KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military has done a poor job investigating civilian casualties caused by its operations in Afghanistan, even when evidence suggests war crimes may have been committed, Amnesty International concluded in a report released Monday.
The report, titled “Left in the Dark,” details 10 cases in which it says airstrikes, night raids and drone attacks against civilians were not fully investigated by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, if at all. In two cases where the report says evidence strongly suggests war crimes were committed — including kidnapping, torture and execution — there is little evidence that the military is investigating with any urgency, the human rights organization said.
At fault, the authors conclude, is a flawed U.S. military justice system that relies on the statements of U.S. troops, ignoring Afghan witnesses, and that puts commanders in charge of investigating the troops they need for ongoing operations.
“It is a system in which, in most cases, there are no real incentives to report crimes against Afghan civilians, or to push forward an investigation or prosecution … and many disincentives to doing so,” the report says.
Both the ISAF and the Pentagon said they take such claims seriously and investigate them, though neither responded to specific criticisms in the report, including suggestions that a criminal investigation into a Special Forces team removed from Wardak province last spring was moving too slowly.
“Claims are rigorously investigated and appropriate actions are taken to mitigate the possibility of civilian casualties in future operations,” ISAF spokesman Army Lt. Col. Chris Belcher said in a statement.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Brad Avots said in an email, “U.S. forces go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties,” asserting that the Defense Department does not permit torture or inhumane treatment.
“Investigation results can and have previously led to both criminal convictions, as well as adverse administrative actions,” Avots said.
Many of the incidents detailed in the report have been made public previously. The Amnesty International researchers visited Afghan villages and cities to determine if villagers had been involved in the investigations, were aware of the outcomes or knew who was responsible. In each case, Afghans they visited said they remained in the dark, and some were seething.
“We want justice,” said a father whose son was killed in an airstrike near Jalalabad’s airport while hunting birds with an air gun. “We want those responsible to be brought in front of a court to answer for what they have done. We are not selling the blood of our loved ones to Americans, and we want accountability.”
The report cites “structural flaws” in the U.S. military justice system and draws a parallel to recent handling of sexual violence in the military.
The same flaws apply in civilian casualty cases, the report concludes. Commanders decide when to pursue charges against a servicemember, a decision that can be colored by their relationship with the individual or their need for that person to remain on the job. Even when charges are pursued, commanders drive the process by choosing an investigating officer, judge and jury. They can also overturn a guilty verdict returned by a jury.
When investigations are performed, they appear to be one-sided, the report said, concerned solely with what commanders and troops tell investigators. After a Special Forces night raid in Gardez ended in the deaths of five civilians, including two pregnant women, the ISAF never questioned eyewitnesses, instead repeating the team’s assertion that the victims were dead when they arrived. Only after a journalist raised questions was the coalition forced to look into what happened.
The Amnesty report counted six incidents of criminal prosecution since 2009, although it said the Pentagon did not provide any numbers to confirm that. Non-judicial punishments, the lower-level discipline often meted out to servicemembers for noncriminal offenses, go unreported by the military, the authors said.
Afghanistan’s lack of jurisdiction over international forces further complicates getting justice, the report found. In the case of the Special Forces team in Wardak, Afghan investigators arrested an Afghan translator identified by many eyewitnesses, but they were unable to question Special Forces members.
The jurisdiction question is a tricky one. Whether the U.S. will keep a small, mostly advisory force in Afghanistan after all combat troops withdraw at the end of this year is contingent on the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement. That agreement stipulates that the U.S. would retain legal jurisdiction over its troops.
The cases are troubling for a coalition that predicates part of its success on its acceptance by Afghans and that constantly claims to take investigations seriously.
The report mentions Gardez and Wardak as two cases involving “abundant and compelling” evidence of war crimes. Survivors in Gardez said they had not been interviewed for an investigation and had received no indication anyone was ever punished for the shooting.
The case in Wardak, which involved allegations of kidnapping, torture and murder, was under investigation as of January, Amnesty said. Progress remained slow, the report said, with few witnesses and detainees saying they had been contacted. The DOD did not comment on either case.
The authors of the report recommended the U.S. and the ISAF conduct reviews of the cases included in the report and all future cases. They said that proposed reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice in response to high incidence of sexual assaults would also benefit the handling of civilian casualties.
Afghans have long felt that they have no access to justice when family members or villagers are killed or injured in attacks by the international forces aligned with their own government, said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network. The few who make any progress usually do so only in the more spectacular cases that garner media attention.
“It’s only a small number of events where civilians were killed that got in the press,” van Bijlert said. “Anyone who’s been here a long time and has spoken to any Afghans will have heard stories. There have been a lot of night raids.”
Especially galling to Afghans, she said, is that the coalition immediately denies civilian casualties before it knows the facts.
“I think the key here is that the military operates in a civilian environment, but they’re treating it as a battlefield,” she said. “In their view, that’s reasonable. But it’s not.”