The Pentagon is investigating whether special operators have committed war crimes, and if their commanders have even been checking
The Pentagon is probing US Central Command’s and US Special Operations Command’s handling of potential war crimes during US wars in the Middle East.
Special-operations forces have dealt with cases of misconduct and other scandals in recent years, but current and former members are wary of the extra scrutiny.
The Pentagon’s Inspector General is investigating US Central Command’s (CENTCOM) and US Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) handling of potential war-crimes cases within their operational jurisdiction or by their units.
CENTCOM is one of the more important unified combatant commands in the US military, as it is responsible for the Middle East and parts of Africa. SOCOM is responsible for developing, equipping, and employing most US special-operations units.
According to the Inspector General, the objective of the investigation is two-fold: First, to evaluate and determine the extent to which CENTCOM and SOCOM developed programs compliant with the Defense Department’s Law of War requirements and aimed at preventing or reducing potential war crimes, and second, to determine whether CENTCOM and SOCOM properly investigated allegations of potential war crimes.
In addition to CENTCOM and SOCOM, Inspector General will be investigating US Forces-Afghanistan, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve – which is name for the US-led coalition against ISIS – and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
The investigation comes after an ethics review within US special-operations units and a major scandal in the Australian special-operations community, where an extensive investigation revealed several cases of war crimes by the Special Air Service Regiment – a unit equivalent to Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 – and the Commando Regiments.
War fatigue or war crimes?
When it comes to the investigation, the view from below is mixed.
“I believe the military is getting political pressures from the top, forcing them to do something. War is a nasty place, and accidents do happen,” John Black, a retired Green Beret, told Insider.
“However, the purposeful act of committing war crimes cannot be tolerated. Having been in [Army Special Forces] for more than 15 years … I can say objectively that Army Special Forces are the most professional soldiers in the world and would never purposefully commit a crime,” Black added.
Steve Balestrieri, a retired Special Forces warrant officer, also questioned the timing of the announcement.
“Was it because of the revelation of the Australian case?” Balestrieri told Insider. If so, “the powers that be may just want to be sure that US forces acted accordingly.”
Accusations of alleged war crimes in the US special-operations community have been around for a while.
Matthew Golsteyn was accused of the illegal killing of a suspected Taliban bomb maker in Afghanistan in 2010, when Golsteyn was an Army Special Forces member. Golsteyn was one of several service members who were pardoned or granted clemency by President Donald Trump.
Perhaps the most well-known of those cases is that of Chief Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL acquitted in 2019 of war-crimes charges in relation to the killing of a teenage ISIS fighter. Trump later restored Gallagher’s rank.
In 2017, the Intercept published a scathing report on the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, as SEAL Team 6 is officially known, detailing instances of alleged war crimes and a culture of impunity. No one from that command was ever officially prosecuted for war crimes.
Insider understands that several Australian SAS operators involved in war crimes had participated in exchange programs or training with SEAL Team 6. That isn’t proof of any illegal behavior by American commandos, but it shows the close relationship of those units at the highest level – one which often involves the sharing of ideas, tactics, and experiences.
Insider has learned that following several scandals over illegal actions or misconduct in the SEAL Teams, Naval Special Warfare command started an ethics program that all junior officers must go through.
“The investigation doesn’t mean an admission of guilt. SOCOM should welcome civilian oversight, as they could therefore never be accused of running amok, like the SAS in Australia has to deal with. But like anything else, it shouldn’t come with any effect on operations,” Balestrieri said.
To investigate or not to investigate?
The military has a poor record of investigating itself, and both SOCOM and CENTCOM have a history of questionable procedures.
“Senior leaders rush to judgment and don’t ensure that investigators are first ‘qualified’ to conduct the investigation,” Retired Marine Corps Maj. Fred Galvin told Insider.
Nor do those leaders ensure that the “investigator and investigation are completely fair and impartial [and] that the investigator does not have any contact with the command other than receiving clear initial guidance on what to investigate in order to prevent command influence,” Galvin added.
In 2007, Galvin commanded MARSOC Fox Company, a Marine special-operations unit, that was falsely accused of killing civilians in Afghanistan.
Seven Marine Raiders with the unit were ostracized for years despite all available evidence indicating they acted within the laws of war.
Currently, troops deploying under SOCOM and CENTCOM feel like they face competing pressures, as they are supposed to conduct combat operations but suspect locals may want to use the US military justice against US troops.
“Anything questionable will result in at best a career-ending investigation or being incarcerated. Both have led to strategic victories for the enemy,” Galvin added.
Members of the special-operations community are wary of the Pentagon investigation.
“I can’t speak for any active-duty troops, but nobody likes outsiders poking into their business, because they’re outsiders with no clue on what the job entails,” Balestrieri said. “There will always be some who feel that there is a witch-hunt afoot, and we’ve seen those occur.”
But the investigation, regardless of the outcome, seems unlikely to have a serious impact the commandos or their operations.
“There is an inherent risk when sending operators into harm’s way. We as Americans must ensure that we have our soldiers’ backs no matter what … Operators aren’t worried about investigations as a whole. No operator will be reluctant to pull the trigger. Hours and hours of drills and rehearsals make missions seamless,” Black said.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
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