Three photographs, published in the German magazine Der Spiegel, show members of the self-designated “Kill Team” comprised of United States Army soldiers who are accused of making a sport of killing innocent Afghans as they show off one of their victims in a kind of trophy photo; another photograph shows two Afghan civilians who appear to be dead.
Der Spiegel, which published the photographs in its March 20 print edition, but has not yet put the photos online, has blurred the victims’ faces so that their expressions can not be seen. While that makes the photographs somewhat less inflammatory than they would be otherwise, it does not conceal the faces of the soldiers, who look disconcertingly satisfied as they kneel next to an apparently dead Afghan civilian.
Five of the soldiers involved in the killings, who were from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, are now facing court martial proceedings for the deaths of three, unarmed Afghan civilians. Seven other members of the unit are accused of lesser crimes. The men are accused of faking combat situations to justify killing randomly chosen Afghans with grenades and guns. The case came to light after one of the soldiers informed military investigators about the killings; he was then beaten so severely by other members of the unit for betraying them that he had to be hospitalized.
The killings occurred in Maiwand district of Kandahar Province, one of the areas that was dominated by the Taliban until major military operations last summer and fall.
The pictures bring to mind those of the torture and humiliation suffered by Iraqis at the hands of American troops in the Abu Ghraib prison, which came to light in the spring of 2004. However, there were dozens of those pictures and they clearly showed the victims’ faces, making their pain all the more apparent. That case reverberated across the Muslim world in ways that this case has yet to do in part because of the absence of photographs. The release of the images threatens to change that.
However there was little reaction on Monday because it was Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which is a national holiday and many families go out for picnics so that even those few with internet access were less likely to see the photos. The Afghan government had no comment on Monday on the release nor did the American Embassy, which referred all questions to the American military.
The military and diplomats are hoping to mute public anger by emphasizing that the soldiers in the Afghan case are being brought to justice. In a statement, the Army described the actions as “repugnant” and underscored that a prosecution was underway.
“The actions portrayed in these photographs remain under investigation and are now the subject of ongoing U.S. court-martial proceedings,” the statement said.
“The United States Army is committed to adherence to the Law of War and the humane and respectful treatment of combatants, noncombatants, and the dead,” the statement added. “When allegations of wrongdoing by Soldiers surface, to include the inappropriate treatment of the dead, they are fully investigated. Soldiers who commit offenses will be held accountable as appropriate.”
One of the pictures published by Der Spiegel shows a soldier, Spc. Jeremy Morlock of Wasilla, Alaska, posing, a grin on his face, next to a dead Afghan who is mostly undressed, his body streaked with blood, as the soldier lifts up the man’s head as if showing him off like a trophy. Specialist Morlock has been charged with murder.
A second, similar photograph shows another soldier, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, who has been charged with murder, kneeling next to the same corpse.
A third photograph shows two Afghan civilians who appear to be dead and whose bodies have been arranged leaning limply against a post.
The photos had been described to reporters by defense lawyers for some of the soldiers, but their release had been prohibited by a military judge. It is not clear how Der Spiegel obtained the images.