The Independent's Jerome Starkey writes:
The inevitable effect of letting gung-ho thugs with guns rampage is indicated by the priceless Patrick Cockburn, also in The Indie:
Troops from the US Marines Corps' Special Operations Command, or MarSOC, were responsible for calling in air strikes in Bala Boluk, in Farah, last week – believed to have killed more than 140 men, women and children – as well as two other incidents in 2007 and 2008. News of MarSOC's involvement in the three incidents comes just days after a Special Forces expert, Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, was named to take over as the top commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan. His surprise appointment has prompted speculation that commando counterinsurgency missions will increase in the battle to beat the Taliban.
MarSOC was created three years ago on the express orders of Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary at the time, despite opposition from within the Marine Corps and the wider Special Forces community. An article in the Marine Corps Times described the MarSOC troops as "cowboys" who brought shame on the corps.
The first controversial incident involving the unit happened just three weeks into its first deployment to Afghanistan on 4 March 2007. Speeding away from a suicide bomb attack close to the Pakistan border, around 120 men from Fox Company opened fire on civilians near Jalalabad, in Nangahar province. The Marines said they were shot at after the explosion; eyewitnesses said the Americans fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and civilian cars, killing at least 19 people.
The US Army commander in Nangahar at the time, Colonel John Nicholson, said he was "deeply ashamed" and described the incident as "a stain on our honour". The Marines' tour was cut short after a second incident on 9 March in which they allegedly rolled a car and fired on traffic again, and they were flown out of Afghanistan a few weeks later.
The top Special Operations officer at US Central Command, Army Major General Frank Kearney, refuted MarSOC's claims that they had been shot at. "We found no brass that we can confirm that small-arms fire came at them," he said, referring to ammunition casings. "We have testimony from Marines that is in conflict with unanimous testimony from civilians."
At the military hearings on the incident, which were held back in the US, soldiers said the MarSOC troops, who called themselves Taskforce Violence, were gung-ho and hungry to prove themselves in battle. The inquiry also heard testimony suggesting there were tensions between the Marine unit and its US Army counterparts in Nangahar province.
Col Nicholson told the court the unit would routinely stray into areas under his control without telling him, ignoring usual military courtesies. "There had been potentially 25 operations in my area of operations that I, as a commander, was not aware of," he said. Asked about the moment he was told of the March shootout, he added: "My initial reaction was, 'What are they doing out there?' " The three-week military inquiry ultimately spared the Marine unit from criminal charges.
In August last year, a 20-man MarSOC unit, fighting alongside Afghan commandos, directed fire from unmanned drones, attack helicopters and a cannon-armed Spectre gunship into compounds in Azizabad, in Herat province, leaving more than 90 people dead – many of them children.
And just last week, MarSOC troops called in the Bala Baluk air strikes to rescue an Afghan police patrol that had been ambushed in countryside in Farah province. US officials said two F18 fighter jets and a B1 bomber had swooped because men on the ground were overwhelmed. But villagers said the most devastating bombs were dropped on compounds some distance from the fighting, long after the battle was over, and when Taliban forces were retreating. Afghan officials said up to 147 people were killed, including more than 90 women and children. (1)
It is astonishing to discover that the same small American unit, the US Marine Corps' Special Operations or MarSOC, has been responsible for all three of the worst incidents in Afghanistan in which civilians have been killed. Its members refer to themselves as "Taskforce Violence" and the Marines' own newspaper scathingly refers to the unit as "cowboys".Not doubt we'll be told, once these killings are investigated, that there may have been 'instances' where troops - possibly 'stressed' or 'angry' deviated from 'correct proceedure.' That does not exculpate the murderers in MarSOC, it merely makes their commanders guilty as well.
Survivors from Gerani, Gangabad and Khoujaha villages say that there had been fighting nearby but the Taliban had long withdrawn when US aircraft attacked. This was not a few errant sticks of bombs but a prolonged bombardment. It had a devastating effect on the mud-brick houses and photographs of the dead show that their bodies were quite literally torn apart by the blasts. This makes it difficult to be precise about the exact number killed, but the Afghan Rights Monitor, after extensive interviewing, says that at least 117 civilians were killed, including 26 women and 61 children.
The US military has now fallen back on the tired old justification that the enemy was using civilians as human shields. This certainly is not satisfying infuriated Afghans from demonstrating students at Kabul university all the way to President Hamid Karzai. Whatever MarSOC troops thought they were doing in Bala Boluk, the killing of so many civilians will do nothing but strengthen the Taliban. (2)
It is a bullshit defence, anyway, because these thugs have been at least allowed, at worst encouraged, to do this sort of thing. They don't seem to be responsible to the official military authorities, so who does command them now? It might have been Rumsfeld that set it up and created the monster, but it's existence is being tolerated by the new adminsitration. If Obama wants to salvage some sort of victory - moral, not military - from the disaster in Afghanistan, he has to act to stop these savages from killing innocent people for sport.
1 - "Rumsfeld's renegade unit blamed for Afghan deaths" by Jerome Starkey, published in The Independent, 16th of May, 2009. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/rumsfelds-renegade-unit-blamed-for-afghan-deaths-1685704.html)
2 - "" by Patrick Cockburn, in The Independent, 16th of May, 2009. (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/patrick-cockburn-these-killings-will-only-strengthen-the-taliban-1685705.html)