Public anger over the killing of 17 Afghan civilians, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, may yet spark a backlash against American forces, the governor of the south’s most populous province and tribal elders say.
Anger remains intense in southern Afghanistan after the March 11 incident, presenting what the top U.S. and NATO commander for Afghanistan said yesterday is the “potential” for revenge killings. “It is prudent for us to recognize that, as you know, revenge is an important dimension in this culture,” U.S. Marine General John Allen said at a Pentagon briefing.
U.S. officers in Kandahar province sought to forestall such attacks by offering apologies and financial compensation to the affected families. The payments were $50,000 for each person killed and $11,000 for each of the injured, according to Agha Lalai Dastgiri, a village elder.
Still, ethnic Pashtuns of Afghanistan’s south may be motivated to attack U.S. forces and their international allies “if they feel justice is not being restored,” Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa said in an interview at his office yesterday.
An Afghan soldier west of Kandahar, in the adjacent Helmand province, yesterday 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.
‘Green on Blue’
Another NATO service member, confirmed by the Pentagon as an American soldier, was reported killed at a checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan by a man who was part of an allied village force, according to the Associated Press.
Such “green-on-blue” attacks are “a characteristic of counter-insurgency” operations as also experienced in the past in Iraq and Vietnam, Allen said. NATO and Afghan officials have put in place security measures to “reduce this tragedy to the maximum extent possible,” he said.
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.
Support for the war has dropped in the U.S. Sixty-nine percent of Americans surveyed from March 21 to 25 said the U.S. shouldn’t be fighting in Afghanistan, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. That’s up from 53 percent four months ago, according to the poll.
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 yesterday, 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 on March 24 in Wesa’s office with relatives of those attacked to seek reconciliation, Wesa said.
“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, 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.
Money ‘Not Enough’
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 March 25.