How an Army general is working to boost human rights in Afghanistan

Brig. Gen. Mitchell Chitwood listens as an Afghan officer describes being tortured by the Taliban this week.

On a NATO base in Jalalabad — one of the bloodiest areas of Afghanistan — U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mitchell Chitwood delivered a stern message this month to Afghan military leaders: Even as you hunt down the Taliban, you have to respect people's basic rights.

"If your police and soldiers are not disciplined and do not observe human rights, the international community will notice, and they will want to see what Afghanistan did to investigate these crimes," Chitwood said, according to an account released by the Pentagon.


For the past nine months, the 52-year-old reservist from Columbia has been leading a team of lawyers and investigators in Essential Function 3, which has the mission of helping Afghanistan's security forces stamp out corruption, stop illegal killings and prevent violations of human rights.

He is working in bleak terrain.


The State Department, the United Nations and nongovernmental human rights advocates all have recorded abuses by Afghan forces in the past year, and they expect conditions to worsen now that NATO troops have ended their combat mission in the country.

There were more than 100,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan as recently as 2011, the peak of the surge ordered by President Barack Obama. But NATO handed responsibility for security in the country over to the Afghan military and police at the end of last year, and there are now fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops there.

That drawdown has put pressure on Afghan forces, human rights advocates say, as they now bear the full brunt of the fight against Taliban insurgents. Those insurgents, meanwhile, have stepped up attacks on Afghan security forces.

At least 10 people were killed Saturday in a suicide car bombing in Kabul, Afghan officials reported. The bodies of three kidnapped police officials were found Sunday in the eastern province of Ghazni.

The drive by Afghan forces to claim victories has fueled more abuses, human rights advocates say, at a time when fewer foreign military officials are deployed to do human rights oversight and training.

"Impunity is basically the theme, unfortunately," said Patricia Gossman, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The message is 'You can get away with [this],' rather than 'You ought not to do this.'

"There's been a lot of training, there's no question. There's been training of the army, there's been training of the police over the last more than a decade but what we're not seeing is genuine accountability."

The State Department recently catalogued reports of torture, beatings of civilians, sexual abuse and exploitation of children in Afghanistan.


Washington-based Freedom House, in its annual report on nations' respect for rights, said the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, not better.

"In a prevailing climate of impunity, government officials, as well as warlords in some provinces, sanction widespread abuses by the police, military, local militias, and intelligence forces under their command, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, extortion, and extrajudicial killings," the organization's analysts concluded.

When not on active duty, Chitwood works as a lawyer in the general counsel's office of the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn. He served as a federal prosecutor in Texas, spending more than a decade battling corruption at home in the Justice Department's antitrust division and brought down one of the largest price-fixing cartels ever to be prosecuted.

Now he's leading a small team of lawyers who work closely with officials at Afghanistan's Ministries of Defense and Interior, his cadre of civilian attorneys traveling through Kabul on foot in battle gear or in armored convoys for meetings.

They work to train troops and police about their legal and constitutional obligations, Chitwood said by telephone from the Afghan capital. When Afghan investigators run into problems with a case, his staff are available to help troubleshoot.

The military cites a lengthy list of newly established training programs and high level meetings with members of President Ashraf Ghani's government as signs that Afghan authorities are taking their responsibilities seriously.


Chitwood said some senior Afghan leaders subscribe to a "take no prisoners" view of the fight against the Taliban, but the message about respecting human rights is getting through to many more.

He told of meeting an Afghan officer this month who had been tortured by the Taliban. The officer told him the experience strengthened his view that enemies should be treated with respect.

"The vast majority of them take the Islamic view that the people they meet on the battlefield, even though they're enemies, they're Muslim brothers," Chitwood said.

Chitwood is optimistic about the potential for getting Afghan leaders to respect human rights. He said tackling corruption is a greater challenge.

Afghanistan consistently ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world — a problem that has vexed Kabul's Western supporters since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Shakedowns by police and contracting fraud in the military remain commonplace.

"It is a very different battle," Chitwood said, and one that could take decades to win. "Virtually any kind or form of corruption you can think of exists here in Afghanistan."


Chitwood said the new security responsibilities thrust upon the Afghan forces have heightened the risks of unchecked graft. Commanders are starting to see how officials siphoning off resources for personal gain affects the readiness of their troops to fight, he said.

That could bode well for the future.

"We are not standing shoulder to shoulder," Chitwood said. "That has brought a new reality to the Afghan forces.

"It has been a game change for them. I truly believe there is a different perspective this year."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


Brig. Gen. Mitchell Chitwood

Military Service: Army Reserve, Leader of Operation Resolute Support Essential Function 3

Civilian career: Attorney at Social Security Administration, former federal antitrust investigator

Education: Georgetown, University of Utah law school

Home: Columbia