Pentagon to probe possible war crimes committed by troops downrange

Law & Order.

The Defense Department’s Inspector General’s Office wants to know what steps U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command are taking to “reduce potential law of war violations when conducting operations.”

In a Jan. 25 memo, the inspector general’s office announced that it had launched an “evaluation” into how well CENTCOM and SOCOM are abiding by the Pentagon’s “law of war program,” which is meant to ensure that troops and civilian contractors comply with the U.S. military’s interpretation of the laws governing armed conflicts.

“We will also determine whether potential USCENTCOM and USSOCOM law of war violations were reported and reviewed in accordance with DoD policy,” the memo says.

The memo, which did not indicate what prompted this review, was sent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, undersecretary of defense for policy, heads of CENTCOM and SOCOM, the Defense Department’s general counsel, and the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

While the evaluation covers the entire CENTCOM theater of operations, it appears to be focused on Afghanistan. The memo says the inspector general’s office will conduct its review with U.S. Forces–Afghanistan and Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve.

In September, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions against International Criminal Court officials, who were investigating whether U.S. service members had committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

“According to the Prosecution, there is a reasonable basis to believe that, since May 2003, members of the US armed forces and the CIA have committed the war crimes of torture and cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape and other forms of sexual violence pursuant to a policy approved by the US authorities,” International Criminal Court documents say. “The Prosecution mainly relies on the findings of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the US Senate Armed Services Committee and the US Department of Defense.”

Defense officials had little to say about the evaluation when contacted by Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

“The DoD OIG is conducting planned oversight work consistent with its normal protocols — there is no additional information to offer regarding the project and we do not have a timeline for completion,” the inspector general’s office said in a statement.

A spokesman for SOCOM declined to comment and a CENTCOM spokeswoman referred questions about the evaluation to the Pentagon.

It’s unclear whether the inspector general’s office review is connected to prominent cases of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan being accused of war crimes. In July 2019, Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher was found not guilty of killing a wounded ISIS fighter. Gallagher was convicted of a lesser charge of posing with an enemy corpse, but former President Donald Trump restored his rank after the Navy tried to demote him.

Trump also ordered the dismissal of a murder charge against Army Maj. Matthew Golsteyn with a full pardon. Golsteyn had admitted to killing an unarmed Afghan man in 2010 because he believed the man was a Taliban bomb maker responsible for the deaths of two Marines.

And Trump pardoned former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who had served six years of a 19-year prison sentence after being convicted of ordering his troops to open fire on three unarmed Afghan men in 2012, two of whom were killed.

A former senior defense official told Task & Purpose that the inspector general’s office review should not be construed as confirmation that U.S. troops have committed war crimes. The U.S. military makes more of an effort to abide by the law of armed conflict than any other force, said the senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Jeff Schogol

Jeff Schogolis the senior Pentagon reporter for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years. You can email him at schogol@taskandpurpose.com, direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter, or reach him on WhatsApp and Signal at 703-909-6488. Contact the author here.

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