By P.J. Tobia
Sunday, December 14, 2008
KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan Capt. Roger Hill stood behind a long wooden desk, reading from a piece of paper that trembled lightly in his hand. "Please know that seeing your brothers whittled down one by one by a cowardly and ghost-like enemy is difficult," he said, glancing up only briefly at the team of military prosecutors assembled around him.
Hill is a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan accused of detainee abuse, including a mock execution, war crimes, dereliction of duty and other serious charges stemming from an incident last August at a U.S. military base outside the capital city of Kabul. Members of his unit allegedly slapped Afghan detainees, and Hill himself is said to have fired his pistol into the ground near blindfolded Afghans to frighten them.
But after exploring the personalities and circumstances involved in this case, it's hard for me to condemn Hill or his first sergeant, Tommy Scott, who has been charged with assaulting the detainees. Stuck in the deadly middle ground between all-out war and nation- building, these men lashed out to protect themselves. To me, their story encapsulates the impossible role we've asked U.S. soldiers to play in the reconstruction of this devastated country. They are part warrior, part general contractor, yet they are surrounded on all sides by a populace that wants nothing more than to kill or be rid of them.
The soldiers who have served at Hill's side call him heroic. Others describe the career that the 30-year-old West Point graduate might have had if he and his men hadn't apparently crossed the line one day last summer. Instead, I watched Hill fight for that career -- and for his freedom -- earlier this month in a conference room at Forward Operating Base Salerno, a large U.S. military base near the Afghan town of Khost, about 17 miles from the Afghan-Pakistani border.
As Hill tried to defend his actions at a military hearing, his soft voice filled the small, bare room: "Know that sifting through the charred and crumbling remains of fellow service members in order to identify their bodies, or picking up the pieces of another after this ghost-like enemy has hacked off his arms and cut out his heart . . . only for you to later find out that his fingers are being distributed downtown amongst the locals, can somehow make a commander more protective. "
It was against this "ghost-like enemy" that Hill, Scott and the rest of their unit were fighting at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak Province, west of Kabul, where Hill's company was the sole coalition force for miles around.
There are dozens of bases throughout the country like Airborne. They are full of soldiers who bear the dual and confounding burden of being both an army fighting the Taliban, with all the killing and dying that entails, and a corps of civil servants. They attend shuras (meetings with village leaders), construct roads and help train the Afghan police force. They are expected to work hand-in-glove with people who might have tea with them one moment and inform Taliban killers about U.S. troop movements the next. But talking with local leaders -- even leaders who might be playing both sides -- is the only way to begin progress toward building institutions in Afghanistan.
I traveled here to work as an embedded reporter with the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., about an hour from my home in Nashville. I'd planned on spending most of my time with the 101st as they engaged the Taliban on the Pakistan border.
But while waiting at FOB Salerno for a helicopter ride to a smaller base, I heard talk about Hill and the Article 32 inquiry he was about to face -- the military justice version of a grand jury hearing. I learned that Hill and Scott could face life in prison if the matter proceeded to a court martial. Another half-dozen members of Hill's company will soon have Article 32 hearings of their own. One soldier is already being held in a military jail in Kuwait for his role in the incident.
I decided to stay.
Hill's path to the hearing room in Khost began, according to witness testimony, when he received reliable intelligence late last August that Taliban agents were working on his unit's base, which is manned by no more than 200 coalition soldiers. One of these reported interlopers, a man identified only as "Noori," was Hill's personal interpreter. Two more purported Taliban informants were running the base's small, locally owned coffee shop. The intelligence said that all three, as well as some others, were relaying information about U.S. troop movements and artillery positions to Taliban agents in Wardak, an area the size of Connecticut where Hill's small company faced off against a large number of hostile locals.
The intelligence report detailing how these Afghan men were working with the Taliban is classified "top secret." But an Army spokesman who has seen it said that the evidence against them was incontrovertible. "There was a legitimate report saying that [Hill's translator] was a bad guy and was sharing information with the Taliban," said Marine Capt. Scott Miller, media liaison for the hearing. "He was providing information to recognized bad people."
Upon receiving the intelligence report, Hill's men immediately put the accused Afghans in plastic flex-cuffs and took them to the base's coffee shop. The total number of detainees is disputed; some witnesses testified that there were as many as 25, while most others put the number closer to 12 or 13.
In a statement through his lawyer, Neal Puckett, Hill said that on a number of occasions, the intelligence that the alleged informants provided to the Taliban could have had deadly consequences for his men. In one case, he said, he confirmed that information had been leaked to enemy forces, warning them of a major U.S. operation against them hours before the mission was due to begin. Hill added that several improvised explosive devices had been planted on the planned route, although they were neutralized without injury to his soldiers. "It is without a doubt that the detainees we took, all twelve of them, were involved in providing early warning to the enemy that injured and or killed thirty of my men during our six months in Wardak," Hill said in the statement.
U.S. forces detain Afghans for any number of reasons. But according to International Security and Assistance Force rules, by which all U.S. forces in Afghanistan must abide, these detentions can last no longer than 96 hours. The detainees must then be either released, handed over to Afghan security forces or formally arrested and placed in the custody of the unit's commanding battalion. Once in battalion custody, detainees may can be questioned by trained military or intelligence interrogators.
Requests to send detainees to battalion are a routine matter. Over the past year, Hill's company made at least 10 such requests, although none were approved, according to 1st Lt. Larry Kay, Hill's executive officer. Kay, who is also facing charges related to the incident, added that other U.S. companies' detainees are routinely accepted by battalion and blames the repeated denials on friction between Hill and his battalion command.
As the 96-hour window began to close last August, Kay made frantic calls to battalion headquarters, trying to secure the arrest of the detainees his men were holding. The detainees "knew who everyone [on FOB Airborne] was," Kay said. "They knew where everyone slept, they knew where our artillery was placed, which then became the target of rocket attacks. . . . I didn't want to let these guys go." Kay said that his calls went unheeded.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Tony DeMartino declined to discuss the specifics of the incident. He did say that generally, "We like to see the Afghans do the formal detainee process so that [the detainees] are in the Afghan chain of command."
Worried about the safety of their men, Hill and Scott resorted to drastic measures. Though it is unclear exactly who initially planned to detain the Afghans, Hill acknowledges that the ultimate responsibility is his. "I did wrongfully discharge my weapon and I did fail to maintain control of the situation," he said in his statement at the hearing.
According to testimony from a number of witnesses, it was Scott, the first sergeant, who began interrogating the bound detainees. He straddled their chests one at a time as they lay on the ground, pinning their shoulders with his knees and slapping their faces while shouting questions.
"My whole twenty-plus-year career in the military has been about taking care of soldiers," Scott said after the hearing concluded. "I couldn't let these men go just so that they could come back and kill some of my boys. It made no sense."
At some point during the interrogation, a few of the detainees were blindfolded and taken to an area just outside the coffee shop. Then, according to many who testified at the hearing, Hill removed his 9mm pistol from a leather shoulder-holster and fired at least once into the ground, about 20 yards from the nearest detainee. Inside the coffee shop, after the shot rang out, Scott asked the other detainees, "Do you want to die like your friend?"
Through his attorney, Scott denied that he had said any such thing.
Witnesses testified that the detainees were eventually released into the custody of Afghan intelligence officials. DeMartino, the battalion commander, said that when Afghans are detained by coalition forces, they are generally kept in the custody of NATO forces or released. "Sometimes," he said, "we'll just release them, and we'll ask [the Afghan police or intelligence agency] to give them a ride home."
Before this group was handed over, a U.S. Army physician's assistant examined the men. At the hearing, I heard him say that they were unharmed and in fine physical condition. Other testimony indicated that these alleged Taliban operatives are now walking free in Wardak -- with full knowledge of the inner workings of FOB Airborne.
I was present for every unclassified minute of the Article 32 hearing. Prior to the incident last August, Hill was known as a promising young officer who had received a Bronze Star for valor and three Army commendation medals. He led his men through a bloody spring and summer of ambushes and IEDs. His company -- D Company of the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment -- numbered only about 100 men and suffered more than 30 casualties and at least two deaths. But their morale was high. "These guys wouldn't want to be anywhere else," Scott said of his men.
Scott also has an impressive résumé. Career military, he won a Bronze Star of his own for a combat jump into Panama in 1988 and fought for 15 hours straight during the 1991 Gulf War.
Watching the prosecution destroy the reputations of Scott and Hill was heartbreaking, tragic -- and deeply conflicting. As an American who fiercely believes in the rule of law and due process, I understand that the actions of D Company are inexcusable. A mock execution, under almost any circumstance, is antithetical to the ideals and standards our nation aspires to.
And perhaps Hill's superiors had good reason not to take these particular men into custody. Maybe they were on the radar of U.S. intelligence and taking them out of circulation might have meant losing valuable information.
But the soldiers of D Company felt that they were out of options.
I fear that this kind of story will repeat itself in other parts of Afghanistan again and again, if only because U.S. forces know that their enemy's mission is clearer than their own.
"They're Taliban," one soldier said in response to a prosecutor's question at the hearing. That soldier is facing charges of repeatedly hitting a detainee who bit him as he tried to put a gag into the man's mouth. "If it was us, they'd cut our heads off, videotape it and put it on al-Jazeera for our families to see."
P.J. Tobia is a staff writer and investigative reporter for Nashville Scene.