"Take no prisoners." Those are the strict orders being handed down by a number of powerful army and police chiefs across Afghanistan.
Afghan security forces have been instructed to kill militants on the battlefield instead of taking them prisoner and transferring them for prosecution.
Many Afghans, critical of the government's perceived soft stance against militants, have lauded the move. But the "take no prisoners" orders are worrying human rights groups, who say they could violate international law.
Aminullah Amarkhail, the security chief of the northern province of Baghlan, describes the judicial process in Afghanistan as "corrupt," saying militants who have been detained, tried, and imprisoned in Baghlan in the past have been set free under dubious circumstances and many have returned to the battlefield.
"To ensure insurgents are not freed by [corrupt] judges, I issued an order that any combatant who is fighting in the battlefield against my forces should be killed and sent to hell to get the punishment they deserve," says Amarkhail, who adds that his order was his "own, personal" decision.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Amarkhail suggested that his forces were specifically targeting foreign militants, although various news agencies reported him as saying his men were going after all militants.
General Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, is another who has given his forces an order to wipe out militants on the battlefield.
"I'm thankful for my forces for killing them all and not leaving their fates to the courts which simply demand a bribe [for their release]," says Raziq. "The good news is that they [militants] will all be destroyed. My order to all my soldiers is not to leave any of them alive."
The men have not revealed the circumstances in which the militants have been killed, and their vaguely worded comments have opened room for interpretation. Are the orders to kill militants during battle or to execute them after they are detained? That difference has a huge bearing on the legality of the actions.
"When Afghan forces are fighting the Taliban then the militants are military targets and there is no legal issue," says Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher for Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch (HRW). "It's once a combatant is no longer a combatant -- when he's taken prisoner or he's wounded and can no longer fight -- then under the International Humanitarian Law it is prohibited to kill a captured prisoner."
Gossman says it would be "very disturbing" if Amarkhail and Raziq have ordered their men to kill captured Taliban fighters instead of taking them prisoner. But she says it is a longstanding issue.
"We certainly have evidence that some commanders have been engaged in extrajudicial executions, torture, and deaths in custody," says Gossman. "The real problem is that there haven't been any prosecutions of any of these people for these kinds of abuses."
There have been no public comments from the presidential palace on the issue.
Chris Rogers, a human rights lawyer at the Open Society Foundation who works on conflict-related detentions in Afghanistan, says the statements from Raziq and Amarkhail amount to orders for impunity for those who might commit these kinds of violations.
"Statements like this are dangerous because if they're vague it gives an implicit license to commanders and sub-commanders and their personnel in the security forces to engage in actions that would be violations of the laws of war," he says.
Last month Raziq was summoned to Kabul after making public his "take no prisoner" orders. Afghan media have speculated that he has been forced to resign, a scenario that has led thousands of Afghans to express their support for the police chief.
The Afghan National Army's (ANA) official Facebook page, "Supporting the Afghan National Army," uploaded a picture of Raziq on August 14 with a message saying: "Tensions between General Raziq and the president about the killing of Taliban fighters on the battlefield might result in Raziq's resignation. Are you ready to support the esteemed General Raziq?"
The post, which has accumulated over 6,000 likes, has attracted hundreds of comments in the past several days, with many in support of the controversial police chief.
Many Facebook users simply replied with an emphatic "Yes" or "Down with the Taliban."
On August 16, Mohammad Yusuf Mohammadi posted: "Long live the brave and courageous generals of Afghanistan."
Syed Ansari, on August 15, posted: "Destroy them all. [Outgoing President Hamid] Karzai can't remove you. Don't ever resign, stand firm like a mountain."
Another user, Sulaman Akbari, posted: "Anybody who has worked honestly in the government will be killed or sacked. This is a very strange country. We are fed up."
Some lawmakers have also extended their support.
"Considering the current situation in Afghanistan, I think that, if we do not treat the terrorists in the same way as they treat our forces, the situation will get even worse," said Zalmai Mujadidi, an MP from the northern province of Badakhshan, earlier this month.
'Enemies Of Our Country'
Naheed Farid, an MP from the western Herat Province, said Kabul should not get involved in the matter. "The police chiefs are present in the district and know that local people are being killed [by the Taliban]. Local commanders are closer to the local people than those in the presidential palace," she said earlier this month.
Mir Hashim, an ANA officer stationed in the southeastern province of Paktia, a hotbed of militant activity, says Taliban militants should be killed in battle or executed in case of capture.
"In every mission, if a Taliban fighter is wounded he receives treatment," says Hashim. "They're treated like guests. Those who are detained aren't punished. They're held for one year or six months and then released. The government must ensure they're given the death sentence because they're the enemies of our country."
Hashim criticizes Karzai who has controversially freed hundreds of Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails in the past year. Since Parwan Detention Facility, the country's largest prison, was transferred from U.S. to Afghan control last year he has released hundreds of fighters, including almost 100 the United States had classed as "dangerous." Karzai had protested that international forces jailed Afghans on dubious grounds, with no proper judicial process.
The "take no prisoners' orders have been employed by a growing number of security chiefs as their forces face a sustained, large-scale Taliban offensive. Observers say an unusually high number of insurgents have carried out major attacks in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman, and Nuristan in recent months.
The violence has been unremitting this fighting season. During the fasting month of Ramadan, when violence traditionally recedes, there was actually an escalation of violence. Since then, insurgent groups based in Pakistan's tribal areas, displaced by Islamabad's military offensive in the region, have made their way across the porous border into Afghanistan.
Afghan forces have been largely successful in fending off the attacks, but they have become increasingly stretched and pinned back. The job of containing the Taliban has been made harder by the withdrawal of international combat troops this year.
"One of the most critical [changes on the battlefield] is the reduced NATO air support and attacks against insurgents," says Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank. "This allows a higher degree of freedom for insurgents to gather in big numbers of fighters without fear of being attacked by NATO warplanes. This has created a logistics, transport, and supply burden on the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF]."