U.S. Soldier Murders Afghan Civilians, in Latest Blow to Afghan-American Relations

The killings add to the strain on the Afghan-American relationship, report Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai.

Allauddin Khan / AP Photos

Just after midnight Sunday morning in southern Afghanistan, at least one U.S. soldier deserted his security post at an American base, traveled a short distance to nearby villages, entered three mud-brick houses, and then methodically killed at least 15 defenseless Afghan civilians, including nine children.

An Afghan official who visited the grisly death scene says some of the bodies had been burned after having been shot at point-blank range. “Someone tried to hide the crime by burning the bodies after they were killed,” the official told The Daily Beast.

Because two of the houses are more than one mile from each other, the official believes more than one U.S. solider could have been involved. Stunned villagers from Kandahar province’s Panjwaii district transported several of the dead, some of them girls younger than 6 years of age, to the nearby U.S. base to stage a protest. U.S. and NATO officials told members of the press that just one soldier, who has not yet been publicly identified, was responsible for the shootings.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai denounced the shootings as “intentional murders.” “When Afghan people are killed deliberately by U.S. forces, this action is murder and terror and an unforgiveable action.” The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, called it a “deeply appalling incident.” Coalition officials said at least one rogue soldier had been taken into custody and that an investigation of the crime is underway.

Not surprisingly, the Taliban tried to turn the tragedy to their advantage. A Taliban statement called the killings “genocide,” saying at least 50 villagers were killed. “The so-called American peacekeepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians,” the statement said.

President Obama, in a statement on “civilian deaths in Afghanistan” issued Sunday afternoon offering his condolences, said he is “deeply saddened by the reported killing and wounding of Afghan civilians.” He said the “incident” was “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. I fully support Secretary Panetta’s and General Allen’s commitment to get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible.”

The shootings could not have come at a worse time for Afghan-American relations. Long simmering anti-Americanism has been on the rise for several weeks, since several copies of the Muslim holy book the Quran were inadvertently burned in a garbage dump at a U.S. base. Despite U.S. apologies the burnings triggered nationwide riots, where at least 30 Afghans died.

Since the burning of the Qurans, six U.S. servicemen have been gunned down by their Afghan allies. Anger at American forces has also been stoked by at least two other appalling and offensive incidents: the viral videos that appeared earlier this year of four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters and the inexplicable action of the so-called “kill team” of U.S. troops who killed three Afghan civilians for sport in 2010.

The killings in Panjwaii, a onetime Taliban stronghold that U.S. forces seized in heavy fighting two years ago, are expected to raise the anti-American temperature even higher and lead to more public protests against the U.S. and its military presence next week. No large demonstrations were reported Sunday. But on Monday the Afghan Parliament is expected to debate the incident and may call for the soldier, or soldiers, responsible for the killings to be turned over the Afghan justice system, a demand the U.S. would never meet. Similarly, many Afghans, including senior religious clerics, had also demanded that the U.S. soldiers responsible for the Quran burnings should be tried in Afghan courts.

The murders will certainly undermine any good will that the U.S. may have earned by bringing relative peace to the heavily fought-over, strategically located district near Kandahar city. “The incident could reverse the whole process of winning the hearts and minds of the people,” the Afghan official says. Indeed, one Panjwaii elder told The Daily Beast that the killings could even drive some villagers toward the Taliban and away from the government. “With such horrific incidents the U.S. is forcing common Afghans to join the Taliban,” says Hajji Lal Mohammad. After the slaughter, he says he no longer trusts Karzai or the U.S.’s explanation that it is in Afghanistan to bring peace and stability. “These Americans are killers and must leave our country as soon as possible,” he adds.

The murders also could set back the recent progress that Afghan and American negotiators have made in trying to hammer out a long-term strategic partnership between the two countries. Before today’s incident Karzai said he was optimistic that the two countries could conclude an agreement that would pave the way for a residual U.S. military presence to remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 troop withdrawal deadline. Significantly, in a compromise deal concluded this past week, the U.S. agreed to turn over control of the main U.S. prison at Parwan to the Afghans within six months. Karzai had initially demanded an immediate handover of the new facility, but settled for a longer transition.

Another major stumbling block on the road to nailing down a long-term strategic relationship is the heated issue of the involvement of U.S. forces in night raids on Afghan houses. Karzai, who sees the operations as a violation of Afghan cultural traditions and a source of civilian casualties, has demanded the raids be stopped immediately. The U.S. sees the raids as one of its most successful tactics, one that has led to the killing or capture of hundreds of Taliban commanders and fighters. Karzai’s willingness to make further compromises in the short term at least will be sorely tested in the wake of today’s killings. So will the tolerance of most Afghans toward the U.S. military presence.