March 12, 2012

Shootings Fray Afghan Ties

A U.S. soldier walked off his base in Afghanistan and opened fire on local villagers Sunday, Afghan and U.S. officials said, killing 16 people in a shooting spree that further complicates American efforts to end its longest foreign war.

The soldier, who allegedly gunned down his victims—most of them women and children—about a mile from the U.S. base in the Panjway district of Kandahar province, surrendered and is now in U.S. custody. His identity hasn't been disclosed.

"When the Americans are killing civilians intentionally, this is called terror and it is an unforgivable act," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said. President Barack Obama called the Afghan leader to express his "shock and sadness" and to make clear Washington's commitment to "hold fully accountable anyone responsible."

Sunday's incident is sure to inflame tensions between Washington and Kabul, just weeks after the burning of Qurans at an American base sparked deadly riots across Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghan officials now are in tough talks over a long-term partnership agreement that would let some American troops stay in Afghanistan after most foreign forces withdraw in 2014.

Officials say one U.S. service member has been detained in connection with the deaths of 16 civilians in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. (Video: Reuters/Photo: AP)

Some analysts fear Sunday's incident could derail these talks. "This attack might cause domestic Afghan anger with U.S. and allied forces that in effect constrains the options available to Afghan negotiators," said Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a center-left think tank, and a former Army Ranger.

Already, Afghan lawmakers have demanded the alleged shooter be put on public trial in Afghanistan. That is unlikely because the U.S. retains jurisdiction over military personnel here. Outrage over the Panjway killings, however, is likely to strengthen Afghan demands to renegotiate the immunity that U.S. troops enjoy in any future agreement. Soldier immunity was contentious in Iraq as well, scuttling plans to leave some American troops there.

Several U.S. defense officials expressed cautious optimism the incident in Kandahar wouldn't force a major strategy shift or quicker exit.

"The fundamentals of the relationship seem solid," said a senior Pentagon official.

Mr. Karzai Sunday sent a delegation of senior government officials to Panjway to investigate the killings. A member of that delegation, Hajji Agha Lalai, the Kandahar provincial council chief, said he had been told by survivors that the U.S. soldier entered the village at about 1 a.m. and then went from house to house gunning down local men, women and children.

In one compound, Mr. Lalai and the visiting team found 11 bodies, all from the same family. Mr. Karzai said nine of the 16 fatalities were children and three were women. Some of the bodies were charred.

The U.S. has already pledged to conduct a joint investigation of the shootings with the Afghan authorities. The suspect, a U.S. Army staff sergeant from a Stryker brigade based in Fort Lewis, Wash., was talking to American investigators, officials said. But U.S. defense officials said they didn't yet have a motive. Staff sergeants typically command groups of six to eight soldiers.

"It's beyond explanation, as sometimes these things are, whether they are school shootings in America or this kind of thing overseas," said one senior U.S. defense official.

A U.S. official said the sergeant is married and has two children, the Associated Press reported. He served three tours in Iraq and had been serving his first deployment in Afghanistan since December, the AP said.

The shooter was assigned to a small Special Operations Forces detachment working on so-called village-stability operations, a plan to raise local self-defense forces to protect Afghan villagers from the Taliban, a military official said. The small size of such Special Operations outposts makes it relatively easy to walk off base.

Sunday's shooting wasn't the first such incident in Kandahar province. Last year, four U.S. Army soldiers were convicted of deliberately murdering Afghan civilians for sport, and of collecting their body parts as trophies, in the Maiwand district that neighbors Panjway in 2010. These soldiers, also from a Stryker brigade based at Fort Lewis, were sentenced to prison terms ranging between three years and life.

The incident already inserted itself into U.S. politics, with Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich telling "Fox News Sunday" that the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. "I think we're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that frankly may not be doable," he said.

The U.S. is handing over control of the Bagram detention center to Afghan forces - a move many hope will ease tensions between Washington and Kabul. (Video: Reuters)

Six British soldiers were killed in Helmand province, the biggest single loss of life for British troops in Afghanistan since 2006. (Video: Reuters)

WSJ's Dion Nissenbaum reports a three-year U.S.-led project to build roads in Afghanistan has little to show after three years and nearly $300 million in funding. Photo: Mali Khan Yaqubi

In Afghanistan, there were no immediate large protests on Sunday, though Afghan lawmakers said they expected trouble in coming days. "This is a terrible act to enter Afghan homes and to kill their children and women. This will have very dangerous consequences," said Kandahar parliamentarian Mullah Sayed Mohammed Akhund.

During the week of unrest that followed the burning of the Qurans at the Bagram Air Field last month, it wasn't so much the Taliban as pro-government Afghan lawmakers who stoked the tensions, with some of them calling for jihad, or holy war, against the foreign troops.

"It's clear where the Taliban stand on foreign armies," said Kate Clark, an analyst at the Afghanistan Analyst Network in Kabul. "But for pro-government Afghan leaders it can be more difficult in these kinds of incidents to create some distance between themselves and the foreign armies."

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul Sunday warned Americans about the risk of "anti-American feelings and protests in coming days," especially in southern and eastern provinces.

Tooryalai Wesa, the Kandahar governor, said he still hoped no street unrest would break out in his province. "People are upset, but what will the protest help?" he wondered. "It won't bring the victims back to life."

Suggestions by some Afghan officials that multiple shooters carried out the attack could further complicate U.S. efforts to defuse the crisis. Mr. Akhund, the parliamentarian, said the local villagers had told him that they saw more than one soldier during the night, and that the attacked houses were far away from each other.

Afghan soldiers at the U.S. base also told the visiting officials that they heard simultaneous shooting from different locations, he said. Mr. Karzai's statement quoted an injured boy named Rafiullah as saying "American soldiers" had broken into his house and shot his family.

U.S. military officials disputed those claims, saying they had no reporting of more than one shooter. Gov. Wesa also said he was only aware of the lone gunman.

Mourners cried over the bodies of Afghan civilians allegedly shot by a U.S. soldier near a U.S. military base in the Panjway district of Kandahar province.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, however, appeared to leave open the possibility that the shooter had accomplices. It promised in a statement that "the individual or individuals responsible for this act will be identified and brought to justice."

Both Maiwand and Panjway are historic strongholds of the Taliban movement.

The Taliban lost no time in condemning the Panjway killings, describing them Sunday as "genocide" that resulted from a U.S. night raid. "The so-called American peacekeepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians," the Taliban said. The insurgents pledged to "avenge every single death inflicted by the savage murderer invaders."

The shootings in Panjway happened just weeks after the burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers at a U.S. detention facility at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul. Anti-American riots rippled across the country in response, leaving some 30 protesters dead. Six U.S. troops also were killed in three separate attacks on American personnel by Afghan service members, poisoning the ties between U.S. and Afghan security forces.

Shootings of American troops by their Afghan comrades in arms have become a growing problem in recent years, with the latest killings at the Ministry of Interior headquarters in Kabul prompting the U.S. and allies to withdraw their advisers deployed in Afghan ministries.