WASHINGTON – A platoon of elite Marine Special Operations troops reacted with “excessive force” after an ambush in Afghanistan last month, opening fire on pedestrians and civilian vehicles along a 10-mile stretch of road and killing 12 people – including a 4-year-old girl, a 1-year-old boy and three elderly villagers – an investigation by an Afghan human rights commission alleges.
The investigation, based on dozens of eyewitness interviews, found that Marines in a convoy of Humvees continued shooting at at least six locations along the road, miles beyond the site where they were ambushed by a suicide bomber in a van. They fired at stationary vehicles, passers-by and others who were “exclusively civilian in nature” and had made “no kind of provocative or threatening behavior,” according to a draft report on the investigation obtained by the Washington Post.
In addition to the 12 Afghans killed, including at least two women, 35 were wounded, and one Marine was injured by shrapnel.
U.S. officials familiar with the report by the constitutionally mandated Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said its findings are “troubling” and consistent with the U.S. military’s preliminary investigation, which led this week to the opening of a criminal investigation into the March 4 shootings in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.
Together, the reports contain “more than sufficient evidence of wrongdoing” by the Marines, said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House panel that oversees U.S. Special Operations forces. “There is very troubling information in those reports that must be investigated,” said Smith, who was briefed Thursday by Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, head of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
“All available evidence and reports suggest that the … response at the very least employed excessive force against civilians as it was almost certainly disproportionate to any threat faced,” according to the human rights group’s report, which also alleges that other U.S. forces later arrived and cleaned up evidence of the shootings while denying Afghan police access.
Adm. William J. Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, is expected to name a senior military officer who would be the convening authority for any criminal or administrative proceedings that could arise, U.S. officials said. Central Command legal officers are “sorting through” the military’s initial investigation now, said Lt. Cmdr. Scott Miller, a spokesman for the command. Marine Corps and Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials declined to comment because investigations are ongoing.
The allegations contained in the commission’s report indicate that the Marines opened fire on civilians in the vicinity of the suicide bomb, but then also killed six more and wounded at least 25 others in taxis, in buses and on foot along several miles of road as the convoy headed away from the scene toward Jalalabad.
One witness told investigators that his car was stopped about 45 yards from the convoy. “Suddenly they opened fire on my car and shot more than 240 bullets,” the witness said. “I myself jumped out the car and got injured, but my father, friend and my nephew were killed in the car.” Another witness said a woman was shot in front of her house.
Investigators in Kabul and Jalalabad interviewed approximately 50 witnesses and members of the local police force shortly after the shootings, but they were not allowed access to the Marine unit. Nader Nadery, a member of the human rights commission, said in a telephone interview from Afghanistan on Thursday that the review yielded major concerns about the Marines’ actions.
“Our investigation shows there was excessive use of force in reaction to the bombing,” Nadery said. “Our investigation shows that the attacks took place in several different locations and it was just shooting without making sure who the targets were.”
Nadery said his organization turned a draft of the report over to U.S. and NATO officials early this week and received a response Wednesday, which included the military’s announcement that an NCIS probe had been initiated Monday.
“They assured us that they take these allegations very seriously,” Nadery said. “This was the first time a military convoy in a civilian area openly shot at civilians, and the nature of this makes it the most serious violation of international humanitarian laws by coalition forces so far.”
The rights commission is planning to release the full report today in Kabul, along with other investigations of alleged atrocities by coalition forces and the Taliban. Nadery said the Taliban are responsible for more serious incidents of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, especially over the past five months, when there have been at least 20 suicide bombings and executions of people who have been kidnapped.
“The civilians in Afghanistan are paying the price from this continuous war, and they are mostly affected by the Taliban operations,” Nadery said. “Sometimes it happens that they suffer from the misconduct of coalition forces or NATO forces.”
John Sifton, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the nature of the fight in Afghanistan has made it difficult for U.S. troops to distinguish between civilians and the enemy. But, he said, the incident appears to show that the Marines went beyond what was necessary.
“These troops are in really difficult circumstances facing these insurgents disguised as civilians,” Sifton said. “But it isn’t going to solve anything to let loose a fusillade of bullets at everything you see.”
The counterattack has some parallels to the alleged shootings of civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005. Marines were charged with unpremeditated murder after they allegedly gunned down a group of college students who were ordered out of their car immediately after a bomb went off. The Marines then allegedly raided two homes and killed two dozen civilians after believing they were under small-arms fire.
On the Afghanistan shootings, Marine Corps officials said it would be standard for an infantry unit to use heavy fire to counterattack ambushers and exit the “kill zone” quickly, but they said there are concerns about reports that the unit killed civilians as far as 10 miles away. Shortly after the incident, the Marine platoon and its parent company were pulled out of the area and are in the Persian Gulf with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Gunnery Sgt. Michael Turner, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said Friday that the company commander and senior noncommissioned officer were redeployed to North Carolina after they were relieved of command on April 3. Special Operations officers “had lost trust and confidence” in the unit’s leadership, Turner said.