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In Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban increasingly involves covert operations

The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan since shortly after 9/11, ousting the Taliban and their harsh interpretation of Islam from power that fall. But the insurgent group as which it reformed has plagued Afghanistan with violence ever since. Now, the war's brutal tactics are shifting into the shadows. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports on her recent meeting with members of the Taliban.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to Afghanistan and our exclusive look behind Taliban lines.

    The U.S. has been fighting there since the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida. They were hosted in Afghanistan by the Taliban, a movement of radical militant Islamic extremists that ruled with a harsh interpretation of Islam.

    A U.S.-led coalition ousted them in 2001, but the Taliban quickly formed into an insurgent group, fighting the American military and democratic Afghan government that replaced them.

    Now, 18 years later, fighting there rages more violently than ever. And some are drawing attention to the tactics used in the fight against the Taliban.

    Our special correspondent Jane Ferguson recently met members of the Taliban in Wardak province, near the capital, Kabul, to report, with their constant presence on the shadow war that rages largely out of view.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These are the faces of America's most persistent enemy. U.S. soldiers have been battling the Taliban for nearly two decades in the nation's longest war.

    Leading up to 9/11, the Taliban ruled over most of Afghanistan, giving refuge to al-Qaida and its training camps. American troops were sent to destroy the Taliban. Yet, 18 years later, their fighters roam freely across more of this country than at any point since 2001, and these commanders say they are close to victory.

  • Motmaeen (through translator):

    I am fully confident that America is being defeated and will be defeated. And they will be humiliated when they leave.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    They talk with us face to face out in the open, even as, nearby, we hear the sound of their fighters clashing with Afghan government forces.

    After months of serious negotiations, Taliban leaders and the Trump White House came close to doing a deal in September that would have seen some of the 13,000 American soldiers withdraw from Afghanistan, in exchange for peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

    It fell through at the last minute, and the group continues to fight Afghan forces and their American advisers every day, but they know President Trump still wants America out of this war.

  • Man (through translator):

    Yes, we have won. They are definitely leaving, whether by force of through negotiations.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Our journey to meet with the Taliban began at sunrise, traveling far outside the capital, Kabul, to Wardak province.

    It's so dangerous for Westerners in these regions now, the only way I can travel safely is by disguising myself as an Afghan woman, in a full burka to cover my face and completely shroud my body.

    These roads show the scars of conflict, smashed by explosions. Each crater marks the spot of an IED. Government forces are hunkered down in small outposts on one side of the road. On the other, the Taliban occupy everything.

    So, our escorts came and met us, and they are in a motorcycle leading our car away off the main road and into the mountainous area here.

    This is one of the most violent parts of the country.

    Just as we have arrived here, where we are going to be interviewing the Taliban commander, ironically, we are very close to government positions, and gun battles can be heard in the distance.

    Despite the Taliban's confidence, this war is far from over. In fact, it is more brutal than ever. We came to find out what's happening to the people here. Village elders greeted us. Their communities are trapped between government forces and the Taliban, and they pay a heavy price for it.

    Airstrikes in Afghanistan, largely by the U.S. military, are the most intense since nearly a decade ago, when 100,000 American troops were in the country as part of a surge ordered by President Obama. These Afghans are suffering under the results.

    We visited several villages, all of them partially destroyed by the war from above. But it's not the planes that people here fear the most.

  • Mayin (through translator):

    Afghan Special Forces came in the night. They blew off the door and said we were Taliban and they would kill us.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    This is an increasingly covert war, mostly fought by Afghan and American Special Forces against the Taliban, with little access for the outside world to see what's going on.

    Few have had a chance to tell their story.

  • Mayin (through translator):

    They said I was a liar. And I said, "No, I am telling you the truth." Then they beat me. It was a terrible moment. They blindfolded me and put me on the ground over there. They set fire to my car and motorcycle, like this one here, see?

    This is not a Taliban bike. There was another guy with them, and he was asking me questions in English. Then they threw me in this room and left.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    He was lucky. Some of these night raids are conducted by Afghan Special Forces connected to the country's intelligence agency, backed by the CIA.

    Human Rights Watch says these forces, in their hunt for the Taliban, are unlawfully executing people. In many cases, innocent civilians are also killed because of mistaken identity, poor intelligence or even political rivalries in the community.

    In a report released last month, the U.S.-based organization says: "These troops include Afghan strike forces who have been 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. They largely have been recruited, trained, equipped, and overseen by the CIA. They often have U.S. Special Forces personnel deployed alongside them during kill-or-capture operations."

    Because these forces come under intelligence, rather than the military, getting answers on alleged abuses is difficult.

  • Kate Clark:

    The CIA are absolutely unaccountable. You or I can't go and see them. Afghans can't go and see them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Kate Clark runs the Afghan Analysts Network, which monitors the war here closely.

  • Kate Clark:

    So, in terms of accountability, they are unaccountable in this country. And considering the fact that they seem to be breaking the Geneva Conventions on a regular basis, that is really concerning.

    And it's not just journalists saying that or Afghan families. It's also the U.N.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The CIA-linked Afghan Special Forces are often referred to as strike forces. They are technically part of the country's National Defense and Security Forces, called NDSF, but their chain of command is not clear.

    Even Afghan government officials appear to know very little about them.

    How many are there? Who funds them? Who are they?

  • Feroz Bashari:

    Well, those small number of issues are not policy-level issues. I don't have the information. But, in general, we talk about the…

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Can you tell us anything about them?

  • Feroz Bashari:

    Well, for the moment, I don't have any information.

    I don't know about that particular one, but I assure you that any force that operates in Afghanistan operates under Afghanistan's laws.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    So who do they answer to?

  • Feroz Bashari:

    Well, if they work for NDSF, they work for NDSF.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    I'm talking about the special forces linked to your intelligence services. Who is their boss?

  • Feroz Bashari:

    Well, I have to ask.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These strike forces have been increasing their night raids and airstrikes since 2017.

    And places like Wardak province, a Taliban stronghold, are on the front line of this war. As America, the Afghan government and the Taliban all scramble for stronger positions in any future peace negotiations.

    Violence has intensified, making Afghanistan the deadliest conflict on Earth right now, according to the U.N., with civilian casualties in record numbers, caught between the U.S.-backed Afghan military and the Taliban.

    On the ground, our Taliban escorts are fearful of attracting attention from above.

    They are telling us now that we need to keep moving. We can't spend too long in any village or any house, because these areas are being constantly surveyed by drones. And any kind of gathering of people for any period of time could attract an airstrike.

    In the next village, even more gun battles can be heard in the distance.

    Shir Hasan came out to speak with us. He can barely get the words out. Last winter, he tells us, an Afghan special forces team arrived here and came to his house.

  • Shir Hasan  (through translator):

    I told them: "We are not Taliban. Don't do this to us."

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Hasan says the soldiers took his two nephews away, one of them a teenage boy.

  • Shir Hasan (through translator):

    After some minutes, I heard the sound of bullets fired. Their father here asked: "Why did you kill my children?"

    One of them was so small.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Another neighbor, an elderly man, was also executed, we are told.

  • Shir Hasan (through translator):

    One American was standing here at the door. I saw him myself. I don't know if the Americans shot them or the others did. There were a lot of them. When the shooting happened, my brother shouted: "They killed my little children."

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Hasan says, although the Taliban control these areas, no one from the village is a member of the insurgency. And when he went to the local governor to complain, he was told the killings were a mistake, and nothing could be done.

    The CIA responded to a request for comment by the "NewsHour" on alleged abuses, stating: "We neither condone nor would knowingly participate in illegal activities, and we continually work with our foreign partners to promote adherence to the law.

    "The U.S. government routinely reviews such serious allegations to determine their validity. Although Human Rights Watch didn't provide the CIA time to study the particular allegations in this report, without confirming or denying any particular role in government of Afghanistan counterterrorism operations, we can say with some confidence that many, if not all, of the claims leveled against Afghan forces are likely false or exaggerated."

    January to July of this year marked the first time in this long conflict that U.S. and Afghan government forces have killed and injured more civilians than the Taliban, according to the U.N. Yet, because of their brutal tactics, the Taliban are still killing and maiming thousands, like in this September attack in Kabul, when a Taliban member detonated a car bomb, killing both an American and a Romanian soldier and eight Afghan civilians in the street.

    We challenged their commander on this.

    Why does the Taliban target areas where civilians are in the neighborhood?

  • Man (through translator):

    The martyrs try to hit their targets and not harm civilians. But it happens. There is a clear order from our senior leaders not to harm any civilians.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The people living in these villages have nothing but mud walls between them and the war outside.

    Reduced to labels like Taliban supporters or pro-government, those in Afghanistan's hidden battlegrounds fight their own personal battles to survive every day, sometimes against anonymous, shadowy killers.

    America's longest war is theirs too.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Wardak, Afghanistan.

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