Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A mercy killing in Afghanistan, the case of Capt. Semrau

Part of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan is to assist the Afghan army in taking over responsibilities as ISAF forces shrink in number. Pursuant to this aim, advise and assist teams are placed with Afghan Army rifle companies. The object is to train them up tactically while giving hands on experience, and needed air assistance.

These advisory teams do not command, and are not expected to. However, they can call in assistance when patrols encounter enemy. These teams have a difficult task, and deal with the peculiarities of Afghan culture, amongst which is a propensity to patrol while under the influence of opium. Another is an understandable callousness toward enemy forces. This is the story of an incident that occurred during one such patrol, involving one such advisory team, led by Capt. Robert Semrau, Canadian forces.

The story here presented is excerpted from this excellent story:

"As the commanding officer of a four-man Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT), Semrau was half soldier, half adviser. His job with the “omelette” (as the units are commonly called) was to provide detailed guidance and support—but not direction—to an Afghan rifle company, all part of an unprecedented NATO push to prepare homegrown troops to tackle the Taliban alone. It was a daunting and delicate task.

“They didn’t look at us like equals because this was their war and we are the foreigners,” said Warrant Officer Merlin Longaphie, Semrau’s second-in-command. “They did not take orders from us, and if we tried to issue an order, chances are they would never talk to us again.”

The Oct. 19 mission was typically chaotic. Semrau’s unit was given just 12 hours advance notice, and when they did arrive at the point of departure some of the ANA troops were, as usual, high on opium. Adding to the confusion—and the potential for friendly fire—were members of the Afghan National Police dressed in traditional Afghan garb. “It was somewhat bewildering at times what they were doing,” Longaphie testified. Detailed planning (not to mention basic map reading) was also non-existent. As the warrant officer put it: “When the Afghans prepare a mission, they have some tea and go for it.”

Semrau’s OMLT split into two groups that morning. Longaphie and his Canadian fire-team partner, Cpl. Tony Haraszta, departed first, accompanied by a few dozen Afghans. Semrau and Fournier hovered near the middle of the pack, close to Capt. Shafiqullah."

"The captain and the corporal were part of a small, specialized unit of Canadian “mentors” working side-by-side with the Afghan National Army (ANA), and as the sun rose over Helmand Province on Oct. 19, 2008, they set out on foot for a sweep and clear. Their mission—Operation Atal 28—was to troll for Taliban, pick a fight, and shoot to kill. If the intelligence reports were accurate, up to 70 insurgents were waiting.

One of them was perched high in a tree, the eyes and ears of his comrades below.

Two hours in, the patrol was taking enough enemy fire to radio for backup. A pair of U.S. Apache helicopters swooped in, spraying the cornfields with the rat-tat-tat of 30-mm cannons. Later that morning, as Semrau and his Afghan colleagues continued marching south along the Helmand River, they stumbled on two of the choppers’ targets. One was dead, his stomach cut open by the rapid-fire bullets. The other—the man who’d hid in the tree—was still breathing.

According to one eyewitness, the Taliban fighter was lying in a pool of blood on a dirt path, and had a hole in his back “the size of a dinner plate.” His left leg was riddled with shrapnel, and his foot, barely attached, was twisted completely around. From what Fournier could see, there was also “a fist-sized laceration to his stomach.”

A grainy cellphone video recorded that morning by an ANA soldier shows the bearded man sprawled on his back, his eyes closed and his torso covered by a light blue blanket. He is young, no older than 35. Not once does he appear to move.

The senior Afghan officer on scene was a company commander named Shafiqullah. According to Fournier, he ordered his men to leave the wounded fighter and resume the patrol. “No treatment needed,” Fournier said, quoting Capt. Shafiqullah. “If Allah wants him, he will die. If not, he will live.” At Fournier’s urging, Semrau did ask his Afghan counterpart for permission to snap a picture of both casualties, in case they turned out to be high-value targets. Shafiqullah reluctantly agreed, but only on the condition that their faces, and not their injuries, be photographed.

Using his own digital camera, Fournier took two shots of the corpse, and then headed toward the man on the dirt path. Semrau followed, as did an Afghan interpreter nicknamed Max. “As I crouched down, I can hear a moan and a groan,” said Cpl. Fournier, a Thunder Bay native who was still a private at the time. “He wasn’t dead yet.” The 24-year-old snapped two more photos, and with Max at his side, turned to walk away.

Seconds later, two shots rang out. “I thought somebody was firing at us,” Fournier said. He swung around, reached for his weapon, and saw Semrau standing over the insurgent, his C-8 rifle aimed at the man’s chest. “He told me: ‘It’s okay. It was me.’ ”

Capt. Tom Fitzgerald, a military prosecutor, asked Fournier what happened next. “He said he felt it was necessary,” the corporal answered, speaking quickly. “He felt it was the humane thing to do. He couldn’t live with himself if he left a wounded insurgent, a wounded human, to suffer like that. He said it was a mercy kill, sir.”"

"According to the Crown, Semrau should have knelt beside that man, done his best to stop the bleeding, and called for a Medevac chopper. But was that truly an option? The captain was not on patrol with a battalion of fellow Canadians trained in Western rules of engagement. He was a mentor attached to a ragtag company of Afghan soldiers. He had no authority to bark orders. And the man who was in command, Capt. Shafiqullah, had just told his troops to keep moving. Stay behind with a dying insurgent—in the heart of enemy territory—and Semrau may have signed his own death sentence.

His only choice, it seems, was an impossible one: leave a wounded man to suffer his fate, or end his agony with a pair of bullets."

"Canadian soldiers deployed to a war zone are bound by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which states that all “wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.” The Canadian Forces’ own code of conduct also compels troops to provide casualties with “the treatment required by their condition, whether friend or foe.” Pumping a bullet into someone’s heart is not an approved treatment."
In July the court-martial rendered a verdict. Semrau was found guilty on a lesser charge of “disgraceful conduct” and not guilty of the more serious charges of second-degree murder and attempted murder.

Now you know the facts. Here are some questions for discussion:

1. Should the Geneva codes allow for mercy killings? Why or why not? Under what circumstances, if any would you allow it? How would you revise the wording of the GC to allow for mercy killing.

2. While it is clearly illegal to kill incapacitated combatants, is it always immoral to do so?

3. If Semrau had given the injured Talib a large dose of morphine in order to alleviate suffering, knowing that the large dose would probably kill a healthy individual, would that amount to killing?

4. What is the best reason you can adduce for the absolute ban on mercy killings of fatally injured combatants?

5. Considering the centrality of perception to success in COIN operations, do you think that cases like this help or hinder the efforts to 'win hearts and minds'?

6. If you in Capt. Semrau's shoes, would you have administered the coup de gras?

Related links:

These latter two posts are excellent. Atomic Robot is hereby enrolled on the mighty T-Shade blogroll. My readership of dozens will be mightily impressed.