A question of accountability
Worst U.S. war crimes case to emerge from Afghanistan leaves some asking: Where was the leadership?
WASHINGTON — Despite allegations that members of a rogue Stryker platoon engaged in a monthslong drug and murder spree while stationed at a small forward base in Afghanistan, no leaders or officers responsible for the platoon have been charged or disciplined in the case and the Army will not confirm whether any are under investigation.
In what is developing as the worst American war crimes case to emerge from the nearly 9-year-old Afghan war, five soldiers of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team are facing potential courts-martial on various charges that they killed three unarmed Afghan civilians for sport between January and May this year in the Maiwand District near Kandahar City.
Prosecutors allege that some of the accused soldiers then posed for photos with the corpses and collected body parts as souvenirs. Another seven members of the platoon face related charges of drug abuse, assault and attempting to cover up the alleged crimes.
Some of the accused soldiers have told Army criminal investigators that drug use was widespread in the platoon and that knowledge of the murders, as well as the gruesome photos of the dead Afghans, were widely shared among a group of about 30 soldiers.
But Army officials say that Lt. Col. Jeffrey French, the battalion commander and most senior officer at Forward Operating Base Ramrod during the period when the crimes are alleged to have occurred, is not under investigation. The platoon sergeant and lieutenant in charge have been reassigned but not reprimanded, according to Maj. Kathleen Turner, spokeswoman for I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where the Stryker brigade is based.
“We cannot comment on the number, scope or substance of the investigations,” Turner told Stars and Stripes. “It’s still really early in the process. We’ll have to wait and see how the investigations go.”
French, speaking through Turner, said he could not comment on the allegations against his soldiers because the investigation is ongoing.
Chris Grey, spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, declined to specify whether the Stryker criminal investigation was expanding beyond the individuals already charged, but he said that the agency “looks at everything” and could refer any troubling issues to the command for further inquiry.
A defense attorney for one of the accused soldiers is questioning how leaders at FOB Ramrod could not have known anything about the alleged drug use, murders and other crimes that reportedly continued for months.
“The battalion itself, really from top down, needs to be looked at,” said Eric Montalvo, who represents one of the accused, Spc. Adam Winfield. “If anything, maybe [the battalion commander] doesn’t have criminal culpability at the end of the day, but, my God, there’s a leadership culpability. How was this allowed to happen? Commanders are responsible for everything a unit does or fails to do, and here you have an entire platoon running amok.”
The battalion commander who took over FOB Ramrod last summer when the 5th Stryker Brigade redeployed raised similar questions.
The forward-operating base, which is about 800 yards square and houses some 1,600 people, is “not a little place,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Denny, commander of 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment.
But Denny said he would have expected company and platoon leaders to have known about any illicit drug use by their men.
“You know what everyone is doing,” Denny said. “At the company level, you certainly know your guys, because you are looking at them every day.”
What’s more, the father of one of the five soldiers accused of murder has said he telephoned several stateside Army offices last February to warn officials of potential wrongdoing at FOB Ramrod, after his son told him about one of the alleged murders and how “the whole platoon knew about it.”
Army officials confirmed last week that there are at least two investigations under way into how officials handled the calls from Christopher Winfield, father of Spc. Adam Winfield.
The others facing Article 32 hearings on charges of murder are Spc. Michael S. Wagnon, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, Spc. Jeremy Morlock and Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of the group.
Although there seems to have been “a terrible leadership failure” within the Stryker unit, past cases of wartime misconduct suggest that higher-ups are not likely to be found legally responsible and prosecuted, according to Eugene Fidell, the president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
“I would be somewhat surprised if they were prosecuted for dereliction of duty,” Fidell said. Instead, leaders could get their “knuckles rapped” or possibly be relieved of command, he said.
For example, senior officers faced no legal repercussions for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq.
Only the junior soldiers who directly carried out the abuse were prosecuted for the crimes, while Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, who was in charge of U.S. prison facilities in Iraq when the abuse occurred, was relieved of command of the 800th Military Police Brigade and demoted to colonel. Eight other officers were administratively reprimanded.
Stars and Stripes reporter Seth Robson contributed to this report from Afghanistan.