Nangar Khel incident 01/06/2009

Investigate report from Afghanistan about the first war crime trial in the Polish army.

August 16th 2007, the region of Gwashta, Paktika Province, Afghanistan. The explosion of an IED (improvised explosive device) planted by Taliban fighters under the wheels of an ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) Humvee takes place. A nearby Polish patrol sets off to help. After a while, another explosion occurs, under the Polish transporter this time. Nobody is hurt among the crew, but the vehicle is no longer roadworthy. Suddenly, it is obvious this is not an ordinary attack but that a combined ambush with the use of IEDs and an assault team has been laid. Combat begins between coalition troops and the Taliban. After reaching the battle site, commandos start shelling the coalition force monitoring points. Due to the proximity of buildings one of the platoons decides to use a small M60 mortar grenade instead of an M98. Unfortunately, one burst fires into the buildings of Shah Mardan and kills six people. Three women sustain heavy injuries wounding their torsos and lower limbs. The platoon carrying out the operation takes emergency action immediately. Approaching MEDEVAC helicopters are shelled, which confirms that the Taliban are still hanging around.

The soldiers who were involved in this operation are being accused of genocide. The prosecutors of the 2nd Department for Organized Crime of the Supreme Military Prosecutor's Office, Poznań seat, claims the soldiers broke international laws protecting the civilian population and undefended sites during a military operation; in particular: art. 23 point "b" and art. 25, "Regulation of laws and customs of a land war," an integral part of the Hague Convention, signed on October 18, 1907. This is the first time Polish soldiers have faced this kind of charge.

A very interesting aspect to this case is that the American army led its own investigation immediately after the incident occurred, but the ISAF protocol was not enclosed with the case materials, despite being the key document to the whole event. The Americans described the whole issue as a minor incident and formally discontinued the investigation.

In the verdict of the Polish court, however, we read: “It should be especially stressed that the collected evidence unambiguously attests to the fact that the described behaviour of the soldiers had no relation to any direct, real aggression from the local population, or to the life-threatening behaviour, well-being and safety of the Polish soldiers, or soldiers of other nations serving in ISAF”. However, what is indisputably true is the fact that both the ISAF and Polish patrols had been attacked just minutes before by Taliban fighters with bombs. And this can surely be described as life-threatening behaviour.

Based on the above findings, the Military Prosecutor has charged the six detained soldiers with offenses punishable by imprisonment not shorter than 12 years, imprisonment of 25 years, or life sentence. One soldier has been charged with an offense punishable by imprisonment not shorter than five years, or imprisonment of 25 years. The accused soldiers were captured as criminals and detained in jail for six months. At the time the judicial process was underway without any final solution or verdict.

Critics say that Polish justice is far from Afghanistan, and treats this place as a “garden of Eden” filled with countless numbers of peaceful Taliban soldiers and the coalition army as an evil force that is trying to destroy this idyllic state of nature. Probably the Polish judges haven’t taken into the consideration that the Polish forces are taking part in a military operation which can be described with a key word: war. The most effective and widely employed tool for fighting the enemy during a war is weapons. It is an immense tragedy that many civilians have lost their lives because of the use of weapons. It is a tragedy for both the families of the dead and for the soldiers themselves. However, this is an inescapable factor that accompanies most military operations. There have been hundreds of thousands civilians killed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the conflict against terrorism.

Since that time the Polish media has been teeming with speculation about possible war at the top levels as the conceivable cause of this scandal. It is often suggested that this has been prepared in order to discredit the whole mission and lead to the removal of Polish troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are a couple of facts that have made this case quite controversial. First of all, Gen. Petelicki (the first commander of the Polish GROM special forces unit) claims this report includes the record of Taliban soldiers talking about the attack on their position and can be seen as proof that the first grenades fell on the Taliban positions. It indicates that the intention of Polish soldiers was to attack Taliban and not the civilian buildings. However, the prosecutor denies the report prepared by the Americans exists.

Secondly, the prosecutor is sticking to the version that it was the village of Nangar Khel that was shelled. This blurs the actual course of events, as the mortar grenades fell on a single building, Shah Mardan, which is not part of the village. This makes a difference, as logic suggests that if the soldiers had intended to kill civilians they would have pointed the mortar at the whole village.

Finally, it should be stressed that this case also has its moral dimension. It is not proper for a civilized state to treat their soldiers like criminals. Assuming that these men are guilty, there as been no explanation as to why were they deprived of their soldier’s pride and denied the right to be arrested in army uniforms according to Polish military tradition. They have also been denied a military defendant, and the trial has been ongoing since the December 2007 without sign of any conclusion.

In a country with such a reach military tradition the bravery, honour and courage of the Polish soldier has been always placed on the pedestal. Is Poland still a country of law? Presently, the trial is still underway.