When Mohammad Hassan’s body was found outside a base in the district of Nerkh, Afghanistan, in early 2013, little remained of him but bones and mouldy clothes.
His skull had been beaten in and his left leg hacked off at the thigh. Mohammad’s brother, Jihadiyar, was only able to only recognise him by his plastic wristwatch, a gift their father had brought from Mecca.
Hassan, a government employee, had not been seen since a US special forces unit – known as an A-team – detained him in a raid several months earlier. In the weeks after his body was discovered, villagers found 10 more bodies buried outside the unit’s base.
Jihadiyar had no doubt who was responsible for his brother’s death.
“Americans said they came here to fight terrorists, but they killed civilians,” he said in an interview in Wardak, the province where Nerkh is located.
In testimonies compiled by human rights organisations – and comprehensively laid out by – dozens of witnesses alleged that over a period of months in 2012 and 2013 at least 17 civilians were killed on the base or in special forces operations. Scores more were allegedly tortured.
The US military has into the allegations, which – if true – would rank among the worst war crimes of the 14-year war in Afghanistan.
Previous US and Afghan investigations exonerated the Americans of any wrongdoing, blaming instead their Afghan auxiliaries. Only one man was punished: Zikria Kandahari, the unit’s Afghan interpreter, who in 2013 was sentenced to 20 years for treason.
The US army declined to say why it had reopened the criminal inquiry. Jeffrey Castro, a spokesman for the army’s Criminal Investigation Command, said only: “During the case review process, information and leads were identified that demand further investigation.
“We are fully committed to investigating the allegations until we are confident that we have exhausted all leads and pertinent information before closing the investigation.”
But locals say the atrocities have irreparably damaged the legacy of the international coalition. In Wardak, a violent province where the Taliban launch daily attacks within a few kilometres of the provincial capital, communities are still bristling with anger three years after the killing began.
In a series of interviews, relatives of the victims demonstrated little faith that the new investigation would bring them justice. One of them, Neamatullah, 37, found the remains of his two younger brothers outside the US base seven months after they were detained in a raid in November 2012.
When told about the reopened inquiry, he shook his head and smiled wryly: “Nobody has been punished so far. Why would they be punished now?”
Neamatullah – who, like many Afghans, uses just one name – said the entire A-Team was “very brutal to the people”. He often saw Zikria Kandahari, the now-imprisoned interpreter, tearing through the bazaar on a motorbike. “He was like a rabid dog,” he said.
When the first bodies were found in the vicinity of the US base in 2013, . Local people suspected there were more victims.
“We tried to get them to hand over the bodies to resolve the protests peacefully,” said Hazrat Mohammad Janan, who was deputy head of Wardak’s provincial council at the time. But the attempts were futile. “As a result, people’s hatred of the government grew,” he said.
Hamid Karzai, who was then president, eventually forced the Americans out of Nerkh, but the lack of justice continues to taint residents’ view of his successor.
“If people are not provided compensation, it will continue to damage the credibility of the US and of the Afghan government,” Janan said.
The standing of both the international coalition and the Afghan government was further strained recently when a US gunship in Kunduz, adding to a long list of deadly American missteps in Afghanistan.
Dissatisfied residents of Wardak have called for the A-Team to be held accountable. Experts say at the very least, the Americans allowed the atrocities to happen on their watch.
“There is compelling evidence that US soldiers were involved in war crimes,” said Joanne Mariner, a researcher with Amnesty International.
Among Afghans, the Wardak murders are emblematic of the coalition’s failure to understand local conditions – and proof that the Washington’s singleminded pursuit of “terrorists” has undermined years of counter-terrorism efforts by alienating locals and breeding animosity towards foreign troops.
Janan, the former provincial council deputy, said the special forces targeted people based on accusations from single sources who used their influence to target personal rivals or tribal enemies.
Janan said that US soldiers were not only complicit in the murders, but also lied about the crimes, refused to hand over the bodies to relatives for a proper funeral, and then failed to apologise or offer compensation.
“My expectations, and the expectations of my constituents, were that now they had learned about these incidents, the special forces would apologise to the people. But nothing happened,” Janan said. “You can feel it has strengthened the Taliban.”
One man who saw what happened inside the US base is a former clerk at the local office of the ministry of information and culture named Qandi, who said he was detained and tortured for 45 days in 2012 before being transferred to the detention facility at Bagram airbase.
At 55, Qandi has sunken eyes and a bushy grey beard. He limps and his hands tremble so badly he has to use both of them to take a sip of water. He said Afghan and American soldiers subjected him to mock drownings and beatings, tasered the back of his head, buried him to the chest overnight, and tied shoelaces around his penis so he was unable to urinate for days.
“They said: ‘Don’t worry, you’re an old man. You will die soon,’” Qandi said. He also said he had seen both Afghans and Americans shoot prisoners in front of him. He was released from Bagram in late 2013 without charge.
Whether US soldiers personally administered torture or pulled triggers is, in a sense, a minor detail. Experts argue that at the very least, the Americans turned a blind eye to savagery committed by Afghan forces. According to the international legal doctrine of command responsibility, officers are responsible for preventing crimes committed by subordinates.
“Zikria Kandahari was complicit in the crime, but he was acting on orders,” said Najla Raheel, a defense lawyer who represented the convicted translator. “Where are the real perpetrators?”
Mariner, of Amnesty International, said the sentencing of Kandahari seemed like “easy scapegoating”, adding: “We want there to be a serious investigation of US personnel as well as Afghan personnel.”
Jihadiyar Hassan, who found his brother’s body outside the A-team base, said that the atrocities have undermined both the US-led coalition and the Afghan government. Most people in Wardak once welcomed foreign troops, he said, but now the district was almost entirely under Taliban control.
The US special forces originally set up base in Nerkh to counter the Taliban’s stronghold there; after the US departure, the insurgents’ dominance has spread to within two miles of Wardak district centre.
“Never mind the Americans,” Jihadiyar said. “If any foreigner comes to Nerkh, they will hate them.”