CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — In May, Army Col. John Nicholson created an uproar when he said he was "deeply ashamed" that U.S. Marines had killed Afghan civilians during an incident two months earlier. Marine commanders said Nicholson was wrong to denounce the Marines while investigations were still underway.
On Wednesday, Nicholson again criticized the Marines, this time during a Marine Corps court of inquiry investigating the March 4 incident. A Marine special operations unit has been accused of shooting civilians indiscriminately after a car-bomb attack on its convoy.
Speaking by video link from the Pentagon, Nicholson said the Marine unit often strayed outside its assigned area and did not coordinate with him even though he was the area "battle space" commander. He said he was not informed that the unit was on a mission the day of the shootings.
The Marines undermined investigations into the shootings, Nicholson said, by fleeing the scene rather than staying to treat casualties and preserve evidence.
Leaving the scene of a gunfight is "something we never do," Nicholson said archly, stressing that his Army brigade was trained to "remain in possession of the battlefield."
Nicholson's pointed testimony underscored tensions between Army and Marine commanders in eastern Afghanistan even before Marine Special Operations Company F encountered the car bomb. The Marine unit, the first Marine special operations company deployed in combat, was ordered out of Afghanistan shortly after the shootings.
In May, Nicholson told reporters that 19 civilians had been killed and 50 wounded. He said he was "terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people." In his testimony Wednesday, Nicholson described having to repair carefully nurtured relations with local Pashtun tribes after the shootings. He said the incident compromised his counterinsurgency efforts.
Several Marines have testified at the inquiry, now in its third week, that Humvee gunners adhered to military rules of engagement and shot at gunmen who opened fire on the convoy as part of a "complex ambush." Shortly before the shootings, the American convoy had been struck by a van packed with explosives, slightly wounding one Marine.
Nicholson testified that the commander of the Marine unit, Maj. Fred C. Galvin, kept him in the dark about his unit's actions. Galvin reported to a special operations command, but Nicholson commanded an Army brigade and was in charge of the battle space. The colonel said he'd told Galvin to coordinate actions with him.
Nicholson said he found out after the incident that Galvin had conducted more than 30 operations in Nicholson's eastern Afghanistan command area but had told him of just five or six.
Nicholson's focus was on "the human terrain," he said, whereas the Marines seemed intent on tracking and killing insurgents. He said he stressed combat coordination because "you can't just roll into the battle space unannounced."
The court is investigating the actions of Galvin and the convoy commander, Capt. Vincent J. Noble. It will report its findings to a Marine general. No one has been charged.
Nicholson said Galvin told him just after the shootings that his men had come under fire at the car-bomb site and fired back, leaving "five or six bodies." Galvin said the 30-man convoy was fired on again farther down the highway and again returned fire.
Pressed by civilian lawyers representing Galvin and Noble, Nicholson acknowledged that the number of dead and wounded has not been established and that U.S. troops who arrived on the scene 30 minutes after the car bombing found no dead or wounded Afghans.
But Nicholson said Afghans collect and bury their dead quickly, in accordance with Muslim traditions. And he said the highway where the shootings took place leads directly to a hospital in nearby Jalalabad.
Asked whether Taliban insurgents often "seed" battlefields with phony civilian casualties or exaggerate civilian deaths, Nicholson replied: "That's why it's so important for us to stay on the scene."