By Dixon Osburn, Director, Law and Security
and Emily Sharpe, Legal Intern, Law and Security
It’s Abu Ghraib, all over again.
One year ago, American soldiers deployed to Afghanistan formed “kill teams” to murder innocent Afghan civilians. They collected “trophies” by cutting off a finger of the victim.
According to a recent special report in Rolling Stone Magazine, a faction of soldiers in the 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company planned and executed the murders of unarmed farmers, old men, and a mentally disabled civilian for pure sport. They tried hiding their tracks by placing illegally procured weapons next to the corpses to make it appear that the civilians had been engaged in combat. The soldiers pressured fellow soldiers to keep quiet, even assaulting one soldier who broke confidence. They hid evidence from their commanders. But, like the prison guards at Abu Ghraib, they also catalogued their kills in photos and videos: gleeful soldiers posing next to the stripped and mangled bodies of their targets.
The photos, many of which were eventually distributed to soldiers in other units, have now gone viral for the world to see. Der Spiegel has published three of over 4,000 photos and videos taken by the men. The Guardian is reporting that senior NATO officials in Kabul are concerned that the graphics are “even more damaging” than the notorious detainee abuse photos of Abu Ghraib.
The UN and other international organizations operating in Afghanistan ordered lock-downs in advance of the photos’ publication, fearing a spate of violent protests similar to the reaction to the Abu Ghraib photos in 2004. The Army issued a news release stating that the photos are “repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army.” The release also affirms that “when allegations of wrongdoing by soldiers surface, to include the inappropriate treatment of the dead, they are fully investigated.”
The Army conducted an investigation, and initiated courts-martial for the twelve soldiers charged in the case. Five have been charged in connection with the murders, and seven for lesser crimes, such as smoking hashish and assaulting a fellow soldier. One pleaded guilty to murder and was recently sentenced to twenty-four years in prison.
Crucial questions persist. The Army has refused to release its inquiry into officer accountability, or discuss whether it has held accountable any of the commanders in the 3rd platoon who knew about the abuse.
Rolling Stone reports that it appears that the culture of Bravo company had become a dangerous blend of blatant scorn for the local population and impunity for violations of Army protocol (not to mention the laws of war). Now that the evidence is out, the world will have to wait and see whether the Army is going to try to satisfy calls for justice by limiting punishment to a few “bad apples” or actually hold their superiors accountable for failing to stop the conspicuous and widely known murders.
The Rolling Stone article offers several chilling examples of the soldiers’ brutal acts– and their officers’ failure to intervene:
- After spending weeks debating whether and how to kill the “savages,” two soldiers targeted a 15 year old farmer working alone in a field. They ordered him to stand still and threw a grenade at him, accompanied by a shower of M4 and machine gun fire. The soldiers then began their grisly routine of photographing themselves with the young man’s stripped, bloody body. The platoon’s squad leader allegedly joined in, manipulating the boy’s body like a marionette and then using a pair of medic’s shears to slice off the boy’s pinky finger as a trophy. After the killing, the soldiers were not disciplined or punished by superior officers.
- A month later, during a routine mission in an Afghan village, three soldiers went to the home of a man they reportedly suspected of belonging to the Taliban. They ordered the man out of his hut and shot him at close range. To cover their tracks, they dropped at the man’s feet an AK-47 they had salvaged from the wreckage of an Afghan National Police vehicle. The incident was never investigated, despite many clues that the soldiers’ story was fabricated.
- Because their officers never investigated or reported these killings, the soldiers continued on their rampage across the Afghani countryside for three more months. They killed, among others, a peaceful cleric and a mentally disabled and deaf man. They also shot at numerous unarmed civilians from their tank while on patrol. It is not clear whether the civilians survived.
So far, there has been zero public accountability for officers aware of or complicit in the murders:
- Colonel. Harry Tunnell was openly contemptuous of the military’s “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency strategy, dismissing it as “politically correct.” He apparently encouraged his soldiers to go after “guerrilla hunter killers,” and stated that the enemy “must be attacked relentlessly,” setting a command climate that possibly permitted the atrocities.
- Lieutenant Colonel David Abrahams, the battalion’s second in command, was informed by Afghan villagers of the soldiers’ wrongdoing. He dropped the matter after a brief inquiry.
- The platoon’s commander, Captain Matthew Quiggle, did not investigate, though it is not clear what he did or did not know.
- Captain Patrick Mitchell, who arrived on the scene right after the first murder and apparently suspected wrongdoing, did not investigate.
- First Lieutenant Roman Ligsay, who knew about or suspected the murders, has been promoted to captain.
Just a month before the killing spree began, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, visited the area where the brigade was stationed. He reminded the soldiers that the “military’s strategy of counterinsurgency required them to win hearts and minds by protecting the population. ‘If we’re killing local civilians,’ he cautioned, ‘we’re going to strategically lose.’”
After a decade of war in Afghanistan, will we now lose it because of American soldiers’ cavalier brutishness? The only way to repair the damage, if it can be repaired, is to conduct a full, open and transparent investigation, publish the results, punish those who committed crimes, hold accountable those who committed or condoned the atrocities, and make reparations to the Afghan families affected. The Army should review its training on respecting the history, culture, dignity and integrity of local populations, and immediately retrain its soldiers. As democracy tries to take hold in North Africa and the Middle East, America must be on the side of the rule of law, not brazenly disrespecting it.