Two special forces soldiers were on a classified mission to kill a dangerous bomb maker who had killed brothers in arms before and would kill again. They were in a village in the Afghan mountains. On the back of their minds, the knowledge that if they were captured by barbaric Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, the savages would flout all the laws of civilized warfare to torture them cruelly and mutilate their bodies. Through careful field work and patience they had the mass-murderer square in the sight of their sniper rifle. They confirmed his identity. They confirmed they had authorization to kill him. And…
When a soldier is hunting the devil and through his hard work and preparation gets the drop on old widdershins himself, does he throw away his advantage and give the devil a fair fight? Does he become a cop and arrest the devil? Or does he take his victories where he can?
Paul von Zielbauer writes:
The case revolves around differing interpretations of the kind of force that the Special Forces team that hunted and killed the man, Nawab Buntangyar, were allowed to use once they found him, apparently unarmed.
To the Special Forces soldiers and their 12-man detachment, the shooting, near the village of Ster Kalay, was a textbook example of a classified mission completed in accordance with the American rules of engagement. They said those rules allowed the killing of Mr. Buntangyar, whom the American Special Operations Command here has called an “enemy combatant.”
Mr. Buntangyar had organized suicide and roadside bomb attacks, Captain Staffel’s lawyer said.
But to the two-star general in charge of the Special Operations forces in Afghanistan at the time, Frank H. Kearney, who has since become a three-star general, the episode appeared to be an unauthorized, illegal killing. In June, after two military investigations, General Kearney moved to have murder charges brought against Captain Staffel and Sergeant Anderson — respectively, the junior commissioned and senior noncommissioned officers of Operational Detachment Alpha 374, Third Battalion, Third Special Forces Group. [NYT]
The Afghan forces who led Staffel and Anderson to Buntangyar could have arrested the bomb-maker if they so desired. But they did not. Instead they signaled for the kill. They had a reason for their choice. As natives, they are much better attuned to the surroundings than American soldiers, and a further order of magnitude better attuned than a lawyer sitting in headquarters and comparing this to the rules applicable to a traffic stop in suburban Long Island. The native Afghans called for a kill. Whether they called for the kill because they thought the bomb-maker was armed with a gun, or because they thought he might have a bomb belt under his robes, or because he might have placed radio-controlled land mines under the whole road and been ready to set them all off in a spectacular blast, we cannot say. Who knows what they thought? But the fact is they made a call for a kill shot. The kill had already been approved by the American command. And the main job of soldiers in war is to kill the enemy, which Buntangyar was. So, the American soldiers shot him.
And now the lawyers have decided to prosecute them for murder.
Blue on Blue
The lawyers are fighting their own in a war. Are they in this war to win, or to prevent their forces from winning?
What this general did is mind-boggling. Most officers are virtuous and honorable men, but occasionally they are martinets who interpret every rule and regulation in the most perverse way possible. This is common in the business world, especially among human resources drones and auditors. Captain Queeg wasn’t the only bad commanding officer in the history of the world.
One possibility that some have raised is that the purpose of this charge is judo to clarify the Rules of Engagement, to underline that what Staffel and Anderson did was entirely legal. With clear precedent like this in place, future soldiers would be able to act without fearing they were at risk of prosecution. But the problem with this theory is that prosecutions like this tend to end military careers. The clarification could be made just as simply by writing a clarification of the rules. No judo needed.
The perversity of prosecuting special forces soldiers and most likely ending their careers for doing their job under the rules at the time is stunning. It is unlikely that there is any judo reasoning at work. But… SNAFU is a military acronym for a good reason. Clearly this situation is one. The lawyers and judges involved should clear up this legal SNAFU as quickly as possible, and the soldiers who have been placed under suspicion should have their records cleared and be given commendations for their good work.
They don’t deserve a black mark next to their names. The military doesn’t deserve to give itself a black eye over a blue on blue misunderstanding. The responsible military command should do the right thing for Staffel and Anderson and make things a little less FUBAR for everybody. Dismiss the charges and give those fellows a promotion!