“You can’t squint hard enough to make this gray.”
Specialist David Walker, United States Army
The Navy’s nine SEAL teams, in contrast, typically conduct capture-and-kill missions and train militaries and counterterrorism forces in other countries.
In a place like Kalach, “you need a combination of T.E. Lawrence, John Rambo and the Verizon guy,” said Scott Mann, a former Green Beret who helped design what were known as village stability operations in Afghanistan. “There’s a lot of the Special Ops community that would much rather shoot somebody in the face than do this kind of work.”
Navy SEALs, a Beating Death and Claims of a Cover-Up
By NICHOLAS KULISH, CHRISTOPHER DREW and MATTHEW ROSENBERGDEC. 17, 2015
The three Navy SEALs stomped on the bound Afghan detainees and dropped heavy stones on their chests, the witnesses recalled. They stood on the prisoners’ heads and poured bottles of water on some of their faces in what, to a pair of Army soldiers, appeared to be an improvised form of waterboarding. From Our Advertisers
A few hours earlier, shortly after dawn on May 31, 2012, a bomb had exploded at a checkpoint manned by an Afghan Local Police unit that the SEALs were training. Angered by the death of one of their comrades in the blast, the police militiamen had rounded up half a dozen or more suspects from a market in the village of Kalach and forced them to a nearby American outpost. Along the way, they beat them with rifle butts and car antennas. Continue reading the main story Related Coverage
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A United States Army medic standing guard at the base, Specialist David Walker, had expected the men from SEAL Team 2 to put a stop to the abuse. Instead, he said, one of them “jump-kicked this guy kneeling on the ground.” Two others joined in, Specialist Walker and several other soldiers recounted, and along with the Afghan militiamen, they beat the detainees so badly that by dusk, one would die.
The four American soldiers working with the SEALs reported the episode, which has not previously been disclosed. In a Navy criminal investigation, two Navy support personnel said they had witnessed some abuse by the SEALs, as did a local police officer. Separately, an Afghan detained with the man who died provided a detailed account of mistreatment by American troops and Afghan militiamen in an interview with The New York Times.
The SEAL command, though, cleared the Team 2 members of wrongdoing in a closed disciplinary process that is typically used only for minor infractions, disregarding a Navy lawyer’s recommendation that the troops face assault charges and choosing not to seek a court-martial. Two of the SEALs and their lieutenant have since been promoted, even though their commander in Afghanistan recommended that they be forced out of the elite SEAL teams.
“It just comes down to what’s wrong and what’s right,” Specialist Walker said in a recent interview. “You can’t squint hard enough to make this gray.”
Even before the beatings, some of the SEALs had exhibited troubling behavior. According to the soldiers and Afghan villagers, they had amused themselves by tossing grenades over the walls of their base, firing high-caliber weapons at passing vehicles and even aiming slingshots at children, striking them in the face with hard candy.
Abuse of detainees is among the most serious offenses an American service member can commit. Several military justice experts, who reviewed a Naval Criminal Investigative Service report on the case at the request of The Times, said that it had been inappropriate for the SEAL command to treat such allegations as an internal disciplinary matter and that it should have referred the case for an Article 32 review, the equivalent of a grand jury, to consider a court-martial.
“It’s unfathomable,” said Donald J. Guter, a retired rear admiral and former judge advocate general of the Navy, in charge of all its lawyers. “It really does look like this was intended just to bury this.”
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Navy officials defended the handling of the case, saying the SEAL captain who oversaw it had had full authority to decide it as he saw fit. The captain, Robert E. Smith, who was then in charge of SEALs based on the East Coast and is now a military assistant to the secretary of the Navy, said in a recent statement that the Team 2 members had denied abusing the detainees.
Assadullah, left, an Afghan who was interrogated in May 2012 by Navy SEALs and Afghan police militiamen, and Abdul Aziz, whose brother died after the questioning. The two were photographed in Kabul in August 2014. Credit Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Captain Smith said that he had found inconsistencies in the soldiers’ accounts when they were questioned five months later, and that conflicting statements from the Army and Navy witnesses “did not give me enough confidence in their overall accuracy to hold the accused accountable for assaults or abuse, or warrant Article 32 proceedings.”
While he said it was “evident” that the Afghan militiamen had mistreated the detainees and that the SEALs had not reported it, he dismissed charges for failing to make such a report.
What happened in Kalach involved just one death in a conflict that has taken thousands of lives, but it had broader consequences. Instead of winning over the local population, the goal of the mission, the reported abuse further alienated villagers. It drove some previously cooperative Afghans to leave for Taliban-controlled areas, residents said.
The SEALs’ failure to restrain the Afghan Local Police, who were supposed to protect villages but instead often terrorized them, helped erode confidence in the American and Afghan governments, whose forces have repeatedly been accused of abusing or killing civilians. Continue reading the main story
“You can’t squint hard enough to make this gray.” Specialist David Walker, United States Army
During the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan, now stretching into its 15th year, the American military has expanded the mandate for SEALs, sometimes assigning them roles for which they are neither suited nor trained.
Brushing away serious charges, military justice experts said, reflects a breakdown of accountability that feeds the perception that SEALs and other elite Special Operations units get undue leeway when it comes to discipline. In murky wars with unclear battle lines, they warned, that can corrode ethical clarity and undermine morale.
“What’s the message for the 10,000 guys that were in the same moment and said, ‘No, we’re not crossing this line’?” asked Geoffrey S. Corn, a former military lawyer who was the Army’s senior expert adviser on the law of war. “It diminishes the immense courage it takes to maintain that line between legitimate and illegitimate violence.”
This account of the events at Kalach, in southern Afghanistan’s Oruzgan Province, and how the Navy handled them is based on interviews with dozens of current and former military personnel. Reporters located victims and other villagers in Afghanistan and tracked down the four American soldiers who made the abuse allegations, who are now scattered across the United States. Most were initially reluctant to speak. Continue reading the main story A Guide to the N.C.I.S. Investigative Report
A review of the documents provides vivid details of the detainee abuse reported at a military outpost at Kalach, Afghanistan.
The Times also obtained the report prepared by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, including sworn statements by Army, Navy and Afghan witnesses. All names were redacted in the document, acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, but several people familiar with the investigation confirmed them. The report was reviewed by four former military lawyers and a civilian military law expert.
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In addition to describing misconduct by the SEALs, villagers complained that the Americans had empowered the local militia to act with impunity — taking goods from shops in the market, ransacking homes and delivering a rifle butt to the belly of those who resisted them.
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The Afghan militiamen in Kalach “were like dogs, and the Americans were the masters,” said Hajji Ahmad Khan Muslim Gizabe, a prominent elder there. “The masters would follow behind the dogs, telling them what to do.”
Mr. Gizabe said that he had been among the Afghans who aided Hamid Karzai, the future president, in 2001 when he was flown into Oruzgan with American forces to foment resistance to the Taliban. But after what happened in 2012, he said, “I cannot support the Americans.” Everything Changed
The small base at Kalach was just a speck in Afghanistan’s rugged terrain, dwarfed by the mountains behind it. The stone wall surrounding the outpost was barely chest-high, offering little protection from a Taliban attack. The objective was to get Americans close to the people they were training, instead of living behind high blast walls and shiny razor wire like most of the troops in the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan. Continue reading the main story
By The New York Times
The outpost was set up by Green Berets, the Army Special Forces troops who recruited the Afghan Local Police. The militia program had become a crucial element of the American strategy to win over villagers and undercut the Taliban. The emphasis on counterinsurgency, as the strategy was known, aligned with the skills of the Green Berets, who were trained to wage guerrilla campaigns by working with irregular militias and supporting local communities.
The Navy’s nine SEAL teams, in contrast, typically conduct capture-and-kill missions and train militaries and counterterrorism forces in other countries. In a place like Kalach, “you need a combination of T.E. Lawrence, John Rambo and the Verizon guy,” said Scott Mann, a former Green Beret who helped design what were known as village stability operations in Afghanistan. “There’s a lot of the Special Ops community that would much rather shoot somebody in the face than do this kind of work.”
Kalach lies in a belt of territory in Oruzgan Province that separates Afghanistan’s central highlands — dominated by members of the Hazara ethnic group, Shiite Muslims who were brutally repressed under Taliban rule — from the southern heartland of the Pashtuns, the predominantly Sunni Muslim ethnic group from which the Taliban draws almost all its support. The groups live separately in Kalach, a village of several thousand people, and the volunteers for the militia were all Hazara, a problem the Green Berets were eager to fix.
“The villagers asked me to talk to the Americans,” said Hajji Muhammadzai, a Pashtun mullah. The Green Berets promised to build schools, roads, bridges and a clinic in return for help recruiting local police officers, Mullah Muhammadzai recalled. Even though the Green Berets found no takers among the Pashtuns, the soldiers addressed the elders with respect, drank tea with them and tried to sway them through persuasion rather than threats, he said in an interview.
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An infantry squad that included Specialist Walker, the Army medic, arrived at the outpost shortly before Christmas in 2011. With broad shoulders and blond hair — his nickname was Thor — Specialist Walker could not have looked more foreign to Afghans. But he forged a relationship with the father of a boy whom he was treating for leukemia, and the man continued to drop by the clinic after his son’s death, sometimes passing on information such as when Taliban spotters were watching the outpost. The soldiers also got to know the militiamen, teaching them how to use their weapons and repel the Taliban. There were shared feasts, even a snowball fight.
But the Green Berets rotated out in early 2012 and were replaced by a detachment from SEAL Team 2, whose men had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the years for operations targeting militants. Other members of the team were scattered across villages beyond Kalach. Photo Specialist David Walker, an Army medic, treating a villager in Kalach.
“We had to fill so many emerging requirements with units that weren’t necessarily as prepared as they could have been,” said Mr. Mann, the former Green Beret. “There’s a whole mind-set and training curriculum that goes with Green Berets that’s radically different from Navy SEALs.”
The change in tone was soon apparent. Staff Sgt. David Roschak, the Army squad leader at Kalach, said the new arrivals assumed “anyone near the base was, or linked to, the Taliban.” Some of the Team 2 members saw their job as killing enemies, not making friends, he and other soldiers said in interviews.
Several seemed absorbed with the SEALs’ growing celebrity, the soldiers said: They talked about the SEAL Team 6 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and debated whether to write books like “Lone Survivor,” the account of a SEAL who survived a disastrous mission in 2005. One night, some of them insisted that the soldiers watch a movie, “Act of Valor,” that starred active-duty SEALs.
Serious discipline issues emerged, according to the soldiers. Apparently bored by the routine of life on the small outpost, several of the SEALs began using their weapons for sport. One shot his pistol wildly at a kitten under the ammunition shed, the soldiers said; anyone at the small base, then full of people, could have been hit by a ricochet. Another pulled a handgun on a soldier in the base gym, apparently as a joke. Continue reading the main story The Navy’s Elite
An in-depth look at the special operations unit, best known for killing Osama bin Laden. SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines
“They were very sloppy, very boisterous: ‘We’re here to destroy everything,’ ” Specialist Walker said. In a situation with “a gun battle every day, that’s perfect,” he continued. But “we’re here to train people, assist, not there to gag ’em and bag ’em.”
Afghans described in interviews how the new group of Americans would shoot at the ground around farmers in wheat fields and almond groves near the base, or on the road to the market. A few times, they shot at trucks moving along a ridgeline. “They weren’t trying to kill anyone,” Mr. Gizabe, the Kalach elder, said. “They were toying with them, I think.”
The tenor of the meetings between the Americans and the elders changed, too, villagers said. The SEALs often shouted at the Afghans; when they disagreed, several elders recounted in interviews, the SEALs sometimes grabbed them by their shirts, lifted them off the ground and cocked their arms back as if preparing to hit them. “Each and every time we went to their base, we feared we would not come back out,” Mullah Muhammadzai said.
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According to Specialist Walker, one Team 2 member grew annoyed with the repeated visits of the man whose child had died of leukemia. Specialist Walker found the father one day with two missing teeth, a scraped lip and a contusion that ran from under his left eye down to his jaw. The man, he said, told him that the American had punched him in the face. Rounding Up Suspects
The explosion at the checkpoint in May 2012 kicked a cloud of dust high into the sky. Afghan militia members jumped on their motorcycles and rode down to investigate, soon returning to the base with their fallen comrade in the back of a truck.
Their search for suspects led them to a trio of itinerant scrap merchants and some villagers who had contact with them. The three men, Pashtuns who had been in town for little more than a week, eked out their living collecting junk: old car parts, empty oil drums, aluminum cans. One of the three, Assadullah, 25 — who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name — said they had risen before dawn to secure the cargo in their three-wheel motorized rickshaw and had been eating bread and drinking tea before the bomb exploded.
The police officers entered the room in a market stall where the men were staying and began bludgeoning them — Mr. Assadullah; Muhammad Hashem, about 24; and Faisal Rehmat, about 25 — with their rifle butts. “They just started hitting us,” Mr. Assadullah recalled in an interview, “on our shoulders, on our backs, everywhere.”
They bound the men’s hands with their traditional wool scarves and marched them to the outpost more than a kilometer away. “Along the road, they were beating us with stones and rifles,” Mr. Assadullah said. He added that he had seen other Afghan civilians at the base but that they had been kept separate during questioning.
The mistreatment was hardly unique for some of the police militias. From the outset of the program, the Americans running it found that some officers used their newfound power to engage in everything from petty theft and bullying to extortion rackets and killings.
An American military report released in December 2011 found that local police militias were illegally taxing villagers and committing assaults, yet also concluded that the militias were effective.
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