KABUL, Afghanistan - The U.S. military is investigating allegations that a group of Stryker soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord deliberately killed three Afghan civilians in a series of shootings earlier this year.
Military officials have detained one soldier with the Army’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which deployed last summer to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If the allegations prove true, they could undermine the U.S. military’s credibility in southern Afghanistan as it gears up to target the Taliban’s spiritual capital in Kandahar.
The military is funneling soldiers to Kandahar as part of a campaign to weaken the Taliban’s hold on crucial parts of the province, but the case could make it harder to convince skeptical Afghans to back the campaign.
The allegations center on as many as nine soldiers from the 5th Brigade at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, a remote outpost west of Kandahar city.
The soldiers initially were under investigation for drug charges, officials said, but that led to allegations that the unit had taken part in killing three Afghan civilians in a series of confrontations over several months, according to two officials familiar with the details.
The U.S. military issued a brief statement last week saying that criminal investigators were looking into allegations that a “small number of U.S. soldiers were responsible for the unlawful deaths of as many as three Afghan civilians.”
U.S. military officials wouldn’t comment on the allegations.
The 5th Brigade moved into Kandahar last summer, when roadside bombs were taking a high toll on American forces. Thirty-four soldiers from the brigade have been killed since August, including one over the weekend. Seven were killed in October when their 21-ton Stryker vehicle hit a massive roadside bomb in one of the deadliest incidents for American forces last year.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has made reducing civilian deaths a priority in the revamped counterinsurgency campaign. The strategy relies on winning the support of local Afghans instead of killing insurgent fighters.
McChrystal has issued a series of directives that place restrictions on airstrikes and night raids.