Members of an Army Special Forces unit allegedly punched, slapped, kicked and beat Afghan civilians in two villages southeast of the capital of Kabul last May, prompting official complaints from two senior Army psychological operations officers who were present and said they witnessed the incidents.
The allegation is detailed in internal Army criminal files, released yesterday, that also document other allegations of abuse in Afghanistan as recent as last year. Previous abuse allegations have mostly concerned U.S. military activities in Iraq in 2003; these documents detail parallel conduct in Afghanistan in 2004.
In one strikingly similar event, the Army last year found about half a dozen photographs that depict masked U.S. soldiers standing with their weapons pointed at the heads of handcuffed and hooded or blindfolded detainees at a base in southern Afghanistan and, in one case, pressing a detainee's head against the wall of a "cage" where he was brought for interrogation.
The photographs were found on a compact disc left in one of the unit's offices, and the discovery set off a lengthy search by the Army for additional copies in the cars, homes, barracks, computers and cameras of members of the unit, part of the 22nd Infantry Regiment based in Fort Drum, N.Y.
None of the photos have been published -- unlike a set of photos the news media obtained last summer depicting similar acts of abuse and humiliation in Iraq -- and an Army spokesman said yesterday that they are being withheld from release "to protect the privacy" of the Afghan victims.
The acts photographed in Afghanistan occurred without provocation between December 2003 and February 2004 and violated Army regulations, according to testimony in the Army documents. The Geneva Conventions, which the Bush administration pledged to respect in Afghanistan "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity," bar inhumane treatment as well as any "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."
Members of the unit said they took the pictures for sport and also said they destroyed some images after photos appeared in the media of similar acts at the U.S. military's Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, according to the documents.
"I realized there would be another public outrage if these photographs got out, so they were destroyed," said a soldier whose name was deleted from an Army investigative report dated July 8, 2004. Another said his squad leader had directed that photos be deleted from a camera, adding that "I realize it makes me and my unit look bad, and in no way meant for this to happen."
Several of the published photos of earlier abuse in Iraq depicted the corpse of Manadel Jamadi, who had been in the custody of a Navy SEAL team and CIA interrogators. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported for the first time a claim by Army guards at the prison that before the man's death, he had his hands handcuffed behind him and was suspended by his wrists in an effort to coerce his cooperation.
The wire service, quoting what it described as a summary of an interview conducted by investigators with one guard, Sgt. Jeffery Frost, said Frost had depicted Jamadi's arms as so badly stretched he was surprised they "didn't pop out of their sockets." Eight Navy workers have received nonjudicial punishments in the case, while two others are awaiting further Navy judgment.
None of those involved in the seven new cases of alleged abuse detailed in the Army documents released yesterday were charged by the Army with criminal wrongdoing, although six soldiers received unspecified administrative punishment for dereliction of duty in taking or participating in the photos. Although investigators found probable cause to charge another soldier in the unit with assault for punching a bound detainee in the back of the head, the documents do not indicate any punishment was imposed.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which obtained the new documents under a court order compelling the Army to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request filed with four other organizations, said in a statement that they show military abuses were widespread.
The abuse -- including photos that the ACLU said depicted "mock executions" -- cannot "be dismissed as the rogue actions of a few misguided individuals," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.
Lt. Col. Jeremy Martin, an Army spokesman, did not address the claim directly but said the Army has "made a lot of progress in detainee operations over the last year" and is committed to investigating abuse allegations.
In the case involving alleged abuses in the Afghan villages of Gurjay and Surkhagen last May, all of the Special Forces personnel interviewed by Army investigators denied impropriety. "The fact is that villagers who offer resistance or even try to escape are dealt with very aggressively due to the number of detainees we have to deal with," the unit's unnamed commander said, noting that nine or fewer soldiers were responsible for controlling 50 to 90 detainees.
The commander added, however: "Everyone knows that we have such a small force very far away from any other real support that [angering] . . . the locals by beating them for no apparent reason will just make things worse for our isolated unit. One of the core things in Special Forces that we are taught early on is to win the hearts and minds."
But one of the Army psychological operations officers, whose name was deleted from the copy of the report provided to the ACLU, told investigators that "throughout the day, I witnessed . . . [name deleted] punching people, slapping them, pulling his M-9 [pistol] out and threatening to shoot the village people. This was done in front of the villagers with no discrimination. I witnessed [name deleted] strike multiple villagers throughout the day."
The officer said he witnessed one Special Forces member take a man, who had his hands bound and his eyes covered, behind a wall. "For the next one to two minutes, you could hear the sounds of someone being beaten. After that, [name deleted] brought him out," bleeding from the "mouth and/or nose." The witness said the soldier also fired his pistol behind the wall after announcing to other villagers that he planned to kill the man.
Other soldiers said the man taken behind the wall had been found with an explosive device. The soldier accused of beating him said the man incurred his injuries in a fall. Army investigators terminated their investigation without reaching a conclusion because the victims reside in "a high-threat combat area" and are allegedly anti-U.S. combatants.