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Two Deaths Were a `Clue That Something's Wrong'

A Special Forces team in Afghanistan failed to alert its superiors. Witnesses tell of torture.

September 25, 2006|Craig Pyes and Kevin Sack | Special to The Times

WAZI, Afghanistan -- The Green Berets of ODA 2021 were on high alert as their convoy rumbled down the winding, rutted road that day in March 2003. The team had been tipped that armed men loyal to the notoriously volatile warlord Pacha Khan Zadran lay in wait around the bend.

As they approached this mountain village in eastern Afghanistan, the Americans spied the warlord's fighters high on a ridge to their right. They scrambled for cover behind their trucks and Humvees.

Moments later, machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained down on their vulnerable position. Though pinned down, the Americans responded with a fusillade of their own.

"The air was snapping like Rice Crispies [sic]," the Special Forces team's newly assigned commander, Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth C. Waller, 32, wrote in a florid after-action report. "So many rounds were flying back and forth that lead was overcoming the oxygen in the air."

The battle raged for 45 minutes, then A-10 attack planes and Apache helicopters flew in and strafed the Afghans into retreat.

There were no casualties among the 17 Americans on patrol that day. "It seemed as if we had an angelic bubble surrounding our position," Waller reported to headquarters.

Though Waller filed several detailed and colorful accounts of the battle, he apparently omitted any mention of what happened next.

As some members of ODA 2021 pursued the warlord's men into the hills, others moved into the village to search the mud-walled houses for fighters.

They detained three unarmed men for questioning. Two of them, brothers Jan and Wakil Mohammed, told the soldiers they were just returning from evening prayers at the mosque and had nothing to do with the shootout.

Suddenly, another band of five or six Green Berets emerged from the hills where they had been chasing Pacha Khan's men. They had no interpreters.

"Those soldiers were running toward us and yelling in English, and we didn't understand what they were saying," Jan Mohammed recalled in an interview. Amid the confusion, he said, his brother grew frantic. Wakil, a woodcutter and father of two, raised his hands and shouted in Pashto, "De Khoday day para ma me vala!" according to his brother. "For God's sake, don't shoot me!"

There was a burst of gunfire from one soldier, Jan Mohammed said, and three rounds ripped into Wakil. One struck him in the mouth. He fell dead at his brother's feet.

At day's end, Waller would report to his chain of command that six enemy fighters had been killed in action.

But the circumstances of Wakil's death were not described in Waller's reports, and Army criminal investigators would later determine that the killing could not be classified as a battlefield casualty. Last year, they listed it as a murder. However, the military has since reopened its probe, and investigators decline to say whether the same charges are being pursued.

It would not be the only questionable death of a detainee in the custody of ODA 2021, nor the only one that leaders of the 10-man field team would fail to disclose to superiors in the Alabama National Guard's 20th Special Forces Group.

Within days of the Wazi killing, an 18-year-old Afghan army recruit named Jamal Naseer died after being interrogated at the team's firebase in Gardez, about 25 miles to the north. Multiple witnesses say his body showed signs of severe beating and other abuse. His brother and six others also held at Gardez say they were tortured.

The commander over all Special Forces in Afghanistan at the time, then-Col. James G. "Greg" Champion, said in a brief interview that neither death was reported up the chain of command. Champion, a National Guardsman who has since been promoted to brigadier general, said he did not hear of the deaths until 18 months later, when he learned that The Times was investigating.

The team's battalion commander also said that neither death was reported to him.

"Two unreported deaths in a few days are a clue that something's wrong" with that team, said a military official familiar with the incidents, who asked not to be identified.

There were others who helped keep the secrets of the base. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, which was responsible for monitoring human rights abuses, was informed that Naseer's death in Gardez probably involved "torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment" by Special Forces troops. But U.N. officials acknowledge they did not report it to American authorities for at least 13 months, and U.S. officials say it was never reported at all.

The provincial governor helped conceal the mistreatment by arranging for the late-night removal of Naseer's body from the military base. He also ordered the abrupt transfer of the other detainees from the base to the custody of the local police chief after they had been held many days beyond what military procedures allowed.

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