Army investigators have recommended bringing abuse-related charges against 26 soldiers stemming from a probe into the deaths of two detainees in Afghanistan in December 2002, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
The cases, involving the two deaths and other incidents at the big U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan, represent an attempt to assign criminal responsibility for abuse of detainees that occurred well before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent scandal over the maltreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
The Afghanistan charges recommended by Army investigators and prosecutors, after an investigation that took well over a year, range from negligent homicide to less serious offenses such as dereliction of duty and failure to report an offense, two Army officers familiar with the case said. One sergeant has already been charged, officials said.
"The CID is about to wrap this up," said one officer, referring to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. The next step, officials said, is for Army commanders to decide whether to follow the recommendations on charges. They are expected to move quickly, the officials said.
The results of the investigation raise the possibility that the number of soldiers facing charges for abuse in Afghanistan could approach that of soldiers ultimately charged with maltreatment of prisoners in Iraq.
Seven military police soldiers have been charged in the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Last week, Army investigators concluded that an additional 30 soldiers and contractors had participated in the abuse there, and 11 others faced possible charges or discipline for not reporting what they saw. Decisions on charges for any of those people have not been made.
Still, military officials said they don't expect the Afghan cases to have as powerful a public impact as the investigations of abuse in Iraq. That is in part because the alleged offenses occurred two years ago and appear to be fairly limited in number, but also because no photographs of abuse have been found by investigators.
Most of the soldiers facing charges are from the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 519th Military Intelligence Battalion and the 377th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit based in Cincinnati. It is possible that some Special Operations troops might be charged, said one officer.
The 519th intelligence unit is rapidly becoming one of the more notorious units in the Army. After serving at Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, in 2002, some of its members were deployed to Iraq a year later and were posted to Abu Ghraib. There, members of the unit were implicated in abuse of prisoners in the fall and early winter of 2003.
Army investigators have found that soldiers in the unit brought to Iraq some techniques they had employed in Afghanistan, such as the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners. It is possible that some of the 519th soldiers will be charged with offenses in both countries, one Pentagon official said.
Last week, an Army report on Abu Ghraib said that military intelligence (MI) soldiers at the prison bore significant responsibility for mistreatment of prisoners. It found that MI soldiers "allegedly requested, encouraged, condoned or solicited" abuse by MPs in 16 of 44 incidents at Abu Ghraib that were investigated.
The Army expects to begin filing charges against soldiers in the Afghanistan allegations in two to three weeks. Last month, officials brought charges against one member of the 377th, Sgt. James P. Boland, who was accused of assault, maltreatment and dereliction of duty. It could not be determined why that case was brought earlier. Boland could not be reached to comment, and a person answering the telephone at his house said he was at Fort Knox, Ky.
The charges result from an unusually lengthy investigation into the two previously publicized deaths at Bagram, about 35 miles north of the Afghan capital of Kabul. Both cases were ruled homicides by a military coroner.
Mullah Habibullah, 30, died of a pulmonary embolism caused by blunt-force injuries to the legs, according to an autopsy report released in May. The other prisoner, known by officials only as Dilawar, 22, died from blunt-force injuries to his lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.
At one point, Army investigators told superiors that their findings were inconclusive, said an Army officer who served in Afghanistan -- one of several officials who discussed the case on the condition of anonymity because the investigation's results haven't been officially released. The investigators were then ordered to re-open the inquiry, he said, and led investigators to uncover other suspected incidents of mistreatment unrelated to the deaths.
Should charges be filed, he said, it will be "good news" for the Army because it will demonstrate that the investigative process, while prolonged, produces results, he said.
Another Army officer briefed on some aspects of the case, however, said the Afghanistan findings will raise new questions about the Army's uniformed and civilian leadership. Foremost in his mind, he said, was that the Army had so few military intelligence units available that the 519th was deployed twice in two years.
"Why are we so short that the same unit had to be moved from Afghanistan to Iraq?" he asked.
The charges being contemplated are not related to a case in which a former Army Special Forces soldier working as a contractor for the CIA was charged with assault in the death of an Afghan prisoner in June 2003. David A. Passaro was charged in June with beating a detainee held at a small base at Asadabad, near the Pakistani border.
Nor are the charges being prepared as the result of a review of U.S. military detention practices in Afghanistan being carried out by Army Brig. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., the deputy U.S. commander there. But that inquiry -- one of 11 formal Pentagon studies of military detention initiated since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in the spring -- is expected to be released at about the same time the charges are brought against the soldiers in the Bagram homicide case, officials said.
"It was not an investigation," said one Pentagon official who has read the current draft of the Jacoby report. "It's more a review of where things are in Afghanistan today."
Yet another review, looking into whether Special Operations troops abused detainees in or near Iraq, also is expected to be released in about two weeks, Pentagon officials said.