On Nov. 30, 2009, in the shadow of mountains that crumple up 9,000-ft. ridges, an Afghan mercenary bankrolled by the U.S. military and hell-bent on the destruction of Taliban rebels allegedly stopped three men heading home to celebrate ‘Id ul-Qurban with their families. According to an elder from Bermal, the Afghan district where the incident took place, Commander Azizullah and his men bound their hands. Then, the elder told TIME, Azizullah drew his pistol and shot them. There was no evidence that these men were insurgents, the elder says. “But he killed them anyway.”
The story, corroborated almost word for word by an internal U.N. report dated January 2010 and calling for Azizullah’s removal from the U.S. payroll, is one of numerous accounts of atrocity laid at his door. As part of a secretive U.S. Army program responsible for some of the most effective fighters in Afghanistan, Azizullah has risen from nothing to command a ferocious 400-man militia of Afghan security guards. Stocky, bearded and seemingly implacable, he’s credited with bringing some kind of security to a few square miles of southeastern Afghanistan. “[I’ve] conducted lots of operations, seen lots of stuff, been blown up by a suicide bomber,” he told TIME during a phone call earlier this year. But if testimony from four Afghan sources in Bermal, two businessmen with interests in Bermal, two Afghan officials and two Western diplomats is to be believed, the cost has been a spate of bloodletting that makes little distinction between enemy combatants and ordinary civilians — despite legislation forbidding U.S. taxpayer dollars from funding units where there is credible evidence of human-rights violations.