Sunday, May 18, 2008

Nangar Khel: NATO's unknown massacre

Note: Below is an essay of mine posted a couple of weeks ago at Rabble and ZNet concerning the Nangar Khel incident. Here, I've added pictures and an update. Readers of this blog have already been subjected to extracts of translated Polish news coverage which constitute some of the sources for the essay below.

Nangar Khel: NATO's Unknown Massacre
It's the story of an unprecedented attack on Afghan civilians, and it's not being told

On the afternoon of August 16, 2007 a unit of Polish soldiers operating under NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Paktika Province approached a small Afghan village. Known as Delta platoon, the patrol had come to the village, called Nangar Khel, in reponse to a Taliban IED attack on American forces early that morning in the same area.

What happened next is still not clear and awaits an upcoming trial, but in preliminary hearings officials have acknowledged that these Polish NATO troops killed six civilians and seriously wounded three more in mortar and machine gun fire. The victims, who were reportedly taking part in a wedding celebration, included several women and children.

Soon after the incident, ISAF's public relations department announced that several civilians had been killed in a skirmish between NATO forces and Taliban insurgents. As is normal for NATO press releases, the notice did not name the nationality of the foreign troops involved. Less commonly, however, ISAF did not state whether it was NATO or Taliban forces who had killed the civilians. While several news agencies carried brief reports relaying the facts, these were not picked up and the incident was basically ignored by the major English language media. Soon, however, Poles were alerted to the fact that the soldiers involved were from the Polish Land Forces. But a delay in the official announcement, which came some six days after the incident, prompted widespread accusations that the Polish Defense Minister was hiding something. Indeed, two former Defense Ministers, from either end of the Polish political spectrum, publicly accused Minister Aleksander Szczyglo of attempting to conceal details of the incident.

An act of revenge?
In fact Szczyglo was hiding something, for on August 20, he had received a military counterintelligence assessment of the incident which must have stunned him. The report said that there had not been any insurgents present during the firing and that the village may have been attacked by the Polish soldiers in an act of revenge for the death of a colleague. Some two days before the Nangar Khel incident, a Polish soldier in an adjacent province had been killed in a Taliban ambush, thus becoming the first Pole to die in NATO's Afghanistan war. The residents of Nangar Khel, for their part, were reportedly thought to secretly support Taliban insurgents. Rather than revealing these growing concerns, Szczyglo told reporters that the Polish troops had captured an important terrorist while battling with Taliban fighters that day. Meanwhile, the report of misdeeds was passed on to military police officials.

Delta platoon were operating in the Wazi Khwa district of Afghanistan's southeastern Paktika Province where they shared a base with American troops. The Polish NATO contingent, working amid flat, dry and dusty valleys hemmed in by low mountains, were no strangers to morale problems. Just two months before the Nangar Khel event, eleven Polish commandoes stationed at Wazi Khwa had demanded to be sent home early to Poland rather than continue to operate with the dangerously unsafe equipment provided them. While the rebellious soldiers did not get their way, they were celebrated by the ranks, a significant portion of whom are conscripts.

When news of what went on outside the wire became widely known at the base, the spirit of camaraderie was shattered. That oft-cited barometer of public opinion, the latrine walls, told of the revulsion felt by other soldiers: "Delta should be behind bars - murderers of children," read the bathroom graffiti.

Back in Poland, government officials announced that an investigation had begun into the nature of the incident, which was still largely a mystery to most Poles. But the investigation did not appear to bear fruit until after national elections which saw the incumbents ousted, including Defense Minister Szczyglo.

Arrests and cover story

On November 13, as Poland's newly elected government was entering office, seven soldiers were arrested.* News photographers captured images of masked teams of SWAT-style military police hauling away hooded and handcuffed suspects. The following day, military prosecutors announced criminal charges for some members of Delta platoon. Two privates, a sergeant, a warrant officer, a lieutenant and a captain were charged with murder of civilians under circumstances of war or occupation, while one private was charged with attacking civilian objects. The prosecutor stated that the crimes for which they are charged constitute violations of the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and carry jail sentences of twelve years to life for the murder charges and five to 25 years for the lesser charge.

Under questioning, several of the accused recanted the stories they had given to investigators earlier. The lower ranking soldiers now claimed that they had received orders to fire on three different villages and that they had received these orders before leaving the Wazi Khwa base. This is the accusation leveled by the assistant to the platoon's commanding officer. Warrant Officer Andrzej O., assistant to Second Lieutenant Lukasz B., said he was present at the meeting where the platoon was ordered to attack Nangar Khel and two nearby villages. Lieutenant Lukasz B. was present for the meeting, according to his assistant.

The accused stated that they did not refuse to carry out their orders even after they saw that civilians were present in Nangar Khel. They also told of a cover story which their commanders had concocted to prevent the truth from being revealed. According to one of the accused, Polish commander General Marek Tomaszycki met with the accused at the Wazi Khwa base just days after the incident and persuaded the soldiers to hush up the incident: "He said that we should not discuss it at all, help each other and watch each other so that nobody committed suicide, as then it would all come out," claimed the soldier. The general denied the claim.

The Polish press also reported on leaked testimony that Delta platoon was not the only unit to be given the order to attack. Another platoon had reportedly been given the orders earlier but had refused to carry them out as they recognized that civilians would be endangered.

Though physical evidence is being kept secret, it has been widely reported in the Polish press that a video recording of the attack on the village is amongst said evidence. Supposedly, the video shows the troops entering Nangar Khel, despite earlier claims that the troops did not enter the village at any time. Relating what the video shows next, one journalistic account related the sentiments of people who had seen the video: "Behavior that does not befit a soldier," was their assessment.
American involvement?

While the arrests of the accused soldiers sparked a media frenzy in Poland, the issue has been almost completely ignored outside the country. This omission is especially glaring in the case of the American media, as it is the US who are in nominal command of NATO forces in Paktika. And indeed, the relationship between the Polish and American forces goes deeper than that. Stanislaw Koziej, a retired Major-General in the Polish army and former deputy minister of defense, writes that Polish troops in Afghanistan are more closely placed under American command than they are in Iraq. "The incorporation of the small combat sub-units into the American structures was not advantageous." The reason for this, he continues, is that "integration with the lowest ranks of the US structures naturally forces our soldiers to use the American tactical doctrine," which he says contrasts with the situation in Iraq, where some 1200 Polish soldiers operate with more independence.

With this structure of command as background, the lack of attention from the US press is telling. Apart from very brief notices in three American papers (New York Times, LA Times, New York Newsday) taken from a November 15 Associated Press dispatch, American press coverage has amounted to one article in the New York Times on November 29. The article, by Berlin bureau chief Nicholas Kulish, generally promotes the view that the Polish soldiers attacked the civilians by accident. This despite the fact that Poland's leading daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had already revealed testimony from colleagues of the arrested soldiers who saw several of the accused deliberately firing on civilian targets. Kulish's 900 word article, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, represents the only English language coverage I could find apart from mention of the case in a Financial Times opinion piece authored by an American defense analyst (Dec 7). (Canadian print media coverage has been precisely zero.)

"Up to this point," wrote Kulish in his Times piece, "there has been no suggestion of American involvement in the civilian deaths." Before long, however, allegations were flying in Poland that the order to attack the villages came from American commanders. So said the wives of two suspects when interviewed on national television. Their accusations reportedly received support from both ex-Defense Minister Szczyglo and current Defense Minister Bogdan Klich but other Polish observers dismissed it out of hand. However, the American media, along with the non-Polish press generally, has reported no more on the case. This despite an excellent Inter Press Service piece by Zoltán Dujisin on December 27. Sadly, that piece was scarcely picked up, even by major leftist websites.

Hearings told civilian deaths routine

The Polish military prosecutors held preliminary hearings on the case, bringing in various military and government officials including at least one American army major who sought to calm Polish nerves. The killing of numerous civilians at Nangar Khel, he said, is "something unfortunate, but not of great significance". He stressed the triviality of the event, saying "I don't understand why an unimportant incident has gained such great significance in your country. Why so much attention? Civilian deaths occur every week, because Afghanistan is no Sunday school."
A Polish special forces officer also told the hearings that the killings were a non-event: "Harming a civilian is something that could happen to any soldier." He added that "The Americans experience similar incidents even once a week. [However,] a substantial majority of such cases result from poor air reconnaissance."

The accused soldiers who shot the weapons have claimed that they did not follow their orders to fire on Nangar Khel. Instead, the soldiers claim they aimed near to the village, but that their weapons misfired, hitting the civilians after all. Yet against this version of events is the testimony of several fellow soldiers who were operating alongside the accused. One of them, a sergeant, told the court that he talked with one of the accused privates while the latter was shelling Nangar Khel. "Asked why [the accused soldiers were] shooting at a village where civilians are present, he confirmed he had been ordered to do so."

Following the hearings, the Polish court decided to keep the accused in custody while they await trial, citing the "large probability that they are guilty as charged". Some worry, however, that a fair trial is not possible as some officials have tainted public opinion on the matter. In an unguarded moment in February, former Defense Minister Szczyglo snapped at a reporter:"Please do not tell me that I am in any way responsible for a bunch of morons shooting at civilians."

* The suspects are named as: Capt. Olgierd C., Second Lt. Łkasz B., Ensign Andrzej O., Platoon Sgt. Tomasz B. and privates first class Damian L., Robert B. and Jacek J. (Polish law forbids publishing the suspects' full names.)

Note on sources: throughout, I make use of Polish media reports translated by the BBC Worldwide Monitoring and available through the Lexis-Nexis database.

Dave Markland is a peace activist, writer and researcher based in Vancouver.

On April 28, Polskie Radio reported that defence lawyers have finally received the court files for the case. The same day, Gazeta Wyborcza online reported:

[T]he investigation is beginning to lean in the commandos' favour. An expert report on the mortar gun which was used to fire on the village concluded that the weapon had a wide field of dispersion and the charges had a hidden defect. That means that when firing on Taleban observation points, Poles may have accidentally struck civilians. (Gazeta Wyborcza website, Apr 28 - BBC transl.)
Meanwhile the commander of the Polish Land Forces, Gen Waldemar Skrzypczak, threatened to quit his post if the seven soldiers were convicted, and added further his own personal guarantee that the accused are innocent. The general was promptly stripped of his post as his remarks were viewed as putting pressure on the military court's proceedings.

Another general, Jerzy Wójcik, who commands the brigade which encompasses Delta platoon's battalion, reveals some of the fallout from the affair. He calls it 'Nangar Khel syndrome':
"The men slated to travel out on successive missions are now wondering: what for? So that I will be afraid to draw my weapon and shoot? They are not saying this outright, but one can already sense it when talking to the soldiers. We are having trouble putting together full contingents for the successive rotations to Afghanistan. Instead of close-knit units, we will be sending out a hodgepodge of people from throughout Poland." (Op. cit.)
The general also made some important observations about culpability:
"Perhaps we should disband the army? If a private receives an order there's no time for discussion... The military is no local council meeting, privates do not discuss things with their commander. Convicting privates undermines the sense of the army's existence. We gave them the right to use force and weapons, without any caveats like other armies did. Where were the lawyers then?! Why didn't they say then that this ran counter to our conventions, why didn't they raise objections that our soldiers were under the command of the Americans, who are not bound by any conventions?" (Op. cit.)
On May 6, Gazeta Wyborcza carried a commentary by journalist Miroslaw Czech:
The Polish state sent out its troops to take part in a war that is in practice not governed by any rules... Our problem stems from the fact that it is above all the United States which does not want to subject itself to the International Criminal Court's jurisdiction.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Polish state placed its units under US operational command without guidelines as to how those soldiers should behave if events like those in Nangar Khel took place. Should they follow the example of the Americans, who explain everything in terms of an attack by the Taleban using civilians as a shield, or should they follow the Boziewicz code [1919 dueling code of honour] or European standards of war law?
Polskie Radio (May 6) has more on what the recently released files show:
[T]he case records, just made available to the defence lawyers, include a witness account of the Taliban shooting first at American and then Polish troops in Nangar Khel. The Polish troops fired back, but stopped as soon as they realised civilians were hit, according to a witness.

Also, according to the Wprost weekly, Polish troops charged with the Nangar Khel killings reported faulty equipment weeks before the tragic incident... (link)
On May 12, the three low-ranking soldiers were released from the military prison to remain free while they await trial. The four officers are still in custody and will be held through their trial, which is set to begin in June. In making the pitch for his clients' release, defense lawyer Piotr Kruszynski recalled a comment by Defence Minister Klich that similar incidents occurred for American forces twice a month on average.

"The court motioned the decision with the fact that the released soldiers were of too low a rank to have any influence on orders," observed Polskie Radio. The Associated Press sums up the development thus: "It said the three are accused of obeying military orders and, as such, would face lower possible sentences, if convicted, than the four officers who remain in custody in the case."

While the accused officers have suffered thus far the ignominy of their incarceration, General Tomaszycki, who was said to have headed a hush-up effort, has been notably successful in his post-Afghanistan career, as Polityka (May 10) comments:
General Mark Tomaszycki ... was not hampered in his successive promotions even by the fact that it was during his shift that the tragic incident with Afghan civilians at the Nangar Khel village occurred. In recent days he has become chief of the Training Directorate at the General Staff...


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