Have US forces in Afghanistan engaged in war crimes?
That's a provocative question, the sort of query that few, if any, reporters at the Pentagon briefing room are going to toss at Rummy. Nevertheless, it's a question that may bear consideration as new details emerge about the latest US mis-strikes.
Over the past week, two US military operations originally touted as successes have turned into PR nightmares for the Defense Department and the CIA First, the Pentagon had to acknowledge (sort of) that a January 24 commando raid that attacked two small compounds in Hazar Qadam–resulting in the deaths of 21 or so Afghans and the capture of 27 others–had been a mistake. Those people killed or grabbed were not, as the Pentagon first announced, Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters, but troops and local officials loyal to the current government. (See the post below.) Then "The Washington Post" reported on Monday that the three men killed on February 4 in the remote village of Zhawar by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone were not Al Qaeda leaders, as the Pentagon had suggested. They were Afghan peasants foraging for scrap metal, and the group did not include Osama bin Laden. Media reports following the attack raised the possibility the Al Qaeda chief had been one of the dead.
The Pentagon was slow to accept the idea that the Central Command and the CIA–which controls the Predator missiles–had goofed. Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem told journalists that US troops at the scene of the attack had found weapons, credit card applications, and airline schedules and asserted that this "would seem to say that these are not peasant people up there farming." But as a subsequent "Post" story noted, the area, once used by al Qaeda as a training camp, had been virtually destroyed during the earlier US bombing campaign. In recent weeks, some local families had returned to the village. Consequently, finding signs of a past Al Qaeda presence at the site would have little bearing on the political loyalties of the three men killed. Several local villagers told Doug Struck of the "Post" that the three men were poor scavengers looking to recover remains of missiles they could sell in Pakistan. (The going rate: four bucks and change for 132 pounds of scrap metal.)
As the success of this Hellfire attack was being questioned, the Pentagon also had to contend with media accounts reporting that several of the men captured at Hazar Qadam and held for two weeks were saying they had been severely beaten and kicked by their American captors. According to the Afghans, US troops hit their prisoners with fists and gunstocks; they bound them and then walked on their backs. As one detainee noted, "They said, 'You are terrorist! You are Al Qaeda! You are Taliban!" And villagers claimed that after the commando attack at Hazar Qadam they found the bodies of men who had been handcuffed. One local says the white plastic handcuffs bore the words "Made in USA."