A Marine wrongfully accused of killing civilians says that President Obama’s new Afghanistan war commander is unqualified to lead coalition forces.
In January President Obama tapped Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson to lead the war in Afghanistan, as the administration confronted the possibility of a long-term troop presence in the country. Nicholson, an Army Ranger, sailed through Senate confirmation on Feb. 4.
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The hasty confirmation disappointed retired Marine Major Fred Galvin.
"It is never good for a foot soldier when this guy is in charge," Galvin told the Washington Free Beacon in a telephone interview from his Kansas home. "I don’t consider him a military leader. He’s a politician."
In 2007 Galvin was in charge of the Marine Corps’ first special operations unit to be deployed to combat, a development that encountered resistance from within the Corps and the special operations community.
Galvin said he could deal with bureaucratic infighting in the lead up to the unit’s deployment to Afghanistan. What he did not expect was the betrayal that followed a March 4 ambush that year, which left more than a dozen Afghans dead, as reported by Military Times. A suicide attacker set off a car bomb targeting Galvin’s convoy before small arms fire erupted from both sides of the street. The Marines escaped with just one casualty after returning fire.
Within 24 hours the ambush had morphed into an alleged war crime, with villagers claiming that drunken Marines had sprayed gunfire into crowds of unarmed civilians. The military launched two investigations, but ordered Galvin’s unit out of Afghanistan before they were completed. The Marines denied any wrongdoing, saying they engaged only military targets.
A third, related investigation that concluded in April backed up the Marines' account of the attack. Major Robert V. Urquhart Jr., a senior officer in a unit that answered to Nicholson, submitted a report to senior leadership on April 9, 2007.
"MSOC F received a suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) followed by a complex ambush from both sides of the road," Urquhart said in the report, which Galvin provided to the Washington Free Beacon. "Vehicles 1 & 2 returned fire to suppress enemy forces and positions."
Despite the findings of his investigators in April, Nicholson publicly accused the Marines of being a "stain on our honor" in a May video conference given to the Pentagon press corps. He acknowledged that Galvin’s convoy was the victim of a suicide bomb, but said that "in the ensuing fight a number of civilians were killed." He told reporters that he met with families of the "19 dead and 50 wounded" to issue a public apology, as well as consolation payments to compensate for the losses.
"I stand before you today deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people," Nicholson told reporters. "The death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people. This was a terrible, terrible mistake …That is not what America stands for."
Galvin said that Nicholson’s public statements undermined his right to a fair trial. The investigative reports were then presented to a three-member Court of Inquiry. After more than three weeks, the court cleared Marines of any wrongdoing, concluding that they were returning fire following a hostile ambush. The headlines on the court’s findings paled in comparison to the many stories written about Nicholson’s remarks. Galvin said that he and his Marines found their career prospects stifled after the incident and have had trouble coping in civilian life because of the "false allegations."
"There was a rush to judgment. Everything was stacked against us. This guy [Nicholson] was the catalyst for taking a 120-man unit out of Afghanistan," Galvin said. "Nobody would touch us. We were radioactive. He condemns people who were innocent and he never apologized to us."
Gen. Nicholson did not return requests for comment submitted through the Pentagon and NATO.
Galvin is not the only Marine tied to the incident who said that Nicholson is unfit for command.
Retired Col. Steve Morgan, who was on the three-member Court of Inquiry, said that Nicholson’s public statements made him skeptical of Galvin’s innocence at the start of the proceedings.
"I thought the Marines screwed up. When I walked in the courtroom I generally agreed with Nicholson," he said. "You’re thinking the Marines were running around like a bunch of loose damn fools … why would the commander make such a strong statement if he didn’t have substantive facts to back it up?"
By the end of the proceedings, Morgan concluded that the facts backed up Galvin and called into question Nicholson’s integrity. Morgan pointed to testimony by Nicholson where he stated he could not recall the exact date of the video conference despite the fact that reporters wished him a happy 50th birthday on the call.
"That’s a pretty big hallmark. His testimony was self-serving and part of his testimony bordered on, not outright perjury, but a very large integrity gap," Morgan said. "He’s a bad officer. All Fred wants to do is take care of his Marines. All Nicholson wants is his next promotion. He’s a threat to morale."
Galvin said that Nicholson should try to make amends by issuing a public apology along the lines of "the facts prove that these Marines are innocent and I said something that was prejudicial to the investigation."
"Congress and the president are relying on him to tell the truth about what’s going on in Afghanistan: knowing what he did to us, would you feel confident that he’s going to tell the truth?" Galvin said. "He made it look to the press that we perpetrated the My Lai Massacre. He has a chance now to stand up and be a leader and apologize."
UPDATE 11:22 A.M.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Major Robert V. Urquhart Jr., an investigating officer who submitted a report that dealt with the events of March 4, 2007, was serving in Afghanistan with a military police unit. Major Urquhart was serving in in an infantry unit at the time.