U.S. soldier detained after opening fire on Afghans; at least 16 killedhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us- ... story.html
March 11, 2012
KABUL— An American soldier wandered outside his base in a remote southern Afghan village shortly before dawn Sunday and opened fire on civilians inside homes, killing at least 16, Afghan and U.S. officials said.
The attack marked perhaps the grisliest act by a U.S. soldier in the decade-long Afghan war and seemed all but certain to stoke anti-American anger in a crucial battleground as foreign troops start to thin out in the south. Afghan officials said women and children were among those killed in Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban movement.
Coming as Afghan rage over last month’s burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers was beginning to taper off, the killings threatened to spark a new crisis in the strained relationship between Washington and Kabul. The two nations are in the midst of contentious negotiations over an agreement that could extend the presence of U.S. troops in the country beyond 2014.
Officials shed no light on the motive or state of mind of the staff sergeant who was taken into custody shortly after the alleged massacre.
“He walked right off the base, started shooting civilians and returned to the base and turned himself in,” Maj. Jason Waggnor, a U.S. military spokesman said.
U.S. military officials stressed that the shooting was carried out by a lone, rogue soldier, differentiating it from past instances of civilians killed accidentally during military operations.
“I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts,” Lt. Gen. Adrian J. Bradshaw, the deputy commander of the international troop coalition in Afghanistan said in a statement. “They were in no way part of authorized military activity.”
Fazal Mohammad Esaqzai, the deputy chief of the provincial council, said enraged villagers loaded the bodies into cars and drove to the entrance of the nearby American base to demand answers.
“They were very angry,” said Esaqzai, who was part of an investigative delegation that visited the villages where the shootings took place. “They wanted to do something to take revenge.”Esaqzai, who said he saw the 16 bodies, provided the following account. Around midnight, 11 people, including three women; four children whose ages ranged between six and nine; and three men were executed inside the home of a village elder.
“They entered the room where the women and children were sleeping and they were all shot in the head,” Esaqzai said, adding that he was doubtful of the U.S. account suggesting the killings were the work of a lone gunman. “They were all shot in the head.”
After roughly an hour, residents in a nearby village heard gunshots, and later discovered the corpses of five men inside two nearby houses, Esaqzai said.
At least five people wounded in the shooting spree were being treated at a U.S. military medical facility. Afghan and U.S. officials braced for a larger outcry later in the week.
“We assure the people of Afghanistan that the individual or individuals responsible for this act will be identified and brought to justice,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement.
The Taliban was quick to weigh in on the incident, characterizing it as a “massacre” committed during the course of a night raid by American and Afghan forces.
“The so-called American peace keepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians,” the Taliban statement said.
Provincial officials sent an investigative team to the villages where the shootings took place. The U.S. military launched its own probe.
“We strongly condemn this incident,” Zaimai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.
Panjwai, southwest of Kandahar City, has been one of the most challenging battlegrounds for international forces here. The area was the cradle of the Taliban movement in the early 1990s, and the militant group has fought hard to maintain control over villages.
Wresting Kandahar Province from Taliban control was one of the chief objectives of President Obama’s 2009 troop surge. U.S. military officials say they have been largely successful in restoring a semblance of Afghan government control in areas once controlled by the Taliban. As the foreign troop footprint starts to shrink in the south, many Afghans fear the Taliban will regain its lost ground.
While anger over the burning of Korans last month sparked nationwide riots and protests, and prompted Afghan security forces to open fire on U.S. troops, reaction to the desecration of holy books was relatively muted in the south.
Sunday’s death toll was far higher than the notorious string of killings allegedly carried out in 2010 by a rogue U.S. army platoon that became known as the “Kill Team.” The slaying of at least three men in the Maywand District of Kandahar became one of the biggest scandals of the Afghan war, after investigators found that soldiers had kept body parts as trophies and passed off unarmed victims as insurgents.
Afghans were also angered early this year, when a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of suspected insurgents was posted online.
If Sunday’s shootings spawn a wave of protests and retaliatory attacks, it could set a grim tone as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan heads to Washington this week for official meetings and a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Hamdard is a special correspondent.