The U.S. Army staff sergeant suspected in the killings of at least 16 Afghan civilians had experienced the stress of war from four combat tours far from home in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army Criminal Investigative Command is probing the killings and seeking a motive for the slaughter as officials in southern Afghanistan came under gunfire while consoling villagers whose relatives were shot dead by the soldier in their homes.
The U.S. military was holding the suspect, whose name wasn’t released, in a base at Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, as Afghan lawmakers and street protesters demanded that he be tried in their nation’s courts.
The emerging picture of the Army sergeant was of a man worn by the chaos of service in two wars that lack clear front lines and alliances. The sergeant was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq, Pentagon spokesman George Little said yesterday.
After such multiple deployments, military personnel struggle “with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression -- and still don’t do what this man did,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of Give an Hour, a Bethesda, Maryland-based non-profit group that provides mental-health services to military personnel.
“By all accounts, it’s not the case that he cracked under pressure and it’s different from someone who’s in a firefight, sees his buddy get killed and loses control,” Van Dahlen, a psychologist, said yesterday in an interview.
Kandahar provincial Governor Touryalai Wesa and two brothers of President Hamid Karzai visited the villages attacked by the soldier today. Taliban guerrillas fired on a mosque as they met relatives of victims, Ahmad Jawid Faisal, a provincial government spokesman, said by phone. An Afghan soldier guarding the delegation was injured, he said.
Sayeed Mohammed Akhund, a lawmaker from Kandahar, said in a phone interview that legislators want the American soldier tried in an Afghan court, and hundreds of university students echoed the demand in a street protest today in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
“The demonstrators want the shooter to be prosecuted as soon as possible in an Afghan court and even want him to receive the death penalty,” General Abdullah Stanekzai, a police commander in the city, said by phone.
President Barack Obama told television interviewers yesterday that the killings haven’t altered his plan to hand security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014. “It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,” Obama said in an interview with a CBS television affiliate reported on the CBS News website.
“What we don’t want to do is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits,” Obama said, according to the CBS report.
Obama administration officials are considering an accelerated schedule for U.S. troop withdrawals that could nearly double the planned reduction in troops within a year, the New York Times reported, citing White House, Defense Department and State Department officials it didn’t name. The U.S. has said it will bring home 22,000 of its 90,000 troops in Afghanistan by September, and as many as another 20,000 could be withdrawn by June 2013, the report said.
The sergeant suspected in the killings could face the death penalty, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Kyrgyzstan. “My understanding is, in these instances, that could be a consideration,” he said.
For prosecutions of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the U.S. retains legal jurisdiction under a U.S.-Afghan accord, according to a Jan. 5, 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service.
The sergeant identified in the killing arrived in Afghanistan on Dec. 3 from his home station at Joint Base Lewis- McChord in Washington state, the U.S. Army said in a memo prepared yesterday for members of Congress. He was with the 2-3 Infantry, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division.
While in the conventional military, he was attached to a Special Operations task force in southern Afghanistan on Feb. 1, according to the memo.
The suspect is 38 years old and is married with two children, ABC News said, citing a U.S. official it didn’t name. He had marital difficulties after his last tour of duty in Iraq and had previously been deemed fit for duty after suffering a mild traumatic brain injury, the network said.
The injury occurred in a vehicle rollover in Iraq that wasn’t combat-related, CNN reported.
The U.S Manual for Courts-Martial, the guidebook for military justice, says mental impairment may be used as an “affirmative defense” if “the accused, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his or her acts.”
The soldier’s family has been moved onto his home base near Tacoma, Washington, for their safety, CBS reported.
In Afghanistan, the soldier hiked to one village 800 meters (0.5 miles) south of his base and then to another village 500 meters north of the base to commit the killings, the Army said in the memo to Congress.
“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,” Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, said March 11.
The attack happened in Panjwai, a plain stretching southwest from Kandahar city that is densely dotted with villages whose 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 soldier killed four of my family members including my wife, sisters and a baby nephew,” Habibullah Khan, whose home was one of those attacked, said in a phone interview. “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, according to Lal Mohammed, an elder from Zangabad, the area where the attack occurred. He spoke by phone.
After the attack, the soldier walked back to his base and surrendered, Jacobson said.
Farming families in Zangabad, a grape-growing area 35 kilometers southwest of Kandahar, met in mosques yesterday to hold post-burial prayers for relatives killed by the soldier, according to Khan, 36. He said the local government has discouraged villagers from responding with violence.
U.S. officials believe the attack was an “isolated incident” and that the suspect acted alone, Little told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.
Obama called Karzai March 11 “to express his shock and sadness” and pledged “to hold fully accountable anyone responsible,” according to a White House statement.
Interviewed on Orlando television station WFTV, Obama responded to a question saying that the shooting is “not comparable” to the 1968 massacre of more than 300 hundred civilians by a group of U.S. soldiers in My Lai during the Vietnam War. “It appears that you had a lone gunman who acted on his own in just a tragic, tragic way,” Obama said.
Panetta said such cases shouldn’t deter the U.S-led coalition and its Afghan partners.
“War is hell,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Kyrgyzstan, the location of an air base used to supply troops in Afghanistan. “These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place. But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy or mission.”
While Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said March 11 that the killings underscore that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan, rival Mitt Romney said yesterday on Fox News Channel that “the actions of a deranged person are not going to shape America’s foreign policy.”
The killings threaten to renew protests against U.S. forces and complicate the Obama administration’s efforts 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.
“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 killings may complicate U.S.-Afghan talks on terms by which some U.S. forces might remain there after 2014, said Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst and retired Afghan diplomat in Kabul.
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 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.