By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 15, 2007
A preliminary U.S. military investigation indicates that more than 40 Afghans killed or wounded by Marines after a suicide bombing in a village near Jalalabad last month were civilians, the U.S. commander who ordered the probe said yesterday.
Maj. Gen. Frank H. Kearney III, head of Special Operations Command Central, also said there is no evidence that the Marine Special Operations platoon came under small-arms fire after the bombing, although the Marines reported taking enemy fire and seeing people with weapons. The troops continued shooting at perceived threats as they traveled miles from the site of the March 4 attack, he said. They hit several vehicles, killing at least 10 people and wounding 33, among them children and elderly villagers.
"We found . . . no brass that we can confirm that small-arms fire came at them," Kearney said, referring to ammunition casings. "We have testimony from Marines that is in conflict with unanimous testimony from civilians at the sites," Kearney said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Qatar, where he oversees all U.S. Special Operations forces in the region, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The results of the preliminary investigation, which are not conclusive, are similar to the findings of an official Afghan human rights inquiry and contradict initial reports that the civilians might have been killed in a small-arms attack that followed the suicide bombing.
"We certainly believe it's possible that the incoming fire from the ambush was wholly or partly responsible for the civilian casualties," Maj. William Mitchell, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said immediately after the March 4 attack, according to a BBC report.
Yesterday, however, Kearney said of the killed and wounded: "My investigating officer believes those folks were innocent. . . . We were unable to find evidence that those were fighters."
On Kearney's orders, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is conducting a probe that could lead to courts-martial of those involved.
The military investigation found direct evidence, such as broken glass, showing that the Marines kept firing for about three miles as they left the ambush site in a convoy, Kearney said. But he did not dispute allegations from the Afghan human rights investigation that the shooting had gone on much longer.
"We do not dispute 16 kilometers," Kearney said; the official Afghan human rights investigation determined the shooting went on for that distance, 10 miles. But Kearney said that "we did not find physical evidence" beyond three miles.
The civilian death and injury toll in the incident is one of the largest for which coalition troops have been accused since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.
"This was a single incident that had a catastrophic outcome from a perceptions point of view," Kearney said. "There was an inordinate amount of civilian deaths as a result of" the suicide bombing, which he said "had not much effect on our convoy." He added: "Everyone takes this very, very seriously."
One Marine was injured by shrapnel in the suicide bombing, but there was no need for medical evacuation.
The Marines Special Operations company had begun operations from its base in Jalalabad about Feb. 19, Kearney said, and the platoon was conducting a patrol to familiarize itself with local routes on March 4 when the ambush took place.
The six-Humvee convoy had stopped at another U.S. camp near the Pakistan border and was on its way back to Jalalabad when a Toyota van moved to the shoulder along with other oncoming traffic. The van suddenly swerved between the first and second Humvees, and the suicide bomber detonated the bomb, Kearney said.
Marines in the convoy believed that they were taking enemy fire from several locations along the sides of the road, Kearney said. They deemed vehicles along the road threats and shot at five or six of them -- one because it failed to respond to their direction, and another because it appeared to be trying to force them in a certain direction, Kearney said.
"They reported receiving enemy fire from a number of locations. . . . They believed they saw folks with weapons," he said.
The swift U.S. military response to the Afghanistan incident and Kearney's candor about the investigation contrasts with the much slower and more guarded response to other cases involving alleged killings of civilians by U.S. troops, such as the one in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005.
The investigation found 10 killed and 33 wounded, while an official Afghan report put the numbers at 12 killed and 35 wounded.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission released its report on the incident yesterday, along with a separate, more general report on violations of international humanitarian law across the country in recent months. The second study said actions by the Taliban, Afghan national forces and international forces regularly put civilian lives at risk.
The commission's inquiry into the March 4 incident, reported in The Washington Post yesterday, found that a 4-year-old girl, a 1-year-old boy and three elderly villagers were among the dead.
Khaleeq Ahmad, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, said yesterday that he had not yet seen the human rights commission report and could not comment on it. Karzai was traveling yesterday in Jalalabad on an unrelated matter, Ahmad said.
Kearney said that his command's "major concern is to protect the Afghan people" but that the platoon's alleged actions had made it impossible for the unit to continue its mission in Afghanistan. Late last month he ordered the platoon of about 30 men and its 120-man parent unit, a Marine Special Operations company, to withdraw from Afghanistan, where it had been operating from a small base in eastern Nangahar province.
Kearney said other, lesser factors also influenced his decision to remove the company: another incident involving civilians in which members of the unit had opened fire, a vehicle accident, and disciplinary and administrative problems.
"If we employed them and they had another engagement . . . they would never get a fair judgment regardless of what occurred," Kearney said. The Marines are easily distinguishable because they wear different uniforms from other U.S. forces.
The Marines were among the more than 27,000 U.S. troops now battling a resurgent Taliban and other fighters in Afghanistan, primarily in the south and along the eastern border with Pakistan, where the ambush took place. More than half the U.S. forces fall under NATO command, but the rest, including all Special Operations forces, remain under U.S. command.