Earlier this month, Rolling Stone published an investigation presenting evidence that a U.S. Special Forces unit was complicit in war crimes in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, including the disappearance of 10 men whose bodies were later allegedly found buried outside their base. Since then, calls have been mounting for a thorough investigation into the allegations. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have published statements urging the military to determine who is criminally responsible for these men’s deaths, and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Christoph Heyns, tells me he’s “concerned about the allegations raised, and will be engaging with the relevant states on the issue.”
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command did open an investigation back in July, in what it says was a response to new information provided by the Red Cross, though this came after months of categorical denials of any U.S. responsibility, and, as CNN’s Barbara Starr noted, the investigation was never publicly announced.
How serious is the Army’s investigation? As I reported in the piece, none of the dozens of victims’ family members, witnesses, and Western and Afghan officials that I spoke over to over the past five months ever reported being contacted by military investigators. While some of these individuals were villagers in remote, difficult-to-access areas – we were ambushed by the Taliban on one trip – others are easily accessible in Wardak’s provincial capital or in Kabul.
The most charitable interpretation is that the investigators have not been given adequate resources to do their job. The military operates under much more restrictive safety regulations than journalists, and sending the investigation team out to some of these areas would require ground commanders to provide “force protection,” that is, additional soldiers to guard them, as well as helicopter transport and other logistical support.
Moreover, as Reuters reported last week, the Afghan government halted its own investigation into the killings in September because – as it claims in an internal report prepared by the country’s intelligence service – the U.S. military has not been cooperative. In particular, the Afghans wanted access to three Green Berets and four Afghan translators who were fingered by Zikria Kandahari, an interpreter for the unit in question who was arrested by the Afghan intelligence service in May. I’ve seen the same document and have spoken to Afghan investigators, and the truth is that the Afghan government has been ambiguous about the investigation as well – on one hand, they wish to use the issue as a leverage in their negotiations with the Americans, while on the other, they don’t want to turn into a political crisis whose consequences they can’t fully control.
These are sensitive times. Today marked the first day of the Loya Jirga, or traditional gathering, called by President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to discuss the Bilateral Security Agreement, which will govern the status of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014. Karzai has agreed to give U.S. troops immunity from Afghan law, and has submitted the draft agreement for the jirga’s approval – while at the same time serving up the surprise revelation that he might leave it to his presidential successor, due to be elected in April of next year, to sign it.
Until the agreement is put to rest, the U.S. will be eager to keep the investigation out of the headlines. But it will do itself no favors by flinching from a full accounting for what happened in Wardak. Afghans have long been skeptical that the American military will hold itself accountable for incidents of negligence and abuse by its own soldiers, which are an unavoidable part of warfare. Given the stakes involved, the Loya Jirga will likely approve a bilateral agreement that grants U.S. troops legal immunity, but the American presence will nonetheless continue to attract political controversy. The families of the missing men of Wardak deserve justice; the U.S. military can bolster its own standing in the country by giving it to them.