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Truthdiggers of the Week: Those Who Uncovered Navy SEAL Abuse of Prisoners in Afghanistan

Posted on Dec 21, 2015

By Roisin Davis

    United States Navy SEAL in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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An investigation published Thursday by The New York Times brings to light horrifying abuse by a Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan, and the report includes allegations of a cover-up that goes far up the military chain of command.

The exposé, which involves two years of reporting in Afghanistan and the United States by three Times journalists, details how SEALs deployed in a military outpost outside of Kalach, Afghanistan, subjected Afghan prisoners to violent attacks: dropping heavy stones on their chests, standing on their heads, pouring water on their faces, kicking them, and beating them with car antennas and rifle butts. The abuse, described here, was so severe that one of the prisoners died within a day.

Four American soldiers working with the SEALs reported the incident, which took place May 31, 2012, the day a bomb exploded at a checkpoint manned by an Afghan Local Police unit that the SEALs were training. In a subsequent Navy criminal investigation, two support personnel reported witnessing abuse by the SEALs, as did a local police officer. In addition, an Afghan man detained with the prisoner who died gave the Times a harrowing account of mistreatment by American troops and Afghan militiamen.

“It just comes down to what’s wrong and what’s right,” David Walker, a former Army medic who was one of the witnesses to events in Kalach, said in a recent interview. “You can’t squint hard enough to make this gray.”

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However, the SEAL command cleared the SEAL team 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,” according to the Times. “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’s mind-boggling that despite clear evidence of misconduct compiled by a naval criminal investigation, the SEAL command cleared the three commandos involved and their commanding officer of all charges,” the Times stated Friday in an editorial. “Abuse of detainees is a very serious offense in any war, and it is especially stupid when a primary goal is to win over the civilian population and bolster it in the struggle against the Taliban.”

With the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan stretching into its 15th year, the events at Kalach form part of a broader, systemic picture of prisoner abuse within U.S. military prisons there. In 2005, The New York Times obtained a 2,000-page U.S. Army report concerning the killing of two unarmed civilian Afghan prisoners by U.S. armed forces at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in 2002. The detainees were chained to the ceiling and beaten to death. Military coroners ruled that the prisoners’ deaths were homicides. Autopsies revealed severe trauma to both men’s legs. “I’ve seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus,” one of the coroners said.

Noting a parallel with the abuse and torture of prisoners in Iraq, a 2005 New York Times editorial declared that “what happened at Abu Ghraib was no aberration, but part of a widespread pattern. It showed the tragic impact of the initial decision by [President George W.] Bush and his top advisers that they were not going to follow the Geneva Conventions, or indeed American law, for prisoners taken in antiterrorist operations. … The investigative file on [the 2002 incident in] Bagram, obtained by The Times, showed that the mistreatment of prisoners was routine: shackling them to the ceilings of their cells, depriving them of sleep, kicking and hitting them, sexually humiliating them and threatening them with guard dogs—the very same behavior later repeated in Iraq.”

The reporters who wrote Thursday’s article in the Times are Nicholas Kulish, Christopher Drew and Matthew Rosenberg.

With atrocities on the part of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq revealed again and again, and no one in real authority punished, it should come as no surprise that so many men and women have become radicalized, turning to violent hate groups such as Islamic State. As Kulish told “Democracy Now!”: “I think it’s important to note that the point of this mission was to win over the local population. The reason they were in such a small outpost is that they were supposed to be close to the people, getting to know the people, building up a local police force that could defend them from the Taliban.”

But, Kulish continued, “after this incident and the series of incidents that preceded it, many people fled for the Taliban-controlled area. We very recently learned, just in the past couple of weeks, that after this incident took place—or just recently—that the Taliban are in control of the area and, with the help of the villagers, bulldozed the outpost that the Americans had retreated from.”

The abuses in Kalach, just as in Abu Ghraib and Bagram, would have remained hidden from public knowledge were it not for those who risked their safety or defied military protocol to report them and were it not for the journalists who worked so hard to bring this information to the public. For uncovering criminal actions on the part of the Navy SEALs command team, the soldiers who reported the abuse and the New York Times journalists who painstakingly investigated the case are our Truthdiggers of the Week.

Watch the “Democracy Now!” interview with Times reporter Nicholas Kulish here.

 


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