The massacre of at least sixteen Afghan civilians by a rogue U.S. soldier is doing more than fueling anti-American rage throughout Afghanistan. It is also raising doubts about the broader U.S. strategy for winding down the unpopular war.
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command has begun what is likely to be a weeks-long probe into the shootings in Panjwai, a remote town in the volatile Afghan province of Kandahar. U.S. and Afghan officials say the shooter, who has not yet been identified, walked off his tiny base, broke into three near houses, and killed members of multiple families. He appears to have burned some of the bodies before returning to the base and turning himself in.
This weekend’s bloody attack represents the highest civilian death toll at the hands of an American soldier or Marine since the infamous My Lai massacre of Vietnam. To be sure, My Lai involved dozens of American soldiers and hundreds of Vietnamese casualties – as well as a far-reaching U.S. attempt to cover it up - so it would be wrong to draw too strong of a comparison.
Still, the growing Afghan fury – the Taliban has vowed revenge and senior Afghan officials want the soldier turned over to them for trial – means the new attack could do a similar level of damage to support for the war in both countries.
Bob Killebrew, a retired Army colonel and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the new incident adds to a mounting series of miscues by American forces in recent months, from images of Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters to reports that Korans were burned at a large U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan. Killebrew argues that senior officers should be fired for the incidents, which hasn’t been the case in other high-profile incidents from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We now have at least three instances of misbehavior…that may cost us the war, and will certainly result in more U.S. soldiers dying at the hands of their Afghan counterparts,” Killebrew said.
More broadly, the attack will force senior American policymakers to reconsider a key part of the Obama administration’s war strategy. The White House plans gradually shift the primary American mission in Afghanistan from direct combat to a training mission focused on partnering with local Afghan forces throughout the country.
In practical terms, that means shifting soldiers from large bases which are under the direct supervision of nearby officers to small outposts which largely operate on their own and have little day-to-day interaction with other units.
The training mission is also being taken out of the hands of U.S. Special Forces units, which have language skills and specialized knowledge about how to work with indigenous fighters, and given to conventional units whose members don’t speak the language and have received little to no teaching about how to train local fighters.
That means that conventional troops like the shooter accused in the Panjwai case may not be up to their new training mission, and small bases like the outpost to which he was assigned may be so far removed from larger bases that their troops won’t be under adequate supervision.
“I have some concerns that we are going be doing a large-scale repurposing of conventional forces into advisory units without taking the time to fully think through whether they’re the right fit for the mission,” said David Barno, a retired three-star general who formerly served as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Working as embedded advisors, Barno said, require skills that “conventional units are trained or selected to do.”
Operating on isolated outposts, meanwhile, requires closer oversight than is the norm at normal-sized bases. One of the most gruesome incidents of either war occurred in the Iraqi town of Mahmudiyah in 2006, when a trio of U.S. soldiers stationed at a remote checkpoint raped a 14-year-old girl and then killed her and her entire family.
A subsequent military investigation blamed the incident, in part, on the fact that the soldiers responsible for the crime were based at an undermanned, remote outpost with no supervision by higher-ranking officers or non-commissioned officers.
With the Panjwai investigation just getting underway, an enormous number of questions about the weekend’s attack remain unanswered, from what may have prompted the soldier to carry out the attack to how he had the time to kill so many people without nearby American troops noticing the commotion and attempting to stop it. It’s also unclear if senior U.S. officers bear any responsibility for not keeping the base under tighter control, as was the case in Mahmudiyah.
One thing is certain, however. The military justice system is a slow-moving bureaucracy with multiple steps which have to take place before a full trial can even take place. Any subsequent conviction and sentence can then be appealed in both military and civilian courts.
“This case will take years, without question,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at the Yale University Law School.
That means the shooter won’t be convicted or exonerated until long after U.S. troops are slated to leave Afghanistan. Justice for the dead Afghans, if it comes at all, won’t come anytime soon.