Villagers in southern Afghanistan buried 16 men, women and children shot dead in their homes yesterday by a U.S. soldier, as local authorities urged them not to attack the nearby American military base in revenge.
Farming families in Zangabad, a grape-growing village 35 kilometers (22 miles) southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, met in mosques today to hold post-burial prayers for relatives killed by the soldier, said Habibullah Khan, whose home was one of those attacked.
“If the U.S. and Afghan governments do not prosecute this soldier, the Afghan people will protest, and some may attack that base,” said Agha Lalai Dastgiri, a village elder from the Alokozay section of Zangabad who serves on the Kandahar provincial council. The local government has discouraged villagers from responding with violence, said Khan, 36.
The nighttime killings threaten to renew protests against U.S. forces and complicate efforts by the Obama administration to arrange an orderly withdrawal over the next two years. American troops triggered riots last month by burning copies of the Koran, the Islamic scripture, in a rubbish pit at the main U.S. base in the country. In January, Afghans protested over a video that showed U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of Afghans they had killed.
“On top of the Koran burning incident, it’s disastrous,” and may complicate U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, Tim Huxley, executive director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, said of the killings.
Killed in Bed
Before opening fire, the soldier had to walk about a kilometer from his base, Khan said in a phone interview.
“The soldier killed four of my family members including my wife, sisters and a baby nephew,” he said. “I was out of the district, in the city of Kandahar, but when I came back I saw blood and all four people had been killed in their beds.”
The attacker gathered 11 of those he killed into one home and set the bodies on fire, said Lal Mohammed, an elder of Alokozay who spoke by phone.
After the attack, the soldier returned to his base and surrendered, said Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for the NATO-led coalition. President Barack Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai “to express his shock and sadness” and pledged “to hold fully accountable anyone responsible,” according to a White House statement.
‘Lone Service Member’
U.S. officials believe the attack was by “a lone service member” and it was an “isolated incident,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters today. The soldier was in the “conventional army” force and was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq, he said.
“We are absolutely not changing our fundamental strategy in Afghanistan,” Little said.
Sayeed Mohammed Akhund, an Afghan lawmaker from Kandahar, said in a phone interview that legislators wanted the soldier to be tried in an Afghan court as soon as possible. The country’s parliament was closed today to commemorate the victims.
The killings may complicate U.S.-Afghan talks on terms by which some U.S. forces might remain there after 2014, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization plans to hand security duties to the Afghan government, said Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst and retired Afghan diplomat in Kabul.
“This will put the Obama administration under new pressure in Afghanistan and may lead to a faster U.S. withdrawal,” Saeedi said. “The Afghan people are really in an aggressive mood now, and we may again see violent protests from them.”
The attack happened in Panjwai, a plain stretching southwest from Kandahar city that is densely dotted with villages whose local mullahs helped found the Taliban movement in 1994. The district has remained a Taliban stronghold since NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, took control in heavy fighting in 2006.
The U.S. forces now working in Panjwai typically conduct joint patrols with the Afghan National Army in the villages surrounding their bases, seizing homemade bombs, weapons caches and hashish, according to ISAF news releases over the past seven months.
The soldier involved in the shootings is from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Units from the base’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division have taken casualties, notably from bombs planted in the rural roads of Kandahar province by Taliban active in Panjwai and nearby districts, according to U.S. Army press statements.
Catherine Caruso, a public affairs specialist at the Lewis-McChord base, said she had no information on the identity of the soldier who committed the attacks. She referred questions to ISAF.
Karzai said the incident shows “great oppression and cruelty” toward the people of Afghanistan, according to a statement from his office. “The people of Afghanistan want full reports and clarity on the incident’s details from the United States of America,” he said.
Nine children and three women were among the dead, Karzai said. Five others were wounded. The Associated Press and the BBC said the soldier was a staff sergeant.
“What we know is that a U.S. soldier left his forward operating base in the night hours from Saturday into Sunday, went into the nearby villages and opened fire on civilians in those villages,” ISAF spokesman Jacobson said in a video statement. The serviceman was being questioned, he said.
The suspect is 38 years old and is married with two children, ABC News said, citing a U.S. official it didn’t name.
“The so-called American peace keepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar province,” the Taliban said in a statement posted on a website used by the insurgents.
Protests over the burning of Korans in a trash dump at the Bagram air base led to attacks on U.S. personnel in Afghanistan last month. Two American advisers were shot dead in the Interior Ministry Feb. 25, while nine Afghans were killed and two American soldiers wounded in a suicide car-bombing in eastern Afghanistan Feb. 27.
The shootings in Kandahar are not being linked to “the incidents that happened recently,” Jacobson said.
Amid the heightened tensions, Chancellor Angela Merkel made an unannounced visit to German troops based in northern Afghanistan today. NATO forces will do everything possible to investigate the “appalling act” near Kandahar, Merkel told Karzai in a phone call from a German base, according to a statement issued by the German government.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement that he called Karzai and assured him that “we will hold any perpetrator who is responsible for this violence fully accountable under the law.”
While Panetta didn’t say so in his statement, the U.S. retains legal jurisdiction over American troops under a U.S.- Afghan accord, according to a Jan. 5, 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service.
Elected officials in the U.S. debated the attack’s potential impact on already tense U.S.-Afghan relations.
“One incident like this can change the equation,” Virginia’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Asked yesterday about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich said the mission is “not doable” at the current level of U.S. military forces.