The war in Afghanistan has always been a collection of tiny wars fought from tiny outposts that have their own heroes and villains, pitched battles and murky outcomes. These miniature conflicts are formed by the character of the troops sent to fight in them, Afghanistan’s austere terrain and the country’s multitude of tribes. Often these wars exist separate from one another, only to be found under the larger umbrella of The War in Afghanistan. Some of these scattered battles have household names, such as the Korengal and Sangin, while others are so small that they are rarely mentioned except by those who have traversed their machine gun-raked fields and explosive-laden valleys.
The village of Kalach was one of those almost-forgotten places, and it bore little significance to the world until Thursday, when the New York Times released an exhaustive two-year-long investigative report on Kalach’s terrible little war and the men who waged it in spring 2012.
The Times report details a long spell of boredom and frustration within a dusty military outpost outside of Kalach. That spell ended with a group of Navy SEALs from SEAL team 2 allegedly beating unarmed men — and facing little consequence for doing so. And while it is unclear what brought some of America’s best special operations troops to the verge of killing detainees, it’s possible that it was the demands of a broader special operations strategy in Afghanistan that thrust units, such as the SEALs, into roles they had not been designed to carry out.
In 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and soon implemented a widespread initiative that would task special operations troops to carry out “village stability operations,” or VSOs, and to help train Afghan local police. VSOs were sporadic during the early phases of the war (2002 onward) but became the cornerstone of the United States’ Afghan strategy from 2009 onward. VSOs were meant to be built around an Army Special Forces team known as an Operational Detachment-Alpha or ODA. The ODAs were to provide some reinforcement to a particular village in order to help that village develop and provide security for itself.
McChrystal’s strategy, however, called for so many ODAs that there simply were not enough of them to fulfill the newfound mission requirements. Other special forces units like SEALs began to rotate with ODAs and assist with VSOs and with training Afghan local police. This was the case in Kalach, as the SEAL team arrived to replace an Army Special Forces unit in 2012, according to the Times report.
“VSOs expanded so rapidly that everyone had to get involved,” one former special forces officer said. “That meant everyone was in the rotation.”
The officer, who requested anonymity because he didn’t want his name associated with an article that detailed SEAL abuses, also said that Navy SEALs are not optimized for missions such as the one they had been assigned in Kalach. “They’re used to more direct action-type missions,” he said, referring to operations that involved capturing and killing targets rather than assisting villagers.
The Times report extensively details the possible mismanagement of special operations assets, and includes numerous anecdotes of what appears to be the SEALs’ frustration with their mission. According to the report, some SEALs expressed this frustration by negligently discharging weapons at civilian vehicles and in the vicinity of local villagers.
The culminating event, however, was on May 31, 2012. Four U.S. Army soldiers augmented to the SEAL detachment watched chest kicking, head bashing and ad-hoc waterboarding of detainees by three Navy SEALs shortly after a bomb blast ripped through a nearby Afghan Police checkpoint. The blast killed one policeman. In the wake of the explosion, the Afghan police rounded up nearby villagers whom they suspected in the attack and marched them to where the Americans were located. The beatings started at the hands of the police, according to the Times report. When police brought the detainees to the small U.S. base, the SEALs got involved.
One of the Army soldiers at the outpost, Spc. David Walker, said he expected the SEALs to put a stop to the beatings. Instead he watched as three of the SEALs joined in, according to the Times’ report.
Walker and his fellow soldiers’ report of the beatings twisted and turned through the SEALs’ chain of command — and eventually resulted in little more than a written reprimand for the SEALs, according to the Times.
“It just comes down to what’s wrong and what’s right,” Walker said in an interview with the Times. “You can’t squint hard enough to make this gray.”