Public anger remains intense after a U.S. soldier killed 16 villagers in southern Afghanistan, and may still spark a backlash against American forces, the governor of the south’s most populous province and tribal elders say.
While U.S. officers in Kandahar province have sought to forestall revenge attacks on their forces by offering apologies and compensation to the families of those killed, ethnic Pashtuns of Afghanistan’s south may be motivated by the massacre to attack American forces and their international allies, said Governor Tooryalai Wesa. “People throughout Kandahar may take violent action if they feel justice is not being restored,” Wesa said in an interview at his office today.
An Afghan soldier west of Kandahar, in the adjacent province of Helmand, today shot dead two British troops of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, Afghan army General Sayed Malook said in a phone interview. The attack was the first by a member of the Afghan security forces on their international partners since the March 11 shootings.
The attack on village homes in Panjwai, for which Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was charged last week, has escalated tension between the U.S. and Afghan governments, and added to election-year pressure on President Barack Obama for a quick U.S. exit from the 10-year-old war with Taliban militants.
The U.S. military charged Bales with 17 counts of murder in farming villages around Camp Belambay, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of Kandahar city. While village residents and Afghan officials have counted 16 dead, the U.S. charges reflect that one of the women killed was pregnant, the New York Times reported today, citing Kandahar’s police chief.
Wesa, about 61, is a portly Afghan-Canadian agriculture specialist, native to Kandahar. After studies in the U.S. and Canada, he worked as a university teacher in British Columbia until returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai named him governor in 2008.
For two weeks, Wesa’s days have been dominated by meetings with survivors of the Panjwai attack, angry tribal leaders, U.S. military officers and officials of Karzai’s government. “This violence has affected every human being,” especially in Afghanistan’s Pashtun south, which is the core of the war zone, Wesa said. “We have had other violence against innocent people -- even the aerial bombing of wedding parties -- but this attack on these villagers was something really different and inhumane,” he said.
The renewed tension with U.S. forces will not affect plans for ISAF to hand over control of Kandahar city, Afghanistan’s second-largest, to Afghan forces within three months, Wesa said.
Most of the victims at Panjwai belonged to the Alokozai tribe, one of the region’s main Pashtun clans. “These killings may lead some local people to begin resisting the Americans in the same way the Taliban resist them,” and such resistance may spread to other Alokozai areas, said Dad Muhammad, 46, a local Alokozai elder in Panjwai.
The Alokozais dominate the populations of what in recent years have been some of the most heavily contested regions of Afghanistan’s south, such as Panjwai and the district of Sangin, in Helmand province.
U.S. military officers from ISAF’s southern regional headquarters met relatives of those attacked in Wesa’s office March 24 to seek reconciliation, Wesa said. He declined to comment on a statement by another Afghan official at the meeting that the officers paid the relatives about $50,000 for each person killed and about $10,000 for each one wounded.
“The compensation was on behalf of America’s government and was meant to ease the anger of these victims and encourage them not to take any violent actions” in revenge, said the other official, Agha Lalai Dastgiri, an elder from one of the two villages hit in the attack. Pashtun traditions call on male relatives to avenge the killing of family members.
While restitution payments and formal apologies by the Americans may ease the pressure for revenge attacks, they may not be enough to prevent them entirely, said Dastgiri, a member of the province’s elected governing council.
Afghans, including relatives of those killed and Karzai, have expressed doubts at the U.S. military’s assertion that the attacks on three homes in two villages were committed by a single soldier without help from others. Dastgiri said the compensation payments had not eased the families’ insistence on a full investigation that includes the possibility of others being prosecuted.
“The victims thanked the U.S. officials, but they told the Americans that money is not enough, and that they want the perpetrators to be prosecuted as soon as possible and to receive the death penalty,” he said.
The U.S.-led coalition force in Afghanistan declined to comment on the reported payments. When such compensation efforts are made, “it is usually a matter of agreement that the terms of the settlement remain confidential,” ISAF said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.