THE families of thousands of Afghan civilians killed by US/NATO forces in Afghanistan have been left without justice, Amnesty International said in a new report released on Monday.
Focusing primarily on air strikes and night raids carried out by US forces, including Special Operations Forces, Left in the Dark finds that even apparent war crimes have gone uninvestigated and unpunished.
‘Thousands of Afghans have been killed or injured by US forces since the invasion, but the victims and their families have little chance of redress.
‘The US military justice system almost always fails to hold its soldiers accountable for unlawful killings and other abuses,’ said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director.
‘None of the cases that we looked into – involving more than 140 civilian deaths – were prosecuted by the US military. Evidence of possible war crimes and unlawful killings has seemingly been ignored.’
The report documents in detail the failures of accountability for US military operations in Afghanistan.
It calls on the Afghan government to ensure that accountability for unlawful civilian killings is guaranteed in any future bilateral security agreements signed with NATO and the United States.
Amnesty International conducted detailed investigations of ten incidents that took place between 2009 and 2013, in which civilians were killed by US military operations.
At least 140 civilians were killed in the incidents that Amnesty International investigated, including pregnant women and at least 50 children. The organisation interviewed some 125 witnesses, victims and family members, including many who had never given testimony to anyone before.
Two of the case studies – involving a Special Operations Forces raid on a house in Paktia province in 2010, and enforced disappearances, torture, and killings in Nerkh and Maidan Shahr districts, Wardak province, in November 2012 to February 2013 – involve abundant and compelling evidence of war crimes.
No one has been criminally prosecuted for either of the incidents. Qandi Agha, a former detainee held by US Special Forces in Nerkh in late 2012, spoke of the daily torture sessions he endured.
He said: ‘Four people beat me with cables. They tied my legs together and beat the soles of my feet with a wooden stick. They punched me in the face and kicked me. They hit my head on the floor.’
He also said he was dunked in a barrel of water and given electrical shocks. Agha said that both US and Afghan forces participated in the torture sessions.
He also said that four of the eight prisoners held with him were killed while he was in US custody, including one person, Sayed Muhammed, whose killing he witnessed. One case study was of a US air strikes near Omar Kheil village near Char Dara district, Kunduz province.
‘We are still waiting for justice to be done,’ says Haji Karim Gul, whose two brother were killed in US air strikes in Kunduz province in September 2009. The basic circumstances of the incident have been widely reported.
On the day of 3 September 2009, Taliban militants commandeered two fuel tankers on the main road leading into Afghanistan from Tajikistan, killing one of the drivers.
While driving the tankers to a place where the cargo could be offloaded, they tried to cross the Kunduz River, near the village of Omar Kheil, but the hijacked vehicles got stuck in the mud and sand.
Rather than abandon the vehicles, the militants opened the tanks to siphon off the fuel. They also encouraged local villagers to take away free fuel.
Villagers told Amnesty International that the offloading of fuel went on for hours. During this time, it was later reported, a US B-1B bomber carrying out an overflight of the area spotted the vehicles.
German troops based in the area then called in US fighter jets, reportedly out of fear that the Taliban was planning to use the tankers to mount a large-scale suicide attack against their base.
Two F-15Es jet fighters arrived in the area at approximately 1.20am. Some villagers told Amnesty International that they heard the sound of planes well before the bombing took place.
Having reportedly received firm instructions from a German targeter, the planes dropped two 500-pound guided bombs, one on each truck, half an hour later.
Video footage of the strikes taken from one of the fighter planes shows a large number of people swarming around the tankers, they look like moving black dots, and then an enormous blast that envelopes the whole area.
A villager who arrived on the scene just after the air strike described the immediate aftermath: ‘There were people everywhere: someone’s limb was missing; someone’s hand was missing; many people were buried under the mud; it looked like the Day of Judgment. People were crying, calling names, shouting and running around; I pray that no one experiences such a situation.’
Another told Amnesty International: ‘People who had been killed and injured were everywhere. They were in the river, by the river bank, in the fields . . . The wounded were screaming and crying.
‘Some people were burned and it was difficult to identify them; some people were missing body parts, including their head. I have never seen such a horror in my entire life; it was a nightmare.’
Amnesty International spoke to 13 local villagers who lost family members that day, including some who lost relatives as young as 12 years old. ‘I found my son and grandson far from each other,’ one man said. ‘Their names were Dawood and Ahmad Shah. It was difficult to identify them because of the burns. To be honest, in some cases we just guessed who people were and took them to the village.’
His son was 30 years old; his grandson was 13. Scores of bodies were carried back to their home villages for burial, while the wounded were taken to Kunduz Hospital to receive medical care.
Formal criminal investigations into the killing of civilians in Afghanistan are extremely rare. Amnesty International is aware of only six cases since 2009 in which US military personnel have faced trials.
Under international humanitarian law (the laws of war), not every civilian death occurring in armed conflict implies a legal breach.
Yet if civilians appear to have been killed deliberately or indiscriminately, or as part of a disproportionate attack, the incident requires a prompt, thorough and impartial inquiry. If that inquiry shows that the laws of war were violated, a prosecution should be initiated.
Of the scores of witnesses, victims and family members Amnesty International spoke to when researching this report, only two people said that they had been interviewed by US military investigators.
In many of the cases covered in the report, US military or NATO spokespeople would announce that an investigation was being carried out, but would not release any further information about the progress of the investigation or its findings – leaving victims and family members in the dark.
‘We urge the US military to immediately investigate all the cases documented in our report, and all other cases where civilians have been killed. The victims and their family members deserve justice,’ said Richard Bennett.
The main obstacle to justice for Afghan victims and their family members is the deeply flawed US military justice system.
Essentially a form of self-policing, the military justice system is ‘commander-driven’ and, to a large extent, relies on soldiers’ own accounts of their actions in assessing the legality of a given operation.
Lacking independent prosecutorial authorities, it expects soldiers and commanders to report potential human rights violations themselves. The conflict of interest is clear.
In the rare instances when a case actually reaches the prosecution stage, there are serious concerns about the lack of independence of US military courts.
It is extremely rare that Afghans themselves are invited to testify in these cases.
‘There is an urgent need to reform the US military justice system. The US should learn from other countries, many of which have made huge strides in recent years in civilianising their military justice systems,’ said Richard Bennett.
The report also documents the lack of transparency on investigations and prosecutions of unlawful killings of civilians in Afghanistan.
The US military withholds overall data on accountability for civilian casualties, and rarely provides information on individual cases.
The US government’s freedom of information system, meant to ensure transparency when government bodies fail to provide information, does not function effectively when civilian casualties are at issue.
Amnesty International also urges the Afghan government to immediately establish its own mechanism to investigate abuses by the Afghan National Security forces, who will assume full combat responsibility by the end of 2014.