Los Angeles Times
September 25, 2006
Second of two parts
WAZI, Afghanistan — The Green Berets of ODA 2021 were on high alert as their convoy rumbled down the winding, rutted road that day in March 2003. The team had been tipped that armed men loyal to the notoriously volatile warlord Pacha Khan Zadran lay in wait around the bend.
As they approached this mountain village in eastern Afghanistan, the Americans spied the warlord's fighters high on a ridge to their right. They scrambled for cover behind their trucks and Humvees.
Moments later, machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained down on their vulnerable 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 C. Waller, 32, wrote in a florid 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, then 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 any mention of what happened next.
As some members of ODA 2021 pursued the warlord's men into the hills, 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 just returning from evening prayers at the mosque and had nothing to do with the shootout.
Suddenly, another band of five or six Green Berets emerged from the hills where they had been chasing Pacha Khan's men. They had no interpreters.
"Those soldiers were running toward us and yelling in English, and we didn't understand what they were saying," Jan Mohammed recalled in an interview. Amid the confusion, he said, his brother grew frantic. Wakil, a woodcutter and father of two, raised his hands and shouted in Pashto, "De Khoday day para ma me vala!" according to his brother. "For God's sake, don't shoot me!"
There was a burst of gunfire from one soldier, Jan Mohammed said, and three rounds ripped into Wakil. One struck him in the mouth. He fell dead at his brother's feet.
At day's end, Waller would report to his chain of command that six enemy fighters had been killed in action.
But the circumstances of Wakil's death were not described in Waller's reports, and Army criminal investigators would later determine that the killing could not be classified as a battlefield casualty. Last year, they listed it as a murder. However, the military has since reopened its probe, and investigators decline to say whether the same charges are being pursued.
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 18-year-old Afghan army recruit named Jamal Naseer 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. His brother and six others also held at Gardez say they were tortured.
The commander over all Special Forces in Afghanistan at the time, then-Col. James G. "Greg" Champion, said in a brief interview that neither death was reported up the chain of command. 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 that The Times was investigating.
The team's battalion commander also said that neither death was reported to him.
"Two unreported deaths in a few days are a clue that something's wrong" with that team, said a military official familiar with the incidents, who asked not to be identified.
There were others who helped keep the secrets of the base. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, which was responsible for monitoring human rights abuses, was informed that Naseer's death in Gardez probably involved "torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment" by Special Forces troops. But U.N. officials acknowledge they did not report it to American authorities for at least 13 months, and U.S. officials say it was never reported at all.
The provincial governor helped conceal the mistreatment by arranging for the late-night removal of Naseer's body from the military base. He also ordered the abrupt transfer of the other detainees from the base to the custody of the local police chief after they had been held many days beyond what military procedures allowed.
Though U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said they did not know about the death, word spread throughout Paktia province, according to Gen. Hajji Abdul Sattar, the Paktia attorney general for intelligence. He said no one spoke out or complained, however, because "people were scared that ... the same thing would happen to them."
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.
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.
Waller was characterized by several 20th Group officials as deeply affected by the 9/11 attacks and having come to Afghanistan "spoiling for a fight."
In Gardez, he was able to set his sights squarely 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 Khowst, supporting anti-government forces, and staging an ambush that wounded the ODA's battalion chief during a Thanksgiving trip to Gardez.
But at the Pentagon and State Department, Pacha Khan was regarded as a political figure and thus a problem for the new Afghan government, not the U.S. military. The Special Forces team chafed at the political constraints on its freedom to go after him.
Local U.N. officials said they were struck by how deeply personal the conflict between the team and the warlord had become. One of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalled that one Green Beret likened the team's rivalry with Pacha Khan to a blood feud.
Another U.N. official said the same American soldier had told him that "he was so frustrated with [Pacha Khan] that he was going to kill him."
Tea at Sato Kandaw
Unmanned Predator aircraft patrolled the skies over Paktia province, their cameras trained on the 17 checkpoints along the mountain road linking Khowst and Gardez. What they recorded convinced U.S. intelligence officials that trucks hauling firewood and produce were again being stopped and forced to pay bribes.
At the most infamous checkpoint, atop Sato Kandaw Pass, drivers typically had to pay $10 or $15, according to a March 2, 2003, Army intelligence report. The money was being split between Pacha Khan and a former Taliban official, Jalaludin Haqqani, the report said.
Situated on a bend overlooking a sparsely vegetated valley, the Sato Kandaw checkpoint consisted of living quarters and a small mosque used as an armory. The post 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. He said he saw the future of the country with the Americans, not with Pacha Khan.
Despite the change in management, reports of shakedowns persisted, along with complaints that female travelers were being harassed and that a young boy was being held as a sex slave.
Sato Kandaw was enough of a concern that Raz Mohammed Dalili, then the governor of Paktia, took the unusual step of asking American troops to remove the checkpoint. Dalili, in an interview, said he had made his request to a Special Forces soldier named Mike.
There was no ODA 2021 member named Mike at the time, military documents show. However, Sgt. 1st Class Michael E. MacMillan, an intelligence analyst and member of the regular Army's 7th Special Forces Group at Ft. 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, including one at Sato Kandaw, according to several people familiar with the team. MacMillan, contacted at his home in North Carolina, declined to be interviewed for this report and shut his door.
Parre and his men had their guards down when the ODA (for Operational Detachment Alpha) arrived at Sato Kandaw on the chilly morning of March 5. He said that they shook hands and that the soldier he knew as Mike asked to talk over green tea.
Parre said he knew Mike because the Americans had stopped by from time to time to collect intelligence. The checkpoint commander thought it odd when some of the Americans scrambled to take positions along the road and on the high bluffs, but Mike assured him it was merely a precaution.
Inside, Parre began cutting chocolate as his cook prepared the tea. Mike asked about his relationship with Pacha Khan. Parre said that before he could respond, two men jumped him from behind, pushing him to the ground so that he could barely breathe.
"They covered me with a hood," Parre said. "The interpreter translated, 'If you move, we'll kill you.' And I told him, 'If there is any problem, we can solve it through negotiation.... We are your friends.' "
In the next room, other American soldiers quickly subdued Parre's men, including his 18-year-old brother, Jamal Naseer. The Afghans were cuffed, hooded and tossed by their bound limbs into vehicles, Parre said.
The Americans also found the boy who allegedly had been pressed into sexual slavery and made plans to return him to his family. Before leaving, ODA 2021 confiscated a stash of munitions and mostly unserviceable weapons and blew them up.
Allegations of Abuse
The detainees said the physical abuse began as soon as they reached the Gardez firebase.
"We were kicked in the small of our back and told to stay straight, 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. At another point, he said, someone fired four rounds near his head. The other seven detainees, among them a 23-year-old with one leg, also reported abuse.
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 Qaeda 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."
He said there were also questions about Pacha Khan. Interrogators had obtained a note from the warlord to Parre promising to make him a division commander. Parre said he told the Americans they no longer had ties.
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. He said there were times he felt seconds from death. "I can't tell you the feeling," he said. "Half dead. Half alive."
An American in Gardez at the time said Afghan soldiers working with the Special Forces complained to someone on the team about the mistreatment. The American, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also told The Times that interrogations were taken over after a day or two by a Navy SEAL. The detainees were moved into a tent at a back corner of the base, out of sight, he said.
The Times could not verify any involvement by the Navy commandos, but internal military documents show that SEALs were operating around Gardez during the period. A spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said it "was not alerted at any time to the potential of SEAL involvement."
The detention of Parre and his men was no secret in the region. An intelligence summary filed by ODA 2021 shortly after the arrests reported ecstatic reactions from both the Afghan government and the local populace. Gov. Dalili dropped by the firebase to offer congratulations. He reported that President Hamid Karzai was "very pleased," the summary said.
The team's intelligence reports about the operation flashed across computer screens at the Army's operations center in Bagram, said someone who was present. They also were distributed to NATO forces.
As required, the team reported the detentions to the 20th Group's 1st Battalion, and the information was passed along to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, the command over all Special Forces in Afghanistan.
The detainees were "still undergoing interviews," the team reported after a day, adding, "A lot of intelligence is being generated for follow-on operations."
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 Qaeda.
Internal military records show that after two days of questioning, the Americans did not plan to send the detainees to Bagram. They had been notified earlier in their tour that the arrival of battered prisoners at that base might prompt an investigation, according to the records.
But ODA 2021 also was reluctant to transfer the detainees to local police custody. A March 6 communique from the Special Forces team expressed doubts about the Gardez police chief's loyalty and reliability and said ODA 2021 was working with the governor to find other ways to keep the Sato Kandaw detainees in custody.
At a meeting of security authorities in Gardez, Mike from ODA 2021 warned the police chief and the other local commanders that he would kill them if they released his prisoners, according to U.N. officials who reacted angrily to the blunt talk.
For the moment, however, Parre and his men remained in custody at the firebase, and the beatings continued.
Mission to Wazi
A week after their successful Sato Kandaw operation, Waller and ODA 2021 were ready to push farther into Pacha Khan country. Col. Champion approved plans for what the team described as a simple reconnaissance patrol of the Wazi district.
However, there are indications Waller wanted his team to be prepared for more.
He borrowed two soldiers from another Special Forces team, a security detachment generally excluded from combat operations. And he tried unsuccessfully to enlist members of a commando unit that reported to a different chain of command.
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 took obvious relish in describing one of his team's kills to his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Steven W. Duff, who had been wounded in the Thanksgiving ambush in the same region.
Waller told Duff 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."
The team leader said that his weaponry sergeant "takes this personally since he was on your convoy when you were shot.... Sorry we could not have got them all."
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 had not ended 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.
"At first they didn't ask us any questions," Mohammed said. "Everyone who was there took turns kicking me, and when I fell on the ground from the blows they started to stomp on me. We were forced to stay on our knees, and my knees were injured from the stones on the ground. I felt really bad pain in my chest."
He said the Americans eventually asked him about his brother, but he couldn't concentrate. "I kept seeing my brother's face and the gunshot in his mouth," he said.
Dawood Khan said his interrogators asked whether Mohammed was one of Pacha Khan's commanders. "I told them, 'No, he has no connection,' " he said.
He said that after being beaten he was twice dunked in a tub of icy water and submerged to the verge of drowning. He said he and Mohammed were forced to stay awake through a cold night.
The two villagers were released the next day with clean sets of clothing. A report to headquarters described them as cooperative.
Heroes and 'Idiots'
Waller's bosses at battalion headquarters were thrilled the team had escaped casualties in the attack at Wazi. The National Guardsmen had "performed heroically," a battalion operations officer wrote to Waller, encouraging him to nominate his men for battlefield awards.
He did, later nominating every soldier in the fight, including himself, for either the Silver or Bronze Star, according to military documents.
But in the same laudatory message, 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.
"This is yet another example in a long line of incidents with you that has resulted in this battalion, and more importantly, your teams looking like idiots instead of getting the recognition they rightfully deserve," the battalion officer wrote.
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 Ft. Bragg. The new guys were regular Army all the way, 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.
"All they see is that we are a Guard unit operating unprofessionally in a combat zone," he wrote. "If Champion wasn't in command yesterday, you would be in a world of shit right now."
A Death in Gardez
In Gardez, the days of detention for Parre and his men continued to mount.
Parre said he believed his brother, Jamal, was subjected to the harshest interrogation because, at only 18, he was perceived to be the most vulnerable. When he first saw Jamal a few days after their capture, his brother's body was already black and blue and swollen, Parre said.
He said Jamal told him the Americans had forced him to stand with arms and legs outstretched as they took turns beating him. He was moaning about the pain in his kidneys and back, Parre said.
On the afternoon Jamal died — Parre fixes the date at March 16, 2003, though that could not be verified — 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 Jamal's condition.
First the American jabbed a finger into his arm to show that Jamal had been given an IV 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. Parre said he didn't fully understand at the time, but he feared the worst. Eventually, he was escorted into a tent to see his brother.
"I thought he was smiling at me, and so I smiled back," Parre recounted. "I thought Jamal wanted to tell me that I was worrying for nothing. And I went to him and shook him and said, 'Jamalah, Jamalah,' and then I realized that he had been martyred."
Parre adjusted the body so that Jamal's head pointed to Mecca, and started to cry.
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 Jamal had died of an illness, not at the hands of the Americans.
"No, my brother was healthy," Parre said he responded. "His brain, his heart, his legs, he was not sick. He had no history of sickness or injury in any part of his body. He died because of your cruelty."
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. The point of the meeting, he said, was "to make sure everybody's on the same sheet of paper — this is what happened to the man," in case there was an investigation.
Capt. Craig Mallak, medical examiner for the U.S. armed forces, said Naseer's death was never reported to his office. He said it would have been required unless the detainee was deemed to have died of natural causes. 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." Hajji Abdul Qayum said Jamal's face was "dark and looked like it was burned." He said it was "completely swollen, as were his palms, and the soles of his feet were swollen double in size."
"I have no idea what he might have been beaten with," the hospital worker said.
Naseer's mother, Kajala, also viewed her son's body before burial. She told Afghan military investigators that "the entire body was full of injuries."
Dr. Michael Baden, a prominent forensic pathologist who works for the New York State Police, said the descriptions were inconsistent with death by organ failure. "You can't confuse those," he said. "It sounds very much like blunt trauma."
Scars, No Charges
After Jamal died, Gov. Dalili 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. "We have no terminology for that," he said. "It was caused by blunt-force trauma."
A few days later, a delegation from Afghanistan's Judicial Reform Commission happened to visit the Gardez police station and came face to face with Parre and his men. The delegation, which included a representative from the Italian Embassy and several Afghan jurists, did not report the prisoners' condition, although witnesses said it was discussed.
A political officer with the U.N. mission in Afghanistan was with the group and 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.
Though his memo cautioned that the detainees' accounts should not be taken at face value, it said their wounds and injuries "seemed consistent with their accounts of beating and torture." He recommended that the U.N. report the incident for investigation.
There is no record that U.N. officials informed U.S. or coalition authorities about the Gardez case for at least 13 months, if at all.
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. However, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said he had no recollection of hearing about the case, and no mention of the death was found in embassy records, a spokesman said.
Both Lakhdar Brahimi, head of the U.N. assistance mission when Jamal Naseer died, and his successor, Jean Arnault, declined to comment on the U.N.'s handling of the matter.
Parre and his companions were later moved secretly 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." The report speculated that the prolonged imprisonment was intended to give the detainees' wounds time to heal.
When the Afghan attorney general ordered all seven released, it came after 58 days of captivity. No charges were ever filed against any of the men.
The Last Laugh
It wasn't long after Parre and his men were ousted from Sato Kandaw that ODA 2021 got word that Pacha Khan had reclaimed the checkpoint. The team mounted another patrol to the mountain pass, where a confrontation on the road erupted in gunfire.
The circumstances remain in dispute. ODA 2021 reported that an enemy vehicle had come barreling toward the American convoy and that the driver had been "engaged and killed," while five other men escaped.
According to Pacha Khan's family, the driver was on his way to get food for the checkpoint's soldiers. The dead driver was the warlord's eldest son, Jalani Khan. His body was left on the roadside.
Several days later, the team reported that every checkpoint along the road from Khowst to Gardez seemed to be clear. Pacha Khan's influence was waning, and much of the credit went to Waller's team.
"The guys in Gardez ... are having a significant effect on the area," an official with the Special Operations task force wrote to colleagues.
But with tensions inflamed by the killing of Pacha Khan's son, and with the 20th Group about to head home, Champion reined in the team. Waller's proposals for two patrols targeting the warlord were rejected.
The commander's "gut reaction," explained a March 28 note to Duff from Champion's staff, "is that Chief Waller is just out looking for another fight with PKZ, whom we've been told to back off of .... The [commander] is concerned that guys are rattling the tree, but what they are getting is criminal elements [versus terrorists], and we are not cops."
As they packed their gear in early April, the 20th Group's field commanders were frustrated to be leaving the warlord at large.
"Pacha Khan Zadran is probably now laughing at the Americans," the commander of the Special Forces team in Khowst wrote to superiors.
Maj. Rick Rhyne, the incoming 3rd Group operations chief, shrugged off the complaint.
"There is a reason, most likely political, that we cannot touch him," he wrote. "He can laugh all he wants to."
About this series
"Firebase Gardez" examines the deployment to Afghanistan of a decorated Alabama National Guard unit. It is the result of a yearlong investigation in the U.S. and Afghanistan by Times staff writer Kevin Sack and freelance investigative journalist Craig Pyes. It was written by Sack.
Pyes, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and frequent contributor to the newspaper, reported from Afghanistan jointly for The Times and the Crimes of War Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that describes itself as "a collaboration of journalists, lawyers and scholars dedicated to raising public awareness of the laws of war." In 2004, the group provided The Times with the first evidence of an unreported Afghan death in U.S. custody and joined with the newspaper to investigate further. That led to a military inquiry by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command that continues today.
The Times reviewed thousands of pages of internal military documents to reconstruct the period when a 10-member Special Forces combat team called ODA 2021 (for Operational Detachment Alpha) was assigned to the Gardez firebase.
Every member of the team was contacted. Most declined to be interviewed or referred reporters to public affairs officers. The Army and all of its subordinate commands -- the U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Special Forces Command, 20th Special Forces Group and the Alabama National Guard -- declined to comment.