Army Investigates Afghan Civilian Deaths

The Army is investigating an incident involving soldiers from the Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. Details are scarce, but some are emerging: A small number of soldiers allegedly killed as many as three Afghan civilians. One soldier is in pre-trial confinement. The incident is significant enough that Afghan President Karzai has been briefed by the top U.S. commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The U.S. military is investigating the killing of at least three Afghan civilians, and several American soldiers could face charges.

Many details of what happened are unclear right now. What is known is that the incident occurred outside the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. We also note that one soldier is being held pending formal charges.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now.

Tom, what do authorities think happened?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Michele, we're told at least several soldiers from the Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Lewis, Washington, were involved. And here's what we know so far. I'm told that civilian deaths occurred during a patrol or it may have been on more than a single patrol. One source tells me the victims were chosen randomly, and there's no indication there was any type of enemy action - any firefight here - before the civilian deaths.

NORRIS: No firefight. Is what you're describing here different from other cases where innocent civilians are accidentally killed in a war zone?

BOWMAN: That's right. a number of times in Afghanistan - and actually Iraq, as well - civilians have been mistakenly killed. They might get caught in a crossfire, for example, maybe a combat aircraft are called in to strafe or bomb a building and you find civilians inside.

But this is a criminal investigation, which of course suggests wrongdoing, not just a mistake.

NORRIS: Now, we've said that many of the details of what happened are very unclear. What have investigators found so far?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm told there's a ringleader here, a sergeant. Now, a ringleader possibly in the shootings themselves or the cover-up because the Pentagon says there are allegations of a conspiracy. And this all came to light when a soldier approached his chain of command and told them about the civilian deaths.

Now, this soldier went back to his unit and he was beaten up by his fellow soldiers, so this suggests there may be some sort of cover-up here. Now, the soldier again went back to his chain of command, to his officers, to tell them what happened to him, and that's when other soldiers started coming forward.

Now, again, at least one soldier is in confinement. The others are still at their base. And we expect charges any time now.

And we're told Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been briefed on the allegations by General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan. So they're taking this very, very seriously.

NORRIS: Tom, let's take a step back for just a minute. You were with the Stryker Brigade last fall outside Kandahar. What can you tell us about this unit?

BOWMAN: Well, they were in an extremely tough area, a lot of insurgent activity. And this brigade has suffered some of the highest casualty rates in all of Afghanistan. At least 35 have been killed to date.

We were with them in this rural area of fields and orchards, called the Arghandab Valley. It's just north of Kandahar City. And when we were with them, we came upon a roadside bombing that killed two of those soldiers. It was horrific. The armored vehicle was flipped over and burning. They ran into a 1,500-pound bomb. And some of the soldiers were really angry about the toll they'd taken - this unseen enemy that just kept planting bombs on these dirt roads.

NORRIS: Now, we want to be very careful not to get into any kind of speculation. But is there reason to think that their experience and the deaths they've suffered could contribute in some way to this incident?

BOWMAN: Yeah, that's a possibility. That could have been a factor. But, you know, I want to make clear that the soldiers I was with were very professional. I saw no indication of any serious discipline problems or any, let's say, mistreatment of locals.

NORRIS: What effects will this investigation into civilian deaths have on the upcoming Kandahar operation? We've been hearing a lot about that.

BOWMAN: Well, again, military officials are very, very sensitive about this investigation, especially because of the upcoming Kandahar operation. U.S. and Afghan militaries have been holding meetings with tribal elders around Kandahar to explain how the operation will unfold and to get their support.

So something like this, of course, can dash all those plans.

NORRIS: Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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