During the course of my investigation for Rolling Stone into allegations of war crimes committed by U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, I obtained this video, which appears to show unidentified American soldiers watching as Afghans — likely a mix of Afghan National Army personnel and interpreters — torture and interrogate a prisoner. The video was floating around on Afghan social media pages, but has since apparently been removed. The Americans are visible around the one-minute mark.
These are not the same soldiers from ODA 3124 that I wrote about for the investigation. We don't know who they are. However, based on their facial hair and appearance they are probably from a U.S. Army Special Forces team. Moreover, the uniform pattern that they seem to be wearing did not see general use in Afghanistan until 2010. (I showed the video to a former Green Beret, who concurred with that assessment.)
Not much is said in the video. The Afghans discuss how to hold down the prisoner in Pashto-accented Dari; the man screams, in Kandahari-accented Pashto, "oh my father" as he is whipped, and pleads with his captors that he will tell them whatever they want to know. Afterward, the uniformed Afghan leans over and asks him if he has any weapons, which the prisoner denies. (A spokeswoman says that ISAF is aware of the video, and has referred it to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, which also confirmed an ongoing investigation.)
The scene depicted in the video, and similar allegations of torture that were made to Rolling Stone in the investigation, fit with a general pattern of recurring abuse in U.S. and Afghan custody that has been documented by the UN, Congress, and human rights groups in Afghanistan since 2001. While the main detention facilities in Afghanistan have technically been transferred to Afghan control, American military units are allowed to hold detainees for "tactical questioning" for up to two weeks. On an isolated firebase occupied by a tightly-knit special forces team, that means the detainees are at the mercy of their enemies. "If an ODA member was killed or critically injured then I can see tactical questioning getting way out of hand," the former Green Beret tells me. For special forces and the interpreters, there is little sympathy for the men who want kill them. "Unless you've been in combat and had people who want to shoot you in the face, you can't understand what it's like," one special forces officer told me. "There's a reason that they say that war is hell. Because it is hell."
An even bigger problem is U.S. complicity in the abusive methods used by its Afghan allies. As one military intelligence soldier told me in Kandahar in 2011, they would often take a "smoke break" when interrogating recalcitrant detainees, stepping outside and leaving the prisoner alone with Afghan police or soldiers. And despite over a decade and billions of dollars spent training the Afghan security forces, torture and abuse remain endemic in Afghan prisons. As I reported in the investigation, ISAF has halted transferring detainees to some of the worst locations, but the CIA has not — a discrepancy that led to a temporary breakdown in joint military operations under the OMEGA program last year.
These are the dark corners of the war in Afghanistan, made more apparent with ebb of American idealism in the region. As the bulk of U.S. and NATO forces are pulled out of the country in 2014, we may be leaving the people of Afghanistan to the ruthless men who will wage that war long after it is officially over.