5-2-2011By C. Dixon Osburn
Director, Law and Security Program
New details have emerged regarding the “kill team” in Afghanistan in a cover story in The New York Times Magazine this Sunday.
The “kill team” refers to a group of American soldiers in Kandahar who allegedly murdered unarmed farmers, a mentally disabled civilian and old men for sport, cutting off their fingers and plucking teeth from their heads as trophies after the kill. I wrote about the kill teams in an April 11 blog and raised the concern over whether these murders, and the more than 4,000 photographs of them that apparently were distributed widely in the armed forces, would amount to a new Abu Ghraib.
In advance of the publication of the photos, 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 affirmed 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. Specialist Jeremy Morlock pled guilty to murder last month and was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison, rather than life, in exchange for testimony against others.
The question raised by the original report in Rolling Stone was whether any officer in the chain of command could or should be held accountable for actions of their subordinates. Army Brigadier General Stephen Twitty conducted an investigation into the murders and produced a 700 page report which remains classified. HRF sent a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh asking that the report be made public.
The Counterinsurgency Manual, section D-24, sets the standard: “Commanders are… responsible if they have actual knowledge, or should have knowledge, through reports received or through other means, that troops or other persons subject to their control are about to commit or have committed a crime, and they fail to take the necessary and reasonable steps to ensure compliance with the law or to punish violators.” HRF has written extensively about command responsibility in a report on accountability for deaths of civlians in US custody in Afghanistan.
The New York Times obtained a copy of the investigative report. The story, “A Beast In The Heart of Every Fighting Man” sheds some light on the question of command responsibility.
Accrding to The New York Times, BG Twitty interviewed 80 witnesses. Based on his findings he recommended that Captain Roman Ligsay, who was promoted after the deployment to Kandahar, receive a letter of reprimand for an instance of excessive force, and that Captain Matthew Quiggle, the immediate superior of those involved in the kill team, receive two letters of concern, a milder administrative discipline than a reprimand. BG Twitty also recommended that COL Harry D. Tunnell, IV, the former commander of the Fifth Brigade, receive a letter of admonition which falls in between a letter of reprimand and a letter of concern. It is not clear whether any of these recommendations has been adopted, or whether they are sufficient.
According to The New York Times, BG Twitty concludes that there is a difference between engaging in criminal conduct and failing to prevent it. “’While the alleged criminal acts may have been identified earlier or perhaps prevented with stronger leader presence,’” he writes, “’I found nothing to indicate that the alleged criminal acts occurred as a result of the command climate set by the leaders above them.’”
Crucial questions remain. According to The New York Times, BG Twitty found that “many of the incidents were not reported above platoon level.” That means some were. Which ones? When were they reported? What actions were taken?
As I noted in my last post, COL 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.” According to Twitty in The New York Times, Tunnell’s repudiation of the counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan promulgated by General David Petraeus created “’frustration and confusion’” among lower level commanders who believed that his orders fundamentally contradicted the war strategy.
One Lieutenant Colonel told BG Twitty that efforts to improve local government were done in semi-secret so that COL Tunnell would not find out. Twitty concludes that, as a result, Tunnell’s orders did not lead directly to a command climate that condoned illegal conduct. But, was that view held universally among mid level commanders, or were they just trying to insulate themselves from scrutiny?
BG Twitty’s report also contains “additional allegations that were never investigated, never prosecuted,” according to The New York Times. One was of an Afghan shot in the back running from the scene of an IED explosion with no evidence that the civilian had done anything wrong. The other was an incident in which soldiers killed three civilians, two with gun shots to the head and the other in the back. The commander for both instances reported the concerns up the chain of command but no investigation was done. There is no indication that BG Twitty has recommended investigating these instances now.
These are not easy matters to discern. Who should be responsible for the murders? Just those who pulled the trigger or commanders who say the enemy must be attacked relentlessly? According to The New York Times, General Petraeus said in a letter to the troops, “We are indeed warriors. We are trained to kill our enemies…. What sets us apart from our enemies in the fight, however, is how we behave.”
Questions remain about how all of those commanders connected to the kill team behaved. What is clear, though, is that the Army must be fully forthcoming about these incidents before the public — American, Afghan and world — can be confident that serious incidents of misconduct are addressed fully. The Army should declassify BG Twitty’s report. Congress should hold hearings. We must demonstrate that no one is above the rule of law.