Amnesty International’s report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan includes a 40-page section describing 10 incidents that “raise concerns about the unlawful use of force,” including what the human rights organization says are possible war crimes.
Amnesty said that in Wardak province Afghan and U.S. special forces were responsible for the kidnapping, torture and execution of between 12 and 18 civilians in Nerkh and Maidan Shahr districts between December 2012 and February 2013. While some of the victims’ claims have been reported previously, the Amnesty account included new details of torture and execution.
One victim told Amnesty he had been snatched during a raid and taken to the team base at Camp Nerkh.
“First they took off my clothes,” he said. “Then they tied a thin plastic cord around my penis so I couldn’t pee. Then they forced me to lie down face down on the floor. Four people beat me with cables.”
According to Amnesty, “numerous eyewitness accounts” describe people being detained by the team during the same period and never being seen again. After one tortured body was found beneath a bridge near the special forces camp, Karzai ordered the team out of the area. Ten more bodies were found after the team left in March 2013, according to the report.
Afghan investigators later arrested an Afghan interpreter, Zikria Noorzai, named by several detainees as one of their tormentors. But the U.S. military reportedly refused to make its Special Operations Forces team members available for Afghan investigators to interview, Amnesty said. After the United States opened a criminal investigation, it was slow to interview witnesses and detainees, speaking to only two of the 10 contacted by the Amnesty report authors. One eyewitness said she was eventually interviewed by a military investigator in January.
ISAF officials denied the allegations and an ISAF spokesman quoted in the report said there was no “credible evidence” of misconduct by U.S. or ISAF forces.
Other notorious cases of civilian deaths include a 2009 airstrike in Kunduz that, according to ISAF, killed 30 civilians who had gathered around Taliban-hijacked tankers to siphon fuel.
The strike, which was ordered by the German military and conducted by U.S. pilots, was later investigated by two teams from ISAF, with preliminary results released by one of the teams.
“Because the bulk of the team’s finding and recommendations were not made public, however, it is not known if the team found the strikes to be legal, or if its findings had an impact on the decisions of national criminal justice authorities as to whether or not to pursue the cases,” the Amnesty report concluded.
Other, less well-known cases showed a similar lack of transparency, the report found. After a U.S. air strike in Laghman province in September 2012 killed seven women and girls as they were collecting wood, ISAF and U.S. officials apologized and performed “extensive investigations” and a policy review. Yet investigators never interviewed the Afghans and never shared the results of their inquiries, angering family members, Amnesty said.
“In Amnesty International’s view, all of these incidents raise concerns about the unlawful use of force, and merit a thorough and impartial investigation,” the report said.
A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said the coalition is reviewing the report but takes such allegations seriously. A Defense Department spokesman did not respond to specific questions but said the Pentagon also takes such claims seriously and investigates them. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a vocal critic of ISAF in the past for its failure to protect civilians during operations, met the report authors on Sunday.
“I believe that the civilian casualties must not happen at all,” he said in a statement. “Our aim and yours must be stopping the civilian casualties.”
While night raids are credited with removing many senior insurgent leaders from the battlefield, they are perhaps the most controversial of ISAF operations. Because Afghan culture prizes the inviolability of the home, forced entry is regarded as an especially egregious intrusion. And the raids occasionally target the wrong individuals because of bad intelligence or a vindictive informant, leading to wrongful arrests and deaths.
A 2010 raid in the city of Gardez, in Paktia province, is one such case mentioned in the Amnesty report. As revelers inside a house celebrated the birth of a grandson to the family patriarch, they heard a loud voice ordering them to come outside. The first person who did, a police commander, was shot, according to the report.
Additional shots rang out, witnesses said, as snipers opened fire in a one-sided barrage. The troops involved later dug bullets out of the walls of the house and out of the bodies, according to witnesses. An ISAF statement the next day claimed the bodies were discovered when the team arrived at the house. After news reports suggested otherwise, the coalition reversed itself, and a top commander apologized publicly.
The Pentagon said it would investigate those involved and determine punishment, but the 70-year-old patriarch, Haji Sharabuddin, told an Amnesty interviewer he had yet to hear about the results of any investigation. The authors acknowledge early in the report that the “vast majority” of civilian casualties were caused by insurgent attacks. A report released by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in July found that civilian deaths had spiked 24 percent in the past six months compared to a similar period last year. It reported that insurgents were responsible for three-quarters of all civilian deaths in 2013, and ISAF for five percent.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.