Jon Boone / The Guardian & Matthias Gebauer and Hasnain Kazim / Der Spiegel – 2011-03-22 00:14:39
US Army ‘Kill Team’ in Afghanistan Posed for Photos of Murdered Civilians
Jon Boone / The Guardian
LONDON (March 21, 2011) — Commanders in Afghanistan are bracing themselves for possible riots and public fury triggered by the publication of “trophy” photographs of US soldiers posing with the dead bodies of defenceless Afghan civilians they killed.
Senior officials at NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Kabul have compared the pictures published by the German news weekly Der Spiegel to the images of US soldiers abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq which sparked waves of anti-US protests around the world.
They fear that the pictures could be even more damaging as they show the aftermath of the deliberate murders of Afghan civilians by a rogue US Stryker tank unit that operated in the southern province of Kandahar last year.
Some of the activities of the self-styled “kill team” are already public, with 12 men currently on trial in Seattle for their role in the killing of three civilians.
Five of the soldiers are on trial for pre-meditated murder, after they staged killings to make it look like they were defending themselves from Taliban attacks. Other charges include the mutilation of corpses, the possession of images of human casualties and drug abuse. All of the soldiers have denied the charges. They face the death penalty or life in prison if convicted.
The case has already created shock around the world, particularly with the revelations that the men cut “trophies” from the bodies of the people they killed.
An investigation by Der Spiegel has unearthed approximately 4,000 photos and videos taken by the men. The magazine, which is planning to publish only three images, said that in addition to the crimes the men were on trial for there are “also entire collections of pictures of other victims that some of the defendants were keeping”.
The US military has strived to keep the pictures out of the public domain fearing it could inflame feelings at a time when anti-Americanism in Afghanistan is already running high.
In a statement, the army said it apologised for the distress caused by photographs “depicting actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States”.
The lengthy Spiegel article that accompanies the photographs contains new details about the sadistic behaviour of the men. [See story below.] In one incident in May last year, the article says, during a patrol, the team apprehended a mullah who was standing by the road and took him into a ditch where they made him kneel down.
The group’s leader, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, then allegedly threw a grenade at the man while an order was given for him to be shot. Afterwards, Gibbs is described cutting off one of the man’s little fingers and removing a tooth. The patrol team later claimed to their superiors that the mullah had tried to threaten them with a grenade and that they had no choice but to shoot.
On Sunday night many organisations employing foreign staff, including the United Nations, ordered their staff into a “lockdown”, banning all movements around Kabul and requiring people to remain in their compounds.
In addition to the threat from the publication of the photographs, security has been heightened amid fears the Taliban may try to attack Persian New Year celebrations. There could also be attacks because Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, is due to make a speech declaring which areas of the country should be transferred from international to Afghan control in the coming months.
One security manager for the US company DynCorp sent an email to clients warning that publication of the photos was likely “to incite the local population” as the “severity of the incidents to be revealed are graphic and extreme”.
The ‘Kill Team’ Images
US Army Apologizes for Horrific Photos from Afghanistan
Matthias Gebauer and Hasnain Kazim / Der Spiegel
The United States and NATO are concerned that reactions could be intense to the publication of images documenting killings committed by US soldiers in Afghanistan. The images appeared in the most recent edition of SPIEGEL, which hit the newsstands on Monday.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already telephoned with her Afghan counterpart to discuss the situation. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon has likewise made contact with officials in Kabul. The case threatens to strain already fragile US-Afghan relations at a time when the two countries are negotiating over the establishment of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan.
In a statement released by Colonel Thomas Collins, the US Army, which is currently preparing a court martial to try a total of 12 suspects in connection with the killings, apologized for the suffering the photos have caused. The actions depicted in the photos, the statement read, are “repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States.”
The suspected perpetrators are part of a group of US soldiers accused of several killings. Their court martials are expected to start soon. The photos, the army statement said, stand “in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that have characterized our soldiers’ performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations.”
Major Public Backlash
At NATO headquarters, there are fears that the coming days could see angry protests in Afghanistan or even potential attacks against NATO units. “The images have an enormous potential here in Afghanistan,” one NATO general told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “Experience shows that it might take a couple of days, but then people’s anger will be vented.”
NATO, under the leadership of the US Army, has been preparing for possible publication of the photos for close to 100 days. In dozens of high-level talks with their Afghan partners, military leaders have sought to pursue the same strategy used by the US diplomatic corps in the case of the sensitive diplomatic cables released late last year by WikiLeaks. They warned those most directly affected and made preparations for the photos’ appearance in the public sphere. This “strategic communication” was aimed at preventing a major public backlash.
The high ranks of those involved in the talks show just how seriously Washington has taken the problem. US Vice President Joe Biden recently spoke about the case with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The head of all NATO troops in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, likewise met with Karzai.
By apologizing and by promising that those responsible will be prosecuted, the US is hoping to prevent Karzai from making any angry public statements on the case.
Whether the effort will ultimately be successful remains to be seen. On Tuesday, Karzai is scheduled to address his country to talk about the transfer of responsibility for his country’s security from NATO to Afghanistan. With him will be members of the NATO leadership and the US Ambassador to Afghanistan. Karzai’s address contains no mention of the so-called “kill team,” but the Afghan president is notorious for being unpredictable.
Political Conflict with the US
Observers say the fact that there hasn’t been any serious reaction or demonstrations so far doesn’t mean the danger has passed. One fact could be that Monday is a holiday in Afghanistan. A high-ranking official in the Afghan Foreign Ministry, who is close to President Karzai, said he believed the development would trigger a serious political conflict with the US.
“I assume we won’t see the full effect of this matter until tomorrow, at the very soonest, when people return to work. Many people have Monday off,” he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He said the incidents had been “too outrageous” not to spark protests. “That this is engaging people can be seen by the fact that it is already being discussed on the Internet,” he added.
In neighboring Pakistan, where relations with the United States are likewise strained, officials are also watching the matter closely. “We are acknowledging it, but for now it is a matter for the Afghan government to make any charges,” a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad said. The release of CIA employee Raymond David, who shot two men at the end of January and was let go after paying blood money as well as the increase in US drone attacks in the western part of the country triggered angry protests in Pakistan.
The SPIEGEL story printed on Monday includes new details about a series of murders of innocent Afghans committed by a group of US soldiers. One of the accused, Corporal Jeremy Morlock, 22, confessed to the murders three months ago. Morlock is scheduled to face a general court-martial on Thursday. In total, 12 US soldiers who were allegedly part of what has been described as a “kill team” in Afghanistan are expected to go on trial soon.
‘They Mowed Him Down’
The piece in SPIEGEL reconstructs some of the atrocities and includes three previously unknown photographs. Among other things, they show two of the suspected killers posing next to a corpse. The victim in the image is Gul Mudin, an Afghan man killed on Jan. 15, 2010 in the village of La Mohammed Kalay. In total, SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL TV has obtained close to 4,000 photos and videos.
The suspects are accused of having killed civilians for no reason and then of trying to make it look as though the killings had been acts of self-defense. Some of the accused have said the acts had been tightly scripted.
In one incident, which has been reconstructed based on documents from the investigation, the soldiers themselves detonate a hand grenade in order to make it look like they were the subjects of an attack before killing a man. One of those who allegedly participated, Adam Winfield, 21, described the incident to his father in a chat on the social networking site Facebook. “They made it look like the guy threw a grenade at them and mowed him down,” SPIEGEL quotes Winfield as having written in the chat.
In a second incident on Feb. 22, 2010, one of the members of the “kill team” who had been carrying an old Russian Kalashnikov, fired it before pulling out another gun and shooting 22-year-old Afghan Marach Agha. In a third incident on May 2, 2010, it appears that a hand grenade attack was again staged before the shooting and killing of Mullah Allah Dad.
The 12 men are also facing further charges of desecration of corpses, illegal possession of photos of corpses, drug abuse and acts of bodily injury against comrades.
With wire reports and additional reporting by Yassin Musharbash
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