Monday, March 28, 2011

Who Is Really Responsible For The Afghan "Killing Teams"

Jazz Shaw - Another disturbing story from the war front this week, covering what is being dubbed as the “Kill Teams” – rogue elements of US forces accused of intentionally killing unarmed Afghani civilians. Rather than a new item, this is apparently a story which took place more than a year ago and has been under investigation by the Army since last summer.

Early last year, after six hard months soldiering in Afghanistan, a group of American infantrymen reached a momentous decision: It was finally time to kill a haji…

While the officers of 3rd Platoon peeled off to talk to a village elder inside a compound, two soldiers walked away from the unit until they reached the far edge of the village. There, in a nearby poppy field, they began looking for someone to kill. “The general consensus was, if we are going to do something that fucking crazy, no one wanted anybody around to witness it,” one of the men later told Army investigators.

The poppy plants were still low to the ground at that time of year. The two soldiers, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes, saw a young farmer who was working by himself among the spiky shoots. Off in the distance, a few other soldiers stood sentry. But the farmer was the only Afghan in sight. With no one around to witness, the timing was right. And just like that, they picked him for execution.

While nobody is implying that this is US military policy, nor anything more than members of – potentially – a couple of forward units gone bad, the Rolling Stone article seems to imply that the investigation has been wide ranging. It also carries the flavor of something of a cover-up.

But a review of internal Army records and investigative files obtained by Rolling Stone, including dozens of interviews with members of Bravo Company compiled by military investigators, indicates that the dozen infantrymen being portrayed as members of a secretive “kill team” were operating out in the open, in plain view of the rest of the company. Far from being clandestine, as the Pentagon has implied, the murders of civilians were common knowledge among the unit and understood to be illegal by “pretty much the whole platoon,” according to one soldier who complained about them…

Even before the war crimes became public, the Pentagon went to extraordinary measures to suppress the photos – an effort that reached the highest levels of both governments. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and President Hamid Karzai were reportedly briefed on the photos as early as May, and the military launched a massive effort to find every file and pull the pictures out of circulation before they could touch off a scandal on the scale of Abu Ghraib. Investigators in Afghanistan searched the hard drives and confiscated the computers of more than a dozen soldiers, ordering them to delete any provocative images. The Army Criminal Investigation Command also sent agents fanning out across America to the homes of soldiers and their relatives, gathering up every copy of the files they could find. The message was clear: What happens in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan.

First of all, I’m not here to excuse the actions of the soldiers in question. While none of us should question the bravery and integrity of our armed forces serving in harm’s way, any organization that large will occasionally attract some bad or unstable actors who slip through the cracks. Extended tours in a war zone can certainly serve to bring out these worst elements, which is a great loss, but it looks like the Army has already moved to eliminate the problem.

The real question here crossed my mind while watching more than an hour of television coverage of this story this morning, as well as reading the Rolling Stone article which is more than eight pages and I don’t know how many thousands of words long. Many names are mentioned, ranging from the individual soldiers involved and their direct supervisors all the way up to General McChrystal. But one name seems to be conspicuously absent from all of this coverage. Can you guess who it is? I’ll give you a hint… his initials are B.H.O.

When I suggested this to a friend this morning he responded by saying, “I don’t really agree that it’s right to hang every act of soldier misconduct on whomever is president. If a soldier gets drunk on leave, drives drunk, and kills a motorist, is it the president’s fault?”

It’s an important point. The president is definitely not responsible for every single action by every soldier acting badly such as in the example he cited. However, as the article points out, the Army seems to have been going to great lengths to keep this quiet and the investigation ran well up the chain to the highest ranks.

During Iraq, though you may disagree with me, I feel it was proper to hang the Abu Ghraib mess around the necks of President Bush and his top staff. It was a systemic problem of policy and responsibility for such things goes straight to the top. While these killings were certainly not Army policy, the investigation – and possible cover up- went so far up the chain that if the President didn’t know about it then something else has gone horribly wrong. So what was he doing about it for the last year? These seem to be the questions which are not yet being asked.

Iraq is still not “Obama’s War” in my opinion, since he opposed it from the beginning and has essentially continued Bush’s plans to draw down and exit. But by quickly doubling down and expanding our efforts in Afghanistan, Barack Obama has “bought” that war from George W. Bush and now owns it lock, stock and barrel. As such, he must be held to the same standards as his predecessor for the warts and rough patches as well as any potential victories.

Strangely, though, his name seems to be entirely missing from this conversation thus far.

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