The deaths of two detainees in the custody of Special Forces in Afghanistan appear questionable after revelations that reports of brutal treatment were not passed along.
Second of two-part series
WAZI, Afghanistan — The Green Berets of Operational Detachment Alpha 2021 were on high alert as their convoy rumbled down the winding road in March 2003. The team had been tipped that armed men loyal to the Afghan warlord Pacha Khan Zadran lay in wait.
As they approached this mountain village, the U.S. soldiers of the Alabama National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group spied the warlord’s fighters high on a ridge and machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained on their position. Though pinned down, the Americans responded with a fusillade of their own.
“The air was snapping like Rice Crispies [sic],” the Special Forces team’s newly assigned commander, Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Waller, 32, wrote in an after-action report. “So many rounds were flying back and forth that lead was overcoming the oxygen in the air.”
The battle raged for 45 minutes before A-10 attack planes and Apache helicopters flew in and strafed the Afghans into retreat. There were no casualties among the 17 Americans on patrol that day.
“It seemed as if we had an angelic bubble surrounding our position,” Waller reported to headquarters.
Though Waller filed several detailed and colorful accounts of the battle, he apparently omitted mention of what happened next.
As some members of ODA 2021 pursued the warlord’s men into the hills in eastern Afghanistan, others moved into the village to search the mud-walled houses for fighters.
They detained three unarmed men for questioning.
Two of them, brothers Jan and Wakil Mohammed, told the soldiers they were returning from evening prayers at the mosque and had nothing to do with the shootout.
Suddenly, another band of Green Berets emerged from the area where they had been chasing Pacha Khan’s men. They had no interpreters.
Amid the confusion, Jan Mohammed said, his brother grew frantic. Wakil Mohammed, a woodcutter and father of two, raised his hands and shouted, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot me!”
There was a burst of gunfire, Jan Mohammed said, and Wakil fell dead. At day’s end, Waller reported to his chain of command that six enemy fighters had been killed in action. Army criminal investigators later determined that Wakil Mohammed’s death could not be classified as a battlefield casualty. Last year, they listed it as a murder.
It would not be the only questionable death of a detainee in the custody of ODA 2021, nor the only one that leaders of the 10-man field team would fail to disclose to superiors in the Alabama National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group.
Within days of the Wazi killing, an Afghan army recruit named Jamal Naseer, 18, died after being interrogated at the team’s firebase in Gardez, about 25 miles to the north. Multiple witnesses say his body showed signs of severe beating and other abuse.
The commander over all Special Forces in Afghanistan at the time, then-Col. James G. “Greg” Champion, a National Guardsman who has since been promoted to brigadier general, said he did not hear of the deaths until 18 months later, when he learned the Los Angeles Times was investigating.
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command has been examining both deaths and apparent cover-ups for two years, since learning about them from the Times and the Crimes of War Project, a Washington-based nonprofit educational organization, which first confirmed Naseer’s death.
New leader, tactics
ODA 2021’s missions and tactics became markedly more aggressive after Waller took charge of the Special Forces detachment in February 2003, a month before the questionable deaths in Wazi and Gardez. He recently had been reassigned from another Special Forces unit, where some of his men complained that his gung-ho leadership style put them at unnecessary risk.
In Gardez, he was able to set his sights on Pacha Khan, the warlord who had been destabilizing the countryside for months. Pacha Khan’s men were suspected of extorting illegal payments from truckers on the road from Gardez to Khost, supporting anti-government forces, and staging an ambush that wounded the ODA’s battalion chief.
The most infamous checkpoint, atop Sato Kandaw Pass in Paktia province, was controlled by a former Pacha Khan lieutenant named Ahmad Naseer, better known as Commander Parre. He had recently defected to the Afghan government in exchange for $3,000 and a truck provided by the CIA.
Raz Mohammed Dalili, then the governor of Paktia, took the unusual step of asking American troops to remove the checkpoint, making his request to a Special Forces soldier named “Mike.”
Although there was no ODA 2021 member named Mike at the time, military documents show, 1st Class Michael E. MacMillan, an intelligence analyst and member of the regular Army’s 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., was then working with the Gardez unit.
Described in correspondence from Waller as the team’s “intelligence agent,” MacMillan was assigned to conduct interrogations and collect information for combat operations, according to several people familiar with the team. MacMillan declined to be interviewed for this report.
When the ODA arrived at Sato Kandaw on March 5, Parre said they shook hands and that the soldier he knew as Mike asked to talk.
Parre said he knew Mike because the Americans had stopped by from time to time to collect intelligence Mike asked about his relationship with Pacha Khan. Before he could respond, two men jumped Parre from behind, and U.S. soldiers quickly subdued Parre’s men, including his 18-year-old brother, Jamal Naseer. The Afghans were cuffed, hooded, bound and tossed into vehicles, Parre said.
The detainees said physical abuse began as soon as they reached the Gardez firebase.
“We were kicked in the small of our back … and cold water was poured over our body in the open air,” Parre told the Times. “They put stones under our knees. We were continuously forced to stay on our knees until we lost the sensation of our legs and couldn’t walk.”
He said an interrogator ripped off one of his toenails. Because the detainees were hooded through much of their detention, they said, they could not identify their interrogators, except to note that their speech sounded American.
“They were asking me international questions,” Parre said. “Have you met any al-Qaida leader? Have you gone to Pakistan? To Iran? And who was creating trouble on the highway? But I didn’t know any of these things.”
As the beatings continued, he said, an Afghan interpreter pleaded with him to give the interrogators what they wanted.
“Just say anything to get it to stop,” Parre quoted the interpreter as saying.
Under Army procedures, Parre and his men should either have been released after four days or sent to a holding facility in Bagram if interrogations yielded evidence of ties to the Taliban or al-Qaida. Military records show that after two days of questioning, the Americans had no plan to send the detainees to Bagram. But ODA 2021 also was reluctant to transfer them to local police custody. Parre and his men remained at the firebase, and the beatings continued.
A week after their Sato Kandaw operation, Waller and ODA 2021 were ready to push farther into Pacha Khan country for what the team described as a reconnaissance patrol of the Wazi district. Waller’s men loaded an extra machine gun into each truck and stacked in so much ammunition that there was little room for their feet.
“We were going hunting this time,” one team member said.
If they left Gardez looking for a fight, they found it with Pacha Khan’s men on the road outside Wazi.
In his post-battle reports, Waller told Col. Steven W. Duff, his battalion commander who had been wounded in an ambush in the same region, that the team’s weaponry sergeant, Joseph T. “Todd” Henderson, “got one of the bastards associated with shooting you. The bastard nearly exploded as the shell ripped through his chest cavity.”
Waller concluded: “This team does not have any [sissies]. You should have seen them laughing during the fight … Told you we would find them.”
The day’s events at Wazi did not end with the shooting of Wakil Mohammed. The victim’s brother, Jan, was taken into custody along with a neighbor, Dawood Khan.
Both men told the Times that while held overnight in Gardez, they were forced to kneel and press their foreheads against a wall. Every time they sat back, they said, they were kicked in the small of the back and the chest.
Dawood Khan said that after being beaten he was twice dunked in a tub of icy water and submerged to the verge of drowning. He and Mohammed were forced to stay awake through a cold night.
The two villagers were released the next day with clean clothes. A report to headquarters described them as cooperative.
Waller’s bosses at battalion headquarters were thrilled the team had escaped casualties in the attack at Wazi. But the operations officer informed Waller that he had recommended his removal from command of ODA 2021 for “among other things, the extremely unprofessional remarks” in his reports.
By this time, Champion’s 20th Special Forces Group was in the process of turning over the Special Operations task force to its replacement, the 3rd Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg. The new guys were not Guardsmen, but regular Army soldiers, and they did not much care for Waller’s references to the air “snapping like Rice Crispies” or the team’s “angelic bubble” of protection, the operations officer wrote.
In Gardez, the detention of Parre and his men continued.
Parre said he believed his brother, Jamal Naseer, was subjected to the harshest interrogation because, at 18, he was the most vulnerable. On the afternoon Jamal Naseer died — Parre believes March 16, 2003 — he saw two men assisting his brother, who was having difficulty walking. There was no interpreter, Parre said, so he and an American soldier pantomimed their way through a discussion of Naseer’s condition.
First, the American jabbed a finger into his arm to show that Jamal had been given an intravenous drip, Parre said. Then he shook his head to suggest it hadn’t worked. He pumped his fist like a heart, and again shook his head negatively. Eventually, Parre was escorted into a tent to see his brother.
“I thought he was smiling at me, and so I smiled back,” Parre recounted. “… I went to him and shook him and said, ‘Jamalah, Jamalah,’ and then I realized that he had been martyred.”
Later that night, Parre said, several Americans entered the tent, put their hands over their hearts and offered condolences. But he said the man he knew as Mike asserted that Naseer had died of an illness, not at the hands of the Americans.
ODA 2021 held a team meeting shortly after Jamal’s death, according to an American soldier based in Gardez. The team was advised that the Afghan had died of a sex-related infection that shut down his kidneys, the soldier said.
Authorities at a civilian hospital in Gardez, where Naseer’s body was transferred, said they performed no autopsy.
A hospital worker who prepared the body for burial said in an interview that “it was completely black.”
Jamal Naseer’s death prompted renewed contacts between ODA 2021 and Dalili, who arranged for the late-night transfer of the body to the local hospital, according to an Afghan military inquiry. He also ordered the transfers of Parre and his men to the local jail.
There, local physician Aziz Ulrahman examined the prisoners and described them as battered and bruised, with seeping, unbandaged wounds. He said Parre’s feet were black.
A few days later, a delegation from Afghanistan’s Judicial Reform Commission happened to visit the Gardez police station and a political officer with the U.N. mission in Afghanistan who was with the group interviewed Parre and his men. He wrote a detailed memo noting that one Afghan soldier had died in U.S. custody and raising the possibility that Special Forces might have been involved in “cruel and inhuman treatment” of detainees.
Several U.N. officials acknowledged that the report seemed to have fallen into “a black hole” after making its way to the mission’s headquarters in Kabul, the Afghan capital. It was only in the spring of 2004, U.N. officials said, that they forwarded the information to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Parre and his companions were later moved to a civilian prison in Kabul, still without any formal charges. Afghan military prosecutors immediately launched an investigation into their unexplained detention.
That inquiry produced a 117-page report asserting that the detainees had been tortured and that there was a “strong probability” that one of the men had been “murdered.”