Afghanistan: Casualties of a Pre-Dawn Killing Spree

While villagers mourn their dead, Parliament demands that a U.S. soldier face trial in an Afghan court—and a troop deal threatens to unravel. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on the mounting damage.

Most of the villagers in southern Afghanistan’s Panjwaii district are in mourning. Public protests don’t seem to be on their minds yet. They’re still too saddened and shocked by the pre-dawn massacre of 16 villagers—nine children, three women, and four men. In the early hours of Sunday morning, a U.S. soldier (it had to be more than one, some villagers claim) burst into three homes in the district and sprayed the sleeping families with automatic-weapon fire. In keeping with Islamic tradition, the villagers buried most of the dead, including the children, by sunset that same day, in simple, solemn ceremonies.

Today a group of village women gathered to weep at one home where four family members were gunned down. Outside, there were several quiet processions of grieving villagers and remembrances for the victims. Tribal and village leaders urged calm, and people in Panjwaii largely heeded the call.

But there was plenty of anger beneath the surface, not only in Panjwaii but across Afghanistan. The country has been roiled by a series of serious cultural and religious transgressions at the hands of U.S. troops. Last month’s accidental burning of Qurans set off days of deadly rioting that killed at least 30 Afghans; during the upheaval, six U.S. soldiers were shot to death by their Afghan allies in uniform. People were already upset by the posting of a video that showed U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of slain Taliban fighters. And few in the country have forgotten the small group of U.S. soldiers in Kandahar two years ago who killed three Afghan civilians for sport.

The hurt and rage may not be immediately visible in Panjwaii, or elsewhere in Kandahar province, but they’re real. And they may ultimately undo the progress that has been made since the U.S. military launched its surge into the Taliban’s birthplace two years ago. “These killings will worsen the overall security situation in Kandahar, which had been improving over the past year,” says Mahmood Khan, who represents the Panjwaii area in Afghanistan’s Parliament. “It looks like after 10 years the U.S. wants Afghans to collectively join the Taliban for revenge,” he tells The Daily Beast.

Khan and other MPs showed their anger on Monday by passing a resolution declaring that Afghans “had run out of patience with the arbitrary actions of foreign forces” and calling for justice. “We seriously demand and expect the government of the United States to punish the culprits and try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan,” the resolution reads. “The Afghan Parliament with one voice wants the trial of all those involved in the massive killing to be brought to justice in Afghan courts,” says Khan.

The Pentagon has described the accused gunman as a 38-year-old staff sergeant who had done three tours of duty in Iraq and was four months into his first assignment in Afghanistan. There’s virtually no chance that the U.S. military will prosecute him in Afghanistan. Instead, he will be brought back to America for trial by the U.S. military-justice system. But Afghans are demanding to see justice done in Afghan courts, even if they know that wish is impossible.

Taliban leaders are doing their best to fan the flames. The group’s second public statement in two days denounced the “barbaric, blood-soaked, and inhumane crime” carried out by “sick-minded American savages” and vowed to “take revenge from the invaders and the savage murderers for every single martyr, and with the help of Allah they shall receive punishment.” The statement went on to accuse the Americans of “arming lunatics in Afghanistan who turn their weapons against defenseless Afghans without giving a second thought.”

Like many Kandahar residents, Khan questions the U.S. military’s preliminary findings that the shooter was a lone gunman. He and others are convinced there was more than one soldier involved, particularly since at least two of the houses attacked were nearly a mile apart, and several of the bodies were partially burned. “The U.S. details of the massacre are not reliable,” Khan says. “The killings and the burning of the bodies must be the act of many soldiers.” Nor does Khan buy the argument that the killer was mentally unstable. “How can a mentally sick man get out of the base, walk for miles, break into people’s houses, and kill them?” he asks. “Why not just kill his fellow soldiers inside the base?”

Such doubts, however unfounded, can only cause more confusion, mistrust, and tension between the Afghans and the U.S. military. Already some villagers are comparing Sunday’s massacre to U.S. Special Operations forces’ night raids on houses that are suspected of harboring Taliban. The U.S. military says the pre-dawn commando operations have been one of its most successful tactics in killing and capturing hundreds of Taliban commanders with minimal civilian casualties. Still, a woman related to one of Sunday’s victims says the shootings remind her of night raids that have occurred in her village.

The incident could hardly have come at a worse time. U.S. and Afghan negotiators have been trying to hammer out a strategic partnership agreement for a small but lethal U.S. military presence to remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 troop-withdrawal deadline. The controversy over night raids is the last major obstacle. President Hamid Karzai has said he wants them stopped immediately—or at least wants U.S. participation strictly limited to a support role. He argues that the raids are against Afghan traditions of the inviolability of one’s home, and that they do result in unacceptable civilian casualties. Now the public outcry can only make those talks even more difficult—and the agreement may be one more casualty of Sunday’s bloodshed.