Did US Soldiers Target Afghan Civilians? War Crime Allegations Threaten to Harm America's Image

Five US soldiers are facing charges of war crimes, suspected of deliberately killing Afghan civilians. The unfolding scandal threatens to harm America's image abroad and derail President Barack Obama's efforts to draw a line under the abuses of the Bush era.



He used to boast about all the "stuff" he had done in Iraq and about how easy it was for an American soldier to get away with almost anything in a war. Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 25, a native of the US state of Montana, was the highest-ranking member of a group of five soldiers that he allegedly dubbed the "kill team." Gibbs had been in Iraq long enough to know how to impress his fellow soldiers. All you have to do, he told them in December, is "toss a grenade" and you'll have killed a bunch of Afghans. The kill team apparently tossed its first grenade in January.

Now the team faces a military court in Seattle. The five men, who are aged between 19 and 29, are soldiers in the 2nd Infantry Division stationed in the Kandahar region. The men are facing charges of war crimes, including the premeditated murder of at least three Afghan civilians. Seven other soldiers in their battalion have been charged in connection with the conspiracy or with attempting to cover it up. If convicted, they could face prison sentences, possibly even life in prison. The alleged murderers could even face the death penalty.

America's Reputation at Stake

America has good reasons to be alarmed. Although it is still unclear as to how well-founded the allegations are, the case could have enormous repercussions for the entire country.

It involves more than a court imposing a just penalty for brutal murders, and more than compliance with the military code of honor and the Geneva Conventions. At stake is the reputation of a country that, after eight years under the administration of former President George W. Bush, had set out to liberate itself from charges of moral failure. Indeed, the Seattle case raises the question of whether the United States has really turned its back on the days when it gambled away its reputation with images of naked Iraqis forced to form human pyramids in Abu Ghraib prison.

If the claims made in the indictment are true, the crimes committed by the kill team went beyond the killing of Afghan civilians. In fact, the men allegedly devised "scenarios" for the killings, a kind of script that included plausible pretexts for the murders. Gibbs is believed to have been the planner, while the younger team members did the shooting. The men apparently treated killing as a sport.

They allegedly fired at their victims with gusto, collecting trophies that included finger and toe bones, and even a tooth. The charges outline senseless, horrific acts reminiscent of a former America, an America of waterboarding, torture scandals and Guantanamo Bay. They also raise the question of what exactly has changed since the election campaign in which then-candidate Barack Obama promised so much, including a more responsible approach to warfare and the closing of the military prison in Cuba, an important symbol of America's moral failings under former President George W. Bush.

Losing Perspective

The "kill team" scandal comes at the worst possible time, with the November midterm elections only two months away, elections that could take a high toll on Obama's Democrats.

So far the crimes in Kandahar appear to be isolated cases, with no indications that anyone sanctioned or even supported the attacks. They are the actions of young hooligans who had lost some of their perspective as a result of the war. In the battalion that includes the "kill team," a total of 33 soldiers have died in combat missions against insurgents. The members of the battalion had experienced the horrors of war, and some of them take drugs, including hashish, to cope. From this perspective, the murders can also be seen as the horrific crimes of crazed soldiers, who are out of touch with reality.

Similar things happened in Afghanistan almost 30 years ago, when the Soviet army invaded the country. Murders, robberies and looting were widespread at the time. Demoralized Soviet soldiers would rob Afghan civilians at checkpoints. Often they would kill their victims, claiming they were mujahideen.

Feeling helpless in their inability to counter the resistance of the Afghans, Moscow's troops turned to drugs and alcohol. Having lost their inhibitions, they committed atrocities they would never forget. In September 1982, a group of Russian soldiers burned 105 villagers alive in an irrigation canal south of Kabul. Women were thrown naked from helicopters. In a particularly horrific incident, soldiers doused a boy in kerosene and set him on fire in front of his parents.

The murders committed by the American soldiers in Kandahar also speak to a broader context. They reflect the general mood, the barbarization that has always accompanied wars that have dragged on this long -- in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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