Major Kevin Burke, USAOn May 8, 2009 at 9:00AM Eastern (USA) Don Ayala, a member of a Human Terrain Team (HTT) operating in Afghanistan, was sentenced by Judge Claude Hilton in the Eastern District Court of Virginia. On February 3, 2009, Ayala pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter of Abdul Salam, an Afghani national who doused Paula Loyd, a fellow HTT member, with a lit container of flammable liquid and set her alight. Loyd suffered burns on 60 percent of her body and ultimately succumbed to her wounds dying on January 7, 2008.
According to court filings, she was “engulfed in a ball of flame large enough to force those near her to involuntarily back away to a distance of 3 to 5 meters”. Loyd screamed in agony as flesh and clothing burned. A US platoon medic tried to put the fire out by using dirt but ultimately dragged her by her foot to a nearby drainage ditch where “helmetfuls” of water were applied to put out the flames. All her clothing burned off leaving only her helmet and body armor intact.
According to court documents, Salam “fled immediately from the scene and ran 50 meters towards Ayala. Ayala drew his sidearm but did not fire and instead pinned Salam on the ground on a commonly traveled path. Salam resisted violently but was eventually flex-cuffed and restrained with the assistance of members of the accompanying platoon. Ayala kept his sidearm “trained at Salam’s head”. Moments later, a US soldier and interpreter approached Ayala and Salam.
The interpreter “yelled at Salam, punched and kicked him and dragged him into an adjacent creek. Ayala retrieved Salam from the creek and put him back on the path,” pinning him down with knee to chest. According to court documents, Ayala was advised of Loyd’s status and subsequently shot Salam in the head killing him instantly. Ayala agreed to the factual nature of these events and entered a plea of voluntary manslaughter.
A photographic packet contained within court filings shows US Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID) personnel examining the scene and reenacting portions of the crime. The same photographic packet contains an unsettling picture depicting the narrow pathway and the scorched earth where Loyd lay burning. A picture of Salam’s corpse is also included. Tragic events like this one have followed every conquering force that has attempted to pacify Afghanistan. Now it’s the USA’s turn. The Ayala-Loyd-Salam tragedy could very well have been pulled from The Wasted Vigil by Nadem Salem, a novel of war and tragedy in Afghanistan. The Wasted Vigil should be read by anyone deploying to Afghanistan.
Ayala’s defense team has, as expected, argued that the act of manslaughter by Ayala can’t be decoupled from Salam’s assault and, ultimately, murder of Loyd. As such, the defense team argued that “a sentence of three years of supervised probation is sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the sentencing set forth in 18 USC 3553 (a) [Imposition of a Sentence, Factors, etc.]. Any imprisonment of Mr. Ayala would violate the stricture of 3553(a) and further compound the tragedy…”
According to court documents, Ayala, already suffering from prior “dormant combat stress injuries” described the thoughts he felt upon learning of Loyd’s status that would ultimately determine Salam’s fate.
“I was overcome with the horror of what had been done to her, knowing that she was suffering and that she would never be the same, even if she lived. Immediately after the incident I was allowed to go see Paula. I will never forget hearing Paula cry “I’m cold” over and over as the medic tried to treat her wounds.”
Court filings reveal 54 letters of support have been written on behalf of Ayala. The Times-Picayune of Louisiana has also posted a documentary video in support of Ayala here http://www.nola.com/news/?/base/news-1/124158792126600.xml&coll=1.
HTS, COIN, Involvement in Afghan-Pak on Trial
“In this situation, all sense of fairness is shattered and the rules of combat broken. This is not a scenario that anyone is trained for, prepared for…” said LTC David Thomas, USA (Ret.) in a court filing supporting Ayala.
Rules of combat in Afghanistan? Fairness? Why not prepare? Why is this scenario not rehearsed for a country where “western values” do not apply to women?
What the hell is going on with HTS and US Army leadership, training and recruitment!? Does anyone involved (contractors/government) with US Army cultural, human, counterinsurgency efforts actually know what they are doing? Do they really know the environment to which they are sending warfighters and contractors? What’s the end-game in Afghan-Pak?
It is common knowledge that women who are unlucky enough to be born into various tribes in Afghanistan are generally treated horribly. Women have few rights in Afghanistan save the right to be silent, and only speak when spoken to. Beatings are common. Being doused with acid is not uncommon. Women are cautious about reporting crimes committed against them by their male counterparts. “In many parts of the country, a majority of women report being assaulted by their husbands. Global Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization, surveyed 5,700 households in 16 of the country’s 32 provinces. Fully 87.2 percent of respondents reported they had experienced at least one form of abuse, which included psychological, physical and sexual acts of violence as well as forced marriages. Fifty-two percent of respondents reported physical violence; many described being regularly punched, kicked, hit with sticks, cut with sharp objects, or having their hair pulled and clothes torn. One child bride, for example, reported that she had been woken up one day by her in-laws pouring a kettle of scalding hot water over her body (http://www.herizons.ca/node/263).
And it seems not much better for young males in Afghanistan. According to Major Kevin Burke writing in Civil Reconnaissance: Separating the Insurgent from the Population, “…incidents of homosexual rape and bestiality among the Afghans has become an excepted fact in working with the Afghan nationals and other predominately Islamic countries. The act is not isolated within their military, but is practiced among the rural Afghan nationals and witness by most who spend any significant amount of time living among them. This example also provides a glimpse into the type of person that is needed to operate in this environment and the training that must take place in order to effectively work with foreign nationals. Not just anyone can do this kind of work, and there is a need for a set of inherent personality traits needed by operators in order to achieve the desired end state no matter the obstacle. A degree of moral flexibility and an understanding the political and strategic significance of handling delicate cultural issues are just a few of the characteristic needed in order to function in this environment.”
The Ayala-Loyd-Salam case is a portent for the larger tragedy that is sure to follow as America’s attempt to Westernize Afghanistan and Pakistan gains momentum.
John Stanton is a Virginia based writer specializing in political and national security matters. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.