JTF2 command 'encouraged' war crimes, soldier alleges

A member of Canada's elite special forces unit says he felt his peers were being "encouraged" by the Canadian Forces chain of command to commit war crimes in Afghanistan, according to new documents obtained by CBC News.
In this still image from a video provided by the Defence Department, members of Canada's elite special forces unit JTF2 rappel from a helicopter during a training exercise. ((DND))
A member of Canada's elite special forces unit says he felt his peers were being "encouraged" by the Canadian Forces chain of command to commit war crimes in Afghanistan, according to new documents obtained by CBC News.

The documents from the military ombudsman's office show the member of the covert unit Joint Task Force 2, or JTF2, approached the watchdog in June 2008 to report the allegations of wrongdoing he had first made to his superior officers in 2006.

The soldier told the ombudsman's office "that although he reported what he witnessed to his chain of command, he does not believe they are investigating, and are being 'very nice to him,' " according to the documents, which CBC News obtained through access to information.

As such, the soldier alleged, the chain of command helped create an atmosphere that tolerated war crimes.

The ombudsman's documents state the soldier was subsequently directed to the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, CFNIS, which in turn launched its own investigation.

The CFNIS told the ombudsman the investigation was "now their No. 1 priority."

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The member alleged that a fellow JTF2 member was involved in the 2006 shooting death of an Afghan who had his hands up in the act of surrender. That CFNIS probe ended without any charges.

The soldier who raised those allegations also claimed that in January 2008, his team was sent to conduct a mission alongside an American special operations team. He said he witnessed the U.S. forces kill a man who was wounded and unarmed.

The documents make clear that the soldier didn't believe the military was taking his allegations seriously and that he had lost faith in the forces' leadership.

He told the ombudsman's office in one of many telephone conversations he felt "more and more of his peers are being encouraged to commit war crimes by the chain of command … which they may be held accountable for one day as superiors walk away."

The soldier said he wasn't coming forward to have "the guys who pull the trigger" investigated, who he said were "being incited to do those things" by their superiors. 

"This is done by promoting those who do, and not promoting those who don't," the ombudsman's office staffer handling the file wrote in the document.

'Southern friends'

The soldier also claimed the "vision of the southern friends is being pushed"  — an apparent reference to the more aggressive reputation of the American soldiers.

The soldier told the ombudsman in September 2008 of his concern that "similar acts may be ongoing while his allegations are being investigated," the documents said.

The military ombudsman's office told the soldier it did not have the mandate to probe allegations of criminal activity and that his file would be closed. But the staff said he could contact the ombudsman's office at any time.

But in an October 2008 letter sent to Canada's chief of defence staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the ombudsman urged the military to investigate swiftly.

Natynczyk was alerted of the soldier's claims and told the ombudsman he was confident the investigation was being conducted "in a most thorough and professional manner."

It has now been two years since Natynczyk made the statement, and 4½ years since the soldier initially complained to the chain of command within JTF2.

Among a separate set of documents CBC News has obtained on the file is a reference in a military email chain that the soldier has repeatedly "indicated he may go public with some of his concerns, including the fact that his benefits have ceased." 

Those documents do not specify which benefits were stopped or why.

2 probes underway

The military has never said much about the work of JTF2, although it has revealed the unit has been involved in high-risk operations against high-value targets, including Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders. The unit has also been involved in pursuing insurgents who build and plant roadside bombs, and the networks that supply them, the military has said.

Earlier this year, CBC News reported that the first probe, named Sand Trap, looked into the JTF2 member's allegations involving the Canadian JTF2 member. While the probe resulted in no charges, it sparked a larger investigation into broader allegations.

Sand Trap Two, which is looking at his claims against American forces, is still underway, as is a secretive board of inquiry looking into how the Canadian chain of command reacted to the allegations.

The latter is one of the lengthiest boards of inquiry convened since the mission in Afghanistan started.

When the military spoke to CBC News last fall about the investigations, it stressed it was looking into the allegations against the soldiers and their superior officers.

"The criminal investigation is but one aspect of allegations that we investigate," said Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, vice-chief of the defence staff.

"We also look at all other aspects of those allegations, to make sure that our high standard of conduct has been met by all CF personnel when their conduct has been called into question."

With files from Diana Swain