Why did warnings about murders by soldiers in Afghanistan go unheeded?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010; A22

WARS ARE invariably accompanied by war crimes, even when it comes to highly professional American troops. Overall, U.S. forces have performed admirably in Afghanistan; there have been relatively few reports of atrocities, and commanders have taken steps to minimize civilian casualties. But crimes are still committed -- which is why prompt investigation of leads and urgent action to stop abuses is essential. There are troubling indications that, in at least one serious case this year, that did not happen.

According to Army charging documents reported by The Post's Craig Whitlock, five members of a Stryker brigade based in Kandahar province murdered three Afghan civilians in cold-blooded attacks between January and May. Seven other servicemen have been charged with related crimes, including hashish use, obstruction of the investigation, and participation in an attack on a whistleblower. The soldiers are accused of detonating grenades as a pretext for firing on randomly chosen civilians. The troops are also alleged to have dismembered and photographed corpses.

One member of the soldiers' platoon responded to this depraved behavior by reporting it in an e-mail chat with his father. The father, former Marine Christopher Winfield, said he responded immediately, attempting to contact a range of authorities even though it was a Sunday. Mr. Winfield left messages on the 24-hour hotline of the Army inspector general; the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.); and the Army's criminal investigations division. He also said he spoke with a sergeant at the command center of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where the Stryker unit is based. He was told nothing could be done unless his son reported to superiors.

Tragically, two more killings took place after those phone calls -- and Mr. Winfield's son, Adam Winfield, was charged in the shooting of an Afghan cleric that took place on May 2, 2 1/2 months after his father made the phone calls. Adam Winfield's attorney says that he was ordered to fire on the cleric and that he aimed high and missed; the other accused soldiers also deny wrongdoing.

All of the accused are innocent until proven guilty and should have their day in court. But the Army's investigation should not be limited to their alleged crimes. It should also probe why the warnings delivered to several responsible bodies were not quickly followed up. Success in the Afghan war depends on convincing average Afghans that the government and its Western allies can deliver security, justice and protection from the Taliban. There is no room for complacency about allegations of crimes like those allegedly committed by the Stryker troops.

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