While the arrests of the accused soldiers sparked a media frenzy in Poland, the issue has been almost completely ignored outside the country.
This omission is especially glaring in the case of the American media, as it is the U.S. that is in nominal command of NATO forces in Paktika. And, indeed, the relationship between the Polish and American forces goes deeper than that.
Stanislaw Koziej, a retired Major-General in the Polish army and former deputy minister of defense, writes that Polish troops in Afghanistan are more closely placed under American command than they are in Iraq. "The incorporation of the small combat sub-units into the American structures was not advantageous." The reason for this, he continues, is that "integration with the lowest ranks of the U.S. structures naturally forces our soldiers to use the American tactical doctrine," which he says contrasts with the situation in Iraq, where some 1200 Polish soldiers operate with more independence.
Lack of attention from North American media
With this structure of command as background, the lack of attention from the U.S. press is telling. Apart from very brief notices in three American papers (New York Times, LA Times, New York Newsday) taken from a November 15 Associated Press dispatch, American press coverage has amounted to one article in the New York Times on November 29. The article, by Berlin bureau chief Nicholas Kulish, generally promotes the view that the Polish soldiers attacked the civilians by accident.
This despite the fact that Poland's leading daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had already revealed testimony from colleagues of the arrested soldiers who saw several of the accused deliberately firing on civilian targets. Kulish's 900-word article, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, represents the only English language coverage I could find apart from mention of the case in a December 7 Financial Times opinion piece authored by an American defense analyst.
Canadian print media coverage has been precisely zero.
"Up to this point," wrote Kulish in his Times piece, "there has been no suggestion of American involvement in the civilian deaths." Before long, however, allegations were flying in Poland that the order to attack the villages came from American commanders. So said the wives of two suspects when interviewed on national television.
Their accusations reportedly received support from both ex-Defense Minister Szczyglo and current Defense Minister Bogden Klich, but other Polish observers dismissed it out of hand. However, the American media, along with the non-Polish press generally, has reported no more on the case. This despite an excellent Inter Press Service piece by ZoltÃ¡n Dujisin on December 27. Sadly, that piece was scarcely picked up, even by major leftist websites.
Hearings told civilian deaths routine
The Polish military prosecutors held preliminary hearings on the case, bringing in various military and government officials including at least one American army major who sought to calm Polish nerves. The killing of numerous civilians at Nangar Khel, he said, is "something unfortunate, but not of great significance". He stressed the triviality of the event, saying, "I don't understand why an unimportant incident has gained such great significance in your country. Why so much attention? Civilian deaths occur every week, because Afghanistan is no Sunday school."
A Polish Special Forces officer also told the hearings that the killings were a non-event: "Harming a civilian is something that could happen to any soldier." He added, "The Americans experience similar incidents even once a week. [However] a substantial majority of such cases result from poor air reconnaissance."
The accused soldiers who shot the weapons have claimed that they did not follow their orders to fire on Nangar Khel. Instead, the soldiers claim they aimed near to the village, but that their weapons misfired, hitting the civilians after all. Against this version of events, however, is the testimony of several fellow soldiers who were operating alongside the accused. One of them, a sergeant, told the court that he talked with one of the accused privates while the latter was shelling Nangar Khel. "Asked why [the accused soldiers were] shooting at a village where civilians are present, he confirmed he had been ordered to do so."
Following the hearings, the Polish court decided to keep the accused in custody while they await trial, citing the "large probability that they are guilty as charged." Some worry, however, that a fair trial is not possible, as some officials have tainted public opinion on the matter. In an unguarded moment in February, former Defense Minister Szczyglo snapped at a reporter: "Please do not tell me that I am in any way responsible for a bunch of morons shooting at civilians."
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