Saturday, May 21, 2011

The "kill team" in Afghanistan

Dixon Osburn addresses a very important incident of war crimes committed by Americans in Afghanistan in Who is Responsible For the Kill Team? Human Right First 05/02/2011. He points to this New York Times Magazine report on the facts of the incident: Luke Mogelson, A Beast in the Heart of Every Fighting Man 04/27/2011. Osburn summarizes it this way:

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.
That such a kill team could operate points to a serious breakdown of military discipline. How wide it reaches is unknown, at least to the public. Osburn writes:

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? ...

BG Twitty’s [investigative] report [for the Army] 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. [my emphasis]

Mogelson reports on a sociologist testifying at the court martial of accused members of the "kill team":

Among the witnesses who testified that day was Stjepan Mestrovic, a sociologist who specializes in war crimes. Mestrovic was allowed to study an internal 500-page inquiry into the Fifth Stryker Brigade’s “command climate,” the purpose of which was to assess whether shortcomings in leadership might be partly to blame for the murders, and to identify any officers who should be held to account. In court, Mestrovic said he was shocked by how dysfunctional the brigade appeared to have been, and he added, "In a dysfunctional unit, we cannot predict who will be the deviant — but we can predict deviance."

I met with Mestrovic later that evening and asked him to elaborate. Before becoming involved in Morlock’s case, he served as an expert witness at trials related to Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad canal killings and Operation Iron Triangle, a case with some similarities to this one, in which American soldiers in Iraq murdered three unarmed noncombatants. He excoriated the tendency of the Army — and the news media — to blame such crimes on "a few bad apples" or a "rogue platoon." Close examination of these events, Mestrovic argued, invariably reveals that the simplistic bad-actor explanation "doesn’t fit the picture." [my emphasis]
Robert Jay Lifton, an expert of wartime atrocities, explained in Conditions of Atrocity The Nation 05/13/2004 (05/31/2004 issue) explains how counterinsurgency wars are particular likely to create "atrocity-producting situation." He wasn't writing specifically about conditions in Afghanistan, but it is also an ugly counterinsurgency conflict:

Both Abu Ghraib and My Lai are examples of what I call an "atrocity-producing situation"--one so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can regularly commit atrocities. In Vietnam that structure included "free-fire zones" (areas in which soldiers were encouraged to fire at virtually anyone); "body counts" (with a breakdown in the distinction between combatants and civilians, and competition among commanders for the best statistics); and the emotional state of US soldiers as they struggled with angry grief over buddies killed by invisible adversaries and with a desperate need to identify some "enemy."

The Iraq military environment is quite different from that of Vietnam, but there are some striking parallels. Iraq is also a counterinsurgency war in which US soldiers, despite their extraordinary firepower, feel extremely vulnerable in a hostile environment, and in which higher-ranking officers and war planners feel frustrated by the great difficulty of tracking down or even recognizing the enemy. The exaggerated focus on interrogation, including the humiliation of detainees as a "softening-up" process, reflects that frustration. [my emphasis]
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