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Polk Winner on Afghanistan: Slain Journalists, Ghost Polls & Unresolved U.S. Ties to Deaths, Torture

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Kabul-based journalist Matthieu Aikins was honored with the George Polk Award on Friday for his Rolling Stone article, “The A-Team Killings,” that uncovered “convincing evidence” that a U.S. Army Special Forces unit killed 10 Afghan civilians in Wardak province. Aikins joins us to discuss the latest on his story — as well as recent developments in Afghanistan, from the country’s elections to continued violence that recently killed two journalists.

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StoryNov 07, 2013War Crimes in Afghanistan? 10 Bodies of Abducted Villagers Found Outside U.S. Special Forces Base
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Fred Ho and Dr. Salim Washington, performing part of “The Black Panther Suite,” which Ho also composed, at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York. Fred Ho died on Saturday after a long battle with cancer. He was 56 years old. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We end the show with another recipient of the George Polk Award on Friday, Matthieu Aikins. He was honored for his Rolling Stone article, “The A-Team Killings,” that uncovered convincing evidence that a U.S. Army Special Forces unit killed 10 Afghan civilians in Wardak province. Aikins spoke Friday at the George Polk Awards ceremony in New York.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: I want to highlight the difficulty in recovering lives that are at the other end of the scale of, you know, what the philosopher Judith Butler calls “grievability,” right? Peoples whose lives pass without mourning and for whom thereby the violence against them is legitimized. In Afghanistan, this is the rural, illiterate poor, particularly men who are bearded, you know, conservative. In death, they’re easily labeled Taliban.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthieu Aikins went on to warn about the future of Afghanistan.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: The torture and extrajudicial killing that I wrote about in the story is routine among the Afghan security forces that we’ve trained. We’re leaving behind a gangster state that—gangsters who preside over the largest narco-state in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthieu Aikins at the George Polk Awards ceremony in New York. He won the award as partial results from the presidential vote in Afghanistan show former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah slightly ahead of Ashraf Ghani. Some seven million votes were cast across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces in the April 5th election. Only 500,000 votes in 26 provinces have been counted, and the Independent Election Commission has said the front-runner could easily change as counting continues in the coming days. Full preliminary results are expected by April 24th. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff will be held in May. The vote heralds the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan.

For more on Afghanistan, we go now to Washington, D.C., to talk to Matt Aikins. He just came back from Afghanistan to receive the George Polk Award and heads home soon to Kabul. He recently co-authored a piece with Anand Gopal for Harper’s Magazine headlined “The Ghost Polls of Afghanistan.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Matthieu. What do you mean, “the ghost polls”? And, by the way, congratulations on your George Polk Award.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Thank you very much, and thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure to come on.

Well, ghost polls are for the polling stations that open on paper but never actually open in reality. Instead, they’re often taken away by a powerful strongman or warlord figure and stuffed with ballots. So, we observed this in the countryside. We traveled out to this war-torn area outside of Kabul and visited a school, where the polling station was supposed to be. It wasn’t there, but up the hill we found the boxes being stuffed. And this is a story that, you know, I think was repeated across many places in rural Afghanistan, as it was in previous elections. But it was virtually unreported this time, since very few reporters left the capital.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the front-runner right now, Abdullah Abdullah, who previously ran for president against Hamid Karzai? The—he’s the former foreign minister. He’s just ahead of Ashraf Ghani, who also is a former minister of the Karzai government.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure. Well, Abdullah Abdullah was Karzai’s main rival in 2009. In that election, he got close to a third of the vote. He represents a party, a network, that’s associated with the north of the country and the Tajik ethnic group, as opposed to Ghani, who’s more strongly associated with Pashtuns who predominate in the South. But, you know, Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister; Ashraf Ghani, World Bank official and also finance minister—both respected technocrats, seem to be personally honest, but they’ve surrounded themselves, out of necessity, with much more dubious figures, people that you could frankly call warlords. In that respect, they don’t really—they’re not that dissimilar from President Karzai himself. And it just speaks to the nature of the political system, which won’t change regardless of who’s elected.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthieu, I wanted to ask you about Anja Niedringhaus, the veteran Associated Press photographer who was shot dead by an Afghan police officer just before the election. She died instantly in the attack near the Pakistani border. Her funeral service was held on Saturday in Germany. She was 48 years old. This is AP Senior Vice President Kathleen Carroll.

KATHLEEN CARROLL: She showed calm while all around was chaos. And I believe that is why her pictures from terrible places resonated with so many people around the world. She found their dignity. She found the quiet, human moments that connected people in great strife to all the rest of us around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Canadian AP reporter Kathy Gannon was shot twice in the same attack, as the two women, the two journalists, sat in the back of a car. She’s receiving medical assistance still. Parish priest Bernd Mueller read out a letter from Gannon at Anja’s funeral service.

BERND MUELLER: “I remember some of your last words. 'I am so happy,' you said. You had decided the pictures you wanted to take. Momo and you talked. You knew just what you wanted. You even said, 'We will send them out on Tuesday. That's the best day,’ you said. Mein Schatz, you were so happy. Your heart knew no bounds, Anja. You couldn’t give enough. You wanted to help everyone. I love you, Schatz.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s parish priest Bernd Mueller at the funeral of Anja Niedringhaus reading out a letter from Kathy Gannon, also injured in the attack that killed Anja. Matthieu Aikins, can you talk about Anja and Kathy?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, they were, you know, extraordinarily accomplished, fearless reporters that we all greatly admired. I didn’t know Anja personally, but I knew Kath—I know Kathy. And, you know, sadly, they’re not the only ones in these last couple months; it’s been a rough couple months for the press corps in Kabul. Another friend of mine, Sardar Ahmad, reporter for AFP, was killed, murdered with his family in the Serena Hotel attack. There was a Swedish-British journalist, Nils Horner, who was shot dead on the street. So, that has buffeted the press corps in Kabul, and we’re all in mourning. But I think it’s also important not to let that mourning close us off from the people of this country. We have to find the commonality between our mourning and the mourning that people in the countryside experience every day for their loved ones who are killed, and not allow this mourning to close us off in our grief.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the death toll in Afghanistan?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: The death toll is rising. You know, last year, there was more civilian casualties than any other year. The violence in the country is not diminishing as international forces leave. It’s diminishing in some areas; it’s increasing in other areas. But I think it sets the pattern for what will continue to be a very intense conflict between Afghan parties.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Aikins, you won the award, the George Polk Award, for your piece in Rolling Stone, “The A-Team Killings.” If you could briefly summarize what you exposed, and then talk about the Pentagon’s response to your report?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, you know, as I discussed on the show when you had me on in November, I investigated these allegations that a U.S. Special Forces team had run amok in Wardak province and had been responsible for torturing people, for killing them. Eventually, when the team left, they found these bodies buried outside the base. But the U.S. military had denied any responsibility for these events and had claimed to have done three investigations that exonerated any of their servicemembers. So, that’s—that was our point of departure. And what we found, what we conclusively established in the piece, in my opinion, was that there were very strong—very strong evidence that this team had been responsible for these men’s death, that they’d been seen arresting people who later were found buried outside the base.

AMY GOODMAN: And this took place when?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: This took place over last winter, so it would have been about a year ago.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you discover this?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, one of the ways that we discovered it was by going out to these very insecure, inaccessible areas, interviewing people. Eventually, I managed to visit one of the translators who had been arrested and was in an Afghan prison. So he was sort of a central figure. And he led to the name of the team and the individuals involved themselves. So, eventually, what I was able to do, by getting photos of the individuals from their Facebook accounts and other sources, and mixing them with images of random Special Forces members that I found online, to create a sort of police lineup, if you will—I printed that out and took it back to these villagers and said, “Well, OK, you know, you say you were tortured by a Green Beret. You say this guy took away your brother, who you later found dead. Can you pick him out of the lineup?” And they did.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Pentagon’s response to your report, Matt?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: The Pentagon has opened a criminal investigation. They said it was ongoing when the report came out. But when the report came out, I had asked about the supposed investigation that they had started, and none of the many, many witnesses or officials that I had spoke to had ever been contacted by the criminal investigation team. However, since then, they have come to Kabul, and they have been interviewing people, witnesses who were connected with these events. So, there actually is some sort of criminal investigation taking place.

The track record for the military on holding their servicemembers accountable for these kinds of war crimes and other, you know, illegal acts is pretty dismal. There’s almost, you know, no one who’s been convicted who didn’t sort of run amok like Sergeant Bales, who went crazy. But actual units who are sort of carrying this out in the line of duty, let’s say, the track record of accountability is very poor. So, it remains to be seen what, if anything, will come out of this in terms of accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you also about that video you broke on Democracy Now! in November. It shows a prisoner being whipped by Afghan security forces, as what appears to be unidentified American military officers looking on. We’re going to play just a short clip. This video is extremely violent and disturbing.


AMY GOODMAN: That video, we played in November. When you were here last, you said that the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command was investigating this attack. What’s come of that?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: According to the Army, they’ve completed their investigation and turned the findings over to the unit’s chain of command, which means that they were confirmed, you know, as Americans. And that chain of command is the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. So I’ve contacted them for information about what, if any, action was taken against those individuals who are seen supervising a torture session, and they haven’t gotten back to me yet. And we may have to go to a Freedom of Access of Information Act request, but we’re going to find out and follow up.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in this last minute that we have, your thoughts about the future of Afghanistan, when the elections will be announced, and what happens next?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: You know, we’re all hopeful that the elections will not descend into some sort of prolonged crisis like they have in the past, that there will be a successful transition to a new president. The stakes are extraordinarily high. But Afghanistan’s problems are very deep-rooted. They’re—it’s one of the largest narco-states in the world. There’s a tremendous urban-rural divide and an insurgency. So, the problems aren’t going to be solved by this election, but hopefully they won’t be exacerbated either.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Aikins, we want to thank you for being with us, journalist based in Kabul, where he will head back to soon. He just received the George Polk Award Friday for his November 2013 Rolling Stone article, “The A-Team Killings.” We’ll link to it at His recent piece is in Harper’s; it’s called “The Ghost Polls of Afghanistan.” Again, the Pulitzer Prizes will be announced today.

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War Crimes in Afghanistan? 10 Bodies of Abducted Villagers Found Outside U.S. Special Forces Base

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