At War is a newsletter about the experiences and costs of war with stories from Times reporters and outside voices.
Only a few people know exactly what happened the night of Oct. 22 on Shindand Air Base in western Afghanistan. Earlier that day, Wahidullah Khan, a 19-year-old Afghan commando, fired on a group of Czech soldiers who were in Afghanistan training Khan and his counterparts. Cpl. Tomas Prochazka was killed. Two of his comrades were wounded. It was one of the four insider attacks on Western forces this year, a grim benchmark for a war now known for repeated ally-on-ally killings.
The events from the rest of that day are murky. Hours after the shooting, Khan was arrested by Afghan security forces and handed over to coalition troops. American Green Berets were involved in the exchange, according to American officials, but the extent of their involvement remains unclear. When Khan was returned to Afghan forces around midnight, he was unconscious. He died soon after. Some Afghan and American officials believe Czech soldiers beat Khan close to death before returning him to proper custody.
The motive for Khan’s attack was unclear. Officials believe either he was a Taliban insider or had been in an argument with his Czech trainers. Khan’s family wants to know what happened and why. “Nobody has told us who arrested him, who gave him to the foreigners,” Hayaturahman Khan, the soldier’s brother, told The Times last week.
The Army Criminal Investigation Division is gathering forensics, talking to those involved and reassembling a puzzle seen often in the more-than-17-year-old war, the aftermath of a confusing battlefield, mixed allegiances and longstanding suspicions. The American Green Beret team involved is also under investigation and has been sent home. This is both a rare move and another recurring byproduct of the long war: American troops embroiled in controversy.
Late last month in a Nov. 29 memo, Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette, head of Army Special Operations Command, told his troops to reflect on what was happening in their ranks. “Recent incidents in our formation have called our ethics and professionalism into question, and threaten to undermine the trust bestowed on us by the American people and our senior leadership,” he wrote, according to a report by Meghann Myers in Army Times. Myers also noted that this year’s National Defense Authorization Act calls for a broad review of Special Operations Command’s ethics and professionalism.
It’s not just the Army that is under scrutiny. Navy SEALs are accused, in separate incidents, of killing an American soldier in Mali in June, testing positive for cocaine and stabbing to death an Islamic State prisoner.
After 17 years of war, troop levels in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan have fluctuated, but what hasn’t changed is the Pentagon’s reliance on Special Operations forces to deal with myriad missions. From village stability operations to direct action raids, the small, highly trained force has been immeasurably taxed for almost two decades. Only now are the Pentagon and lawmakers beginning to ask the tough questions. What’s left of a community that has been overused, often in the shadows?
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in The New York Times Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman.