Gee, who would you believe – the US soldiers who admitted a mistake, or 34 men with cuts and bruises and a consistent story? We’re not always 100% good guys.
Fighters Recount Unanswered Pleas, Beatings — and an Apology on Their Release
By John Ward Anderson, Washington Post Foreign Service
HAUZIMATED, Afghanistan, March 25 — When U.S. tanks and helicopters surrounded a walled compound in this tiny desert outpost on March 17 and arrested more than 30 men suspected of belonging to the al Qaeda network, the Pentagon depicted the operation as a good example of how U.S. forces would finish rooting out terrorists from Afghanistan.
But last week, after four days of imprisonment, all of the suspects were released. U.S. officials had discovered that the compound was a security post manned not by al Qaeda or Taliban forces, but by fighters from the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance hired by the government of Kandahar to help control crime.
Eighteen of the men said in interviews that they quickly surrendered and tried to explain that they were U.S. allies as their small compound was surrounded by eight to 10 U.S. tanks and dozens of American soldiers at about 3 a.m. that day. But they said their explanations were either not understood or ignored and that they were tied up, punched, kicked and kneed by the soldiers and then held in cages at a U.S. military base for four days before being released with an apology.
The incident and others like it raise questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan. U.S. forces frequently have been accused of not recognizing when they are being fed bad information by local Afghan leaders who want to settle political, personal and tribal disputes by accusing their rivals of being members of the Taliban or al Qaeda.
The incident is reminiscent of a Jan. 24 U.S. military operation in the town of Uruzgan in which 21 villagers were killed and 27 were detained for two weeks before being released. The villagers complained that they had been severely beaten during their capture and detention by U.S. military forces who had misidentified them as al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
The U.S. Central Command, which runs the war in Afghanistan, has refused to acknowledge error in the Uruzgan operation, saying its troops were fired on in what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Feb. 21 called an “untidy” situation. But the CIA has made reparation payments to the families of those killed, according to reports from local authorities here.
Maj. Ignacio Perez, a spokesman at the U.S. military base at Kandahar airport, said the operation eight days ago in this tiny hamlet about 25 miles west of Kandahar is not under investigation. “These individuals were treated in a highly professional manner,” he said. “We treat all detainees humanely and consistent with the protections provided for under the Geneva Convention.”
Perez refused to provide specifics about how the men were detained, citing “operational security.” He said he did not know why the outpost had been targeted by U.S. forces as an enemy camp. No shots were fired during the incident, officials said.
In revealing the operation at a Pentagon briefing last week, Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director for current operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was “a set of indicators” pointing to possible enemy activities and “when those indicators line up, we’re going into those compounds.”
Several days later, when announcing that the men had been released, Rosa explained, “We had looked at that site some time ago. And what happened through intelligence — we saw more ammunition, more weapons in that area. We also saw folks that we didn’t necessarily recognize. More importantly, the Afghanis that were with our troops did not know who was in that compound.”
“We never processed them and they never became detainees,” Rosa added.
But many of the men interviewed showed what appeared to be official U.S. government identity cards stating: “This card is issued to prisoners of war in the custody of the United States Army.”
The compound here officially is a police post surrounded by a 10-foot wall about 100 yards off the Kandahar-Heart highway, in a community that exists principally to make emergency automotive repairs. Men stationed here said that if anybody wanted to know who they were and why they were there, all they had to do was ask.
“They should have sent someone here and taken our leader to their base and asked, ‘Who are you?’ and solved this through dialogue,” said Ahmed Younis, 22. “But they didn’t ask anything. They just took all of us to their base, beat us and insulted us, and then apologized.”
Residents of the community said they, too, could have told the U.S. forces that the people in the compound were not enemies, but they were too afraid to leave their homes when tanks and soldiers rumbled into town.
After their post was surrounded, one of the men from the compound opened the front gate with a light and invited the unexpected guests inside, but he was told to go back in and not to come out again, the men here said. Finally, about 30 U.S. soldiers entered and ordered the men to surrender their weapons. They said they turned over 24 AK-47 assault rifles, pistols and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
“They told us that ‘We have information you belong to al Qaeda or the Taliban,’ that ‘this is [Taliban leader] Mullah [Mohammad] Omar’s house, and you are going to attack us and turn the people against us,’ ” said Faida Mohammed, a commander at the outpost who was sporting a black eye he said he received that night. “We laughed and said, ‘We’re from the government.’ But we didn’t move or say anything against them.”
The men said their feet were bound, their hands tied behind their backs and black hoods placed over their heads while U.S. soldiers punched and kicked them. Many of the 18 men who gathered to describe what happened showed a variety of cuts and bruises they said they had received during the beatings. In all, they said, 34 men at the outpost were taken into custody; U.S. officials put the number at 31.
They were driven to the U.S. base about 40 miles away, and once there, at about 7 a.m., they were ordered to lie on their stomachs on a patch of rocky ground for the next seven hours. “Whenever we moved, they hit us,” Faida Mohammed said.
For the next four days, the men said they were held in a large, walled detention area at the base that had about 15 cages, each about 32 feet long and 15 feet wide, made with wooden posts surrounded by metal fencing and topped by weatherproof material. Each cage held 10 to 18 people, they said.
The men were divided among three of the cages, sharing the space with Pakistani, Iranian, Chechen, Bangladeshi, Palestinian and other Arab prisoners, they said. Each man was given two blankets and a space on the wooden floor on which to sleep. There were two buckets for the latrine, but otherwise they were ordered to sit on the floor all the time, not look up and not talk to anyone, the men said.
They were fed regularly, and after the first day, they were not mistreated, the men said. Each underwent about an hour of personal interrogation during the first two days, which consisted principally of questions about their family background and their political and military allegiances. They said they were not threatened or hit during the questioning. They said that after two days, it appeared that their true identities had been discovered, and they were mostly ignored for the last two days.
“Finally, they believed us, and they said, ‘It was a misunderstanding — someone gave us bad information,’ ” Faida Mohammed said. “They said, ‘We apologize,’ and they flew us back here in five helicopters, accompanied by the top leader of the air base himself.”