Burning Afghan Bodies Resulted From Poor Judgment, Not War Crimes
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 29, 2005 The decision by U.S. soldiers to burn the bodies of two enemy Afghan fighters was an act of poor judgment, but not a violation of the laws of war, U.S. officials have determined.
Officials also determined that using the act to incite Taliban fighters by announcing it over psychological operations loudspeakers was a separate act. In all, four soldiers have received administrative punishment in the two incidents.
"Based on the criminal investigation, there was no evidence to substantiate the allegation of desecration or any violation of the Law of War," according to an executive summary of the official investigation report from Combined Joint Task Force 76. "However, there was evidence of poor decision-making and judgment, poor reporting and lack of knowledge and respect for local Afghan customs and tradition."
The executive summary was released to the media Nov. 26.
The report refers to an investigation into a widely reported incident Oct. 1 in Gumbad, Afghanistan, in which U.S. soldiers burned the bodies of two enemy fighters and psychological operations forces announced the burning to incite Taliban fighters.
Coalition forces know the location as an area of enemy activity, officials said. A Sept. 30 engagement killed two enemy fighters, and local citizens had not retrieved the bodies 24 hours later. An officer on the ground decided it best to burn the bodies for hygienic reasons.
When apprised of the act, the unit's battalion commander ordered the bodies extinguished. The troops on the ground complied immediately. However, a psychological operations team operating in the area heard of the incident via local tactical radio traffic and broadcasted information about it toward the village and toward local mountains in which enemy forces were suspected of hiding.
As a result of this investigation, four soldiers were reprimanded. Two of them, the PSYOPS specialists, received "nonjudicial punishment," administrative punishment imposed by a commander for wrongdoing that doesn't rise to a criminal level. Such punishment can result in fines, extra duties and short-term confinement, but no details were released on the extent of circumstances in this incident.
"These were all nonjudicial, administrative actions that were taken," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said today.
The investigation found the soldiers decided to burn the bodies believing it was the best course of action and knowing cremation of enemy remains is allowed under the Geneva Conventions. "The soldiers at Gumbad did not have a thorough knowledge of the local Afghan traditions with respect to burial," the report summary states. "This incident was the first time that this unit had killed enemy combatants at close range and had to determine what to do with the remains."
Islamic custom forbids cremation. Task force officials acknowledge the burning was wrong and have ordered training on Afghan sensitivities for all troops in the command, officials said.
Regarding the loudspeaker broadcasts, investigating officials found no evidence that the bodies were burned for the psychological effect. However, the report states, the broadcasts were "in violation of standing policies for the content of loudspeaker messages."
The operator and his supervisor have been reassigned to other duties, officials said.
"CJTF 76 investigations identified two separate but related incidents that highlighted poor judgment and a lack of Afghan cultural knowledge - not Law of War violations," officials said in the investigation report summary. "The judgment errors are serious and have been corrected with administrative action and training."
(American Forces Press Service writer Gerry J. Gilmore contributed to this report.)