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March 28, 2011 

Taliban truck explosion kills 23 in Afghanistan
By RAHIM FAIEZ, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan – A team of suicide bombers shot their way into the compound of a road construction company in eastern Afghanistan and detonated a truck loaded with explosives, killing 23 people and wounding about 60, the Afghan government said Monday.

Afghan Elite Borrowed Freely From Kabul Bank
By ALISSA J. RUBIN The New York Times March 28, 2011
KABUL, Afghanistan — When a brother and nephew of an Afghan vice president wanted to build up their fuel transport business, they took out a $19 million loan from Kabul Bank. When a brother of the president wanted to start a cement factory, he took out a $2.9 million loan; he also took out $7.9 million for a luxury townhouse in Dubai. When the bank’s chief executive officer wanted to invest in newly built apartments in Kabul, he took almost $18 million.

Taliban talks could be closer
US leaders including Hillary Clinton at last see the need to negotiate with their Afghan enemy. They just have to convince the Pentagon
The Guardian Jonathan Steele Monday 28 March 2011
Slowly and unsurely the Obama administration is coming round to the need for talks with the Taliban. It has taken a long time to accept a policy that most Afghans, many foreign analysts, several thinktanks and a few diplomats have been recommending for the last two or three years.

Afghan, NATO forces preparing for spring offensive to check militancy: NATO
KABUL, March 28 (Xinhua) -- The Afghan force and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are preparing for a spring offensive to counter a Taliban-led insurgency in militancy- hit Afghanistan, ISAF spokesman said on Monday.

In Afghanistan, spring could prove test of anti-Taliban effort
A U.S.-led operation last year drove the Taliban from bases in Zhari district. As the expected spring offensive nears, U.S. officials insist that the insurgents will find it difficult to regain a foothold in the area.
Los Angeles Times By Laura King March 28, 2011
Zhari district, Afghanistan - It was a classic photo opportunity: the governor of Kandahar province astride a lumbering farm tractor, plowing under the first green shoots of opium poppies poking their way through the soil. The engine clattered; the cameras clicked away. "Enough?" the governor asked, and clambered down.

Helmand sacking over female singers without headscarves
By Bilal Sarwary BBC News 28 March 2011
The deputy governor of Helmand province has been sacked for organising a concert that featured female performers without headscarves.

Turkmenistan Ready to Provide Energy to Afghanistan
Tolo news March 28, 2011
Turkmenistan's President said his country is ready to provide necessary energy to Afghanistan, a statement by Karzai's Office said on Sunday.

10 Afghan terrorists detained: Official
KABUL, March 27 (Xinhua) -- Afghan National Directorate for Security (NDS) or intelligence agency has arrested 10 terrorists including three would-be suicide bombers over the past 10 days, spokesman for the entity Lutfullah Mashal said on Sunday.

Afghanistan’s Karzai Meets in Iran With Turkmenistan President
VOA News March 27, 2011
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has met with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov while both leaders are visiting Tehran.

Afghan-Canadian governor declares war on the poppy
CTV.ca Sunday Mar. 27, 2011
HUTAL, Afghanistan - For Kandahar to win its war on drugs, it must succeed here.
"That's the biggest enemy we have," Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa tells a group of Maiwand elders, some of whom chortle after hearing his plan to eradicate poppy fields from the province.

For Afghan artisans, handicrafts are about reviving traditional skills
The Globe and Mail SUSAN SACHS Sunday, Mar. 27, 2011
KABUL - Abdulhadi is a small reed of a man in a voluminous blue suit coat, a bit hard of hearing and a bit bent with age. But at the newly restored Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, he is considered a towering master of the craft of wood-working.

DynCorp Cited By U.S. For Afghan Base Deficiencies
Bloomberg By Tony Capaccio Mar 28, 2011
DynCorp International Inc., the largest U.S. contractor in Afghanistan, was warned by Pentagon officials in January that it is failing to adequately inspect and repair in a timely manner potential electrical hazards at U.S. bases, according to a document.

Behind the American 'Kill Team' in Afghanistan
How soldiers murdered civilians -- and how officers failed to stop them
By Mark Boal Rolling Stone
Editor's Note: This story, about the so-called 'Kill Team' in Afghanistan, first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. It includes graphic descriptions and obscenities.
Early last year, after six hard months soldiering in Afghanistan, a group of American infantrymen reached a momentous decision: It was finally time to kill a haji.

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Taliban truck explosion kills 23 in Afghanistan
By RAHIM FAIEZ, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan – A team of suicide bombers shot their way into the compound of a road construction company in eastern Afghanistan and detonated a truck loaded with explosives, killing 23 people and wounding about 60, the Afghan government said Monday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which the Interior Ministry said occurred late Sunday in the Barmal district of Paktika province.

The ministry said three attackers went up to the gate of the Zahir construction company, shot the guard, and then drove a large truck that was full of explosives into the compound where they detonated it.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an emailed statement Monday that the Taliban were responsible for the suicide attack that targeted a joint Afghan-NATO operating base.

Mokhlis Afghan, spokesman for provincial Governor Mohibullah Samim, said all the dead and wounded were laborers and there were no Afghan or foreign forces at the site. He added that the explosion was so powerful that little remained of the truck.

The area is located on the border with Pakistan's lawless tribal regions, which serve as safe havens for insurgents that infiltrate into Afghanistan across the rugged and mountainous frontier.

The region has seen an escalation in violence over the past few months. In northeastern Kunar province, Governor Sayed Fazeullah Wahidi said elders in Chapa Dara district were negotiating for the release of about 50 police officers and recruits abducted by the Taliban one day before. The men, who were unarmed, were in four trucks when they were stopped by a group of insurgents.

A NATO spokesman said the attack against the construction company was "horrific," and an indication insurgents have turned to civilian targets because it's getting more difficult to attack the Afghan army and U.S.-led coalition forces. He said civilians and public services, such as cellular telephone networks, were being increasingly targeted.

"They have turned to soft targets and turned to attacks against basic services," said the spokesman, Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz.

After recent attacks on cellular phone towers across southwest Afghanistan, private companies have been forced to turn off networks in some areas. Telecommunications Services Board of Afghanistan, a regulatory agency, said more than 800,000 cellular phone users in southwest Helmand province and another 100,000 in surrounding areas have been affected.

Insurgents have also blown up eight cellular phone towers in the provinces of Helmand, Wardak, Ghazni, and Farah, said agency spokesman and member Khair Mohammad Faizi.

Helmand's provincial council said services had been down for a week and demanded they be restored as 90 percent of Helmand's residents use cell phones.

Blotz said that "blowing up cell phone towers or restricting the use of cell phone towers is an example of a completely derailed intimidation campaign to deny a basic service."

Insurgent activity is expected to intensify in Helmand and other provinces as the spring fighting season gets under way. Many insurgents have been spending the winter in neighboring Pakistan or preparing for the spring poppy harvest, a major source of funding for the Taliban. Helmand is a major gateway for drugs, insurgents and guns. Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province have been the focus of a major NATO campaign which has had some success in holding and pushing back the insurgents.

Blotz said there was a recent operation against insurgents along Helmand's border with Pakistan to "curtail the flow of narcotics, weapons and fighters in and out of southern Afghanistan."

He said operations would intensify with the spring fighting season.

NATO and U.S. military officials expect a spike in bloodshed in the coming months as insurgents try to regain losses and an increase in suicide attacks and assassination attempts against Afghan officials.

Suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices killed at least 1,141 Afghan civilians in the conflict in 2010, according to the United Nations. A U.N. report in early said there were an average of 2.8 suicide attacks a week.
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Amir Shah and Patrick Quinn contributed to this report from Kabul.
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Afghan Elite Borrowed Freely From Kabul Bank
By ALISSA J. RUBIN The New York Times March 28, 2011
KABUL, Afghanistan — When a brother and nephew of an Afghan vice president wanted to build up their fuel transport business, they took out a $19 million loan from Kabul Bank. When a brother of the president wanted to start a cement factory, he took out a $2.9 million loan; he also took out $7.9 million for a luxury townhouse in Dubai. When the bank’s chief executive officer wanted to invest in newly built apartments in Kabul, he took almost $18 million.

The terms were hard to beat: no collateral, little or no interest. And repayment optional, at least in practice.

Those are just a few of the loans detailed in a damning internal report by Afghanistan’s own Central Bank, which depicts the Afghan political elite as using Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest financial institution, as their own private piggy bank.

The report both raises questions about why the authorities did not act sooner, and suggests the answers lay in the political connections of the bank’s officers and shareholders — the recipients of most of the roughly $900 million in bad loans.

"Transparency and accountability were sacrificed to widespread falsifications in order to cover up the use of influence," the Central Bank’s officials wrote in the Oct. 20, 2010, report, a copy of which was recently obtained by The New York Times.

“It was like a Ponzi scheme,” said a Western diplomat familiar with the bank’s dealings. “The bank had to keep marketing and getting more deposits to fund the loans that they weren’t getting interest on.”

The report also suggests that Kabul Bank’s long-term finances are in far more dire shape than previously understood, which explains why the Central Bank has been discussing putting the bank into receivership. The International Monetary Fund is pressing for receivership as a condition of renewing its program with Afghanistan. Lacking that, some key donors are planning to withhold aid from the country.

Whether the government will approve the dissolution of the bank is not yet clear, but whatever its future, as the Central Bank outlines in its report, there will be high costs for the Afghan government, which will have to make good on the nonperforming loans in order to keep depositors whole.

News reports on Sunday and Monday that the Central Bank had formally decided to dissolve Kabul Bank were denied by officials at the Central Bank and at the Afghan Ministry of Finance Sunday and Monday. "In fact no decisions have been taken yet by the Central Bank and the government of Afghanistan," said Said Ishaq Allawi, an adviser to the governor of the Central Bank. "Technical issues are being discussed right now. No decision has been made on the fate of Kabul Bank."

However, an Afghan banking official did confirm that the Supreme Council of the Central Bank, its governing board, had voted in favor of dissolution of Kabul Bank, putting its assets, deposits and remaining good loans up for sale, and the rest into receivership. However, discussions are continuing within the Central Bank on implementation of that decision, and the Afghan government will have to approve the decision through a body called the Financial Disputes Resolution Commission, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to bank secrecy rules. Officials at the commission said Monday they had not yet been notified of any move to dissolve Kabul Bank, according to secretary Mahmadullah Firoz.

Mr. Allawi, the Central Bank spokesman, said the bank would have no comment on the Central Bank’s internal report.

The sheer scale of the fraud and the lack of documentation about where exactly the money went appears to have initially stunned Central Bank officials. “All administrative bodies, supervisory bodies and decision-making bodies in the bank” played a role in the fraud, wrote the Central Bank’s internal auditors. So did the shareholders, who knew each other personally and were involved in joint bank-financed ventures. They “engineered extensive violations and used influence” with the bank’s executives, so that they would have a ready source of money, the report said.

With considerable effort and only limited support from the government, the Central Bank has belatedly tried to stem the flood of red ink. Its officials have worked hard to secure loan repayment agreements from the major borrowers and shareholders, but it has not been easy. Not all of them agreed to repayment schedules. Others disputed the full amount of their loans saying they should only have to repay a portion of the money. In some cases the loans were for businesses from which little money could be recouped even if the assets were sold off. For instance, the $98 million poured into Pamir Airways could not be repaid by selling its small fleet of aging airplanes, which are now grounded.

Those borrowers and shareholders who did sign repayment agreements, agreed to long-term installment plans that could take three to seven years to pay off. Some diplomats doubt that the borrowers will make good even on those agreements and say that only an estimated $30 million to $50 million has been repaid so far out of an estimated $700 million to $900-plus million in dubious loans. While some of those loans are being repaid with interest, the vast majority are not, according to the Central Bank report, which lists the bank’s total outstanding loans as $986 million.

The interest the bank was earning on its nonperforming loans was so low that come last September, when depositors briefly made a run on the bank, it was earning "a small amount in comparison with the bank’s fixed costs," the report said, suggesting that depositors’ money would have to cover those costs.

Among the Central Bank’s findings were that Kabul Bank’s management kept two sets of books: a fake set in Kabul and a real set in Dubai at the Shaheen Currency Exchange, which was run by Sherkhan Farnood, the bank’s chairman. The bank never showed the real books to the Central Bank or to outside accountants who audited the bank’s books, the report said.

And even those “real” books did not include all transactions. In some cases loan recipients were concealed by multiple front men and loans were often made in the name of fictional people or fictional companies. Some loans were even given to anonymous or unknown borrowers.

In addition, bank officers handed money out to political campaigns, to artists, a sports team and influential figures, and simply used bank revenues to pay for their own life styles, the report said.

The Central Bank report gives a sense of the scale of the fraud by noting that just from February through August last year, Kabul Bank granted 101 loans without any real loan documents — for a total value of $387.1 million. This was done both to evade banking laws which limit how much money any one borrower can take from the bank, but also to make it look as if the bank had a number of interest-playing loans, when in many cases no interest was being paid at all.

Among the 18 breaches of Afghan banking law and regulations detailed in the Central Bank’s report is that the bank invested directly in businesses other than banking, including an airline, a television station, numerous real estate construction ventures and gas transport. Some of those business then attempted to drive out rivals by slashing prices below the cost of the product, losing millions of dollars. For instance Pamir Airlines cut its ticket prices to Dubai so far below its costs (at one time to $50 a ticket) that no other airline could compete on price. However, it failed to drive out competitors. After a fatal plane crash killing 44 persons, Pamir was unable to compensate the victims and was recently shut down by the Afghan Civil Aviation ministry for its poor safety record.

The largest number of loans, other than those taken by the bank’s chairman, Mr. Farnood, went to first vice-president Marshall Fahim’s brother, Abdul Haseen Fahim. Mr. Fahim had a share in at least three companies that took loans totaling $182 million. While Mr. Fahim’s had only a share in each of the companies that borrowed money, his presence, like that of Mahmoud Karzai’s, helped to curtail scrutiny of the loan’s validity, according to diplomats.

In an interview Mr. Fahim downplayed the significance of his loans and suggested that the bank and Mr. Farnood bore the main responsibility. “The main money is with Sherkhan,” he said. Mr. Fahim said he had paid off “10 percent to 20 percent” of his loan, but did not say whether that referred to one loan, or to the total of all his loans.

He added that the government should not take over the bank. “The government should not own the bank because anything that belongs to government becomes a bureaucracy.”

According to the Central Bank report Mr. Fahim agreed with another shareholder, Khalilullah Fruzi, the bank’s former chief executive, to pay back $24 million he borrowed for Gas Group, one of his energy sector ventures. However, the total amount borrowed by Gas Group was at least $121 million, according to the report, leaving unclear how Kabul Bank will obtain the other $97 million. Mr. Fahim also owes a total of $40 million for a loan to the Zahid Walid Group. He has paid back $4 million and asked for a term-loan for the balance.

His third major loan was $21 million for the Kabul Oil Company, in which he had a partial ownership along with Mohammed Ismail Ghazanfar, the owner of Ghazanfar Bank; Atta Muhammad Noor, a former Northern Alliance commander and now the governor of Balkh Province; and Kamal Nabizada, a business magnate in northern Afghanistan. Mr. Ghazanfar subsequently sold his share to the Kabul Bank chairman, Mr. Farnood.

The report says that auditors doubt that the Kabul Oil Company’s loan could ever be repaid because it “has no operation now in this field and has not left any moveable or immoveable assets (chattels or real estate.)” No one seems to know where the money went.

The governor of Balkh, Mr. Noor, said the business never got off the ground and that while he was a partner he never played any active role. “The business never went forward,” he said. Although the Central Bank report does not mention Mahmoud Karzai, a brother of the president, as a shareholder in the company, Mr. Noor said that Mr. Karzai also had a share.

Mr. Karzai has agreed to pay back only a sliver of what he owes, according to the Central Bank report. According to the Central Bank, he borrowed a total of nearly $18 million (without interest): $5.9 million to buy real estate in Dubai; $7.2 million for his shares in Kabul bank; and $4.7 million for his “personal accounts” and shares in the Afghan Investment Company.

“As soon as the officials of the loan department in Kabul Bank and the Central bank started settlement of the accounts, he denied purchase of the real estate in Dubai and called it the personal property of Sherkhan Farnood,” according to the report.

However, Mr. Karzai did pay back the money he borrowed for his personal use and has agreed to a repayment schedule for his loan for his investment in the cement company.

The International Monetary Fund and a number of Western diplomats believe that the wrongdoers must be held to account in order to restore Afghans’ faith in the banking system, including criminal prosecutions. However, it is unclear that the government is committed to that level of public scrutiny of those close to the presidential palace. Still, the government’s official line is that those who committed the fraud will be prosecuted. “Kabul Bank is a criminal case,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan National Security adviser, in an interview earlier this month.

“For the interest of the financial system we have to protect the money and property of our people; in the coming days we will have more investigations; this can not be business as usual,” he said.

The International Monetary Fund has suspended its program with Afghanistan because of its dismay at the handling of banking regulation and Kabul Bank in particular, which has delayed the ability of several western donors to funnel money to the Afghan government. One is the British government which has delayed $137 million in funds, and many others are expected to follow suit.

"The Afghans still do not have a solution to the Kabul Bank mess and they just don’t seem to realize how serious it is," a Western diplomat said recently.

I.M.F. officials and donor countries want to see the misappropriated loans repaid out of Afghan government tax revenues -- rather than through the money it gets from donors, who finance the great majority of the country’s operating budget.

Kabul Bank’s biggest depositor has been the Afghan government itself, which pays military and police salaries through the bank; most of those funds are provided directly by the United States.

Rod Nordland and Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul and Ray Rivera from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
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Taliban talks could be closer
US leaders including Hillary Clinton at last see the need to negotiate with their Afghan enemy. They just have to convince the Pentagon
The Guardian Jonathan Steele Monday 28 March 2011
Slowly and unsurely the Obama administration is coming round to the need for talks with the Taliban. It has taken a long time to accept a policy that most Afghans, many foreign analysts, several thinktanks and a few diplomats have been recommending for the last two or three years.

Almost unnoticed, thanks to the crises in Egypt and Libya, Hillary Clinton was the first to go public with the shift last month. "I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace," she told the Asia Society in New York. The time had come "to get serious about a responsible reconciliation process, led by Afghans and supported by intense regional diplomacy and strong US backing". Crucially, she dropped the preconditions that the Taliban must first renounce violence, sever links with al-Qaida and accept the Afghan constitution. She described these issues as "necessary outcomes of any negotiation".

Her new line was given fresh momentum last week by an international panel chaired by Thomas Pickering, one of Washington's most experienced former diplomats, and Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran United Nations negotiator who has met Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, more often than any other foreigner. Their report gives powerful reasons why the war is a stalemate that the US military will not be able to break.

They pour cold water on the US and UK policy of "re-integration" that tries to get Taliban leaders and commanders to defect. They suggest the Taliban are becoming more willing to talk as they realise they cannot regain total control over Afghanistan. They argue that the complexity of the issues and the need to get Afghanistan's neighbours to agree to any deal that includes a withdrawal of US forces mean that talks would benefit from a UN-appointed "facilitator". It sounds like a replay of the process that ended the Soviet occupation in 1989.

In an important departure from the usual top-down approach, the Brahimi/ Pickering report recommends local ceasefires as part of a confidence building process that could start before talks get under way. They suggest a trade-off in which the US ends its assassination of Taliban commanders and the Taliban ends its placing of roadside bombs and assassination of government officials.

Convincing the Pentagon will not be easy. In her Asia Society speech Clinton paid lip service to the military surge which General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan, is vigorously pursuing. In London last week, Petraeus was still heavily focused on the advances he claims to have made on the battlefield. He showed a Royal United Services Institute audience slides of this year's military plans, and talked of "clearing remaining Taliban strongholds" in northern Helmand; "connecting security bubbles in Kandahar" and "moving to the 'build' phase" in other parts of Helmand.

Discussing "reconciliation", he talked of individuals coming over to the government side or creeping back to their villages as they felt momentum slip away on the battlefield. Although the Afghan context is completely different, he went back to his last war and pointed out there had been no negotiations with insurgents in Iraq. But under questioning even Petraeus said he did not want to be seen as a man who believed in military victory rather than political compromise, and he praised the Northern Ireland model. He also recognised the rising sense of nationalism among Afghans, saying: "There's a point beyond which people get impatient about large numbers of foreign forces on their soil."

Afghanistan's next few months will be bloody, as Petraeus seeks a maximum kill rate before the long-promised drawdown of some troops in July. The Taliban will no doubt conduct another spring offensive and continue their bomb attacks on civilians like those that shocked Kabul and Jalalabad this winter.

But the good news is that a political war has erupted in Washington in place of the old unity behind a failed strategy of continually adding more troops. Backed by some members of the national security council, the state department has taken the lead in calling for talks, and the generals are on the defensive for the first time. What is needed now is for Obama to get off the fence. He should come out in favour of negotiations and back the idea of a UN facilitator to get them started. Most Americans have lost faith in the war, and it will cost the White House little to tell the generals the time has come to ebb, not surge.
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Afghan, NATO forces preparing for spring offensive to check militancy: NATO
KABUL, March 28 (Xinhua) -- The Afghan force and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are preparing for a spring offensive to counter a Taliban-led insurgency in militancy- hit Afghanistan, ISAF spokesman said on Monday.

"We are expecting spring offensive by insurgents and the time for that might also depends on poppy harvest in April and May from southern to northern part of Afghanistan ," spokesman of ISAF Brigadier-General Josef Blotz told reporters in a weekly press briefing.

"We try to change the environment, when the insurgents try to strike back in spring, they will face a different situation this year," he emphasized, adding "our mutual, multi-pronged offensive strategy continues to hit hard at the enemy - particularly as the insurgents are getting ready for the spring fighting season."

He also said that in efforts to prevent insurgents' movement in Taliban heartland Helmand province in south Afghanistan the joint forces have launched an operation in Helmand that will also cover parts of neighboring Kandahar province.

"Recently, for example, Marines from 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion struck a key insurgent hub along the Helmand-Pakistan border. This marked the opening of Operation Rawhide II, an effort to curtail the flow of narcotics, weapons and fighters in and out of southern Afghanistan," the spokesman of over 140,000-strong NATO and U.S. forces further said.

However, Taliban insurgents, whose regime was toppled in a U.S.- led invasion in late 2001, responded by suicide and roadside bombings across the war-torn country.

Three suicide bombers struck a compound running by a local construction company late Sunday killing 24 people and injuring 59 others in the country's eastern Paktika province, according to a statement released by Paktika's provincial administration on Monday.

Spring and summer are traditionally known as fighting seasons in Afghanistan as warring sides often accelerate efforts to consolidate their positions.
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In Afghanistan, spring could prove test of anti-Taliban effort
A U.S.-led operation last year drove the Taliban from bases in Zhari district. As the expected spring offensive nears, U.S. officials insist that the insurgents will find it difficult to regain a foothold in the area.
Los Angeles Times By Laura King March 28, 2011
Zhari district, Afghanistan - It was a classic photo opportunity: the governor of Kandahar province astride a lumbering farm tractor, plowing under the first green shoots of opium poppies poking their way through the soil. The engine clattered; the cameras clicked away. "Enough?" the governor asked, and clambered down.

Just outside the photo frames, truckloads of Afghan police and a convoy of U.S. armored vehicles stood guard over this drug-eradication exercise a half-hour west of Kandahar, the main city of southern Afghanistan. Asked whether the governor and his entourage could have visited this spot without U.S. firepower at the ready, an Afghan police commander laughed heartily.

"Sure, we could come here," he said. "But we might not come back!"

Zhari district, where Mullah Mohammed Omar founded the Taliban movement in the 1990s, could prove a key testing ground as insurgents launch an expected spring offensive in coming weeks. In September, a U.S.-led military operation to secure strategic districts on Kandahar city's outskirts drove the Taliban from long-held bases here.

That campaign was part of an ambitious Western bid to seize the battlefield initiative across Afghanistan's south, and to begin laying the groundwork for a transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan police and soldiers over the next three years.

Senior U.S. officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who visited bases in the south this month, insist that the insurgents will find it difficult to regain a foothold in areas "cleared" in last year's fighting.

"We think that what they're returning to is a significantly different environment than what they left last year," said Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the NATO force's deputy commander.

But longtime observers of the Taliban point out that the movement does not necessarily need to hold territory to make its influence strongly felt. Even in small numbers, its fighters can use hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, tying down large numbers of coalition troops. And even through the winter months, as combat trailed off, the insurgents were able to employ improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, to bloody the far more powerful NATO force. Civilians, too, are dying at an unprecedented rate.

Taliban fighters "are not going to charge back in here like the cavalry in your Old West movies," said an official in Kandahar, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of insurgent death threats against him. "They can't. But they don't have to. They can come in quietly."

That pattern can already be seen in Zhari. Villagers said the insurgents melted away for much of the winter, as they customarily do — with some disappearing even before the U.S. offensive last fall. But as the weather has warmed, they say, fighters have been stealthily reestablishing themselves, slipping into the district in ragged, inconspicuous bands of three or four, uncovering buried weapons caches, availing themselves of eyes and ears in every hamlet.

Western officials have touted the success of raids, mainly carried out by special operations forces, that they say have killed or captured nearly 3,000 Taliban suspects over the last three months, including many in the movement's mid-level command tier. Senior commanders have described these raids as a devastating blow to the insurgents' fighting ability.

But the Taliban movement is known to have an enormous recruiting pool in the Islamic seminaries of Pakistan, whose tribal borderlands offer a plethora of havens where foot soldiers can be trained and armed before being sent into battle in Afghanistan.

The loss of experienced commanders is undoubtedly being felt as the insurgents seek to regroup, according to several people familiar with the Taliban field structure. But replacement leaders at the squad level are consistently described as younger, more ruthless and more ideologically driven, which could heighten the level of violence.

Moreover, the movement has historically been able to absorb large numerical losses. In Zhari, for example, an offensive by Canadian forces in 2006 was thought to have killed more than 1,000 insurgents. But within 18 months, Taliban fighters had once again ensconced themselves in the district.

A primary goal of the offensive in Kandahar's outlying areas was to make the city safer, enabling better governance to take hold. But despite a drop-off in suicide bombings and other large-scale attacks, the sinister phenomenon of Taliban targeted killings expanded in the province last year.

Hit teams, often a pair of assailants on a motorbike, routinely target tribal elders, elected officials and local dignitaries. And attacks on government and security installations in the city have not halted altogether.

"They can still do this when they want to," said shopkeeper Ghulam Hazrat, gesturing at a ruined complex of shops and a wedding hall in Kandahar's city center. Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers overran the building last month and used it to lob rockets at police headquarters across the street.

Many people fear, in fact, that the tightening NATO hold on the outlying districts has caused insurgents to seek shelter in the city itself. "I think some of the ones who were in the countryside before are in Kandahar now, and will stay here," Hazrat said.

The Taliban leadership pays close attention to Western policy pronouncements. During his visit, Gates declared that U.S. forces would be "well-positioned" to begin at least a limited troop drawdown in July, as promised by President Obama. But insurgents may be highly motivated to ensure that the timing for any pullback is problematic.

Last year, June and July brought the largest number of combat losses for both U.S. troops and the NATO force as a whole. A similar pattern this year would mean that American troop reductions occurring around that time would be painted as a Taliban victory.

In addition, the spring will test a gamble by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are being withdrawn from areas once described as crucial bulwarks against Pakistani-based militant groups such as the Haqqani network and the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

U.S. troops have been "repositioned" away from former battlegrounds such as the Pech and Korangal valleys in Kunar province, where commanders said sophisticated surveillance and "intelligence-driven" raids would prevent a rush of cross-border movement.

However, replacing troops with a reliance on airstrikes could lead to a surge in civilian casualties, already a highly sensitive issue between President Hamid Karzai's government and the NATO force.

The spring's new round of fighting will be as much a battle of perceptions as a struggle for territory. Despite the upbeat military assessments, many Afghans are feeling less secure than ever. Civilian deaths have hit their highest recorded levels of the decade-old war, with fatalities in 2010 increasing by 15% over the previous year, a United Nations report said this month. Three-quarters of those deaths were blamed on the Taliban and other militant groups.

The first two months of this year also saw a string of suicide bombings and other attacks in urban centers across the country that killed scores and created a sense of enveloping chaos.

"To me, the question is whether we can somehow live our daily lives," said Mohammed Ahmadi, whose policeman son was shot point-blank by insurgents last month as he tried to draw his pay at a bank in the eastern city of Jalalabad. "Right now, it seems there is death everywhere we turn."

laura.king@latimes.com

Times staff writer David S. Cloud in Sangin, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
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Helmand sacking over female singers without headscarves
By Bilal Sarwary BBC News 28 March 2011
The deputy governor of Helmand province has been sacked for organising a concert that featured female performers without headscarves.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai took the action against Abdul Satar Mirzakwal after tribal elders complained that it was inappropriate.

The concert attracted about 12,000 people and was hailed as a success by local authorities.

Helmand is one of Afghanistan's most volatile provinces.

Correspondents say that simply staging the concert in Helmand was a sign of the extent to which security has improved in the province after a sustained coalition offensive against Taliban militants in the area.

The concert featured two female singers - Farzana Naz and Rita Wagma - who appeared on stage without headscarves.

But officials in the country's Supreme Court said that Mr Karzai took action after hearing complaints from tribal elders.

"Women do not appear in public without wearing a burka and niqab in an Islamic country like Afghanistan," one official, who wished to remain unnamed, said.

"Mirzakwal should have ensured respect for Islamic traditions."

The Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG), which recommends the appointment and dismissal of governors and deputy governors, says it was not consulted by President Karzai before he fired Mr Mirzakwal.

"We were not consulted about it. We didn't know about it," an IDLG official said.
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Turkmenistan Ready to Provide Energy to Afghanistan
Tolo news March 28, 2011
Turkmenistan's President said his country is ready to provide necessary energy to Afghanistan, a statement by Karzai's Office said on Sunday.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, during their stay in Tehran to participate in New Year celebration, and the two leaders discussed TAPI gas pipeline project, a railway expected to connect Afghanistan to most of the Asian countries.

President Karzai was also invited to visit Turkmen capital Ashgabat at the end of May.

On Saturday President Karzai flew to Tehran to take part in a New Year festival in Iran.

The New Year celebration also known as Nowruz festival was participated by leaders from at least 18 countries.

On the first day of his Iran visit President Karzai also met with his Iranian counterpart President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the two leaders mainly discussed security transition process to Afghan security forces, which is expected to begin in July this year.
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10 Afghan terrorists detained: Official
KABUL, March 27 (Xinhua) -- Afghan National Directorate for Security (NDS) or intelligence agency has arrested 10 terrorists including three would-be suicide bombers over the past 10 days, spokesman for the entity Lutfullah Mashal said on Sunday.

"We have arrested 10 terrorists including three suicide bombers from Kabul, Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces over the past 10 days,"Mashal told newsmen at a press conference.

One of those arrested is Arfanullah Span 20 years old from Nangarhar province, he said, adding that he disguised himself as a journalist and had been involved in terrorist activities including organizing roadside bombings under Taliban command.

Spokesman of intelligence service also added that security personnel had discovered a truck full of explosive device in Wardak province on Wednesday and thus foiled a terrorist attack.

Among those arrested, he said that there are two terrorists who had organized series of terrorist offensives including a suicide attack inside a public bath in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province on January 7 which left 17 people dead and 23 others injured with majority of them civilians.
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Afghanistan’s Karzai Meets in Iran With Turkmenistan President
VOA News March 27, 2011
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has met with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov while both leaders are visiting Tehran.

In a statement released Sunday, Mr. Karzai's office said the two leaders discussed a project to transport gas to Pakistan and India through Afghanistan, a railway connecting Afghanistan to the rest of Central Asia and the possibility of Turkmenistan providing energy to Afghanistan.

President Berdymukhamedov also invited Mr. Karzai to the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, at the end of May.

The two presidents, along with leaders from 16 other countries, are in Iran to celebrate the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, The Nowruz festival began on March 21, the day of the vernal equinox.

On Saturday, Mr. Karzai met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. State-run Iranian media said the two leaders discussed the process of transferring responsibility for security in Afghanistan to Afghan forces. The Middle East situation also was reportedly on the agenda, along with the status of Afghan prisoners in Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad praised the Afghan delegation for attending the festivities, and said he believed that Afghanistan is fully capable of defending itself without outside interference.
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Afghan-Canadian governor declares war on the poppy
CTV.ca Sunday Mar. 27, 2011
HUTAL, Afghanistan - For Kandahar to win its war on drugs, it must succeed here.

"That's the biggest enemy we have," Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa tells a group of Maiwand elders, some of whom chortle after hearing his plan to eradicate poppy fields from the province.

"I need your co-operation, please."

The Afghan-Canadian governor's appeal comes a month after he announced a crackdown this spring on the production of opium throughout Kandahar.

It is a lofty goal in a province where cultivation of the illicit but lucrative plant has grown fivefold in the last seven years. But it is particularly ambitious in Maiwand, the largest poppy producing district in Kandahar and third largest in Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations, 25,835 hectares of land in Kandahar were used to grow poppies last year -- roughly half the geographic size of Montreal. Of that, 9,966 hectares were in Maiwand.

Often referred to as the "wild west" of Kandahar, Maiwand is considered a strategically vital battleground in the Afghan mission.

The largely lawless district of 52,000 people connects Kandahar and Helmand, two of Afghanistan's deadliest provinces. To the north and south of Hutal, a town about 80 kilometres northwest of Kandahar city, there are insurgent supply routes -- or "rat-lines" in military parlance.

"You're right on the seam," U.S. Brig.-Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who heads stabilization for NATO's Regional Command South, told The Canadian Press.

"It's where the influence of Kandahar starts to wane and the influence of Helmand starts to wane ... the insurgency knows that too and the drug traffickers know that too."

NATO's past strategy to combat opium targeted smugglers, but that did nothing to arrest poppy farming in the south. So the Afghan government has shifted its focus to farmers in an effort to stamp out a major source of revenue for the insurgency.

It used to be too perilous to launch eradication efforts in Kandahar. But commanders say the security situation has improved to the point where Afghan forces can patrol areas where they haven't been able to in the past, establishing a presence in regions where farmers haven't seen them before.

"They're being liberated from that grip that the Taliban has around their throat, so now they can actually choose whether to grow poppy or not," Dahl says.

"I'm not saying that the Taliban are not still here. The Taliban are still here, but if the people can be convinced that the security situation is moving in the right direction and they are given new methods and alternatives, they'll naturally go in that direction."

It is illegal in Afghanistan to grow opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin. But the law is viewed by many farmers as more of a nuisance than deterrent and has been widely ignored for years by some police officers.

People caught growing opium can face a one-year prison sentence.

The opium growing season lasts from December to May and was about six times more profitable than wheat last year. It helps pour cash into the coffers of insurgent groups and is a driving factor behind the spike in violence NATO forces and Afghan civilians encounter during the country's summer fighting season.

With the money from the trade of opium and other drugs, insurgents pay young, often unemployed men eager for a quick buck to take up arms, plant improvised explosive devices, serve as spies or help their cause in any other way possible.

In recent weeks, Wesa has travelled to several towns and villages to promote his eradication program, bringing tractors with him to destroy poppy fields. The events have made for great photo opportunities for the Afghan media, but it remains uncertain whether the plan will breed contempt among cash-strapped farmers or convince them to turn to other crops such as wheat and pomegranates.

So in a further bid to persuade elders to stop growing the poppy, Wesa appeals to their religious conviction.

"This is 'haram,' " he says, using the Arabic word for something that is forbidden by Islamic law.

U.S. Lt.-Col. Bryan Denny is hopeful Afghan farmers will heed Wesa's message and by extension, reject the Taliban. For inspiration, he looks to the 1880 Battle of Maiwand.

During that clash, Afghan forces defeated a British brigade in one of the few times during the 19th century that an Asian force defeated a western power.

"People look to Maiwand and go, 'Hey, we beat the British right here. Why can't we beat the insurgency right here as well?' " Denny said.

"And I think it's got to happen right here in order to solidify security in Helmand and solidify security in Kandahar."
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For Afghan artisans, handicrafts are about reviving traditional skills
The Globe and Mail SUSAN SACHS Sunday, Mar. 27, 2011
KABUL - Abdulhadi is a small reed of a man in a voluminous blue suit coat, a bit hard of hearing and a bit bent with age. But at the newly restored Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, he is considered a towering master of the craft of wood-working.

In a classroom redolent with the fragrance of fresh wood shavings, he runs a gnarled hand over the decorative chair back designed by one of his students. He watches approvingly as two others, intent young women, chisel flowers in classic Afghan style on a thick disc of wood.

The skills he teaches are those he learned as a boy at his father’s knee, before the secrets of the country’s traditional craftsmen were lost or forgotten in the tumult of Afghanistan’s wars and mass migration.

The aim of the institute, which was established by the British-based Turquoise Mountain Foundation, is to revive the old wood-working, gemstone, calligraphy and ceramics crafts once familiar to generations of Afghan artisans. As of this month, it will pass from foreign management to Afghan control.

It is a modest milestone but one that mirrors an overall trend toward having Afghans take more direct charge of running and securing their country. It is also an example of the obstacles of transition in a wrecked country being rebuilt with foreign aid. As is the case with the NATO-financed Afghan security forces and development projects, the institute will not be able to pay its own bills for the foreseeable future.

“If the management is really passionate about the school, it will remain here for a long time,” said Abdulhadi, who guesses that he is about 80 years old and, like many Afghans, has only one name. “But we are going to need outside support.”

Five years ago, the compound that houses the institute was a collection of collapsing mud and straw buildings filled with three-meter-high piles of trash. Called Murad Khane, after its original 19th-century owner, it has been restored as a tidy island of calm in Kabul’s crowded ramshackle Old City.

Relying on donations from outside Afghanistan, including a $7-million grant from Canada, Turquoise Mountain spent $25-million to renovate the pocket-sized neighbourhood and uncover Murad Khane’s simple courtyard, tiled alcoves and timbered rooms.

In the institute’s low-ceiling classrooms, students learn wood-working, paint Persian-style miniatures, operate hand-turned gemstone cutting machines and shape coils of wet clay into pots. The three-year cycle also aims to make them computer-literate and business savvy, with classes in art history, design, computers, marketing, languages and business management.

Its operating costs are about $1-million a year, to be paid by grants from the United States. Foreign aid is likely to be the institute’s sole financial lifeline for many years, according to Abdul Waheed Khalili, the director of the institute.

“If we can increase the reputation of the institute inside and outside the country, and show the success of the students, then maybe some years in the future we could charge a small fee,” he said. “But that is many years in the future.”

The institute has shown it can produce marketable graduates, he said.

Of the 69 students in the first class to finish the three-year program two years ago, 11 went on to college to continue their studies. Three are unemployed, eight are working in other fields and the rest have found jobs in the crafts they studied.

Of the 14 students who graduated last year, said Mr. Khalili, only two are not working. Six started their own businesses or found jobs. Six others banded together to create their own crafts company that is housed in the institute’s ceramics department.

What the institute needs, he added, is a sustainable business model. But in a country as poor and insecure as Afghanistan, none has yet to present itself.

He has spoken with major Afghan furniture manufacturer who spends more than $40,000 a year to import carved wood from Pakistani factories. “I asked him to think about spending the same amount to provide wood to the school,” recalled Mr. Khalili. “Then our students could do the work and maybe get taken on [as interns] in the company.”

The market for Afghan-made crafts is growing, he said, but slowly. He recently discovered that a wealthy Kabul man had spent tens of thousands of dollars to create a traditional décor for his home.

But the man declined Mr. Khalili’s suggestion to open it to selected visitors as a showcase and advertisement for local artisanship, saying he feared becoming a target for thieves.

The project’s Afghan managers also fear for the maintenance of neighbourhood around Murad Khane that Turquoise Mountain upgraded and provided with a primary school and clinic.

The area is being furnished with sewage pipes, it is connected for the first time to the city water and electricity network, and adjacent apartments were renovated.

“That apartment over there had two rooms and 12 people were living in it,” said Hedayatullah Ahmadzai, the chief engineer for the urban renewal project, pointing to a non-descript mud-walled building across from the institute. “We made a new room.”

Men and boys from the neighbourhood were hired to do most of the labour, in hopes that the skills they picked up would pay off in jobs and higher incomes for their families.

Since work began in 2006, they hauled away 25,000 cubic meters of garbage, a compacted mess of dirt and refuse that reached three meters high in places. Standing water had melted the earthwork buildings and one collapsed as reconstruction started. They have been rebuilt with a stronger combination of mud and straw.

But the area around the institute remains one of the poorest in a poor city. Most residents make a meagre living as peddlers, earning the equivalent of about $2 a day. They do not own the property they live in. Few have the means to pay for utilities. And they have never banded together, as in other parts of the city, to pay someone to collect their garbage, Mr. Ahmadzai said.

“Maybe if we could find the original community and owners, they would take care of things,” he added. “But these people are displaced people from other parts of the country or the city. They don’t think about the buildings. They are just passing their time here and making a living.”
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DynCorp Cited By U.S. For Afghan Base Deficiencies
Bloomberg By Tony Capaccio Mar 28, 2011
DynCorp International Inc., the largest U.S. contractor in Afghanistan, was warned by Pentagon officials in January that it is failing to adequately inspect and repair in a timely manner potential electrical hazards at U.S. bases, according to a document.

DynCorp also filed reports indicating that it fully completed repair work on potential life, health or safety electrical problems “even though parts are on order and the work is not complete,” Lieutenant Colonel David Schoolcraft, a military contracting officer, wrote to DynCorp on Jan. 7 in a formal “Letter of Concern.”

The Pentagon’s contract oversight agencies have increased their scrutiny of issues related to electrical wiring at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan after 18 troops were electrocuted in Iraq either in accidents or in connection with faulty construction or grounding of equipment.
There is no indication that military personnel have been electrocuted in Afghanistan. DynCorp management, in a Jan. 31 response, outlined the company’s plans to address the issues. The warning to DynCorp may be highlighted today during a hearing of the congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting.

Falls Church, Virginia-based DynCorp is working under a July 2009 contract worth as much as $5.7 billion if all options are executed. It took over from incumbent KBR Inc. (KBR) the job in southern Afghanistan of facilities management, inspection, maintenance and installation for electrical power, water, sewage, laundry, food services and motor pool supervision. Troop Surge

The bulk of the transition from KBR to DynCorp management occurred from January through July 2010, as the Pentagon surged 30,000 additional troops into the Taliban-contested south. Two of the largest bases are Kandahar Air Field and Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province.

Schoolcraft said the Defense Department’s contracting agency is concerned “with DynCorp’s ability to maintain the right type and number of resources in place to accurately inspect, mitigate, document and fully address electrical issues.”

“Due to the sensitivity of life, health and safety issues associated with the use of electricity,” Schoolcraft wrote, the agency has been reviewing all electrical-related activities at the bases, including issues highlighted in 9,739 “flashes,” or emergency alerts, by Army inspectors at Kandahar and Leatherneck alone.

Overall there have been 10,679 safety alerts for six U.S. bases since the surge, and “we are continuing to receive between 40 and 60 new flashes per day at Kandahar,” he wrote. Safety ‘Flashes’

A review of these “flashes” and records filed by DynCorp “identified several electrical-related concerns that require immediate attention and a corrective-action plan,” according to Schoolcraft.

“Given the nature and magnitude of the electrical concerns, it is imperative to ensure that the identified concerns are not pervasive across the entire” contract, Schoolcraft wrote. He did not elaborate on the specific concerns.

DynCorp program manager Joseph Schmitt, in his Jan. 31 response, said the company would discontinue listing a job as complete when parts are still pending. He labeled the practice as “inappropriate.”

The company was attempting temporary repairs to “mitigate the danger” but not necessarily to make them compliant with National Electrical Code standards, Schmitt wrote. Inadequate Staffing

DynCorp at this time does not have adequate staffing to “keep up with the corrective actions required,” Schmitt wrote. “We have been and are continuing to address these concerns.”

Ashley Burke, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that “we have addressed each of those challenges with aggressive action.”

DynCorp is hiring 120 additional electricians and more support personnel to better respond to field reports. It is also hiring at least two additional companies to assist with technical inspections, she said.

“DynCorp is committed to taking every action possible to ensure the safety of all military and civilian personnel who use the facilities we support,” Burke said.

DynCorp was acquired last year by New York-based Cerberus Capital Management LP.
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Behind the American 'Kill Team' in Afghanistan
How soldiers murdered civilians -- and how officers failed to stop them
By Mark Boal Rolling Stone
Editor's Note: This story, about the so-called 'Kill Team' in Afghanistan, first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. It includes graphic descriptions and obscenities.

Early last year, after six hard months soldiering in Afghanistan, a group of American infantrymen reached a momentous decision: It was finally time to kill a haji.

Among the men of Bravo Company, the notion of killing an Afghan civilian had been the subject of countless conversations, during lunchtime chats and late-night bull sessions. For weeks, they had weighed the ethics of bagging "savages" and debated the probability of getting caught. Some of them agonized over the idea; others were gung-ho from the start. But not long after the New Year, as winter descended on the arid plains of Kandahar Province, they agreed to stop talking and actually pull the trigger.

Bravo Company had been stationed in the area since summer, struggling, with little success, to root out the Taliban and establish an American presence in one of the most violent and lawless regions of the country. On the morning of January 15th, the company's 3rd Platoon – part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, based out of Tacoma, Washington – left the mini-metropolis of tents and trailers at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in a convoy of armored Stryker troop carriers. The massive, eight-wheeled trucks surged across wide, vacant stretches of desert, until they came to La Mohammad Kalay, an isolated farming village tucked away behind a few poppy fields.

To provide perimeter security, the soldiers parked the Strykers at the outskirts of the settlement, which was nothing more than a warren of mud-and-straw compounds. Then they set out on foot. Local villagers were suspected of supporting the Taliban, providing a safe haven for strikes against U.S. troops. But as the soldiers of 3rd Platoon walked through the alleys of La Mohammad Kalay, they saw no armed fighters, no evidence of enemy positions. Instead, they were greeted by a frustratingly familiar sight: destitute Afghan farmers living without electricity or running water; bearded men with poor teeth in tattered traditional clothes; young kids eager for candy and money. It was impossible to tell which, if any, of the villagers were sympathetic to the Taliban. The insurgents, for their part, preferred to stay hidden from American troops, striking from a distance with IEDs.

While the officers of 3rd Platoon peeled off to talk to a village elder inside a compound, two soldiers walked away from the unit until they reached the far edge of the village. There, in a nearby poppy field, they began looking for someone to kill. "The general consensus was, if we are going to do something that fucking crazy, no one wanted anybody around to witness it," one of the men later told Army investigators.

The poppy plants were still low to the ground at that time of year. The two soldiers, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes, saw a young farmer who was working by himself among the spiky shoots. Off in the distance, a few other soldiers stood sentry. But the farmer was the only Afghan in sight. With no one around to witness, the timing was right. And just like that, they picked him for execution.

He was a smooth-faced kid, about 15 years old. Not much younger than they were: Morlock was 21, Holmes was 19. His name, they would later learn, was Gul Mudin, a common name in Afghanistan. He was wearing a little cap and a Western-style green jacket. He held nothing in his hand that could be interpreted as a weapon, not even a shovel. The expression on his face was welcoming. "He was not a threat," Morlock later confessed.

Morlock and Holmes called to him in Pashto as he walked toward them, ordering him to stop. The boy did as he was told. He stood still.

The soldiers knelt down behind a mud-brick wall. Then Morlock tossed a grenade toward Mudin, using the wall as cover. As the grenade exploded, he and Holmes opened fire, shooting the boy repeatedly at close range with an M4 carbine and a machine gun.

Mudin buckled, went down face first onto the ground. His cap toppled off. A pool of blood congealed by his head.

The loud retort of the guns echoed all around the sleepy farming village. The sound of such unexpected gunfire typically triggers an emergency response in other soldiers, sending them into full battle mode. Yet when the shots rang out, some soldiers didn't seem especially alarmed, even when the radio began to squawk. It was Morlock, agitated, screaming that he had come under attack. On a nearby hill, Spc. Adam Winfield turned to his friend, Pfc. Ashton Moore, and explained that it probably wasn't a real combat situation. It was more likely a staged killing, he said – a plan the guys had hatched to take out an unarmed Afghan without getting caught.

Back at the wall, soldiers arriving on the scene found the body and the bloodstains on the ground. Morlock and Holmes were crouched by the wall, looking excited. When a staff sergeant asked them what had happened, Morlock said the boy had been about to attack them with a grenade. "We had to shoot the guy," he said.

An unlikely story?

It was an unlikely story: a lone Taliban fighter, armed with only a grenade, attempting to ambush a platoon in broad daylight, let alone in an area that offered no cover or concealment. Even the top officer on the scene, Capt. Patrick Mitchell, thought there was something strange about Morlock's story. "I just thought it was weird that someone would come up and throw a grenade at us," Mitchell later told investigators.

But Mitchell did not order his men to render aid to Mudin, whom he believed might still be alive, and possibly a threat. Instead, he ordered Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague to "make sure" the boy was dead. Sprague raised his rifle and fired twice.

As the soldiers milled around the body, a local elder who had been working in the poppy field came forward and accused Morlock and Holmes of murder. Pointing to Morlock, he said that the soldier, not the boy, had thrown the grenade. Morlock and the other soldiers ignored him.

To identify the body, the soldiers fetched the village elder who had been speaking to the officers that morning. But by tragic coincidence, the elder turned out to be the father of the slain boy. His moment of grief-stricken recognition, when he saw his son lying in a pool of blood, was later recounted in the flat prose of an official Army report. "The father was very upset," the report noted.

The father's grief did nothing to interrupt the pumped-up mood that had broken out among the soldiers. Following the routine Army procedure required after every battlefield death, they cut off the dead boy's clothes and stripped him naked to check for identifying tattoos. Next they scanned his iris and fingerprints, using a portable biometric scanner.

Then, in a break with protocol, the soldiers began taking photographs of themselves celebrating their kill. Holding a cigarette rakishly in one hand, Holmes posed for the camera with Mudin's bloody and half-naked corpse, grabbing the boy's head by the hair as if it were a trophy deer. Morlock made sure to get a similar memento.

No one seemed more pleased by the kill than Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the platoon's popular and hard-charging squad leader. "It was like another day at the office for him," one soldier recalls. Gibbs started "messing around with the kid," moving his arms and mouth and "acting like the kid was talking." Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic's shears, he reportedly sliced off the dead boy's pinky finger and gave it to Holmes, as a trophy for killing his first Afghan.

According to his fellow soldiers, Holmes took to carrying the finger with him in a zip-lock bag. "He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out," one of his friends would later report. "He was proud of his finger."

After the killing, the soldiers involved in Mudin's death were not disciplined or punished in any way. Emboldened, the platoon went on a shooting spree over the next four months that claimed the lives of at least three more innocent civilians. When the killings finally became public last summer, the Army moved aggressively to frame the incidents as the work of a "rogue unit" operating completely on its own, without the knowledge of its superiors. Military prosecutors swiftly charged five low-ranking soldiers with murder, and the Pentagon clamped down on any information about the killings. Soldiers in Bravo Company were barred from giving interviews, and lawyers for the accused say their clients faced harsh treatment if they spoke to the press, including solitary confinement. No officers were charged.

Operating in the open

But a review of internal Army records and investigative files obtained by Rolling Stone, including dozens of interviews with members of Bravo Company compiled by military investigators, indicates that the dozen infantrymen being portrayed as members of a secretive "kill team" were operating out in the open, in plain view of the rest of the company. Far from being clandestine, as the Pentagon has implied, the murders of civilians were common knowledge among the unit and understood to be illegal by "pretty much the whole platoon," according to one soldier who complained about them. Staged killings were an open topic of conversation, and at least one soldier from another battalion in the 3,800-man Stryker Brigade participated in attacks on unarmed civilians. "The platoon has a reputation," a whistle-blower named Pfc. Justin Stoner told the Army Criminal Investigation Command. "They have had a lot of practice staging killings and getting away with it."

From the start, the questionable nature of the killings was on the radar of senior Army leadership. Within days of the first murder, Rolling Stone has learned, Mudin's uncle descended on the gates of FOB Ramrod, along with 20 villagers from La Mohammad Kalay, to demand an investigation. "They were sitting at our front door," recalls Lt. Col. David Abrahams, the battalion's second in command. During a four-hour meeting with Mudin's uncle, Abrahams was informed that several children in the village had seen Mudin killed by soldiers from 3rd Platoon. The battalion chief ordered the soldiers to be reinterviewed, but Abrahams found "no inconsistencies in their story," and the matter was dropped. "It was cut and dry to us at the time," Abrahams recalls.

Other officers were also in a position to question the murders. Neither 3rd Platoon's commander, Capt. Matthew Quiggle, nor 1st Lt. Roman Ligsay has been held accountable for their unit's actions, despite their repeated failure to report killings that they had ample reason to regard as suspicious. In fact, supervising the murderous platoon, or even having knowledge of the crimes, seems to have been no impediment to career advancement. Ligsay has actually been promoted to captain, and a sergeant who joined the platoon in April became a team leader even though he "found out about the murders from the beginning," according to a soldier who cooperated with the Army investigation.

Indeed, it would have been hard not to know about the murders, given that the soldiers of 3rd Platoon took scores of photographs chronicling their kills and their time in Afghanistan. The photos, obtained by Rolling Stone, portray a front-line culture among U.S. troops in which killing Afghan civilians is less a reason for concern than a cause for celebration. "Most people within the unit disliked the Afghan people, whether it was the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army or locals," one soldier explained to investigators. "Everyone would say they're savages." One photo shows a hand missing a finger. Another depicts a severed head being maneuvered with a stick, and still more show bloody body parts, blown-apart legs, mutilated torsos. Several show dead Afghans, lying on the ground or on Stryker vehicles, with no weapons in view.

In many of the photos it is unclear whether the bodies are civilians or Taliban, and it is possible that the unidentified deaths involved no illegal acts by U.S. soldiers. But it is a violation of Army standards to take such photos of the dead, let alone share them with others. Among the soldiers, the collection was treated like a war memento. It was passed from man to man on thumb drives and hard drives, the gruesome images of corpses and war atrocities filed alongside clips of TV shows, UFC fights and films such as Iron Man 2. One soldier kept a complete set, which he made available to anyone who asked.

The collection also includes several videos shot by U.S. troops. In a jumpy, 30-minute clip titled "Motorcycle Kill," soldiers believed to be with another battalion in the Stryker Brigade gun down two Afghans on a motorcycle who may have been armed. One of the most chilling files shows two Afghans suspected of planting an IED being blown up in an airstrike. Shot through thermal imaging, the grainy footage has been edited into a music video, complete with a rock soundtrack and a title card that reads 'death zone.'

Even before the war crimes became public, the Pentagon went to extraordinary measures to suppress the photos – an effort that reached the highest levels of both governments. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and President Hamid Karzai were reportedly briefed on the photos as early as May, and the military launched a massive effort to find every file and pull the pictures out of circulation before they could touch off a scandal on the scale of Abu Ghraib. Investigators in Afghanistan searched the hard drives and confiscated the computers of more than a dozen soldiers, ordering them to delete any provocative images. The Army Criminal Investigation Command also sent agents fanning out across America to the homes of soldiers and their relatives, gathering up every copy of the files they could find. The message was clear: What happens in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan.

By suppressing the photos, however, the Army may also have been trying to keep secret evidence that the killings of civilians went beyond a few men in 3rd Platoon. In one image, two dead Afghans have been tied together, their hands bound, and placed alongside a road. A sign – handwritten on cardboard from a discarded box of rations – hangs around their necks. It reads "Taliban are Dead." The Pentagon says it is investigating the photos, but insists that there is little more investigators can do to identify the men. "It's a mystery," says a Pentagon spokesman. "To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure they know where to take it next. All we have is two apparently dead Afghans handcuffed to each other against a mile marker. We don't know much beyond that. For all we know, those two guys may have been killed by the Taliban for being sympathizers."

But such statements suggest that the Pentagon isn't following every lead. A Stryker vehicle in the photos, for example, bears identifying marks that are clearly visible in the image. And according to a source in Bravo Company, who spoke to Rolling Stone on the condition of anonymity, the two unarmed men in the photos were killed by soldiers from another platoon, which has not yet been implicated in the scandal.

"Those were some innocent farmers that got killed," the source says. "Their standard operating procedure after killing dudes was to drag them up to the side of the highway."

Army prosecutors insist that blame for the killings rests with a soldier near the bottom of the Stryker Brigade's totem pole: Calvin Gibbs, a three-tour veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who served as a squad leader in 3rd Platoon. Morlock and five soldiers charged with lesser crimes have pleaded guilty in exchange for testifying against Gibbs, who faces life in prison for three counts of premeditated murder.

The 26-year-old staff sergeant has been widely portrayed as a sociopath of Mansonesque proportions, a crazed killer with a "pure hatred for all Afghans" who was detested and feared by those around him. But the portrait omits evidence that the Army's own investigators gathered from soldiers in Bravo Company. "Gibbs is very well-liked in the platoon by his seniors, peers and subordinates alike," Spc. Adam Kelly reported, adding that Gibbs was "one of the best NCOs I've ever had the pleasure of working with in my military career. I believe that because of his experience, more people came back alive and uninjured than would have without him having been part of the platoon." Another soldier described Gibbs as an "upbeat guy, very funny. He was one of those guys you could talk to about anything and he would make you feel better about the situation."

At six-feet-four and 220 pounds, Gibbs could certainly intimidate those around him. Growing up in a devout Mormon family in Billings, Montana, he had dropped out of high school to get an equivalency degree and enlist in the Army. He plunged into soldiering, accumulating a slew of medals in Iraq, where the line between legitimate self-defense and civilian deaths was often blurry at best. In 2004, Gibbs and other soldiers allegedly fired on an unarmed Iraqi family near Kirkuk, killing two adults and a child. The incident, which was not prosecuted at the time, is now under investigation by the Army.

Before he joined Bravo Company in November 2009, Gibbs worked on the personal security detail for one of the top commanders in Afghanistan, a controversial, outspoken colonel named Harry Tunnell. Tunnell, who at the time was the commander of 5th Stryker Brigade, openly mocked the military's approach to counterinsurgency – which emphasizes the need to win the support of local civilians – as better suited to a "social scientist." "Political correctness dictates that we cannot talk about the oppressive measures employed during successful counterinsurgency campaigns," he wrote. Tunnell also pushed his men to go after "guerrilla hunter killers," insisting that the enemy "must be attacked relentlessly."

When Gibbs left Tunnell's detail and arrived at the front, he quickly became an extreme version of a relentless attacker. After he took command, Gibbs put a pirate flag on his tent. "Hey, brother," he told a friend. "Come down to the line and we'll find someone to kill." A tattoo on his left shin featured a pair of crossed rifles offset by six skulls. Three of the skulls, colored in red, represented his kills in Iraq. The others, in blue, were from Afghanistan.

By the time Gibbs arrived, morale in the Stryker Brigade had hit rock bottom. Only four months earlier, the unit had been deployed to Afghanistan amid a chorus of optimism about its eight-wheeled armored vehicles, a technological advancement that was supposed to move infantry to the battlefield more quickly and securely, enabling U.S. troops to better strike against the Taliban. By December, however, those hopes had dissolved. The Taliban had forced the Strykers off the roads simply by increasing the size and explosive force of their IEDs, and the brigade had suffered terrible casualties; one battalion had lost more soldiers in action than any since the start of the war. Gibbs, in fact, had been brought in after a squad leader had his legs blown off by an IED.

Bored and shellshocked

The soldiers were bored and shellshocked and angry. They had been sent to Afghanistan as part of a new advance guard on a mission to track down the Taliban, but the enemy was nowhere to be found. "To be honest, I couldn't tell the difference between local nationals and combatants," one soldier later confessed. During the unit's first six months in Afghanistan, the Taliban evaded almost every patrol that 3rd Platoon sent out. Frustrations ran so high that when the unit came across the body of an insurgent killed by a helicopter gunship in November 2009, one soldier took out a hunting knife and stabbed the corpse. According to another soldier, Gibbs began playing with a pair of scissors near the dead man's hands. "I wonder if these can cut off a finger?" Gibbs asked.

The Pentagon's top command, rather than addressing the morale problems, actually held up the brigade as a media-worthy example of progress in the war. The month after the helicopter incident – only four weeks before the killings began – the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, paid a heavily publicized visit to the area. The military's strategy of counterinsurgency, he reminded members of 5th Stryker Brigade, required them to win hearts and minds by protecting the population. "If we're killing local civilians," he cautioned, "we're going to strategically lose."

Gibbs had a different idea about how to breathe new life into 3rd Platoon. Not long after he arrived, he explained to his fellow soldiers that they didn't have to wait passively to be attacked by the enemy's IEDs. They could strike back by hitting people in towns known to be sympathetic to the Taliban. "Gibbs told everyone about this scenario by pitching it – by saying that all these Afghans were savages, and we had just lost one of our squad leaders because his legs got blown off by an IED," Morlock recalled. Killing an Afghan – any Afghan – became a way to avenge the loss.

The members of Bravo Company began to talk incessantly about killing Afghans as they went about their daily chores, got stoned or relaxed over a game of Warhammer. One idea, proposed half in jest, was to throw candy out of a Stryker vehicle as they drove through a village and shoot the children who came running to pick up the sweets. According to one soldier, they also talked about a second scenario in which they "would throw candy out in front and in the rear of the Stryker; the Stryker would then run the children over." Another elaborate plan involved waiting for an IED attack, then using the explosion as an excuse to kill civilians. That way, the soldiers reasoned, "you could shoot anyone in the general area and get away with it."

"We were operating in such bad places and not being able to do anything about it," Morlock said in a phone interview from the jail at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. "I guess that's why we started taking things into our own hands."

After killing the Afghan boy at La Mohammad Kalay, members of 3rd Platoon were jubilant. "They were high-fiving each other about having killed the guy," one soldier recalled. They put the corpse in a black body bag and stowed it on top of their Stryker for the ride back to FOB Ramrod. No sooner had they arrived at the base than they were recounting the tale to soldiers they barely knew.

A few hours after the shooting, during a routine checkup at the base's clinic, Holmes and Morlock bragged about having killed an insurgent to Alyssa Reilly, a fair-skinned, blond medic who was popular among the men in the unit. Reilly later paid the soldiers a social visit, and they all sat around playing spades. When it came time for their wager, Morlock and Holmes said they would bet a finger. Then they tossed the finger that Gibbs had sliced from Mudin's body on the card pile. "I thought it was gross," Reilly told investigators.

Morlock was particularly eager to volunteer the truth to his fellow soldiers, evidently unconcerned about how they would react to his having murdered an unarmed Afghan. The same evening he shot Mudin, several members of Bravo Company convened in the privacy of a Stryker vehicle for a nightcap of hashish, a common activity among the unit. Hash supplied by Afghan translators was a major part of the daily lives of many soldiers; they smoked up constantly, getting high in their vehicles, their housing units, even porta-potties. Now, in the tanklike interior of the Stryker, surrounded by its mesh of wires and periscopes and thermal-imaging computers, Morlock passed the hash and recounted the killing in detail, even explaining how he had been careful not to leave the grenade's spoon and pin on the ground, where they might have been used as evidence that a U.S. weapon had been involved in the attack. For the same reason, he'd also been careful to brush away traces of white explosive powder around Mudin's body.

Before the military found itself short of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, Morlock was the kind of bad-news kid whom the Army might have passed on. He grew up not far from Sarah Palin in Wasilla, Alaska; his sister hung out with Bristol, and Morlock played hockey against Track. In those days, he was constantly in trouble: getting drunk and into fights, driving without a license, leaving the scene of a serious car accident. Even after he joined the Army, Morlock continued to get into trouble. In 2009, a month before he deployed to Afghanistan, he was charged with disorderly conduct after burning his wife with a cigarette. After he arrived in Afghanistan, he did any drug he could get his hands on: opium, hash, Ambien, amitriptyline, flexeril, phenergan, codeine, trazodone.

As Morlock bragged about the killing, word of the murder spread back home to families and friends. Soldiers e-mailed photos to their buddies and talked about the killing during visits home. On February 14th, three months before the Army launched its investigation, Spc. Adam Winfield sent a Facebook message to his father, Chris, back in Cape Coral, Florida. A skinny, bookish 21-year-old, Winfield was pissed off at being disciplined by Gibbs. "There are people in my platoon that have gotten away with murder," he told his father. "Everyone pretty much knows it was staged. . . . They all don't care." Winfield added that the victim was "some innocent guy about my age, just farming."

During Facebook chats, Winfield continued to keep his father in the loop. "Adam told me that he heard the group was planning on another murder involving an innocent Afghanistan man," Chris Winfield, himself a veteran, later told investigators. "They were going to kill him and drop an AK-47 on him to make it look like he was the bad guy." Alarmed, the elder Winfield called the command center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and told the sergeant on duty what was going on. But according to Winfield, the sergeant simply shrugged it off, telling him that "stuff like that happens" and that "it would be sorted out when Adam got home." Tragically, commanders at the base did nothing to follow up on the report.

Back in Afghanistan, Winfield was having second thoughts about reporting the incident. He believed the killings were wrong, but he had finally earned a place in the "circle of trust" erected by Gibbs, who had started off thinking of him as too "weak" to belong to the kill team. Reversing course, he begged his father to stop contacting the Army, saying that he feared for his life. Winfield said Gibbs had warned him that if he told anyone about the murder, he would "go home in a body bag." His father agreed to keep the matter quiet.

Given the lack of response from their superiors, the soldiers of 3rd Platoon now believed they could kill with impunity – provided they planted "drop weapons" at the scene to frame their victims as enemy combatants. The presence of a weapon virtually guaranteed that a shooting would be considered a legitimate kill, even under the stricter rules of engagement the military had implemented as a key element of counterinsurgency. A drop weapon was the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. And in the chaotic war zone, they were easy to find.

'Off the books' weapons

The military keeps close track of the weapons and ammunition it issues to soldiers, carefully documenting every grenade exploded, every magazine expended. So Gibbs made it his business to gather "off the books" weapons through a variety of channels. He got friendly with guys in the Afghan National Police and tried to trade them porn magazines in exchange for rocket-propelled grenades; he cajoled other units to give him munitions; he scrounged for broken and discarded UXO – unexploded ordnance – until he had collected a motley arsenal of random weaponry, old frag grenades, bent RPG tails, duct-taped claymore mines, C-4, mortar rounds. His best find was a working AK-47 with a folding butt stock and two magazines, which he pulled from the wreckage of an Afghan National Police vehicle that had been blown up near the base's gate. Gibbs placed the AK-47 and the magazines in a metal box in one of the Strykers. Later, a corporal named Emmitt Quintal discovered the gun and wondered what it was doing there. As he recalled, Staff Sgt. David Bram "sat me down and explained to me that it was basically to cover our ass if anything happened."

Two weeks after the murder of Gul Mudin, something did.

It was the night of January 27th and the platoon was driving along the highway near their forward operating base. Suddenly, through their thermal imaging, they spotted a human heat signature on the side of the road – a potentially suspicious sign, since the Taliban often operate at night, using the cover of darkness to plant IEDs.

The patrol stopped 100 yards away from the man, and a handful of soldiers and an interpreter got out of their vehicles. They could see that the man was crouched down, or curled up like a ball close to the ground. As they approached, the man stood up and held his arms in front of his chest. To the soldiers, the motion was either an indication that he was cold, or that he was hiding a suicide-bomb vest.

Shouting to the man in Pashto, the soldiers illuminated him with intense, high-power spotlights and ordered him to lift up his shirt. But the man began to pace back and forth in the blinding white light, ignoring their calls. "He was acting strange," recalls a soldier. For several minutes the man shuffled around as the soldiers fired warning shots at him. The bullets skipped around him.

Then – ignoring the warnings – the man began walking toward the troops. "Fire!" someone yelled. Gibbs opened fire, followed by at least five other soldiers. In the course of a few seconds, they expended approximately 40 rounds.

The man's body lay on the ground. He turned out to be completely unarmed. According to official statements made by several soldiers, he also appears to have been deaf or mentally disabled. Above his beard, a large portion of his skull was missing, blown away by the hail of bullets. Spc. Michael Wagnon collected a piece of the skull and kept it as a trophy.

It was the team's second killing of an unarmed man in as many weeks, and the second time they violated a body. But rather than investigate the shooting, the platoon's officers concentrated on trying to justify it. When 1st Lt. Roman Ligsay radioed Capt. Matthew Quiggle, the platoon's commanding officer, and informed him that the same unit had shot an unarmed Afghan male, the captain was furious. "He strongly believed that we had illegitimately killed a local national," recalls Quintal.

Quiggle ordered Ligsay to search until they found a weapon. "Lt. Ligsay was pretty freaked out," Quintal recalls. "He was positive he was going to lose his job." For the next hour the platoon swept the area with their flashlights looking for weapons, but they couldn't find anything.

Then Staff Sgt. Bram ordered Quintal to hand him the AK-47 magazine that Gibbs had stowed in the metal box in the Stryker. A private named Justin Stoner passed it down. A few minutes later, a voice called out in the darkness. "Sir!" Bram yelled. "I think I found something."

Lt. Ligsay walked up and saw the black magazine lying on the ground. He called it in, and the platoon breathed a sigh of relief. The members of the kill team knew it was a drop magazine, but it turned the shooting into a legitimate kill.

"The incident was staged to look like he may have had a weapon," Stoner told investigators. "Basically, what we did was a desperate search to justify killing this guy. But in reality he was just some old, deaf, retarded guy. We basically executed this man."

Under the rules of engagement, however, the U.S. military still considers the man responsible for his own death. Because he ignored the platoon's warnings and moved in their direction, no one has been charged in his killing – even though the Army now knows he was gunned down by soldiers intent on shooting unarmed civilians for sport.

Within a month, according to the Army, Gibbs executed another civilian and planted a weapon on the body. It was during Operation Kodak Moment, a routine mission to photograph and compile a database of the male residents of a village called Kari Kheyl. On February 22nd, the day of the mission, Gibbs hid the AK-47 he had stolen from the Afghan National Police in a black assault pack. As the platoon made its way through the village, he went to the hut of Marach Agha, a man he suspected of belonging to the Taliban, and ordered him outside.

First Gibbs fired the AK-47 into a nearby wall and dropped the weapon at Agha's feet. Then he shot the man at close range with his M4 rifle. Morlock and Wagnon followed up with a few rounds of their own. With the scene staged to his satisfaction, Gibbs called in a report.

Staff Sgt. Sprague was one of the first to respond. Gibbs claimed that he had turned a corner and spotted the man, who had fired at him with the AK-47, only to have the rifle jam. But when Sprague picked up the Kalashnikov, it seemed to be in perfect operating condition. A short time later, as he walked down a dusty alley in the village, Sprague himself came under attack from small-arms fire. He responded instinctively by squeezing the trigger on the AK-47 – and the gun fired "with no problems at all."

Feeling invulnerable
Sprague reported the discrepancy to Lt. Ligsay. When the body was identified, relatives also reported that Agha was a deeply religious man who would never have taken up arms. He "did not know how to use an AK-47," they told Ligsay. Once again, however, no action was taken, nor was Gibbs disciplined.

With their commanding officers repeatedly failing to investigate, the kill team was starting to feel invulnerable. To encourage soldiers in other units to target unarmed civilians, Gibbs had given one of the "off the books" grenades he had scrounged to a friend from another battalion, Staff Sgt. Robert Stevens. "It showed up in a box on my desk," recalled Stevens, a senior medic. "When I opened the box, I saw a grenade canister, which had a grenade in it and a dirty green sock." Figuring the sock was some kind of joke, Stevens threw it away. Later, when he saw Gibbs, he mentioned getting the grenade.

"Did you get the other thing?" Gibbs asked.

"What, the sock?" Stevens said.

"No, what was in the sock," Gibbs replied.

Inside the sock, Gibbs had placed a severed human finger.

Stevens got the message. On March 10th, as his convoy was driving down Highway 1, the central road connecting Kandahar to the north, Stevens stuck his head out of his Stryker's open hatch and tossed the grenade. It detonated a few seconds later than he had anticipated, and when it blew, it thudded into the vehicle. Stevens immediately began firing at a nearby compound of huts, yelling at another platoon member to do the same. "Get the fuck up, Morgan!" he screamed. "Let's go, shoot!"

No casualties were reported from the incident, but it earned Stevens an Army Commendation Medal and a Combat Medical Badge. Stevens later admitted that he had concocted the ambush not only because he wanted to get rid of the illegal grenade but because he "wanted to hook up the guys in the company" with their Combat Infantryman Badges, 14 of which were awarded in the aftermath of the shooting. All of the awards were revoked when the Army learned the attack had been faked.

The assault staged by Stevens suggested a new way to target Afghan civilians. In addition to approaching targets on foot, Gibbs decided to use his Stryker as a shooting platform, affording greater mobility with the protection of armor. In a perverse twist, the vehicle that had proved ineffective at combating the Taliban was about to be turned on the very people it was supposed to defend.

On March 18th, during a maintenance run to Kandahar Airfield, the unit drove past a populated area of the city. According to one soldier, Gibbs opened the hatch of the moving Stryker and tossed out a grenade. As it exploded with a loud bang, shrapnel hit the Stryker. "RPG!" Gibbs shouted. "RPG!" Sgt. Darren Jones, who had discussed faking attacks with Gibbs, opened fire indiscriminately on the local residents, who frantically scrambled to avoid the incoming rounds. Gibbs raised his M4 and laid down fire as well.

There is no way to know how many, if any, casualties resulted from the fusillade. Lt. Ligsay, who was in the same Stryker with Gibbs and Jones, maintains that he mistakenly believed the attack to be genuine and ordered the convoy to keep moving. The platoon did not return to the area to conduct a battle damage assessment, and no charges were ever filed in the incident.

A few weeks later, sometime in late March or early April, members of 3rd Platoon fired on unarmed civilians twice on the same day, indicating a growing sense of their own invincibility. Five soldiers were part of a patrol in a grape field in the Zhari District when they spotted three unarmed men. According to Stevens, Gibbs ordered the soldiers to open fire, even though the men were standing erect and posed no threat. All five soldiers fired their weapons at the men, but they managed to escape unscathed. Gibbs was not pleased. "He mentioned that we needed to work on our accuracy," Stevens recalled, "because it did not appear that anyone was hurt."

That same evening, while manning a guard tower overlooking a field in the Zhari District, soldiers from 3rd Platoon were directly told not to shoot at an elderly farmer who had been granted permission to work his land nearby. Despite the warning, two soldiers reportedly shot at the farmer as if he were an armed combatant. They once again failed to hit their target, but the officer in charge was furious. "This farmer has never been a problem," he later told investigators. "He's 60 to 70 years old."

One morning that spring, Gibbs approached Morlock flashing what looked like a small metal pineapple. "Hey, man, I've got this Russian grenade," he said. Gibbs added that the weapon would be the perfect tool to fake another attack, since the Taliban were known to carry Russian explosives. Morlock liked the idea. The night before, talking with a bunch of soldiers outside their bunk rooms, he had announced that he was looking to kill another haji, a pejorative term that U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan use for Muslims. One soldier who took part in the conversation dismissed it as idle talk. "I didn't really think anything of it," he told investigators, "because soldiers say stuff like that all the time."

The morning of May 2nd, the platoon was on a routine patrol in a village called Qualaday, a few miles from base. Following standard procedure, the unit's leaders entered a house to talk with a man who had previously been arrested for having an IED. That inadvertently left the rest of the platoon free to roam the village looking for targets, without having to worry about an officer's supervision.

Outside the house, Morlock was overheard instructing Winfield in how a grenade explodes, cautioning him to remain on the ground during the blast. Then the two soldiers moved off with Gibbs. Nearby, in a compound filled with children, they picked out a man with a white beard and escorted him outside. "He seemed friendly," Winfield recalled. "He didn't seem to have any sort of animosity toward us."

Gibbs turned to his men. "You guys want to wax this guy or what?" he asked. Morlock and Winfield agreed that the man seemed perfect.

Gibbs walked the Afghan to a nearby ditch and forced him to his knees, ordering him to stay that way. Then he positioned Morlock and Winfield in a prone position behind a small berm no more than 10 feet away. "To be honest," Morlock later told investigators, "me and Winfield thought we were going to frag ourselves, 'cause we were so fucking close."

With everyone in position, Gibbs took cover behind a low wall and chucked a grenade toward the Afghan. "All right, dude, wax this guy!" he shouted. "Kill this guy, kill this guy!"

As the grenade went off, Morlock and Winfield opened fire. Morlock got off several rounds with his M4. Winfield, who was armed with the more powerful SAW machine gun, squeezed off a burst that lasted for three to five seconds.

Hysterical with grief

Gibbs shouted for Morlock to proceed with the next stage of the plan. "Get up there and plant that fucking grenade!"

The man lay where he had fallen. One of his feet had been blown off by the blast; his other leg was missing below the knee. Morlock ran up and dropped the Russian pineapple grenade near the dead man's hand. Gibbs walked up to the body, stood directly over it, and fired twice into the man's head, shattering the jaw.

Later, when the scene had calmed down – after soldiers had pushed away the dead man's wife and children, who were screaming, hysterical with grief, and Morlock had spun the story to the higher-ups – Gibbs took out a pair of medical shears and cut off the corpse's left pinky finger, which he kept for himself. Then, wearing a surgical glove, he reached into the dead man's mouth, pulled out a tooth and handed it to Winfield.

Winfield held the tooth for a while. Then he tossed it aside, leaving it behind on the ground at Qualaday.

This time, though, the villagers refused to be placated. The dead man, it turned out, was a peaceful cleric named Mullah Allah Dad. Two days later, the murder provoked an uproar at a districtwide council attended by Capt. Quiggle, the unit's commanding officer. The district leader launched into a blistering attack of the platoon. "He pretty much told us that we planted the grenade in order to shoot the guy," recalled 1st Lt. Stefan Moye, who escorted Quiggle to the meeting.

But the next day, instead of launching an inquiry into the platoon's behavior, Quiggle dispatched Moye to the scene of the shooting to do damage control. With Gibbs hovering nearby, the lieutenant found two elderly villagers who claimed to have seen Mullah Allah Dad with a grenade. Relieved, Moye urged them to spread the word. "This is the type of stuff that the Taliban likes to use against us and try to recruit people to fight against us," he said.

His mission accomplished, Moye left the village feeling that the platoon could return to its usual rhythms. "After that," he said, "everything was normal."

Things might have remained "normal," and the killings might have continued, if it hadn't been for what began as a trivial spat between bunkmates. Around midnight, the same evening that Moye returned from pacifying village elders, Pfc. Stoner walked into the company's tactical operations center to register a complaint. Stoner, who had helped plant the AK-47 magazine on the civilian murdered by the highway, said he was sick and tired of other soldiers in the unit using his room as "a smoke shack for hash." Worried that the lingering odor would get him busted, he had asked them to find another place to get stoned. They had refused, pausing only to remove the battery from the room's smoke detector.

"They baked the room many times until it stank constantly," Stoner said. "I was worried for my own job." Emphasizing that he wasn't a snitch, Stoner told the sergeant on duty that he didn't want to get his fellow soldiers in trouble. Then, growing emotional, he mentioned that "he and a bunch of other guys had executed a local national out on Highway 1." The sergeant didn't take the story seriously enough to report it up the chain of command. "I thought he was just upset and needed to talk to someone about the incident," he later recalled. Instead of alerting his superiors about the murder allegation, the sergeant simply assured Stoner that the matter of hash smoking in his room would be handled quietly, and that his identity would be kept confidential.

'Snitches get snitches'
But discretion wasn't exactly the unit's strong suit. By the next day, everyone knew that Stoner had ratted them out. "Everyone began to panic," Quintal recalls. Gibbs, who didn't care for hashish, gathered members of the kill team in his room. "We need to address the situation with Stoner," he reportedly said. "Snitches get stitches."

On May 6th, Gibbs and six other soldiers descended on Stoner's room, locking the door behind them, and attacked Stoner while he was sitting on his bed. Grabbing him by the throat, they dragged him to the floor and piled on, striking him hard but taking care to avoid blows to the face that might leave visible bruises. "I've been in the Army four years," Morlock said as he pummeled Stoner in the stomach. "How could you do this to me?" Before leaving, they struck Stoner in the crotch and spit in his face.

A few hours later, Gibbs and Morlock returned to Stoner's room. As Stoner sat on his bed, still dazed from the assault, Morlock explained that the beating would not happen again, so long as Stoner kept his mouth shut "from fucking now on." If Stoner were disloyal again, Gibbs warned, he would be killed the next time he went out on patrol. "It's too easy," he added, explaining that he could hide Stoner's body in a Hesco barrier, one of the temporary structures used to fortify U.S. positions.

Then Gibbs reached into his pocket and took out a bit of cloth. Unfolding it, he tossed two severed fingers on the floor, with bits of skin still hanging off the bone. If Stoner didn't want to end up like "that guy," Morlock said, he better "shut the hell up." After all, he added, he "already had enough practice" at killing people.

Stoner had no doubt that Morlock would follow through on the threat. "Basically, I do believe that Morlock would kill me if he had the chance," he said later.

But the beating proved to be the kill team's undoing. When a physician's assistant examined Stoner the next day, she saw the angry red welts covering his body. She also saw the large tattoo across Stoner's back. In gothic type, beneath a grinning red skull flanked by two grim reapers, it read:

what if im not the hero

what if im the bad guy

Stoner was sent to talk to Army investigators. In the course of recounting the assault, he described how Gibbs had thrown the severed fingers on the floor. The investigators pressed him about how Gibbs came by the fingers. Stoner told them it was because the platoon had killed a lot of innocent people.

At that point, the investigators asked Stoner to start from the beginning. When had the platoon killed innocent people? Bit by bit, Stoner laid out the whole history, naming names and places and times.

As other members of the platoon were called in and interviewed, many confirmed Stoner's account and described the shootings for investigators. Morlock, who proved particularly gregarious, agreed to speak on videotape. Relaxed and unconcerned in front of the camera, he nonchalantly described the kills in detail.

Morlock's confession kicked off an intense search for evidence. When the Army's investigators were dispatched to FOB Ramrod, they went straight to the top of a Hesco barrier near Gibbs' housing unit. Right where Morlock said it would be, they found the bottom of a plastic water bottle containing two pieces of cloth. Inside each piece of cloth was a severed human finger. But then a strange thing happened. When investigators compared prints of the two fingers to those in the company's database, the prints didn't match up. Either the records were screwed up, which was quite possible, or there were more dead guys out there who were unaccounted for.

Last week, on March 23rd, Morlock was sentenced to 24 years in prison after agreeing to testify against Gibbs. "The Army wants Gibbs," says one defense lawyer. "They want to throw him in jail and move on." Gibbs insists that all three killings he took part in were "legitimate combat engagements." Three other low-level soldiers facing murder charges – Winfield, Holmes and Wagnon – also maintain their innocence. As for the other men in Bravo Company, five have already been convicted of lesser crimes, including drug use, stabbing a corpse and beating up Stoner, and two more face related charges. In December, Staff Sgt. Stevens was sentenced to nine months in prison after agreeing to testify against Gibbs. He was stripped to the lowest service rank – private E-1 – but over the protests of military prosecutors, he was allowed to remain in the Army.

So far, though, no officers or senior officials have been charged in either the murders or the cover-up. Last October, the Army quietly launched a separate investigation, guided by Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty, into the critical question of officer accountability. But the findings of that inquiry, which was concluded last month, have been kept secret – and the Army refuses to say whether it has disciplined or demoted any of the commanders responsible for 3rd Platoon. Even if the commanding officers were not co-conspirators or accomplices in the crimes, they repeatedly ignored clear warning signs and allowed a lethally racist attitude to pervade their unit. Indeed, the resentment of Afghans was so commonplace among soldiers in the platoon that when Morlock found himself being questioned by Army investigators, he expressed no pity or remorse about the murders.

Toward the end of Morlock's interview, the conversation turned to the mindset that had allowed the killings to occur. "None of us in the platoon – the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant – no one gives a fuck about these people," Morlock said.

Then he leaned back in his chair and yawned, summing up the way his superiors viewed the people of Afghanistan. "Some shit goes down," he said, "you're gonna get a pat on the back from your platoon sergeant: Good job. Fuck 'em."
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