US commandos are reportedly arming and training surrogates without checking their human rights records
American special forces have trained up foreign proxy fighters and sent them on 'kill-or-capture' missions without ascertaining whether they have histories of rape, torture, extrajudicial killings, or other human rights abuses, the New York Times reported on Sunday, citing newly disclosed Pentagon documents.
Such surrogates are paid, equipped, and deployed without any vetting required to verify that they have a clean human rights record, according to documents obtained by the NYT.
The 'gap in rules' applies to proxy forces hired to carry out counterterrorism missions, as well as allied forces who are trained under an irregular warfare program designed to help countries that are at risk of invasion by larger neighbors.
One such clandestine mission in Ukraine was allegedly terminated just before Moscow launched its military operation against Kiev's forces in February 2022, but some officials want to restart it, according to a Washington Post report earlier this year.
To skirt compliance with a law banning security assistance to forces with a history of human rights violations, the Pentagon has interpreted its proxy programs as not aiding its foreign allies, the Times said. Rather, proxy forces are equipped to pursue US objectives, not to build up the defense capabilities of their own countries. The legal tactic is "a dishonest reading of the plain text and intention of Congress," former Pentagon lawyer Sarah Harrison told the newspaper.
US special forces have increasingly relied on proxy fighters in countries such as Niger and Somalia in recent years. By moving away from direct deployments of American ground troops, like those sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington seeks to avert US casualties and avoid being seen as an occupier, according to the report. However, the strategy also carries risks, particularly without proper vetting.
"We need to make sure that we are not training abusive units to become even more lethal and fueling the conflict and violence that we're aiming to solve," said US Representative Sara Jacobs, a California Democrat. "And that starts with universal human rights vetting."
The Pentagon's Section 127e program allows US special forces to spend up to $100 million a year on counterterrorism proxies. The Section 1202 program for irregular warfare has a $15 million annual budget.
The latter program involves "disrupting nation-state rivals" without armed conflict, the Times said. It involves acts of sabotage and hacking, as well as "propaganda or clandestine efforts to shape morale."
A Pentagon official told the Times that proxy forces are screened to ensure that they aren't a threat to spy against the US or attack American troops. While this vetting doesn't check specifically for rights abuses - such as rape, torture, or 'extrajudicial killings' - the official said it's sufficient to "weed out bad actors."