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Murder of Afghan civilians: The latest U.S. screwup in Afghanistan

By ANNE FLAHERTY and LOLITA C. BALDOR
March 12, 2012

A villager points to a spot where a family was allegedly shot in their residence by a rogue US soldier in Alkozai village of Panjwayi district, Kandahar province. (AFP)

The decade-long war in Afghanistan has spiraled into a series of U.S. missteps and violent outbreaks that have left few ardent political supporters.

After NATO detained a U.S. soldier Sunday for allegedly killing sleeping Afghan villagers, Republicans and Democrats alike pointed to the stress on troops after years of fighting and reiterated calls to leave by the end of 2014 as promised, if not sooner.

Afghanistan, once the must-fight war for America, is becoming a public relations headache for the nation’s leaders, especially for President Barack Obama.

And there’s recognition of that problem on both sides.

“It’s just not a good situation,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “Our troops are under such tremendous pressure in Afghanistan. It’s a war like no other war we’ve been involved in. … We’re moving out, as the president said. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Many Republicans —who as a party fought against a quick exodus in Iraq and criticized Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign promise to end the war — are now reluctant to embrace a continued commitment in Afghanistan.

“There’s something profoundly wrong with the way we’re approaching the whole region, and I think it’s going to get substantially worse, not better,” said GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. “I think that we’re risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may, frankly, not be doable.”

American voters appear frustrated as well. In results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday, 55 percent of respondents said they think most Afghans oppose what the United States is trying to do there. And 60 percent said the war in Afghanistan has been “not worth fighting.”

The latest incident in Afghanistan was disturbing: At 3 a.m. Sunday, an American staff sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., allegedly wandered 500 yards from a special operations base in the southern Kandahar province and began shooting villagers as they slept. As many as 16 Afghans were killed, including nine children, before the shooter apparently returned to base and turned himself in.

One eyewitness described the body of a young boy, apparently wearing red pajamas, lying lifeless in the back of a minibus. That and other searing images, including an AP photographer’s confirmation of burned bodies at the scene, easily eclipsed Friday’s upbeat announcement that the U.S. and Afghanistan had agreed on the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan control.

Obama and top U.S. officials quickly condemned the attack and offered their condolences to families of the victims. Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Afghan President Hamid Karzai, both vowing to hold any perpetrators accountable.

Their statements stopped short of a full apology but appeared to want to ward off any retaliatory attacks, like those seen recently after U.S. officials acknowledged the burning of Muslim holy books at an air base in Afghanistan. Six U.S. service members were killed in attacks immediately following that revelation, including two American officers who were assassinated while working inside a heavily protected Afghan ministry.

“This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of (U.S. and coalition troops) or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people,” Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said Sunday. “Nor does it impugn or diminish the spirit of cooperation and partnership we have worked so hard to foster with the Afghan National Security Forces.”

But the damage is probably inevitable. Pulling no punches, Karzai called the shooting an “assassination” and “an intentional killing of innocent civilians” that could not be forgiven.

For their part, U.S. officials pointedly noted that the suspect would be tried under U.S. law, a fine point perhaps made to head off any demands by Karzai that Afghanistan be given custody of the soldier.

The tension could be enough to raise a key question among Obama’s top advisers as they stare down this fall’s bid for re-election: Should Obama press NATO to speed up its scheduled transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government at the end of 2014?

Panetta has already said he hopes Afghans will assume the lead combat role across the country by mid-2013, with U.S. and other NATO troops remaining in smaller numbers to perform numerous support missions. U.S. and Afghan officials have said they want a strategic partnership agreement signed by the time a NATO summit convenes in Chicago in May.

Further complicating the matter is the limited patience many of Obama’s top supporters have for Karzai.

“The great weakness in Afghanistan is Karzai,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Nobody seems to trust him or like him. And the idea of turning it over to the Afghan forces is the right way to go, but that’s a major question mark: Karzai.”

Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pleaded for public patience on the war.

“I understand the frustration, and I understand the anger and the sorrow,” McCain said. “I also understand and we should not forget that the attacks on the United States of America on 9/11 originated in Afghanistan. And if Afghanistan dissolves into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an al-Qaida base for attacks on the United States of America.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said a primary problem is leaving the country vulnerable and signaling to Iran that the U.S. wasn’t committed to the region.

“We can win this thing. We can get it right,” Graham said.

Reid spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Graham and Schumer spoke on ABC News “This Week.” McCain spoke on “Fox News Sunday.”

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Anne Flaherty and Lolita C. Baldor cover military affairs for the AP.

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Associated Press Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier and AP writers Michele Salcedo and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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8 Responses to Murder of Afghan civilians: The latest U.S. screwup in Afghanistan

  1. woody188

    March 12, 2012 at 9:08 am

    McCain and Graham should head right over, take charge, and bring their 18+ year old kids and grand-kids with them. Lead from the front chicken hawks.

    Rogue, hmmm? I suppose they have to say that.

    • woody188

      March 12, 2012 at 9:47 am

      Seems there is a discrepancy in what occurred.

      “According to Afghan officials, a rampage and shooting spree was carried out by American soldiers who were laughing and appeared to be drunk.” Witnesses said they saw a group of US soldiers arrive at their village in Kandahar’s Panjwayi district at around 2 a.m., enter homes and open fire.

      Is this another military cover-up/denial story like when the helicopter/Wikileaks denial?
      Or is this just Iran’s spin (Islamic Republic News Agency) on the story?

      • woody188

        March 12, 2012 at 3:09 pm

        The story keeps changing. Here is the South African press: Afghans doubt US lone assassin claim

        But Abdul Rahim Ayubi, a lawmaker from Kandahar province, said the houses that were attacked were over 2 kilometers apart, raising questions about how a single soldier could have carried out all of the shootings.

        “It is not possible for only one American soldier to come out of his base, kill a number of people far away, burn the bodies, go to another house and kill civilians there, then walk at least 2 kilometers and enter another house, kill civilians and burn them,” said Ayubi.

        Abdul Ghani, a local councilman in Panjwai district, said local villagers reported seeing two groups of soldiers.

        “The villagers said they were hearing machine gun fire and pistol fire from different directions,” said Ghani.

  2. Sandy Price

    March 12, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Woody, does this story and your replies cover the tragedy in Afghanistan over the weekend?

    What we don’t want is McCain getting in charge of anything. The entire Republican Party wants to kill off Islam. It is written in some holy text by Rove that Christians will rule the new world order.

    Ask any Evangelican if killing for Jesus is justified? Stand back, you won’t like the answer.

    America is not the nation I would choose if I had had the choice. There is no “American” culture any more as we have been swept into a culture for white Christian straight men just like the Vatican.

    Men can legislate their arses off but the women will not go along with the new laws. You might even see a new “Women on the Rampage” to keep our hard earned freedoms. We may have to learn from the Greek Aristophones when he wrote “Lystrata” where the womem refused to make love to their warrior husbands and brought the wars to an instant stop.

    Americans tend to forget that Afghanians are people with their own God and culture. Our new American leaders need to be reminded that America will never be King…….

    • woody188

      March 12, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      The tragedy is our being in Afghanistan at all, but yes, this refers to the most recent killing of civilians on Sunday, March 11th, 2012. It sounds like perhaps the staff sergeant is taking one for the team. Hard to imagine a whole team of our special forces acting like this, but it does happen.

  3. griff

    March 12, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    For the life of me, I just can not fathom why they don’t love us in the Middle East. Some one please explain to me why they don’t. We’ve given them the precious gift of Democracy. What’s not to love?

  4. Jon

    March 13, 2012 at 2:32 am

    ’tis a pity, Griff, that nobody thought about this before they started the war(s)…

    J.

  5. Bill Cravener

    March 13, 2012 at 4:31 am

    Ten years of madness! If Romney were to become the next Prez and then starts a war with Iran (which you can bit a repub prez will do) if any of his boys will volunteer to go over there and fight. I think we all know the answer to that question.