On the afternoon of August 16, 2007 a unit of Polish soldiers operating under NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Paktika Province approached a small Afghan village. Known as Delta platoon, the patrol had come to the village, called Nangar Khel, in reponse to a Taliban IED attack on American forces early that morning in the same area.
What happened next is still not clear and awaits an upcoming trial, but in preliminary hearings officials have acknowledged that these Polish NATO troops killed six civilians and seriously wounded three more in mortar and machine gun fire. The victims, who were reportedly taking part in a wedding celebration, included several women and children.
English language media ignores incident
Soon after the incident, ISAF's public relations department announced that several civilians had been killed in a skirmish between NATO forces and Taliban insurgents. As is normal for NATO press releases, the notice did not name the nationality of the foreign troops involved. Less commonly, however, ISAF did not state whether it was NATO or Taliban forces who had killed the civilians.
While several news agencies carried brief reports relaying the facts, these were not picked up and the incident was basically ignored by the major English language media.
Soon, however, Poles were alerted to the fact that the soldiers involved were from the Polish Land Forces. But a delay in the official announcement, which came some six days after the incident, prompted widespread accusations that the Polish Defense Minister was hiding something. Indeed, two former Defense Ministers, from either end of the Polish political spectrum, publicly accused Minister Aleksander Szczyglo of attempting to conceal details of the incident.
An act of revenge?
In fact Szczyglo was hiding something, for on August 20 he had received a military counterintelligence assessment of the incident that must have stunned him. The report said that there had not been any insurgents present during the firing and that the village may have been attacked by the Polish soldiers in an act of revenge for the death of a colleague.
Some two days before the Nangar Khel incident, a Polish soldier in an adjacent province had been killed in a Taliban ambush, thus becoming the first Pole to die in NATO's Afghanistan war. The residents of Nangar Khel, for their part, were reportedly thought to secretly support Taliban insurgents. Rather than revealing these growing concerns, Szczyglo told reporters that the Polish troops had captured an important terrorist while battling with Taliban fighters that day. Meanwhile, the report of misdeeds was passed on to military police officials.
Delta platoon were operating in the Wazi Khwa district of Afghanistan's southeastern Paktika Province where they shared a base with American troops. The Polish NATO contingent, working amid flat, dry and dusty valleys hemmed in by low mountains, were no strangers to morale problems. Just two months before the Nangar Khel event, eleven Polish commandoes stationed at Wazi Khwa had demanded to be sent home early to Poland rather than continue to operate with the dangerously unsafe equipment provided them. While the rebellious soldiers did not get their way, they were celebrated by the ranks, a significant portion of whom are conscripts.
When news of what went on outside the wire became widely known at the base, the spirit of camaraderie was shattered. That oft-cited barometer of public opinion, the latrine walls, told of the revulsion felt by other soldiers: "Delta should be behind bars - murderers of children," read the bathroom graffiti.
Back in Poland, government officials announced that an investigation had begun into the nature of the incident, which was still largely a mystery to most Poles. But the investigation did not appear to bear fruit until after national elections which saw the incumbents ousted, including Defense Minister Szczyglo.
On November 13, as Poland's newly elected government was entering office, seven soldiers were arrested. The suspects are named as: Capt. Olgierd C., Second Lt. Aukasz B., Ensign Andrzej O., Platoon Sgt. Tomasz B. and privates first class Damian L., Robert B. and Jacek J. Polish law forbids publishing the suspects' full names.
News photographers captured images of masked teams of SWAT-style military police hauling away hooded and handcuffed suspects. The following day, military prosecutors announced criminal charges for some members of Delta platoon. Two privates, a sergeant, a warrant officer, a lieutenant and a captain were charged with murder of civilians under circumstances of war or occupation, while one private was charged with attacking civilian objects. The prosecutor stated that the crimes for which they are charged constitute violations of the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and carry jail sentences of 12 years to life for the murder charges and five to 25 years for the lesser charge.
Under questioning, several of the accused recanted the stories they had given to investigators earlier. The lower ranking soldiers now claimed that they had received orders to fire on three different villages and that they had received these orders before leaving the Wazi Khwa base. This is the accusation leveled by the assistant to the platoon's commanding officer. Warrant Officer Andrzej O., assistant to Second Lieutenant Lukasz B., said he was present at the meeting where the platoon was ordered to attack Nangar Khel and two nearby villages. Lieutenant Lukasz B. was present for the meeting, according to his assistant.
Accused expose cover story
The accused stated that they did not refuse to carry out their orders even after they saw that civilians were present in Nangar Khel. They also told of a cover story that their commanders had concocted to prevent the truth from being revealed. According to one of the accused, Polish commander General Marek Tomaszycki met with the accused at the Wazi Khwa base just days after the incident and persuaded the soldiers to hush up the incident: "He said that we should not discuss it at all, help each other and watch each other so that nobody committed suicide, as then it would all come out," claimed the soldier. The general denied the claim.
The Polish press also reported on leaked testimony that Delta platoon was not the only unit to be given the order to attack. Another platoon had reportedly been given the orders earlier but had refused to carry them out as they recognized that civilians would be endangered.
Though physical evidence is being kept secret, it has been widely reported in the Polish press that a video recording of the attack on the village is amongst said evidence. Supposedly, the video shows the troops entering Nangar Khel, despite earlier claims that the troops did not enter the village at any time. Relating what the video shows next, one journalistic account related the sentiments of people who had seen the video: "Behavior that does not befit a soldier," was their assessment.
Part II of this article, exploring possible U.S. involvement in this incident at Nangar Khel and the cover-up, will appear on rabble.ca this Wednesday.