A Silence in the Afghan Mountains
The concealment of two detainee deaths paints a troubling picture of abuse by U.S. Special Forces units deployed to the country.
By Kevin Sack and Craig Pyes
September 24, 2006
GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- After completing their deployment to this remote firebase, the Green Berets of ODA 2021 left for home covered in glory.
The 10-member Special Forces team, part of the Alabama National Guard, returned to their families in the spring of 2003 with tales to tell of frenzied firefights and narrow escapes.
Its commander had nominated each of his men -- as well as himself -- for medals for valor. The team's performance was heralded as evidence that the Guard could play as equals with the regular Army in the war on terrorism.
But the team also had come home with secrets.
Apparently unknown to Army officials, two detainees had died in the team's custody in separate incidents during the unit's final month in eastern Afghanistan. Several other detainees allege that they were badly beaten or tortured while held at the base in Gardez.
One victim, an unarmed peasant, was shot to death while being held for questioning after a fierce firefight. The other, an 18-year-old Afghan army recruit, died after being interrogated at the firebase. Descriptions of his injuries were consistent with severe beatings and other abuse.
A member of the Special Forces team told The Times his unit held a meeting after the teen's death to coordinate their stories should an investigation arise.
"Everybody on the team had knowledge of it," the soldier said, insisting on anonymity. "You just don't talk about that stuff in the Special Forces community. What happens downrange stays downrange.... Nobody wants to get anybody in trouble. Just sit back, and hope it will go away."
What distinguishes these two fatalities from scores of other questionable deaths in U.S. custody is that they were successfully concealed -- not just from the American public but from the military's chain of command and legal authorities.
The deaths came to light only after an investigation by The Times and a nonprofit educational organization, the Crimes of War Project, led the Army to open criminal inquiries on the incidents. Two years later, the cases remain under investigation and no charges have been filed.
The Times has since reviewed thousands of pages of internal military records showing that prisoner abuse by Special Forces units was more common in Afghanistan than previously acknowledged.
More than a year before the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal broke in Iraq, top officers worried that harsh treatment and excessive detentions could lead to criminal prosecutions.
In one November 2002 correspondence, a high-ranking Special Operations official said military police were detecting "an extremely high level of physical abuse" of detainees transferred from Special Forces field bases to a prison in Bagram.
An operations officer with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, the command supervising Special Forces teams in Afghanistan, complained in a memo that prisoners were being held for so long without charges that it "may be implied as kidnapping, a federal crime."
Early in 2003, the chief Special Forces intelligence officer in Afghanistan warned in a note to the task force commander, Col. James G. "Greg" Champion, and his top aides: "As you are all aware, alleged assaults and kidnapping [have] been occurring for quite some time. Again, I want to emphasize, this is not isolated."
The same officer reported another improper detention less than two weeks later, notifying Champion's staff in a memo that reflected his exasperation. "Today is Day 5 of this hostage crisis," wrote the intelligence officer, Maj. David Davis. He said that such unauthorized detentions amounted to "criminal conduct in my book."
There also were early warnings from outside sources about prisoner mistreatment.
In a series of meetings that began in late 2002, officials with the International Committee of the Red Cross told top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan that they had fielded a rash of detainee abuse reports involving at least five Special Forces firebases, according to previously undisclosed military documents.
The Red Cross representatives protested that the bases had, in effect, become short-term detention centers, without adequately trained personnel or effective monitoring, said several U.S. officials with knowledge of the meetings.
Most of the bases singled out by the agency were under the control of National Guardsmen with the Alabama-based 20th Special Forces Group. The compound at Gardez, then occupied by ODA 2021, was portrayed as one of the worst. Detainees there alleged they were beaten, kicked, immersed in icy water and deprived of sleep for days at a time.
The Army declined to comment on the cases involving ODA 2021 or more generally on allegations of detainee abuse.
Special Forces firebases in Afghanistan -- often the first stop in a detainee's journey to a holding facility and possibly on to the prison at Guantanamo Bay -- operated largely beyond the reach of human rights monitors, journalists and, at times, the military chain of command.
Because of their clandestine nature, Special Forces operations have been a concern to some in Congress and the State Department who worry that human rights violations could be occurring under a cloak of secrecy.
The handling of detainees in Afghanistan became a murky area after President Bush declared early in the war, launched in October 2001, that the Geneva Convention would not be applied to Al Qaeda, and Taliban captives would not be treated as prisoners of war. Instead, detainees were to be treated "humanely," according to a February 2002 White House directive.
The internal military records show that although senior U.S. commanders in Afghanistan issued warnings and distributed rules consistent with the Army field manual and Geneva Convention, those procedures were routinely ignored.
"You have so much freedom and authority over there," one member of ODA 2021 said. "It kind of makes you feel like God when you're out there in cowboy and Indian country."