US DoD Opens War Crimes Investigation

The Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Inspector General has announced a formal inquiry into whether potential war crimes conducted by US forces, including special operations forces (SOF), have been correctly reported as required by Department of Defense policies.

The investigation came to light from a short, four paragraph, memorandum released last month. It is predictably scant on details and attempts by journalists to elicit further information from DoD have been unsuccessful. The memo notes;

“The objective of this evaluation is to determine the extent to which U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) developed and implemented programs in accordance with DoD Law of War requirements to reduce potential law of war violations when conducting operations. We will also determine whether potential USCENTCOM and USSOCOM law of war violations were reported and reviewed in accordance with DoD policy.”

A number of organisations are named in the memo including USCENTCOM and USSOCOM based at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida; Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and two additional regional commands; US Forces- Afghanistan and Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve.

An East-Coast based U.S. Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) climbs a caving ladder during visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) training on Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, July 16. Navy SEALs are the maritime component of U.S. Special Forces and are trained to conduct missions from sea, air, and land. (U.S. Navy Photograph by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class William S. Parker/Released)

These organisations are notably the primary component commands that have overseen ground operations in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two decades. Allegations of war crimes committed by US SOF in Afghanistan, primarily but not limited to JSOC’s SEAL Team Six (Naval Special Warfare Development Group), have circulated since 2002.    

In March 2020, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague announced their intention to continue with an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan by all parties, including Coalition Forces and the Taliban.

The Trump administration retaliated by taking the unheralded step of adding two prominent members of the ICC investigation, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and ICC Head of Jurisdiction Phakiso Mochochoko, to the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” which effectively stops either from having any connection with US-based financial institutions and freezing any assets.

The new DoD investigation could very well be a signal to the ICC that the new Biden administration is taking such allegations seriously, hoping to forestall a wider ranging ICC review. It could also be in at least partial response to the Australian Inspector General’s report (detailed by Overt Defense) uncovering systematic murder of non-combatants and detainees by Australian SOF.

The full US DoD memo can be read here.