Marine Unit Is Told To Leave Afghanistan

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

A new elite Marine Corps unit that allegedly killed at least eight civilians in the aftermath of an ambush in eastern Afghanistan this month is under investigation by the U.S. military and has been ordered to leave the country months earlier than scheduled, officials said yesterday.

In an unusual move, Maj. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, who commands U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, ordered the 120-strong Marine Corps Special Operations Company to leave Afghanistan because the incident so damaged the unit's relations with the local Afghan population that it could not carry out its mission, the officials said.

"General Kearney decided they could no longer effectively conduct counterinsurgency operations, and so that's why he decided to move them out of there," said Lt. Col. Lou Leto, a spokesman at Kearney's command headquarters in Tampa. The unit arrived in Afghanistan about two months ago for a six-month tour and is now preparing to redeploy, Leto said.

In the March 4 ambush, the Marines were traveling in a convoy on a highway in Nangarhar province when they were hit with a car bomb followed by small-arms fire, and fired back in self-defense, according to U.S. military accounts. Afghan witnesses said the Marines fired recklessly at passing vehicles and pedestrians along the crowded road flanked by shops.

The U.S. military initially said 16 civilians were killed but later changed that estimate to eight. An official at a local hospital said 14 people had died. The military said 35 people were wounded, among them a coalition service member.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai criticized the U.S. military reaction, and the incident sparked large anti-American protests.

Kearney ordered an Article 15-6 investigation, in which an investigating officer conducts an inquiry and reports back to the commander, to begin soon afterward, Leto said.

The investigation and abrupt removal of the unit, known as MSOC-F, is doubly significant because the company was composed of some of the most experienced, highly trained Marines -- including many experts in reconnaissance and marksmanship. Their focus, however, is on killing and capturing targets, in contrast to that of other elite troops who specialize in working with indigenous forces.

The company was the first of nine that are planned to deploy under the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, established in February 2006 to incorporate Marines into U.S. Special Operations forces, which include Army Special Forces, Rangers, Navy SEALs and others.

The Marines in the companies are trained to a standard that is "quite a bit higher" than other Marines, Maj. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, head of the new command, said in testimony in January.

The Marine Corps had initially resisted creating the new command, which is assigned about 2,600 Marines and sailors and has consumed much of the Marines' specialized reconnaissance forces.

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