MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — For the villagers of Nerkh district, it’s a matter of too little, too late.
Too little: The decision by the U.S. military, first reported last week, to reopen a criminal investigation into the deaths of at least 18 Afghan civilians who were allegedly slain by an Army Special Forces A-team. Too late: The killings unfolded between 2012 and 2013. With so much time having passed, few expect that justice will be served.
“I have not the slightest belief in this inquiry,” said Esmatullah, a student who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. “It’s like throwing dust into the eyes of the people.”
The unsolved killings remain among the most sensitive controversies of the American military presence in Afghanistan. At the time, they deepened the animosity between Washington and then-President Hamid Karzai, threatening to derail U.S. efforts to fight the Taliban less than an hour’s drive from the capital, Kabul.
Allegations of the slayings first surfaced in November 2012, when villagers in Nerkh accused the U.S. Special Forces A-team unit of arresting and abusing family members in the Taliban-infested area. The disappearances of villagers continued until early 2013, triggering protests in Wardak province, where Nerkh is located. That prompted Karzai to order an investigation. He also ordered the A-team to leave the province, which it did in April 2013.
Shortly thereafter, human remains were found buried near the A-team’s base. Afghan authorities, using clothing and possessions found at the sites, identified the bodies of 10 men who had been taken into custody by U.S. forces, according to Human Rights Watch. Eight other men were also believed to have been killed in operations linked to the A-team.
At the time, the U.S. military denied the allegations. It said several investigations had found that neither U.S. forces nor other military coalition members were responsible for the killings, but none of those probes were criminal ones. The military did open and close a separate 2013 criminal investigation into the matter.
It is not clear when the U.S. military decided to reopen the investigation, or why.
“During the case review process, information and leads were identified that demand further investigation,” Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command in Quantico, Va., wrote in an e-mail response to questions last week. “We are fully committed to investigating the allegations until we are confident that we have exhausted all leads and pertinent information before closing the investigation.”
At a bus stand in Maidan Shahr, the provincial capital, villagers arriving from Nerkh wondered how an investigation more than 2
“He was sitting in an open area outside his house enjoying the autumn sun when they arrested him,” recalled Toofan, 22, who said his cousin was among the victims. “Three months later we found his body.”
Afghan investigators found a videotape of Zekriya Kandahari, a translator for the A-team who allegedly played a central role in the slayings, torturing a man he was interrogating. Kandahari was later arrested after he fled the A-team base, located next to the district government’s headquarters. He allegedly told Afghan authorities that American members of the A-team killed the victims, including the detainee who was tortured in the video.
“Kandahari was going around bragging that he had earned medals for being loyal to Americans and serving them,” Toofan said.
Today, Nerkh district is still relatively insecure. While Afghan soldiers and police are present in the area, so are Taliban fighters, said villagers and provincial officials. There are no more U.S. bases or outposts. Clashes between the insurgents and Afghan security forces occur often.
“The inquiry is too late for us, as these people are no longer alive, and the Special Forces are out of Nerkh, too,” Toofan said. “How can [the investigating panel] be fair to the victims’ families when you do not have the culprits and evidence around, and after so much time has elapsed?”
Grey acknowledged that the conflict in the area brings “legitimate life-threatening concerns” that pose challenges for American investigators, along with language and cultural barriers and the problem of identifying victims in “a foreign, austere and chaotic environment.”
“All death investigations conducted by U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command special agents are conducted to a thoroughness standard, not necessarily to a timetable,” Grey wrote. “Although time is very important, CID special agents are trained and determined to get to the truth regardless of how long that might take.”
In interviews, villagers said they had yet to see any American investigators visiting their district to interview relatives of the victims or to gather other forms of evidence or testimony. Few here believe the United States would prosecute its own soldiers.
“An inquiry into the killings is good,” said Mohammad Khalil, an elderly shop owner. “But it will have to be done by a neutral body. If not, it will have no meaning to us.”
Others said that if American soldiers were found to be responsible for the killings, they should be tried under local laws — not U.S. military codes.
“Those who committed these killings should have been prosecuted a long time ago,” said Sediqullah, a farmer. “Now if they really want to be fair to people, they should put on trial these people here under Afghan law. We do not trust the American judiciary. We do not trust their friendship.”
Abdul Wahed, a businessman who fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, uttered an Afghan proverb when he heard about the U.S. investigation.
“In Afghanistan we have a saying that you can’t be a prison keeper, an executioner and a judge at the same time,” he said. “The Americans are the perpetrators of the killings. They want to open an inquiry into the killings that they conducted and at the same time will issue a verdict, too, on the case.
“We are fed up with the Americans and want them to leave Afghanistan, just as they left Nerkh.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington contributed to this report.