was turned away, unable to afford the bribe.
The Zero Unit forces were said to have been given priority over the Afghan National Army’s elite special forces commandos. Two former members of the special forces said that no formal effort was made to evacuate them and their families, leaving them to go into hiding and fend for themselves as Taliban forces began hunting for former government officials and military personnel. At least four of the ex-commandos are feared to have been tracked down and murdered, according to The Intercept’s sources.
The CIA is thought to have significant influence in the evacuation of Kabul, with a report in the Washington Post last week estimating that up to 20,000 Afghans who collaborated with the agency and members of the family made it aboard evacuation flights – constituting nearly one third of the 60,000 or so Afghans that the United States took in overall.
Trail of Bloodshed and Terror
In the course of their operations, often alongside CIA agents or US special forces troops, Zero Unit forces gained a reputation for extreme brutality against non-combatants, with Human Rights Watch and other rights groups accusing them of a range of abuses and outright war crimes including the execution of civilian adults and children during nighttime raids.
Created as a guerilla paramilitary-style force, Zero units were originally envisioned by the CIA partly as a means to fight Taliban fighters traveling back and forth between the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The forces allowed the US to send units on cross-border raids – something US personnel couldn’t risk due to Washington’s formally cordial relations with Islamabad.
The commandos were also used to carry out missions which might tarnish the US’s reputation, with use of Zero unit fighters said to allow for plausible deniability by Washington in the event that fighters engaged in illegal activity or war crimes. The forces were amalgamated into a joint program between the CIA and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security intelligence service in 2010, with the US funding the units’ operations.
In 2019, former Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib confirmed that the force was controlled by the CIA, and said that he was “not fully aware” how they operate. In January 2021, the Biden administration reportedly indicated that they would pull the plug on funding for and cooperation with Zero unit forces in one year’s time.
Late last year, an in-depth investigation into Zero unit activities in just one region found that over a six-month period in 2019, over 50 civilians, including women and children, were murdered in cold blood by the commandos in a series of raids in the province of Wardak – about 110 km southwest of Kabul.
In a 2019 report, civil society activists and other sources told Human Rights Watch about “systemic human rights violations” involving CIA-backed paramilitaries, police and other security forces including torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Begun in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, DC on the pretext of the need to eliminate suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, the war in Afghanistan soon became a nation-building mission. Brown University’s Costs of War project estimates that the war cost US taxpayers over $2.2 trillion (or about $300 million per day for nearly 20 years). Up to 100,000 Afghan civilians, 70,500+ Afghan security forces personnel, tens of thousands of Taliban fighters, over 3,500 US and coalition troops, and 4,000+ western mercenaries were killed in the conflict.
Bin Laden was reportedly killed in Pakistan in May 2011 in a Navy SEAL team raid and dumped into the sea, but the US-led war in Afghanistan continued for over ten more years after that.