This story by Lynzy Billing is a stunning piece of journalism. Billing, a British journalist with Afghan and Pakistani roots, returned to Afghanistan as an adult to investigate what happened to her birth parents. Private investigators laughed at her or wanted nothing to do with it, so she decided to dig into her past herself. Over the next several years, Billing’s reporting shifted; what was initially a personal journey to learn about her origins became something else entirely: an investigation into night raids, or top-secret, CIA-backed operations meant to target insurgents.
With unprecedented on-the-ground access to survivors, eyewitnesses, and even fighters themselves, Billing tracked hundreds of night raids by one of the four “Zero Units,” or squads of U.S.-trained Afghan special forces soldiers. (These are also known as 02s.) With the help of Muhammad Rehman Shirzad, a forensic pathologist from Nangarhar province, over the course of her reporting Billing has identified 452 civilians killed in the 02’s raids over four years. But with “undercounting deaths and overstating accuracy” being a common practice — and those in power ultimately not caring about civilian casualties — the full civilian death tally for this 02, plus the other Zero Units, is likely much higher. Billing’s conversations over three years with 02 soldiers like Baseer and Hadi are particularly riveting: “I’d come to see them as flawed soldiers who, in their way, were trying to pull some good out of their lot by sharing what they know,” she writes, “even if it meant exposing their role in killing innocents.” But really, the entire piece is extraordinary. I was gripped until the final line.
According to Baseer, Hadi is the joker of the two. He squeezed his friend’s shoulder reassuringly, grinning at him. “Don’t worry, she’s not American,” he said in Pashto. In an attempt to reassure them, I tell them I am English, not American, and of Afghan and Pakistani descent. Hadi smiled weakly, but it was clear he was unconvinced.
Both soldiers had obtained leave passes under false pretenses to meet me. The relationship between journalist and soldier seemed to offer them a space where they could discuss their actions — even boast about them when marveling at their superior training and autonomy — because I think they knew I wasn’t going to turn them in or use their stories as leverage.
Baseer’s family had left Afghanistan when he was 3, during the same fractious conflict that killed my own family. Eventually, his family settled in a refugee camp in Peshawar in Pakistan. Growing up, he considered both the Americans and the Soviets infidels, but he later came to realize that the Taliban have their own cruelties.