Earlier this year, American forces were driven out of Nerkh, a district of Wardak, Afghanistan, after accusations emerged that the troops were engaging in the torture and killing of innocent civilians. Between October 2012 and February 2013, 17 Afghan civilians were detained in Wardak province by U.S. forces. In May, 10 of them were discovered buried in shallow graves near the American base in Nerkh.
Two months after the bodies were found, a U.N. report on civilian deaths in the country concluded, “The reported disappearances, arbitrary killings and torture – if proven to have been committed under the auspices of a party to the armed conflict – may amount to war crimes.”
Despite local protests, outrage from human rights organizations and the urging of the Afghan government, the U.S. chose not to cooperate with the investigation into the civilian deaths. Three weeks ago, Afghanistan’s intelligence service discontinued the investigation on the grounds the U.S. had refused to grant it access to soldiers accused of orchestrating the killings.
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According to Reuters, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) asked the U.S. to allow three of its soldiers, who are part of the U.S. Army Green Berets known as the “A-Team,” as well as four Afghan translators who worked with them to be questioned in connection with the crimes. The U.S. has not done so and the NDA alleges this has prevented the investigation moving forward.
“Despite many requests by NDS they have not cooperated. Without their cooperation this process cannot be completed,” read the text of the report from September 23.
The U.S. is not required to comply with the terms of Afghanistan’s investigation in Wardak due to a 10-year-old pact insuring American soldiers immunity from Afghan law. Yet, some now argue that cooperating with Afghan authorities would be wise during this crucial point in U.S.-Afghan relations as the pact becomes a source of greater tension between the countries.
The U.S. is working with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on a Strategic Partnership Agreement that will determine the extent of U.S. involvement in the country following the planned withdrawal of American troops at the end of 2014. If the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) goes into effect, up to 10,000 soldiers would stay in Afghanistan and largely assist and train the Afghan military.
The fact that the U.S. is failing to stand up to what Rolling Stone’s Matthieu Aikins says could be “some of the gravest war crimes perpetrated by American forces since 2001,” has complicated these negotiations. Atkins claims that in the five months he spent questioning dozens of witnesses and family members about the casualties, not a single source he spoke to had been questioned by U.S. investigators – proving assertions that the U.S. has not properly inquired into the killings.
Last week during Afghanistan’s grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, Karzai refused to sign the BSA – and said he would maintain his position until he received greater assurance that Afghan civilians will be protected. This would also mean that any U.S. troops remaining in the country would be subjected to Afghan law. Instead, he announced he would prefer to delay signing until the country’s presidential election in April.
“I have demanded an end to all American attacks against Afghan homes and the beginning of a realistic peace process,” Karzai said in aninterview with Radio Free Europe last week. “Whenever the Americans meet these two demands, I am ready to sign the agreement. And when these two demands are implemented, the pact is in Afghanistan’s interests.”
In an email from Kabul, Aikins told Occupy.com that the incidents in Wardak have played a major role in reshaping Karzai’s stance.
“I think the Wardak killings, and the U.S. military’s inadequate response, fed into President Karzai’s sense that he needed to use the negotiations to gain greater Afghan control over military operations in the country,” Aikins said.
“After over a decade of the current war and continuing insecurity, Afghans are generally skeptical of the foreign military forces and incidents like these reinforce their perception that the foreigners do not hold themselves accountable for abuses and accidents that cost Afghan lives.”
Syed Zafar Mehdi, the editor of The Afghan Zariza (Millennium), backed that assessment. “Though he is not against the deal, President Karzai’s refusal to sign on the dotted line before elections is because he doesn’t want to deal with cases like Wardak killings anymore,” Mehdi told Occupy.com.
“These Wardak killings have shocked the whole nation, further denting the image of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The most hideous part of it is the immunity and lack of criminal prosecution that makes these U.S. security forces villains in the eyes of Afghans.”
Mehdi noted that ongoing U.S. raids and strikes have contributed to Karzai’s concerns. Over the past few months, airstrikes have resulted in the deaths of several civilians. On November 25, a U.S. drone killed eight civilians in Wanat village.
“His concerns are not entirely unwarranted if you look at the way U.S. authorities have handled the investigations into Wardak killings and refused to cooperate with National Directorate of Security (NDS) to bring culprits to book,” Mehdi continued. “The issue of raids on Afghan homes, which is underlined in the agreement, is also a matter of consternation for government here. The 18 men in Wardak disappeared after U.S. raids.”
Many speculate that Karzai’s refusal to sign the pact could lead to the premature departure of U.S. troops, which will have detrimental effects on Afghanistan. In the end it could mirror the “zero option” decision made in Iraq, where the U.S. withdrew in 2009 rather than be at the mercy of the country’s laws. Since then, Iraq has suffered dire political unrest.
“The negotiations surrounding the BSA are the only real leverage [Karzai] has over the U.S. and he clearly wants to make the most of it,” Martine van Bijlert, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), told Occupy.com.
“If the U.S. forces do leave, they will probably do so amidst a crisis of confidence that will result not only in troop withdrawal, but also in the withdrawal of commitments of support. This is what many Afghans fear most, given that the Afghan government is not in a position to pay its own security forces and government salaries, and will not be in the years to come.
“The fact that the U.S. is unwilling to actively cooperate in a joint investigation strengthens the perception in Afghanistan that U.S. military forces can act as they wish and that nobody will hold them to account,” Bijlert continued. “This has long been one of Karzai’s main criticism’s and the basis for a deepening lack of trust between the two countries. And it is this lack of trust that is at the heart of the current tug-of-war over the signing of the BSA.”
Last winter, Karzai demanded that U.S. forces vacate Wardak after a student named Nasratullah was found slain under a bridge with his throat cut just days after he was seen being taken into the custody of the Green Berets.
And in July, Afghan authorities detained Zakeria Kandahari, a translator who worked for U.S. special forces for nearly a decade. Kandahari was accused of partaking in the torture and murder of nine civilians in the region after cell phone video emerged of him beating Sayid Mohammed, one of the victims whose mutilated corpse was later discovered near the Nerk Special Forces base.
As Reuters reported, Kandahari admitted to beating Mohammed but alleged that U.S. Special Forces ultimately carried out the brutal execution. Denying any involvement in bringing about the nine casualties, he pointed the finger at three U.S. soldiers, who he identified as “Dave, chief of the operations, Hagen and Chris.”
“I also kicked him several times while I was taking him to the base,” Kandahari told his interrogators regarding Mohammed. “I handed him over to Mr. Dave and Mr. Hagen, but later I saw his body in a black body bag.”
Around the time of the investigation, the head of intelligence for the Afghan Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. Manan Farahi, called for further inquiry into the deaths in Wardak to determine the degree of U.S. involvement.
“Everybody knows and you should know that Zakaria Kandahari and these people with him were there with the Americans and were working for the Americans,” Farahi said. “Whether they killed people on their own or were directed by the Americans to kill people, it needs extensive investigation. Now that Mr. Kandahari is in custody most of these things will become clear.”
It’s important to note that Mohammed’s body was discovered footless and that the removing of the hands or feet is consistent with the practices of the Taliban, who are known to occasionally mutilate those they believe to have done wrong – a punishment ordained by Allah in Quran 5:33 and 5:38. However, some involved in the case have said they believe Mohammed was ravaged by animals after he was killed, which would account for the state of his remains.
The U.S.’s potential culpability in the Wardak crimes is not so far-fetched considering the number of other occasions in which innocent Afghan civilians have been killed at the hands of U.S. forces in a similar manner. The instances of civilian killings has had a sweeping effect on the Afghan population, taking away from the sacrifices that so many American soldiers have made in what has been deemed the “forgotten war.”
In one incident, on March 11, 2012, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales stormed the villages of Balandi and Alkozai and shot 16 civilians dead. It was later determined that the 39-year-old American was under the influence of alcohol and sleeping pills on the day of the attack. The massacres, which left mostly women and children casualties, marked the highest number of civilian deaths at the hands of a single U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War.
In August, a military jury sentenced Bales to life in prison. He was charged with 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder.
The gruesome killings came just two years after the largely publicized “Kill Team” case, in which a group of U.S. soldiers executed three unarmed civilians, Gul Mudin, Marach Agha, and Mullah Adahdad, in the Maywand District seemingly for sport.
In the summer of that same year, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, Staff Sgt. David Bram, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, and Spc. Adam Winfield were charged in the killings after a whistleblower, Spc. Justin Stoner, came forward.
In Mike Boal’s Rolling Stone piece, “The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians,” Boal describes how the group set up “staged killings” in which weapons were planted on the victims prior to or after their deaths.
For instance, Mordock and Homes threw a grenade at Mudin, 15, and shot at him as it exploded. They were thus able to make the case that the teen was a threat and needed to be gunned down. Capt. Patrick Mitchell, the ranking officer on the scene, ordered Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague to shoot him a few more times in order to make sure he was dead.
In photos that would eventually appear in news outlets around the globe, the soldiers began posing with Mudin’s mangled corpse. Holmes reportedly cut off one of the boy’s fingers and kept it as a memento.
Local witnesses in each of the cases assure that the memories of unjust brutality by U.S. forces will remain long after their departure. While the violence in no way indicates how American soldiers operate as a whole or the positive effects their presence has had in the country, there is consensus that it has poisoned the view many Afghans have of them.
But according to Aikins, while cases like these are common and thus unsurprising to the Afghan people, the Wardak killings have stirred a unique reaction.
“The Wardak case garnered more of a reaction than normal, in part for political reasons, and in part because the abuses were so severe and sustained over the course of several months,” Aikins said.
In the years since U.S. troops entered Afghanistan, the civilian death toll has steadily risen and those who have survived continue to endure hardships. In 2009, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health determined that two-thirds of Afghans suffer from mental health disorders. Varying factors have led these numbers to spike.
Now, instability, hopelessness and destruction could turn Afghanistan into a renewed breeding ground for Taliban forces, especially when and if U.S. forces vacate the country – the very thing the military set out to prevent in the first place.