3 Afghan Civilians Allegedly Slain By U.S. 'Kill Team'
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Well, now to Afghanistan and allegations of murder. The accused are five American soldiers. The Americans are charged with killing three Afghan civilians in three, separate incidents. According to Army documents, the soldiers made it look as if the Afghans posed a threat, and then opened fire on them. A military court proceeding could begin at Fort Lewis, Washington, in the next several weeks.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has seen the court papers and spoken with lawyers connected in the case. And Tom joins us now.
Tom, you first reported on this case back in the spring, when you were in Afghanistan. Remind us what the Army believes happened here.
TOM BOWMAN: Well, the Army alleges that a sergeant here, named Calvin Gibbs, set up a kill team to go out and shoot random civilians in this area north of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. And the Army says there were three patrols: one in January, one in February, and another in May. And the Army claims Gibbs was a ringleader here, and four other soldiers took part in one or more of the killings.
But I spoke with Gibbs' lawyer. He says, listen, these killings were justified during combat operations.
SIEGEL: How could a group of American soldiers, as they're accused, simply murder someone given all the concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan?
BOWMAN: Well, the thing is, if these allegations are true - first of all, you have to remember, this is a very small group of soldiers. And let me just describe the first incident that occurred in January. They were at a meeting of tribal elders; an Afghan approached them as they were providing security for this meeting. And Sergeant Gibbs said - told them to stop. He claimed he was a threat and then threw a grenade - and then ordered his men to open fire.
But this man had no weapon. He was clearly a civilian and did not pose a threat. But again, the sergeant said he was a threat, and told his men to open fire. And there were similiar things - happen on the other occasions as well.
SIEGEL: And so far as we know, random individuals not known to them in any special way?
BOWMAN: They were random individuals.
SIEGEL: And the story that Sergeant Gibbs would have filed about what had happened, that these people had been threats - that would have been plausible to his superior officers?
BOWMAN: It would have been plausible in this area, Robert, north of Kandahar. This is one of the most dangerous parts of the country and a real nest for the Taliban.
SIEGEL: Well, if the allegations, that these were actually murders, is true, how did this story unravel?
BOWMAN: Well, there are other problems with this platoon. There's a lot of drug and alcohol use at their base. And one of the soldiers blew the whistle on those doing drugs; they beat him up. And he said that Sergeant Gibbs also showed him fingers from one of the Afghan victims that he cut off, as a threat that basically, this could happen to you. And at that point, he told his superiors what he heard about the killings.
SIEGEL: And what did the Army do at that time?
BOWMAN: Well, at this point, that's when they started investigating, but this is five months and three killings later. It turns out there had been an earlier warning after the first alleged murder, and the Army did not act.
And one soldier sent a Facebook message to his dad, saying, quote: People get away with murder here. And the father contacted an Army hotline. He contacted Army investigators and the command at Fort Lewis, which is the home base of this unit. He says nothing happened.
Now, his son is being charged in the third and final killing. And the Army is looking into how it failed to intervene sooner.
SIEGEL: Tom, does the Army cite any motive that Sergeant Gibbs claims would have had to do this?
BOWMAN: No. In some of the documents in some of the interviews, Sergeant Gibbs had served in Iraq, and he told some of his fellow soldiers that he got away with stuff over in Iraq. And he told them he could do the same in Afghanistan.
SIEGEL: Stuff implicitly being killing civilians...
BOWMAN: That's right.
SIEGEL: ...for sport, basically.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.