| Ander Nieuws week 40 / Midden-Oosten 2010 |
September 20, 2010
According to Army investigators at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, soldiers in the 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment of what's now the 2nd Stryker Brigade hunted and killed Afghan civilians for sport. If this gruesome tale turns out to be true, then it means American soldiers in Afghanistan became something we associate with the worst of all war crimes, something that we'd like to believe simply doesn't exist among our troops: a death squad.
A small group of soldiers in the platoon, report the Washington Post and the Army Times before it, hatched a plot to target Afghan civilians for death. Three alleged murders occurred between January and May in Kandahar at the hands of the self-described "Kill Team" headed by a staff sergeant in the platoon who apparently boasted of getting away with abuse in Iraq. The motives of the "Kill Team" are unknown at this point, but they appear to be indistinguishable from sadism: we only know about the plot because a private came forward to investigators after "Kill Team" members beat him up - ironically, on suspicion that he was a snitch. This is going to get even uglier: apparently there are photographs of some of the team posing with the corpses they created.
Details surrounding the alleged death squad are subject to dispute and counter-accusation as the Army's investigation proceeds. But what little is known so far suggests a path for investigators to determine how these alleged war crimes could have occurred - and how observers can spot a whitewash if they don't follow it. Short answer: look at how their commanders behaved.
1. What did the chain of command know? Twelve soldiers - who were high on hash and drunk on liquor - face charges in the death-squad investigation. None of them are officers. How could the chain of command not have known or suspected something was wrong?
The first killing occurred in January. One of the members of the kill squad is believed to have staged a grenade attack as a pretext to kill an Afghan civilian. That leads to one of two possibilities. There should have been an investigation after the incident in which a minimally-competent team would have determined the Afghan didn't throw the grenade. Or there was no investigation at all. Either should have aroused command suspicion.
"Higher commands have to inform themselves about what's happening in subordinate command," Eugene Fidell, the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, tells Danger Room. "That's what it means to have command responsibility. You have to be aware of what's going on, take reasonable steps to inform yourself, and you can't claim ignorance."
2. What was the command environment in the unit? On the very few occasions where the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan have victimized locals, those incidents have typically centered around detainee abuse. The total control exercised by soldiers over their charges has sometimes enabled criminality - if left unchecked. Accordingly, the tone set by commanders has been key. At Abu Ghraib, an official Pentagon investigation found, guards operated in a unit with poor discipline; uncertain boundaries between guard duty and interrogations; and an environment where the chain of command sent mixed signals about tolerable abuse. Before that, the old Bagram detention center in Afghanistan hosted interrogators who beat detainees to death because they could. It would be years before commanders took action.
Rarer have been the cases where combat troops conspired to kill locals. In 2004, soldiers stationed in Balad, Iraq, demanded that two young Iraqis who had angered them jump off a dam into the Tigris River. Their battalion commander helped them cover up the offense. In 2006, soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne operated in a brutal manner in Iraq, following a tone established by its commander, Colonel Michael Steele.
At first blush, officers in the death-squad's brigade may have been similarly lax. According to a detailed report on the brigade in December - shortly before the first killing - by Army Times' Sean Naylor, its commander, Colonel Harry Tunnell adopted the motto "Strike - Destroy" after his soldiers encountered heavier fighting than expected. It's a long way from General Stanley McChrystal's orders to protect Afghan civilians from harm.
Naylor reports that some of Tunnell's frontline units were even more focused on killing perceived enemy than he was. "There's definitely a disconnect between the platoon and company level and the battalion and brigade level," an anonymous Charlie Company soldier told Naylor. That was not uniformly the case: Charlie Company's commander, Captain Joel Kassulke, wanted to conduct more of a classic counterinsurgency mission. Tunnell yanked away Kassulke's command after the company took heavy casualties. (Apparently this is a story that escaped the attention of marquee journalists who visited the brigade.)
It bears mentioning that lots of units in Iraq and Afghanistan have, for years, waged violent warfare against insurgents and did not produce anything like the death squads under investigation here. There's a world of legal and moral difference between killing civilians and killing enemy fighters. Tunnell's focus on the insurgency or his dissatisfaction with Kassulke - who was not in command of Bravo Company - does not indicate a blase attitude toward war crimes. But any inquiry that overlooks how 3rd Platoon's command treated Afghan civilians should set off alarm bells.
3. How did the Army's whistleblower system fail? The Post reports a shocking incident - from, admittedly, an interested party. One of the soldiers charged with killing Afghans, Specialist Adam Winfield, allegedly communicated to his father in February 2010 via Facebook that the staff sergeant, Calvin Gibbs, had gotten away with murder. When Winfield's father, Christopher, contacted the command center at Fort Lewis, the unit's home base, a sergeant on duty told him that unless his son "was willing to report it to his superiors in Afghanistan, there was little the Army could do."
Fidell was surprised to read about Fort Lewis's apparent initial disinterest in investigating the case. "That's not right and I'm sure someone will be eating off the mantlepiece for that," he says. Obviously, Winfield's father has an interest in portraying the command as disinterested in a thorough inquiry. But if his account is true, it raises disturbing questions about the Army's system for policing itself.
The investigation is going to unfold over the course of the next several months. It's sure to be a wrenching affair for the Army. It may become a point of diplomatic friction between the U.S. and Afghan governments. And it may strengthen calls, like the one made by Tom Ricks last week, for a truth commission into U.S. wartime abuses.
But if there's any lesson that the U.S.'s sordid history with detainee abuse should have taught over the past decade, it's that credible investigations, however painful, are the first step toward mitigating the consequences of disasters like these.
"Certainly these kinds of things have to be investigated," Fidell says. "The question is when did they come to the attention of management - unless you had a unit that was completely out of control, like something out of Apocalypse Now."
| Ander Nieuws week 40 / Midden-Oosten 2010 |