A Curious Case of Murder

by Joshua Foust on 1/3/2009

Capt. Robert Semrau, a Canadian soldier in one of the ISAF embedded training teams in Helmand, is under arrest in Afghanistan for murder.

A Canadian military adviser who served in Afghanistan during a bloody October battle against the Taliban has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of an unarmed Afghan man, defense officials said Friday.

Capt. Robert Semrau is accused of shooting the man “with intent to kill” in Helmand province, where Afghan soldiers, their Canadian officers and British troops had been defending the capital of Lashkar Gah from persistent attacks by insurgents, the Department of National Defense said in a statement…

At the time of the incident, Semrau was among several Canadian military advisers who were in Helmand for the bloody three-day defense of Lashkar Gah. Also taking part were British forces, who are deployed extensively in Helmand.

Afghan and foreign troops eventually retook the Nad Ali district center, which had been held by insurgents, after a three-day fight. That battle, which also involved air strikes, ended Oct. 18. Afghan and NATO officials claimed at least 100 Taliban died in the fighting.

I don’t think readers of this blog could accuse me of writing off the deaths of innocent and unarmed Afghans (see here, for example). In fact, I wish more incidents of mass collateral damage were investigated and punished, or at least led to changes in tactics and policies that would further reduce them. But this feels wrong somehow—during an intense, bloody, high-profile fight to retake an entire district center, it is one of the sucky consequences of a big fight that innocents would get killed, especially if it is one with an unlucky shot.

Then again, Semrau is accused of having “intent to kill” with an unarmed man. So there is probably more to this story. Today in the Globe and Mail, Semrau presents his own case in an interview the day before the accused incident:

Q: What is it like mentoring Afghan soldiers?

A: It’s good. Like I said, it’s very challenging. They do stuff a lot different from us. They lack a lot of the resources that we bring to the table. Obviously no one brings quite as much as the Americans but we’ve got some stuff of our own as well. But they’re really good guys like I said. They just lack some of the basic soldiering skills. Like you take stuff for granted like how to do proper [inaudible] searches, cordon and control, just very basic stuff. But they’re working on it and obviously it’s our job to mentor them through it.

It’s strange how upbeat he seems about his job and the task his unit must perform: not the psychology one would expect from a man about to commit murder. This is why something here doesn’t feel right—the AP above seemed to tie the alleged killing to the battle to regain Lashkar Gah, but here he is in the G&M the day beforehand, not at all involved in the fight. So there’s something else there, some missing context to this… we just don’t know what, yet.

Update: Reader Tony forwards this video of Capt. Semrau. Again, he is very positive about the ANA, and seems to enjoy his work. Not what one would expect of a soldier frustrated or stressed enough to shoot an unarmed man with intent to kill.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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