Thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by United States and NATO military forces since 2001, but, according to Amnesty International, there have been only six cases in which the US military has “criminally prosecuted” officers for “unlawfully killing civilians.”
The human rights organization put out a report [PDF] containing ten cases of apparent war crimes, where proper investigations and justice for the victims have been absent. These cases involve instances of night raids by US Special Operations forces, air strikes, drone strikes and torture that have occurred within the past five years of the Afghanistan War.
One hundred and twenty-five Afghan victims, family members and eyewitnesses to attacks, which resulted in civilian deaths, were interviewed by Amnesty. The organization also sifted through “documentary records” to research the US military’s investigative and prosecutorial practices in order to further highlight how war crimes are not punished.
From December 2012 to February 2013, an elite unit, Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) or “A-Team,” was “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances. “Up to 18 people were killed” by a unit in the Nerkh and Maiden Shahr districts of the Wardak province.
Qandi Agha, a former prisoner detained for forty-five days, arrested in early November 2012, held at a base in Nerkh and then transferred to Bagram in late December, where he was confined for nearly one year, provided a horrific and vivid account of torture he experienced:
First they took off my clothes. Then they tied a thin plastic cord around my penis so I couldn’t pee. Then they forced me to lie down face down on the floor. Four people beat me with cables. They tied my legs together and beat the soles of my feet with a wooden stick. They punched me in the face and kicked me. They hit my head on the floor. They tied laces around my neck to strangle me.
During the day they’d leave me in the cell with my arms pulled out to the side, stretched out. During the night, they’d hang me from the ceiling from my hands. I have scars on my hands. My feet would be tied together. They’d barely touch the ground. My eyes were blindfolded. They’d pour cold water over my head. They’d do this from about 9 pm until 10 or 11 pm. They did this for 4 nights in a row.
They were questioning me all the time. Whenever they tortured me, they had someone with a pen and notebook. They’d ask, “Where are the weapons? Where are you hiding them?” I’d tell them that I worked as a cashier for the Ministry of Culture: “Ask them about me,” I’d say.
They left the string around my penis for 4 days. My abdomen was bulging. I wasn’t able to pee for those 4 days.
Agha described being dunked in a “large barrel of water.”
…They’d dunk me in the tank head first, with just my legs and feet sticking out of the water. My feet would be tied together, and my arms would be tied to my side. They would hold me there until I was unconscious. I’d breathe in water. They did that to me two times, on about the seventh or eighth night I was held. The Americans gave the orders and the Afghans did it…
Such torture would have been taking place years after President Barack Obama issued an executive order prohibiting waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Was the unit operating under the presumption that if they were not using their own hands to do the torture they could claim to have no responsibility?
Agha also told Amnesty a gun was used to give him electric shocks. Plus:
They also had a hole in the ground outside. They put me in it, half buried, and put all the dirt back in. Then they added water. They left me in it all night long, until the early morning. My hands were tied to my legs. I could see the stars. It hurt a lot. It was winter and I was freezing. I went numb all over. This happened to me before I was put in the cell with the other prisoners.
Agha claimed to have watched an American beat one prisoner, Sayed Muhammed. He was a “big guy with a big, bushy red beard and green eyes. Big strong arms. He wasn’t young—probably middle-aged, about 40.”
He was held in solitary confinement for 18 days before he was put in a cell with either other men, who had each experienced similar torture. Four of the eight prisoners he was confined with were later executed. They were young and “most were government employees for the municipality of Maidan Wardak.”
A US Special Forces raid occurred on February 14, 2013, in Ibrahim Kheil village. The unit, according to 22-year-old laborer Shukrullah, broke into his family compound at night and abducted his 19-year-old brother, Nasratullah.
Forces beat his mother with the butt of their gun. They asked for Nasratullah and took him away when he identified himself. He was taken away, and his body was found dead under a bridge near a Special Operations base two days later.
In air strikes on September 16, 2012, US forces killed seven women and girls and injured another seven. One of the women had been pregnant. They were in the mountains collecting firewood when US planes bombed them.
Aqel Bibi, a 17-year-old girl, recounted:
We reached a spring, where some of the women in our group suggested that we drink some water and wash before we start fetching wood. We heard the planes, then a big explosion, as a bomb fell on the first group who were half a kilometer ahead of us. The noise was deafening in the mountain, and we fled. The plane came a second time and dropped another bomb, and we kept running toward the mountain to find a cave where we could hide. As we were running, the plane came again, and this time it hit us.
“When the bomb was dropped on my group,” she added, “three of us were injured, including to our neck, hand and chest. I and another lost sight in one eye. I could feel the burns: they were like hot needles in my body and my eye. Then I felt warm and noticed something warm and thick moving on me…I touched my neck and realized it was blood.”
A drone strike on December 5, 2012, killed four men and a boy from a “single extended family” near the Dam Gulek village in the Nuristan province.
According to 22-year-old Ziawullah, this is what happened on a sunny day at 11 am:
My father and uncles were going to congratulate someone who had gone on the Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca]—a livestock merchant named Mohammed Ghani. He lived in Dam Gulek village. They brought a calf with them to give him as a gift. They were hit when they were walking on a footpath to his house.
Ziawullah did not witness the strike. He had been at school and, when he came home, he saw the body of his father. His face had been destroyed and his body was burned.
In none of the mentioned instances of apparent war crimes has there been any known investigation.
“What happened to us shouldn’t happen to anyone else,” Ziawullah told Amnesty Internationl. “The government should have a law that requires prosecution of these cases. The people who made the decision to kill my father should be in jail.”
When the women collecting firewood in the mountains were attacked, international forces initially claimed 45 insurgents with “hostile intent” had been killed. Villagers brought proof to the provincial capital that women had been killed and demanded a trial for those in NATO who had attacked the women. International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) issued an apology. Investigations were launched, but the results were never made public. Military investigators also never interviewed two of the women who survived the strike.
Family of victims subjected to night raids from November 2012 to February 2013 fought to rescue and locate their relatives. They went to several government offices, including “the police, the Afghan parliament, ISAF, and the Special Forces.” In at least one instance, a family was accused of lying and fabricating stories about a 38-year-old being taken by Special Forces operatives in a December 2012 bazaar raid.
The Special Forces team was gone from the area by March, and from April to early June, families uncovered the remains of family members. Nazifullah told Amnesty how he found the body of his brother, Nawab Shah, who had been arrested by Special Forces in January 2013:
Two months [after my brother’s abduction], when the Special Forces left Nerkh district, we visited the base with the ICRC. We only found the front of my brother’s skull and pieces of his clothing inside the base. It seemed like the clothing had been burned by acid…We buried his skull with some pieces of his clothing; that was all.
Overall, Amnesty faults the structural flaws in the US military justice system for enabling war crimes to go unpunished. The military justice system is “commander-driven.” It promotes a culture of “self-policing.” There is no incentive to police war crimes and send reports of such crimes up the chain of command.
The US military also is able to maintain a high level of secrecy and never release information related to attacks to families. Amnesty sought to obtain information on investigations and prosecutions for this report, but the Pentagon refused to release any substantive information. It is also impossible to get information from the military related to civilian casualties by filing Freedom of Information Act requests.
US forces typically insist on immunity for troops engaged in military operations in the countries, which they operate and oftentimes occupy. This, combined with secrecy and the structure of the military justice system, all work to create the environment where horrific atrocities happen routinely without any consequences for the officers who were involved.