a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Foot dragging and stonewalling in Afghanistan

Posted by Thomas Nephew on May 25th, 2005

Like Jim Henley, I was struck by this observation in Tim Golden’s Sunday New York Times report (“Army Faltered in Investigating Detainee Abuse“):

While the proposal to close the case was ultimately rejected by senior officials, documents show that the inquiry was at a virtual standstill when an article in The New York Times on March 4, 2003, reported that at least one of the prisoner’s deaths had been ruled a homicide, contradicting the military’s earlier assertions that both had died of natural causes. Activity in the case quickly resumed.

The military agency involved is the Criminal Investigation Command (CID),* and this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed a certain lack of alacrity in their work in Afghanistan.

Foot dragging on the Gardez 7 case
Last September, another homicide at the hands of U.S. soldiers — about two weeks after the Times Bagram homicide report in 2003 — came to light in a case known as the “Gardez 7″ after the seven surviving witnesses (see “Yet more bad apples“). Acting on what was likely purposely misleading information in an intra-Afghan power struggle, U.S. soldiers took eight Afghan soldiers prisoner. Writing for the L.A. Times (“U.S. Probing Alleged Abuse of Afghans“),** reporters Craig Pyes and Mark Mazzetti describe what happened next :

Alleged American mistreatment of the detainees included repeated beatings, immersion in cold water, electric shocks, being hung upside down and toenails being torn off, according to Afghan investigators and an internal memorandum prepared by a United Nations delegation that interviewed the surviving soldiers.

They also beat one Afghan, Jamal Naseer, so badly over the next two weeks that he died. As with the Bagram case reported last weekend, there are reports the victim was unable to walk on his own on the final day of his life, and of severe injuries around his knees.

And as with the Bagram case, Army investigators seem to need large, brightly colored arrows pointing to evidence before they’ll go find it or do much with it. It took Afghan prosecutors and a freelance journalist to come up with the eyewitness accounts the CID needed:

The case of the “Gardez 7,” as CID officials dubbed it, was filed away as unfounded because investigators had no records, victims’ names or witnesses, said Christopher E. Coffey, an Army detective based at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. [...]

Coffey said that with the new information, the CID would pursue charges of murder and of abuse of a person in U.S. custody.

“We’re trying to figure out who was running the base,” Coffey said. “We don’t know what unit was there. There are no records. The reporting system is broke across the board. Units are transferred in and out. There are no SOPs [standard operating procedures] … and each unit acts differently.”

Troop rotations admittedly complicate the story. The unit that took the Afghan soldiers prisoner was from the 20th Special Forces group from Birmingham, AL. That group was officially replaced on March 15, 2003, by the 3rd Special Forces Group from Ft. Bragg, N.C. — two days before Jamal Naseer died.

Still, I’d think that between seven eyewitnesses, and photographs of soldiers in each of the units, a reasonably hard working investigator would have a pretty decent shot at identifying the culprits. But there have been no further public developments in the case that I’m aware of since last September.

What of it? Well, this is why we can assume Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Gardez are merely what we know, rather than all there is. The story only came to light because Afghan officials, an American human rights group (“Crimes of War Project”), and a freelance journalist (Craig Pyes) followed up on a case involving Afghan soldiers, as opposed to luckless civilians or insurgents not entitled to Geneva Convention protections, if “military necessity” seemed to require that.

The glacial pace of the U.S. military investigations is complemented by Defense Department stonewalling of Afghan officials who seem more eager to bring the perpetrators to justice. From the L.A. Times report:

Afghanistan’s attorney general ordered that the case be fully investigated by military prosecutors. A request by Afghanistan’s Army III Corps for an explanation of the incident from U.S. military officials received no response, according to documents in the Afghan report to the attorney general.

As Crimes of War Project’s Andrew Dworkin pointed out in a commentary about the case, the U.S. and Afghanistan seem to have no “Status of Forces” agreement that specifies the U.S. military’s obligations to a host country when an American soldier is accused of a crime. That may contribute to the stonewalling tactics:

In the absence of a Status of Forces Agreement, U.S. soldiers would be criminally liable under Afghan law for killing or torturing an Afghan national. The suggestion by Afghan military prosecutors that those responsible for the Gardez killing and torture be prosecuted in Afghanistan is legally credible, though politically unlikely.

“Cooperate and consult”
The stonewalling and arrogance go all the way to the top, of course. In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Michael Fletcher reported (“Bush Rebuffs Karzai’s Request on Troops“):

President Bush rebuffed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s effort to gain greater control over U.S. military operations in his country yesterday, as the two leaders endorsed an agreement allowing the United States to continue its policy of simply informing Afghan officials before launching raids in Afghanistan.

“In terms of more say over our military, our relationship is one of cooperate and consult,” Bush said.

Bush also turned down Karzai’s request for Afghanistan to take custody of its citizens being detained by the United States as suspected terrorists, saying that Afghanistan lacks facilities where the suspects “can be housed and fed and guarded.”

Instead, Karzai got his marching orders to cut opium production.

* The acronym is for “…Division,” the original name of the branch.
** The article costs $3.95 to retrieve. Pyes also describes the events in Gardez in “A Torture Killing by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan” at the Crimes of War Project, which commissioned his investigative work.

One Response to “Foot dragging and stonewalling in Afghanistan”

  1. » Blog Archive » US homicides of prisoners inadequately investigated Says:

    [...] like this one (or the similar stories out of Afghanistan — see “Foot dragging and stonewalling in Afghanistan,” 5/25/05 — suggest that the McCain amendment by itself won’t be enough to [...]

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