Britain and US fear reprisals as Taliban vow revenge for 16 dead

Mar 12, 2012
Nigel Horne

Why did he do it? And is the hard-won trust built up between soldiers and some civilians now lost?


BRITISH and US troops fear reprisals from the Taliban after they vowed revenge for the shooting rampage on Sunday morning when an American soldier "went nuts" and killed 16 Afghan civilians living in villages near his base in Kandahar Province. Nine of them were children.

"The so-called American peacekeepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar province," said a Taliban statement released yesterday.

As the New York Times reports, the tragic incident could not have come at a worse time, hot on the heels of the burning of Korans by US soldiers at a Nato base.

"The outrage from the back-to-back episodes ... imperils what the Obama administration once saw as an orderly plan for 2012: to speed the training of Afghan forces so that they can take the lead in combat missions, all while drawing the Taliban into negotiations to end more than a decade of constant war.

The White House had hoped it had persuaded the world that the Taliban were a spent force, said the NY Times. But an American military source told the paper yesterday: "The fear is that all these incidents, taken together, play into the Taliban's account of how we treat the Afghan religion and people. And while we all know that’s a false account — think how many the Taliban have killed, and never once taken responsibility — it’s a very hard perception to combat."

The British, too, are anxious that the trust their soldiers had been building with Afghan civilians, in an effort to rid the country of the Taliban, will have been eroded by the tragedy, reports The Daily Telegraph.

The former chief of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp said: "Not only are we likely to see protests and possibly American, possibly British soldiers killed over what happened on Saturday night, but also a very severe weakening of the relationship between many of the people in Afghanistan who were supporting us."

In Kandahar, Nato and Afghan authorities are trying to understand what happened in the small hours of Sunday and why...

Who was the killer?
He has not been named. He is understood to be an Army staff sergeant who is married with children. At home, he is based at Fort-Lewis-McChord, a 100,000-strong military camp 45 miles south of Seattle in Washington State. The Daily Mail reports that four Lewis-McChord soldiers were convicted in the deliberate "thrill killings" of three Afghan civilians in 2010.  This led the military newspaper Stars and Stripes to call it "the most troubled base in the military" that year.

Did he act alone?
The US authorities are adamant that he acted on his own. After the incident, he returned to the compound and turned himself in and is now in custody. Nato spokesman Maj Jason Waggoner, said: "The civilian casualties were not the result of any operations." President Karzai of Afghanistan, in condemning what he called an "assassination" that "cannot be forgiven", mentioned "forces" in his statement yesterday. But this was based on the eyewitness account of a child who survived, and it now appears 100 per cent certain that only one man was involved.

What did he do?
The soldier entered the homes of three Afghan families at about 3 am local time on Sunday. He shot 16 people while they slept, mostly with a single bullet to the head. "All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned," said Anar Gula, a neighbour. "We put out the fire."

Why did he do it?
Some reports have talked of a mental breakdown, but there is no confirmation yet from the US military. He is known to have been in Afghanistan since December. He is said to have served in the US Army for 11 years and been on three tours in Iraq.

What are the Americans doing to calm the situation?
President Obama issued an immediate statement yesterday saying he was "deeply saddened" by the incident. "This incident is tragic and shocking and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan."

The President’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Benjamin J. Rhodes, acknowledged in an interview on Sunday that such events were "heart-wrenching, very difficult moments, and they take a lot of time and effort for both sides to move beyond". But he added that the United States had learned during the Koran burning that "if you respond appropriately, you can actually build trust with the Afghans".

Will the Afghanis see justice?
Obama promised to "get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible". Samad Khan, a farmer who was away on Saturday night and returned on Sunday morning to find 11 members of his family dead, demanded that Afghanistan be allowed to punish the soldier. "Otherwise we will make a decision," said Khan. "He should be handed over to us."

Said Khan: "This is an anti-human and anti-Islamic act. Nobody is allowed in any religion in the world to kill children and women."

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