President Barack Obama promised to “spare no effort” to fully investigate the killings of at least 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly at the hands of a U.S. Army staff sergeant.
Obama said he promised Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he takes the matter “as seriously as if it were our own citizens and our own children who were murdered.''
“It’s not who we are as a country, and it does not represent our military,” Obama said yesterday at the White House. Anyone involved must be held “fully accountable with the full force of the law.”
The killings may complicate U.S.-Afghan talks on terms by which some U.S. forces might remain there after 2014. Tensions rose, and riots erupted, after the burning of Korans in a trash dump at a U.S. base last month. The killings also may drain remaining U.S. and European support for the war and add pressure to speed troop withdrawals.
The Army Criminal Investigative Command is investigating the killings and seeking a motive.
The U.S. military was holding the suspect, whose name wasn’t released, on 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.
A preliminary hearing determined there was probable cause to keep the suspect confined beyond 48 hours, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings Jr., a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said today in an e-mailed statement.
Trained as Sniper
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 March 12.
The suspect is 38 years old and is married with two children, according to a U.S. defense official familiar with the case. The serviceman joined the Army shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, before he had children, the official said.
He trained as an infantryman and was a qualified sniper, according to the official. The alleged gunman’s job in Afghanistan was providing “force protection” for a Special Forces compound, said a second defense official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because charges haven’t been filed in the case.
The most recent of the soldier’s three tours in Iraq ended in 2010, and he was re-deployed to Afghanistan on Dec. 3, an official said.
The soldier suffered a head injury in Iraq due to a non-combat vehicle rollover accident, recovered and was deemed fit for deployment, one of the officials said.
The soldier’s wife and two children have been moved from off-base housing to inside Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, the soldier’s home base, for their safety, the official said.
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.
Location of Attacks
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 March 12 in a memo to Congress.
Kandahar provincial Governor Touryalai Wesa and two brothers of Karzai visited the villages attacked by the soldier yesterday. 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 yesterday 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.
The U.S. retains legal jurisdiction for prosecutions of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan under a U.S.-Afghan accord, according to a Jan. 5, 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service.
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.
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.”
Obama said he and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, with whom he will be meeting today, will “consult about the way forward” in Afghanistan as they prepare for a summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders in Chicago in May.
“The White House is not currently reviewing options for further troop withdrawals and no decisions have been made,” Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council, said in an e-mail. “The president will make decisions on further drawdowns at the appropriate time based on our interests and in consultation with our Allies and Afghan partners.”
Cameron told reporters on board a flight to Washington yesterday there is a public desire to wrap up the Afghanistan mission.
“I think people want an endgame,” he said. “They want to know that our troops are going to come home, they have been there a very long time. So that the British public, our troops and the Afghan government, frankly, know there’s an end to this.”
Obama’s troop-withdrawal timetable won support yesterday from U.S. Senate leaders.
“I support the policy the administration has laid out to move toward a transition over the next couple of years,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, agreed that “we should stick by the timeline that we have.”
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on March 11 that it’s time for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, yesterday criticized such statements as “the drumbeat of withdrawal.”
“I want to be part of a Republican Party that understands the consequences of winning and losing in Afghanistan,” Graham said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for a swift investigation and said the outcome may affect calls for U.S. withdrawal.
“You have to ask what is going on,” she said. “Until you get an answer to that, you really can’t answer whether we should just get out now or stick to it and wait.”
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee who opposes an early withdrawal, said Obama hasn’t done a good enough job defending the military’s mission.
“He could be talking about the success that we’ve enjoyed,” McCain said. “Instead it’s all about how we’re going to withdraw.”