Friday, March 28, 2008

What really happened to the Marines in Afghanistan? We may never know....

(Photos are of me in downtown Kabul herding some goats and an old bombed-out, land-mine-filled palace outside of town)

I just got an e-mail from an irate Marine mom. "Imagine that your son is a Marine stationed in Afghanistan and he gets fire-bombed by some wild Taliban driving an explosive-packed minivan into his convoy," she wrote. "Then imagine that the convoy, with no support element to back them up, starts to take small arms fire. Then imagine that the Marines fight back after they have been attacked." Okay. I can do that. That's pretty much what happens to Marines in hostile territory. I saw that movie about Iwo Jima. I've lived with the Marines in Iraq. I can visualize that.

"And then imagine," continued the Marine mom, "that the Taliban accuses them of firing on civilians and that the top Pentagon generals support the Taliban's claims instead of the troops' version of the story -- and then Bush nominates for promotion the head of the special-ops command who did not follow the #2 rule of Marine leadership that even the youngest corporals know by heart -- to take care of the welfare of your troops?" Now THAT'S hard to imagine. Did things really happen this way? Was this Marine company really left out to twist in the wind by higher-up bureaucracy?

"I am telling your right now," the MM continued, "if the enemy sees weakness on the part of our leadership from the Commander-in-Chief on down, and the generals start throwing Marines under the bus to save themselves and please the top dogs and hold onto their jobs, then we have lost the war in Afghanistan -- not because of the guys on the ground, like the ones that you have met and praised, but because that the Commander-in-Chief on down to the generals threw them under the bus." Whew. This Marine mom is TRULY irate!

Apparently the Marines involved in this March 4, 2007 incident in Afghanistan were part of a well-trained, 120-man company which had fought in Iraq but had been pulled out of Iraq and sent to Afghanistan as special-ops forces under the direction of the Army. Then, according to this Marine mom, what happened next was that when the spit hit the fan and a Marine convoy was attacked by Taliban, the Marines fired back in self-defense, killing several of the attackers. However, according to the MM, the Taliban then cried "Foul play!" and charged the Marines with killing innocent civilians. "And then the generals in the Pentagon took the word of the Taliban over the Marines. Please, Jane, can you look into this and write about it? Please?"

Who me?

For the past three weeks, I'veI tried to really hard to get out of writing about this incident and ahve done everything I could to stall this Marine mom off. After all, what do I know about what went on in that part of Afghanistan? I've only been to Kabul. Once. But, in the end, how can one possibly ignore such a desperate plea from a genuine bona fide Marine mom? One cannot. So I started to do some research. I HATE research! Thank goodness for Google.

Here's an Associated Press report of the incident:

"The company, on its first deployment following the 2006 creation of the Marine Special Operations Command, was traveling on Highway One in Nangahar province, returning to its base from the Pakistan border, on March 4 when an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into their convoy. According to a report issued by Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, which cites witness accounts, the Marines fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and people in cars, buses and taxis in six different locations along a 10-mile stretch of the road."

And here's the American Forces Press Service account:

"The five-vehicle convoy was moving through a crowded market place near Bari Kot, located in the Muhmand Dara district, when militants attacked the convoy from several directions with small-arms fire and a vehicle-borne bomb, officials said. Coalition forces returned fire, and along with Afghan police and army forces, secured the area and provided immediate on-site medical attention to the wounded civilians."

And according to Leatherneck Magazine, "In November, Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, the commander of the Marine Special Operations Command, said the Marines responded correctly when they were attacked and that he disagreed with Kearney's decision to pull them out of Afghanistan. The Defense Department's inspector general has since opened an investigation into Kearney's actions, responding to concerns raised by Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., who said the Army had 'discarded the presumption of innocence.'"

So. Who dunnit? Did the Marines over-react under pressure or not? I still haven't got a clue.

But then I read where the Marine top brass had held a court of inquiry into the matter, the first one since the tragedy at Parris Island back in 1956. Okay. We gots a COI delving into this matter. That means that I'm off the hook and don't have to pull out all of my super investigative powers and deep-throat sources and moles to find out the truth. The Court of Inquiry should tell us what happened, right?


The Court of Inquiry was convened on January 7, 2008 and lasted two weeks. 40 witnesses testified and there were 5,000 pages of documents submitted as evidence. The proceedings lasted approximately two weeks. We shoulda heard some results by now, right?


According to my Marine mom source, "The results are being held secret. No one can find out what the court decided. What do they think this is? Some sort of Star Chamber? Our sons are involved here. We should be allowed to see the results!"

According to the Associated Press, the major questions asked at the COI by the defense were,

— Whether the convoy experienced at least one complex attack

— Whether the Marines made up the story about the attack
— Whether Afghan civilians lied or exaggerated in their statements
— Whether MSOC-F used proportionate and discriminate fire
— Whether the initial investigation of the incident was thorough and reliable
— Whether there was a disconnect between MSOC-F and CJSOTF and Army officials

Were answers to these questions obtained at the COI? How does one find out? I consulted a Marine that I know. "You have several different issues to consider here, Jane," he replied. "First let's look at the incident itself. It seems like the Marine mom has good intentions about protecting the Marines, but as any good Marine can tell you, whitewashing an incident like this -- if this IS a whitewash -- is ultimately bad for the Corps as a whole because Marines need to know that they can trust their command to follow the rules of engagement in order to lessen their own vulnerability to attack. The Corps needs to go after rotten apples and weed them out in order to protect other Marines. This way, grunts can have faith that their leaders will protect them during combat.

"Your Marine mom may prefer a whitewash, but it really is important to get at the truth.

"Second, the people making these charges -- whether or not they are allied with the Taliban -- have to present evidence of wrong-doing. Have they done that?"

According to a Daily News article on the COI proceedings, evidence is both being presented and questioned closely. "....[Defense attorney Knox] Nunnally also pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony of Haji Liwani Qumandan, an Afghan man who testified via video teleconference and was driving the blue sport utility vehicle near the blast site. Qumandan three times changed his story about who the passengers were in his vehicle, Nunnally said, and admitted he was transporting fertilizer and fuel the day of the blast — two components used in the suicide bomb. The initial investigations of the events were 'a rush to judgment,' Nunnally said, partly based on the investigating officer taking Afghan statements 'at face value'.”

"Third," continued my Marine source, "you are assuming that the COI report will never get released. Jane, you gotta take into account that the military is a BUREAUCRACY. These things take time. Expect at least a month or two more before it is released.

So I googled around about how long it took the Parris Island COI results to get released. According to Time Magazine, the Parris Island COI convened in April of 1956 and its report was released by May 14, 1956 -- less than a month afterward. So much for the bureaucracy issue. It's been over two months since the Afghanistan COI ended and we've heard nothing. Plus, according to an MSNBC article, "A special panel that heard testimony about a Marine shooting that killed up to 19 Afghan civilians delivered its report Friday, but it won't be made public."

"And, fourth," continued my Marine source, "if this was a cover-up, ask yourself who the Pentagon might be covering up for. Try to figure that out." I don't know the answer to that one either. Cover-ups are really popular in Washington these days. Under our current "administration," everyone in DC is ready, willing and able to cover up everything they possibly can in order to protect their [bottoms]. Sometimes the White House just covers up stuff out of habit or just for fun. Remember all those WMD cover-ups? And the Ganon cover-up and the pre-9-11 security failure cover-up and the Libby cover-up and the Katrina cover-up and.... I'm sorry but it's too long a list to go into here.

So. What exactly should I end up writing about this tragic incident? Should I write that the Marines did good? Or should I write that the Marines did bad? I still haven't got a clue. But one journalist I consulted on this matter just suggested that I file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to get the results of the Court of Inquiry trial. "If you do that, you will be in a better position to judge for yourself." Good thinking.

Except that when they mail me the 5,000 pages of evidence, am I gonna have to pay for postage?

PS: I looked up the postal service's parcel post rate for mailing me the evidence and it will be 62 dollars and 55 cents. However, this may not be such a strain on my limited budget after all because it appears that the COI report is now classified and will remain classified indefinately.