LEWIS-McCHORD SOLDIER'S RAMPAGE THREATENS U.S. MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN
By Heidi Vogt and Mirwais Khan
March 11, 2012
BALANDI, Afghanistan -- Moving from house to house, a U.S. Army soldier opened fire Sunday on Afghan villagers as they slept, killing 16 people -- mostly women and children -- in an attack that reignited fury at the U.S. presence following a wave of deadly protests over Americans burning Qurans.
The shooter, identified as an Army staff sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was believed to have acted alone and initial reports indicated he returned to the base after the shooting and turned himself in. He was in custody at a NATO base in Afghanistan.
The attack threatened the deepest breach yet in U.S.-Afghan relations, raising questions both in Washington and Kabul about why American troops are still fighting in Afghanistan after 10 years of conflict and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The killing spree, the worst atrocity committed by U.S. forces during the Afghan war, comes amid deepening public outrage spurred by last month’s Quran burnings and an earlier video purportedly showing American Marines urinating on dead Taliban militants.
The Quran burnings sparked weeks of violent protests and attacks that left some 30 Afghans dead, despite an apology from President Barack Obama. Six U.S. service members were also killed by their fellow Afghan soldiers, although the tensions had just started to calm down.
Residents said Sunday’s attack began around 3:00 a.m. in two villages in Panjwai district, a rural region outside Kandahar that is the cradle of the Taliban and where coalition forces have fought for control for years. The villages are about 500 yards (meters) from a U.S. base in a region that was the focus of Obama’s military surge strategy in the south starting in 2009.
Villagers described cowering in fear as gunshots rang out as a soldier stalked house after house firing on those inside. They said he entered three homes in all and set fire to some of the bodies. Eleven of the dead were from a single family, and nine of the victims were children.
Some residents said they believed there were multiple attackers, given the carnage.
“One man can’t kill so many people. There must have been many people involved,” said Bacha Agha of Balandi village. “If the government says this is just one person’s act we will not accept it. . . . After killing those people they also burned the bodies.”
But U.S. officials said the shooter was believed to have acted alone and initial reports indicated he returned to the base after the shooting and turned himself in. He was in custody at a NATO base in Afghanistan.
In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai left open the possibility of more than one shooter. He initially spoke of a single U.S. gunman, then referred to “American forces” entering houses. The statement quoted a 15-year-old survivor named Rafiullah, who was shot in the leg, as telling Karzai in a phone call that “soldiers” broke into his house, woke up his family and began shooting them. “This is an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven,” Karzai said.
Obama phoned the Afghan leader to express his shock and sadness, and offered condolences to the grieving families and to the people of Afghanistan.
In a statement released by the White House, Obama called the attack “tragic and shocking” and not representative of “the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.” He vowed “to get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible.”
The violence over the Quran burnings had already spurred calls in the U.S. for a faster exit strategy from the 10-year-old Afghan war. Obama even said recently that “now is the time for us to transition.” But he also said he had no plan to change the current timetable that has Afghans taking control of security countrywide by the end of 2014.
In the wake of the Quran burnings, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, visited troops at a base that was attacked last month and urged them not to give in to the impulse for revenge.
The tensions between the two countries had appeared to be easing as recently as Friday, when the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding about the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan control -- a key step toward an eventual strategic partnership to govern U.S. forces in the country.
Now, another wave of anti-American hatred could threaten the entire future of the mission, fueling not only anger among the Afghans whom the coalition is supposed to be defending but also encouraging doubts among U.S. political figures that the long and costly war is worth the sacrifice in lives and treasury.
“This is a fatal hammer blow on the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Whatever sliver of trust and credibility we might have had following the burnings of the Quran is now gone,” said David Cortright, the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and an advocate for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Gen. Allen offered his regret and “deepest condolences” to the Afghan people for the shootings and vowed to make sure that “anyone who is found to have committed wrong-doing is held fully accountable.”
“This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of ISAF and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people,” Allen said in a statement, using the abbreviation for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
Rep. Adam Smith also offered his condolences Sunday and called reports on the “unwarranted” attack “very disturbing.”
“I offer my deepest condolences to the friends and family of those who lost a loved one this morning, and I fully support ISAF’s promise for a rapid and thorough investigation,” he said in a written statement. “Incidents such as this underscore the fact that after ten years of war, it is time to bring our troops home as soon as we responsibly can.”
In Panjwai district on Sunday, grieving residents tried to make sense of why they were targeted.
“No Taliban were here. No gunbattle was going on,” cried out one woman, who said four people were killed in the village of Alokzai, all members of her family. “We don’t know why this foreign soldier came and killed our innocent family members. Either he was drunk or he enjoyed killing civilians.”
The other 12 dead were from Balandi village, said Samad Khan, a farmer who lost all 11 members of his family, including women and children. Khan was away from the village when the attack occurred and returned to find his family members shot and burned. One of his neighbors was also killed, he said.
“This is an anti-human and anti-Islamic act,” Khan said. “Nobody is allowed in any religion in the world to kill children and women.” One woman opened a blue blanket with pink flowers to reveal the body of her 2-year-old child, who was wearing a blood-soaked shirt. “Was this child Taliban? There is no Taliban here” said Gul Bushra. The Americans “are always threatening us with dogs and helicopters during night raids.”
Dozens of villagers crowded the streets as minibuses and trucks carried away the dead to be washed for burial. One man used the edge of his brown shawl to wipe away tears.
Officials wearing white plastic gloves picked up bullet casings from the floor of a house and put them in a plastic bag.
An AP photographer saw 15 bodies in the two villages, some of them burned and other covered with blankets. A young boy partially wrapped in a blanket was in the back of a minibus, dried blood crusted on his face and pooled in his ear. His loose-fitting brown pants were partly burned, revealing a leg charred by fire.
It was unclear how or why the bodies were burned, though villagers showed journalists the blood-stained corner of a house where blankets and possibly bodies were set on fire.
International forces have fought for control of Panjwai for years, trying to subdue the Taliban in their rural strongholds. The Taliban movement started just to the north of Panjwai and many of the militant group’s senior leaders, including chief Mullah Mohammed Omar, were born, raised, fought, or preached in the area.
The district has also been a key Taliban base for targeting neighboring Kandahar city and U.S. forces flooded the province as part of Obama’s strategy to surge in the south starting in 2009.
The Taliban called the shootings the latest sign that international forces are working against the Afghan people.
“The so-called American peacekeepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar province,” the Taliban said in a statement posted on a website used by the insurgent group.
U.S. forces have been implicated before in other violence in the same area.
JBLM’s Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who led a so-called “kill team,” in November was sentenced to life in prison for murdering three Afghans in Kandahar Province during his deployment with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in the winter and spring of 2010. Three other soldiers from the Stryker brigade were also sent to prison in connection with the case, where they were accused of forming a “kill team” that murdered Afghan civilians for sport -- slaughtering victims with grenades and powerful machine guns during patrols, then dropping weapons near their bodies to make them appear to have been combatants.
Murder is a capital offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Until now, those murders were regarded as the worst war crimes of the Afghan War.
About 4,700 Lewis-McChord soldiers are serving in Afghanistan. About 2,200 of them deployed in December with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Soldiers from that brigade are serving in Ghazni, Kandahar and Zabul provinces.
Obama has apologized for the Quran burnings and said they were a mistake. The Qurans and other Islamic books were taken from a detention facility and dumped in a burn pit last month because they were believed to contain extremist messages or inscriptions. A military official said at the time that it appeared detainees were exchanging messages by making notations in the texts.
--Staff writer Adam Ashton contributed to this report.
NEWSPAPER RETURNS TO WAR ZONE
By Karen Peterson
News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)
March 11, 2012
On Tuesday, we’ll be “wheels up” on another trip to a war zone embedded with soldiers from Joint Base Lewis McChord.
Military reporter Adam Ashton and photographer Peter Haley plan to spend six weeks in Afghanistan with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Zabul Province and with I Corps in Kabul. This will be The News Tribune’s eighth military embed since 2003, our first to Afghanistan.
Ashton and Haley are veteran war correspondents.
Haley has been to Iraq as part of three TNT embeds. He calls them “the most fascinating assignments of my career.”
Ashton served twice in the McClatchy Newspapers Baghdad bureau before he joined our staff in 2010. However, this trip will be different.
Ashton’s earlier work centered on Iraqi politics and everyday life in a battered city. He lived and worked in a hotel outside Baghdad’s Green Zone and worked with Iraqi journalists “who wanted America to understand how the war impacted their countrymen,” he said.
“This will be my first time to spend weeks on end living in close quarters with soldiers,” Ashton said. “It’ll give me a better sense of what they value, how they cope with challenges and what experiences they’ll bring home.”
The embed will inform Ashton’s coverage even after he gets back because he will have experienced -- albeit for a short time -- what life is like for soldiers on the ground.
Lewis-McChord has a large and growing imprint in Afghanistan, with about 4,700 soldiers there today and nearly 5,800 more on their way. Most will serve in the southern provinces Ashton and Haley will visit.
Our local soldiers are supervising the international coalition of forces, partnering with the Afghan army and preparing for the annual summer fighting season. We won’t try to tell the big-picture, geopolitical story of the war but will focus instead on the work our soldiers do day-in and day-out.
In addition to reading their stories and seeing the pictures in the newspaper, you can follow our team live on our military blog, FOB Tacoma. We hope to produce more videos from the field on this trip, including live chats with Ashton and Haley. Watch for them at thenewstribune.com.
As always, these staff members volunteered for the embed.
On Friday, we did a final check of protective gear, communications equipment, and life insurance. We know their itinerary, and they know to stay in close touch. We thanked them for taking this assignment and reminded them of its importance. As long as we have soldiers overseas, we should do our best to tell their story.
But like the tens of thousands of military families about to send their loved ones into a war zone, we urged them (repeatedly) to be careful. And we pray for their safe return.
SENS. MURRAY, CANTWELL WANT TROOPS HOME FROM AFGHANISTAN
By Adam Ashton
News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)
March 8, 2012
Washington Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray on Wednesday joined a group of two dozen senators urging President Obama to bring U.S. forces home from Afghanistan.
The senators used a debate on funding 2012 transportation projects to argue the money spent fighting the Afghan war could pay for projects at home.
“We simply cannot afford more years of elevated troop levels in Afghanistan. We are spending roughly $10 billion in Afghanistan each month at a time when we’re making tough sacrifices at home,” the senators wrote.
“A majority of Americans worry that the costs of the war in Afghanistan will make it more difficult for the government to address the problems facing the United States at home. They’re right,” they wrote.
About 90,000 American troops are in Afghanistan today, and about 23,000 are due to leave by October. Nearly 6,000 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord expect to deploy to Afghanistan this spring, joining about 4,700 soldiers from the South Sound who are already in the country.
President Obama and military leaders have stressed they want to continue with plans for a phased drawdown through 2014.
Calls to hasten the drawdown have grown more intense over the past two weeks since six American service members were killed by men wearing Afghan uniforms at NATO and Afghan bases. The killings followed widespread protests about the burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Base on Feb. 20.
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