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Afghanistan Killings: Not the First Time

A look at punishment of past crimes shows mostly light sentencing.

Pakistani protesters stand on a representation of the U.S. flag holding a banner that reads "we condemn," to condemn the reported burning of Qurans in Afghanistan by U.S. troops, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Monday, Feb 27, 2012. (AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)    (AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)

photo of Sara Sorcher
March 12, 2012

U.S. officials said they were shocked after an American soldier allegedly gunned down 17 Afghan civilians earlier this month. But attacks on innocent civilians, including women and children, are not without precedent during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The big question now: Is the military’s justice system equipped to determine whether the service member, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, is guilty and dole out a fitting punishment? If the drawn-out investigations and trials concerning past allegations of offenses by American troops are any indication, the forthcoming probe and disciplinary process may be nowhere near as harsh as the rhetoric coming from Defense and Obama administration officials condemning the event itself.

National Journal takes a look at some of the incidents over the last decade in which U.S. personnel have been accused of crimes during wartime.


Shooting Spree.  (AFGHANISTAN, March 2012)

The Incident: An Army staff sergeant stationed in Kandahar province left his base on Sunday, March 11, and allegedly started shooting Afghan civilians in houses nearby. Seventeen civilians died  -- nine of them children -- and several others were wounded.

The Fallout: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quickly pledged that any perpetrator of the attack will be held "fully accountable under the law." The suspect in custody, lated identified as Robert Bales will be charged Friday with 17 counts of homicide. The Associated Press reports Bales will also be charged with six counts of attempted murder and six counts of aggravated assault. Bales, 38, was attached to a unit based at Washington state's Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and had been participating in a village-stabilization operation in Afghanistan. He is married with two children, and had served three tours of duty in Iraq. In December, the sergeant deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in his 11-year Army tenure.

President Obama said after the shooting he supports the military's plan to investigate the matter and hold the perpetrator accountable. “This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan," Obama said.  

While Panetta has said the death penalty could be possible if he's convicted, the government may have a hard time proving its case. Bales's lawyers have said they'll attack the evidence against him, collected in a combat zone thousands of miles away. They are also likely to argue Bales had diminished mental capacity after combat injuries, including losing part of his foot and sustaining traumatic brain injury after a vehicle rolled over during a tour in Iraq. His lawyers have also indicated the possibility of Bales's mental trauma; the alleged shooting spree was days after Bales saw the aftermath of a bombing that blew off a fellow soldier's leg.

Weeks after the alleged shootings, Afghan war commander Gen. John Allen told Congress the Army will launch a separate investigation into the command and control process within Bales's unit - and how and why the suspect was assigned to the stability mission in the first place.

Video of Urinating Marines.  (AFGHANISTAN, January 2012)

The Incident:  A viral video depicting U.S. Marines joking as they urinated on blood-soaked Taliban corpses shocked the international community. If proven, the act of desecrating corpses would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The Fallout: Less than a day after the video began circulating over the Internet, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denounced the footage as “utterly deplorable” and promised to hold the troops accountable “to the fullest extent.” Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said he’s asked that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service gather a team of their “very best agents” to conduct a thorough investigation of the filmed event – and that he had assigned a Marine general to conduct a parallel probe.

‘Kill Team.’ (AFGHANISTAN, 2010)

The Incident: Twelve American soldiers from a Stryker infantry brigade based in Kandahar province were accused of being part of a secret "kill team" that randomly blew up and shot Afghan civilians for sport — and even collected fingers as trophies and posed for a photo with a corpse. The attacks, which took place between January and May 2010 in Kandahar, were headed by a staff sergeant who reportedly bragged about getting away with abuse while deployed in Iraq.

Evidence of the killings surfaced in May 2010 when the army began investigating an assault on a soldier who said some of his fellow troops smoked hashish they stole from civilians. After an ensuing investigation uncovered evidence of the atrocities, five soldiers were accused of murdering three Afghan noncombatants and conspiracy to commit premeditated murder. Seven were accused of covering up the killings and assaulting the recruit who exposed the murders, according to The Guardian. Among the wide-ranging charges against the group: Keeping victims’ body parts, such as a skull and fingers, as trophies; and taking and possessing photographs of dead bodies.

The Fallout:  The so-called “kill team” ringleader, Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, was convicted in November of murdering the three unarmed civilians and sentenced to life in prison – although he’s eligible for parole in 8.5 years. Overall, the investigation convicted 11 at courts martial, according to Stars and Stripes, leveling jail sentences against seven of the defendents and giving three more bad-conduct discharges for drug use and assault. The investigation was completed in February, when the Army dropped murder and assault charges it had pressed against Spc. Michael Wagnon, who according to McClatchy, was the only accused soldier to walk away with a mostly clean record.

Murder of Unarmed Detainee.  (IRAQ, 2008)

The Incident:  1st Lt. Michael Behenna was serving as a platoon leader in Iraq when he killed Ali Mansur in 2008. Behenna apparently suspected the Iraqi of being involved in an attack that killed two of his comrades and wounded two others. According to local newspapers covering his trial, Behenna and members of his platoon brought Mansur to a remote area and threatened him with a pistol. The prosecution says he shot Mansur execution-style; Behenna says he shot Mansur in self-defense when he reached for his gun.

The Fallout:  Behenna was initially sentenced to 25 years for unpremeditated murder in a combat zone. His term has since been reduced twice; he’s currently serving a 15-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Haditha Killings.  (IRAQ, 2005)

The Incident:  In November 2005, a squad of U.S. Marines killed 24 apparently innocent civilians — including three women and eight children — in an Iraqi town called Haditha. Witnesses described a rampage of Marines slaughtering people in the street and in their homes. Frank Wuterich, then 25, was charged with 18 murders — but claimed their deaths do not amount to a massacre. A massacre, he said, refers to the execution of a large group of people for no reason. “That’s absolutely not what happened here,” he told CBS. Wuterich reportedly gave the order to his troops to hunt for insurgents in a village after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine.

The Fallout:  The incident sparked an international outcry, and then-President George W. Bush vowed “punishment” for Marines if an investigation found they killed unarmed civilians. A year after the attack, four Marines were charged with murder of the Iraqis; another four officers were accused of not doing a thorough investigation after they learned no insurgents were found among the civilians killed at the scene. 

The Marines initially said the Iraqis had been killed by the roadside bomb; a subsequent investigation by Time magazine in 2006 showed most were actually killed as the troops went through the houses near the site after the Marine’s death. Their lawyers maintained the insurgents were hiding behind civilian homes; the plaintiffs said that never happened and that the rampage was meant to avenge their fellow troop’s death.

Eventually, Wuterich’s charges were reduced to manslaughter. He pleaded guilty this February to negligent dereliction of duty in the killing of the civilians in exchange for the dropping of assault and manslaughter charges and was given a general discharge from the Marine Corps under honorable conditions. According to The Los Angeles Times, Wuterich, who remained on active duty during the years of court proceedings, can still receive veteran’s benefits and won’t serve time behind bars. The others were cleared of their charges.

Mahmudiyah Killings.  (IRAQ, 2006)

The Incident: Five U.S. troops were charged and convicted of gang-raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl named Abeer after murdering her family in a village to the west of al-Mahmudiyah in March 2006. Signs that the attack was premeditated, Time magazine reported, included Abeer’s mother having told relatives the Americans gave her the thumbs-up sign when she caught them ogling her daughter. One of the soldiers, during a search of Abeer’s home, reportedly ran his finger down her cheek.

The attack took place when former Army Pfc. Steven Green and three others abandoned their checkpoint and headed to Abeer’s house. Most changed out of uniform and some had been drinking. According to case documents, Green murdered Abeer’s parents and younger sister while other soldiers raped the teen. After Green announced the family members were dead, he raped Abeer and shot her in the head; her body was then set on fire, the documents state. The soldiers said the attack had been perpetrated by Sunni insurgents.

The Fallout: Months later, an insurgent attack on members of Green’s unit sparked suspicion that it was for retaliation to the rape and killings. After the military criminal investigators took over the case, the FBI arrested Green, who had been honorably discharged just before the allegations surfaced because of a "personality disorder." Green pled not guilty but was convicted of rape and murder. Though his trial was the first capital punishment case under a 2000 law allowing federal criminal courts to try crimes committed overseas by former members of the military, according to The New York Times, Green was spared the death penalty. He received a sentence in 2009 of life in prison without parole.  The other four charged pleaded guilty or were convicted in military courts for their roles in the bloody raid; most received long prison terms, and all will be eligible for parole within the decade.

The Drowning of Iraqis in the Tigris (IRAQ, 2004)

The Incident: Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman had commanded some 800 soldiers in the heart of the insurgency in Iraq. Then 40, The New York Times reported Sassaman had stood out as one of the most aggressive officers. Now he’s best known for deciding to cover up the drowning of an Iraqi by men who forced two detainees to jump into the Tigris river. Iraqis Marwan and Zaydoon Fadhil were pulled over by American troops near the river while racing to beat the curfew. They were taken to a riverbank and told to jump in. One reportedly drowned, and an Iraqi search party said it found his body. Defense lawyers contended that Zaydoon’s funeral was faked and that he was alive but in hiding.

The Fallout: 1st Lt. Jack Saville, an Army platoon leader involved in forcing the Iraqi civilians into the river, was sentenced in 2005 to 45 days in a military prison and given a $12,000 fine. Staff Sgt. Tracy Perkins, who gave the orders for the forced jump into the river, was acquitted of manslaughter but convicted of assault and obstruction of justice and sentenced to six months jail time. As for Sassaman, his decision to cover up the incident ultimately led to a stinging rebuke from the military of his “wrongful, criminal” conduct which basically ended his career. He then retired.

Abu Ghraib Scandal (IRAQ, 2003)

The Incident:  The scandal involving the treatment of Iraqi war prisoners and U.S. troops at the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison has become a symbol of abuse and a black mark for the U.S. internationally. In spring 2004, photographs depicting prisoner abuses and sexual humiliation were leaked to the media, which sparked a media firestorm and calls for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

The Fallout:  The U.S. military ultimately closed the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and launched several major investigations into the abuses. Ultimately,  then-brigadier general and commander of Abu Ghraib, Janis Karpinski, was demoted and removed from command. Karpinski maintained she and her troops were just following interrogation guidelines approved by senior officials. A second officer, Thomas Pappas, was relieved of duty and fined in May 2005 due to his involvement as commander of the military intelligence unit assigned to Abu Ghraib when the offenses occurred, according to CNN. Seven low-ranking soldiers were convicted, sentenced to military prison, and dishonorably discharged. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz described them as "bad apples.”

The convicted ringleader, former Spc. Charles Graner Jr., was released last August from Fort Leavenworth after serving 6.5 years of a 10-year sentence; he will be under the supervision of a probation officer until the end of 2014, according to the Huffington Post. His former fiancée, former Spc. Lynndie England, was given a three-year sentence for her role in the scandal.

Fallujah Battle Killings.  (IRAQ, 2004)

The Incident: Former Marine Jose Luis Nazario was charged with killing — or causing others to kill — four unarmed Iraqi detainees in Fallujah in 2004. Nazario was leading a squad of 13 Marines through house-to-house fighting to recapture the city as part of Operation Phantom Fury.

The Fallout: Nazario was the first American to be tried in a civilian court for war crimes allegedly committed during active duty. He was initially charged with voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon but acquitted in 2008 at a civilian court within less than six hours.  In 2009, his fellow Marine Sgt. Jermaine Nelson said he simply followed Nazario’s order to shoot and pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty after his murder charges were dropped. Nelson was not due to serve any prison time. Sgt. Ryan Weemer had leaked the case and his own involvement when he volunteered details during a lie-detector screening test in 2006 when applying for a job with the Secret Service. Weemer was acquitted of the murder charges by a military jury.

Bagram Interrogations.  (AFGHANISTAN, 2002)

The Incident:  The Northern Alliance captured Dilawar, a 22-year old cab driver, and three of his passengers — and accused them of firing rockets at the U.S. base at Khost. At Bagram detention center, north of Kabul, U.S. personnel berated and beat him. He, and another unarmed civilian Afghan prisoner, were deprived of sleep and died after days chained to the tops of their cells. (While the military’s initial report found Dilawar died of “natural causes,” a coroner later testified that the death due to blunt force injuries rendered the corpse like “an individual run over by a bus”).

The Fallout:  Three years later, in 2005, The New York Times obtained a 2,000-page classified file revealing that such harsh treatment by some Army interrogators at Bagram was routine. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command said there was probable cause to charge 27 officers and enlisted personnel with criminal offenses related to the case -- everything from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter. Despite the Army’s stated push to prosecute those responsible for the deaths of Dilawar and several other prisoners at Bagram, The Times reported in 2006 that only 15 of the 27 recommended for criminal charges were prosecuted. Many were acquitted; the toughest sentence was given to Spc. Joshua Claus, who pled guilty to assault and maltreatment of a prisoner. He was sentenced to five months of jail time.

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