The US military has reopened a criminal investigation into some of the most serious accusations of war crimes against US forces in Afghanistan since 2001. As The New York Times reported last week, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command will again investigate allegations that a Special Forces team was involved in the murders of at least 17 civilians in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013. The question now is why the investigation has dragged on for so long—and whether there has at any point been a coverup by members of the military.
Even amidst a war that has been marked by repeated human rights abuses committed by US and Afghan soldiers (and, to an even greater extent, by the Taliban), the Nerkh killings stand out. Unlike cases of deranged soldiers’ acting without their superiors’ knowledge or consent—such as the Panjwai massacre in 2012, where SSgt. Robert Bales massacred 16 civilians in one night in their homes, or the Arghandab “kill team,” where a small group of soldiers murdered unarmed Afghans and cut off their body parts as trophies in 2010—the crimes in Nerkh were allegedly committed by an elite military unit in the course of its campaign against local insurgents. Moreover, the incidents were repeatedly investigated by the US military command in Afghanistan, which exonerated the team, until findings by the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross pushed it to belatedly request a criminal inquiry in July 2013.
As I revealed in my 2013 investigation of the killings for Rolling Stone, the unit in question is Operational Detachment Alpha 3124, a unit of the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group, which was deployed to Nerkh District of Wardak Province between the fall of 2012 and March 2013. ODA 3124 was eventually forced out by President Hamid Karzai in response to repeated demonstrations by locals, who claimed that the Special Forces team had murdered, tortured, and disappeared local residents. After the team left the area, locals discovered human remains buried outside the base, which they said belonged to 10 missing men who had been arrested by the Americans.
Not long afterward, a video surfaced of one of ODA 3124’s Afghan interpreters beating Sayid Mohammad, one of the disappeared ten. The interpreter, named Zikria, was later arrested in May 2013, by Afghanistan’s intelligence service. To date, the only public statement he’s given was when I visited him in September 2013 in Kabul’s notorious Pul-e-Charki prison. Though he was known under his nom de guerre, Zikria Kandahari, he told me his real name was Zikria Noorzai, which he had tattooed on his arm in green ink.
From the start, Zikria’s relationship to the US military has been a matter of contention and speculation. For example, the Times has repeated claims by Afghan officials that Zikria was an American citizen, that he and the other interpreters had used the cover of a mine-clearing charity, and that a CIA paramilitary unit was involved.