War Crimes in Afghanistan? Time To Investigate

We have clear evidence that there may be an ongoing policy of collective punishment and expulsion, war crimes under international and US law, happening in Afghanistan, and it’s time for the House oversight committee to investigate.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed here are my own.

A few weeks ago, Rep. Darrell Issa, the new Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the House GOP’s self proclaimed “chief watchdog,” released his agenda for upcoming investigations in the new congress. Some of the issues he intends to focus on are dubious and partisan, but others slated for investigation are very serious.

One of these serious issues is the war in Afghanistan. Politico reported at the time:

Rep. Darrell Issa is aiming to launch investigations on everything from WikiLeaks to Fannie Mae to corruption in Afghanistan in the first few months of what promises to be a high-profile chairmanship of the top oversight committee in Congress. […]

The sweeping and specific hearing agenda shows that Issa plans to cut a wide swath as chairman, latching onto hot-button issues that could make his committee the center of attention in the opening months of the 112th Congress. By grabbing such a wide portfolio — especially in national security matters — Issa is also laying down a marker of sorts, which could cement his panel as the go-to place for investigations.

Great, if there’s one thing we need, it’s a “go-to place for investigations” in congress, especially concerning national security.  And certainly most everyone agrees that “corruption in Afghanistan”, referring here to waste, fraud, and abuse by US military contractors, could benefit from much stronger oversight in congress.

But here’s the problem: the bloody occupation of Afghanistan has been dragging on for ten long years now, the long-term cost is estimated to be in the trillions. The catastrophes we’re facing are much, much worse than losing a million or two here or there in graft.

Take a look at what Paula Broadwell, a close advisor to General Petraeus, wrote about one mission on Tom Ricks’ blog.

The artillery unit, acting as a provisional infantry battalion, went on the offensive to clear a village, Tarok Kalache, where the Taliban had conducted an intimidation campaign to chase the villagers out, then create a staging base to attack 1-320th’s outposts. The village of Tarok Kalache was laden with IEDs and homemade explosives (HME) comprised of 50-gal drums of deadly munitions. Special Operations forces conducted a successful clearing raid on the village. Then Flynn introduced the Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC), a rocket-projected explosive line charge which provides a “close-in” breaching capability for maneuver forces. The plan was for one team to clear a 600-meter path with MICLICs from one of his combat outposts to Tarok Kalache. “It was the only way I could give the men confidence to go back out.”

On October 6, Flynn’s unit approved use of HIMARS, B-1, and A-10s to drop 49,200 lbs. of ordnance on the Taliban tactical base of Tarok Kalache, resulting in NO CIVCAS. Their clearance of Babur, Khosrow Sofla, Charqolba Sofla, and other villages commenced October 7, aided by USSF, ABP, and an additional infantry company from B/1-22 IN. Not long after, Flynn shared one insight into the burden of command: “I literally cringed when we dropped bombs on these places — not because I cared about the enemy we were killing or the HME destroyed, but I knew the reconstruction would consume the remainder of my deployed life.”

Basically, they completely obliterated entire villages in order to “save” them. That’s disgusting and horrifying on a purely human level, but it doesn’t end there.

Joshua Foust, Research Fellow at the American Security Project, writes that these horrors might be even worse:

Nowhere in this account is there a sense that the villagers felt any ill-will toward the Americans beforehand—rather, Broadwell explicitly describes the village as being victimized by the Taliban first, then being completely obliterated by the Americans. In other words, rather than actually clearing the village—not just chasing away the Taliban but cleaning up the bombs and munitions left over—the soldiers got lazy and decided to destroy the entire settlement”¦ “to give the men confidence.” This sounds bad enough—like a nightmare from before there was a Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibited the collective punishment and expulsion of civilians from conflict zones—but it gets worse. […]

Look, war is hell. I have no illusions about that. But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable. There were rumors of this policy of collective punishment in the Arghandab before (see this overwrought Daily Mail story that stops right before the village actually was destroyed for an idea of what is going on), and I’m really struggling to see how such behavior does not violate Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—that is, how this behavior is not a war crime, especially given the explicit admission that such behavior is merely for the convenience of the soldier and not any grander strategy or purpose.

This sort of abhorrent behavior is not limited to the Arghandab, either. Broadwell explicitly states that it has the Petraeus stamp of approval, and Pahjwok has reported U.S. Marines in Helmand province explicitly warning local villagers of collective punishment if insurgents hide out in their settlements. It is probably a safe assumption to say that this is a widespread phenomenon.

Staggering, isn’t it? We’re not talking about one bad moment, one soldier losing his cool and committing a crime. We might be looking at a top-down, leadership-approved policy of violating the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan. War crimes.

We have to be careful to keep this in context. Petraeus has dramatically escalated the violence of the occupation, increasing special forces raids, air strikes, and even deploying tanks and other heavy weapons. But again, this doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident amidst the fog of war, it looks like policy.

Broadwell has attempted to walk back her piece, of course, but it just doesn’t stand up to the facts. And frankly, it’s too late for that anyway. You can’t un-tell a story, and Broadwell’s glib recounting of a village razing has already succeeded in raising serious and disturbing questions about our policy in Afghanistan.

What exactly is our policy on village razing in Afghanistan, and how does it reconcile with our stated “hearts and minds” approach to counter-insurgency? How does it reconcile with the Geneva Conventions dealing with collective punishment and expulsion of non-combatants?

Who is responsible, and accountable, for this policy in Afghanistan? Did President Obama, Secretary Gates, or General Petraeus approve the collective punishment of Afghan civilians? If not, who did? As Foust notes, “you do not call in 20+ air strikes on an uninhabited village to turn it into dust without some higher approvals.” Who’s giving these approvals?

Which brings us back to Rep. Issa and his oversight committee. He has claimed national security and our war in Afghanistan as part of his portfolio, and now it’s time to live up to that responsibility.

Our soldiers are not toys for politicians and hacks, they are not to be ordered into these situations for the sake of someone’s career, or for flashy headlines about “progress” and “rebuilding”. The people need a “chief watchdog” to investigate the occupation and ensure that anyone issuing or approving orders to commit war crimes is held accountable.

This is not about scoring political points or shaving a few bucks off the budget deficit. This is about politicians, our elected representatives, committing “waste, fraud, and abuse” of our soldiers. We need to know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and who is responsible for it.

We have clear evidence that there may be an ongoing policy of collective punishment and expulsion, war crimes under international and US law, happening in Afghanistan, and it’s time for the House oversight committee to investigate.

Contact Representative Issa here, post this article on his Facebook wall, link him to it on Twitter, or just call his office at (202) 225-3906. Tell him we need this issue investigated, and as “chief watchdog”, it’s his responsibility.

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