KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military is investigating allegations that a small group of American soldiers deliberately killed three Afghan civilians in a series of shootings earlier this year, Western officials familiar with the case said Friday.
Military officials have detained one soldier with the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade based in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, said the officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the case.
If the allegations prove to be true, they could undermine the U.S. military's already shaky 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 Stryker Brigade, 2nd Battalion, at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, a remote outpost west of Kandahar city. The brigade is part of the 2nd Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, Wash.
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 Thursday 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."
American military officials wouldn't comment on the allegations.
The 5th Stryker Brigade moved into Kandahar last summer, when roadside bombs were taking a high toll on U.S. forces. Thirty-two soldiers from the brigade have been killed since July. Seven were killed last October when their Stryker armored 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. Even with the restrictions, the number of Afghan civilian deaths continues to rise.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Afghanistan developments at McClatchy's Checkpoint Kabul