March 13th, 2012
11:28 AM ET

Afghanistan massacre: A search for answers as questions arise, anger flares

A U.S. soldier is accused of shooting nine children, three women and four men in a house-to-house rampage in villages near his combat outpost in southern Afghanistan on Sunday.

The incident has sent ripples across the U.S. and the world, sparking threats of revenge from the Taliban, concern about the political implications of the attack and outrage from villagers.

There are more questions than answers around this horrific attack: What exactly happened when the soldier entered those villages Sunday? Who was the soldier behind this attack? Why did he do it? What are the political ramifications of this attack? And how will it affect the goal of peace in Afghanistan and future U.S. relations with the country?

How much do we know about what happened?

The shootings are believed to have begun between 2 and 3 a.m. Sunday in Panjwai district in Afghanistan's Kandahar province when the soldier went from house to house opening fire, according to officials and witnesses from the village.

"One guy came in and pulled a boy from his sleep, and he shot him in this doorway," one mother in the village told CNN. "Then they came back inside the room and put a gun in the mouth of one child and stomped on another child."

While investigators try to figure out exactly what happened, villagers say that the evidence that remains from the shooting paints a grisly picture. Shell casings were strewn across the streets. A dead toddler with a blood-stained face was lying sandwiched between two other dead men in the back of a pickup truck. In another truck, not far away, a blanket covered the charred bodies of two more victims.

A local minister told CNN that one family alone lost 11 members during the shooting spree.

"Look at this. The bodies - they all belong to one family," a villager cried.

While the bodies are mostly now covered or have been removed, the reminders of what happened literally still stain the village.

The floors and the walls of several homes in this area are splattered with the blood of those ambushed during the early morning attack.

The attack has shaken residents of the area in the western part of Kandahar, which is known to have a strong Taliban presence. Villagers there told CNN they are enraged. Residents say they moved back to the village because people on the nearby military base had said it was safe to return home, and that nobody would bother them.

Now, men openly weep in the street. Dreams of peace are now replaced with much of sorrow, and many people are crying and trying, through tears, to come to terms with what happened in Panjwai. 

Who is the soldier accused in the shooting?

Details about the soldier are beginning to emerge, but they are sparse. So far, it's known that he was a qualified infantry sniper, according to a senior U.S. Department of Defense official. 

The unidentified suspect served three tours of duty in Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan, said Gen. John Allen, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. A U.S. military official, who asked not to be named because he was talking about an ongoing investigation, said the suspect is an Army staff sergeant who arrived in Afghanistan in January.

During the suspect's last deployment, in 2010, he was riding in a vehicle that rolled over in an accident, according to a senior Defense Department official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. The sergeant was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury after the crash but was found fit for duty after treatment, the official said.

Traumatic brain injury has become one of the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He had been stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a sprawling military installation between Tacoma and Olympia, Washington. A handful of soldiers from the base have been involved in violent incidents in the past few years, including four soldiers convicted of killing Afghan civilians in 2010 as part of a "kill squad." Also in 2010, three other soldiers "suffered dangerous public mental breakdowns" after returning from Afghanistan, with two of them shot to death by police, according to the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.

The suspect's family has been moved to that base for their safety, an official said.

In Sunday's incident, after an Afghan soldier alerted the U.S. military at the outpost of the soldier's initial departure, the U.S. military put up an aircraft to search for him. Soon after, Afghan civilians came to the gate carrying wounded civilians, the first indication the military had of the shooting. When the soldier turned himself over to the search party, he immediately invoked his right not to speak. He has been moved to Kandahar and put in pretrial confinement, a congressional source told CNN.

The soldier could face the death penalty, said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who spoke to reporters as he flew to the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan for high-level talks Tuesday.

What are the security concerns after the attacks?

There are fears that Sunday's killings could reignite the anger that led to deadly riots directed at international forces last month over the burning of Qurans by U.S. troops. That was one of a string of incidents involving American forces that have recently strained ties between the United States and Afghanistan.

The Taliban has already warned there will be reprisals, perhaps violent ones. Members of parliament in Kabul have decided to close down the parliament in protest of the killings. Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets Tuesday to protest the killings as the Taliban threatened to behead "Americans anywhere in the country."

There is a lot of anger brewing in the village and across the country. There's a lot of speculation that this plays into the hands of the divisive Taliban, which is trying to say, "Look, you can't really trust these coalition forces who claim to be here to help you," said CNN's Sara Sidner, who has spoken to villagers.

The U.S. government, NATO and Afghan officials are looking into this. But the real concern for Americans is that there are a lot of people asking for swift justice and wanting the person who perpetrated this crime to be tried in Afghanistan.

And that's why some U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are tightening security to protect against retaliation. Some of the precautions were put in place after the Quran burning incident, a senior defense official tells CNN.

The measures include adding a second U.S. soldier to watchtowers, where before there was one American and one Afghan on watch. American and Afghan forces live together on many of the smaller bases and outposts, and on some of these, the U.S. has instituted a 24-hour guard for barracks.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project, author of "Afghanistan Journal: Selections from" and a former civilian cultural adviser for the U.S. Army. He said that while the shooting is horrific, it isn't surprising.

"Sunday's mass murder is not a new outrage for Afghanistan," Foust wrote in a column for CNN. "While the deliberate killing of civilians is (thankfully) rare, many Afghans do not distinguish between accidental and deliberate civilian death."

He added that the event is not game-changing and that many residents aren't surprised when the U.S. kills civilians.

What are the political ramifications? Does this change the U.S. mission in Afghanistan?

Most people agree that this incident will again strain ties between the Afghan government and the United States.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday called the killing of Afghan civilians, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, "outrageous" and "unacceptable," and said he is "heartbroken" over the incident.

"The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered," Obama said in a statement to reporters at the White House. He said he directed the Pentagon to "spare no effort in conducting a full investigation" of what happened, and pledged that "we will follow the facts wherever they lead us."

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said this is unforgivable and an act of terror, in his words. He also expressed his condolences to the families of the Panjwai incident in Kandahar saying "the incident was cruel and an invasion that caused great pain for the people of Afghanistan."

The incident also calls into question the chances for stability as the U.S.-led military mission shifts security responsibility to Afghan forces in coming months. Combined with other recent events that sparked anger and distrust between the Afghan and U.S. governments, this shooting may make things even more difficult.

Analysts and U.S. officials said Monday they believe the transition under way - which seeks to end the American-led military mission in 2014 - will remain on track, though the process may be more difficult.

"There is still no better option, and the Afghans still aren't ready to handle their problems without us, and I think they know that," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said in an e-mail to CNN.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, reacted to Sunday's shooting by adding to calls for bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible, while Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich said the entire Afghanistan mission needs to be reassessed.

The Obama administration insisted Monday that the civilian killings, while tragic and horrific, would not change the goals or timing of the U.S. strategy to defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and turn over security responsibility to Afghan forces.

"This is a challenging time, there's no question," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday. "I do not believe that this incident will change the timetable of a strategy that was designed and is being implemented to allow for the withdrawal of U.S. forces."

So what now? Analysts say time to evaluate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the nonpartisan Rand Corporation research organization, said the Sunday incident "certainly adds to tension between the U.S. and the Afghans, but I don't believe this is a tipping point."

Jones said news of the attack was sure to travel quickly throughout Afghanistan, spread by mullahs in mosques, word of mouth and radio.

The government will probably depict the incident as the latest of many atrocities by both sides, noting Taliban killings of civilians, while the Taliban will try to portray it as another example of U .S. aggression, Jones added.

Many analysts say the first step toward any progress is going to be taking a hard look at the policy in Afghanistan.

Foust says there is a larger problem with the U.S.-Afghan relations, saying "the U.S. is fighting one war while the insurgency is fighting a very different one."

"Put simply, the U.S. never put in place the strategic and political framework to make much headway in Afghanistan," he wrote. "Despite the renewed push for negotiations with the Taliban, there is no political strategy for the country. There is no end state for the war, either - right now, the plan is to draw down to about 20,000 troops or so - similar to troop levels in 2008 - and stay that way for the indefinite future. That's not a strategy, and it's not a plan."

Jeremi Suri, a Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a column for CNN that said the U.S. has a "self-defeating cycle in Afghanistan" and U.S. leaders have failed to set and pursue achievable objectives there. Until those are made, and carried out, Suri says, no real progress can be made and opportunities for increasing violence will remain.

"The American soldiers in Afghanistan are fighting a war against an elusive enemy amidst a population that is increasingly resistant to American demands for assistance," Suri wrote. "Afghan citizens know that the United States is planning to leave soon, and they sense that the Americans they meet care more about an "exit strategy" than the welfare of their society. Afghan intransigence furthers the frustration and resentment among American soldiers, fueling violent behavior directed at innocent civilians."

- CNN's Sara Sidner, Chris Lawrence and Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

soundoff (405 Responses)
  1. Tyler

    So the Government pays to train us to be killers and when we malfunction we are held accountable. What about all my buddies who were killed by Afghans? Who will be held accountable for destroying them???????????>

    March 13, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Pete/Ark

    So many little knowledge. Only an amateur with a closed mind would try to make a diagnosis based on what is known...the people screaming cover-up may be delusional from some unknown cause...those who have judged motives have rushed. I have decades of experience with either the military or as a professional veterans advocate....I need more to even make a guess...this is NOT cut&dried . please...if your mind is made up based on what facts exist now...please...never serve on a jury.

    March 13, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. gok

    911 perpetrators were from saudi arabia, America is in Afghanistan for strategic reasons and nothing else, back to the kitchen for ya although i suspect you "dont cook" like most American who res.

    March 13, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tare

    Proof that Americans can not live among such filth without eventually losing our minds. Three tours of duty are too much for anyone. I feel for the shooter and blame Obama because he is the leader of our military and hence that's where the buck stops.

    March 13, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • ORLY

      The filth you speak of is yourself. What kind of species did you emerge from that your humanity and intellect are so lacking? I hope you have no family, because your lack of empathy and kindness are troubling.

      March 13, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmericanRod

      You blame our President! Really? If it were up to him they would of never went! Com"on my friendm really?

      March 13, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • izy

      you call these people filth? wow you lost every sense of your humanity dude!!!! conservative indoctrination to the fullist....Bush invaded their country, then these soldiers who are there goes on a killing spree, thats not Obama's fault nor the people, its the fault of the base where these soldiers were mentally evaluated...they failed and now there is alot of people hurt and dead....god I WANT CONSERVATISM TO BE ABOLISHED IN THIS F'N COUNTRY!!!!

      March 13, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reasonable1

      Tare, You are a true home schooled Christian conservative. Your comment says a lot about your upbringing. The values your mother and father taught you are impressive. Thank you for sharing those with us. Please thank your parents and ancestors - you are such a gift to humanity.

      March 13, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |

      There is nothing here but tragedy. There is nothing here but loss.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:12 am | Report abuse |
  5. QC

    Afghanistan is not the damn country lil...whatever, the U.S. of A. is. You are a great example of the typical American. After you claim to have had your husband being deployed to Afghanistan, you don't even know that Afghans have done nothing to your country or criminals such as yourself. If you do not condemn such an atrocious act, then you are just like that as well....Hopefully your husband won't set foot in that or any other country again and I never get to meet you, God willing!

    March 13, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jmig320

    I'm almost universally against the death penalty, but in this case.....well, i'm not so sure

    March 13, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • mollyd

      Can we take Bush to trial> This is all his fault......his and the GOP.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      Anybody remembers that the destruction of the towers happened BEFORE the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan? Even the US does not want to be involved in other countries business, remember Russia and China are trying ALL the time to provoke problems and gain power. This soldier who did the killing seem to be not normal, maybe he went through a shock or something, a normal person would not do such a thing.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
  7. John

    And yet we are not going to hand this guy over to the people of Afghanistan to face their countries laws. Ready for some US BS doubletalk? Our country (that's right, I live in the US and for the record white and non religious) will call for the extradition and trial of UK resident Richard O'Dwyer who ran a website in the UK that LINKED (not hosted) TV shows which the RIAA and MPAA say are "pirate" even though under the guys own countries laws, he did nothing wrong. In the UK its NOT illegal to LINK (not host) to movies, regardless of whether those movies and shows are legal or not, thus the guy DID NOT break any of the laws of his country of origin. The US however still is extraditing him and charging him with crimes in this country. So, we can ignore other sovereign countries laws and police the world yet when one of our own does something wrong, we are the ones to decide his fate, not the country who's laws he violated? Hand this murder over to Afghanistan and let them behead him on national TV. When its over leave the country and mind our own business. Despite what your (our) corrupt government tells you, there is not a terrorist under your bed; in fact the only terrorists I see are the ones we are creating in other countries by invading them and committing murder against innocent civilians. We don't belong in the middle east. For the record, if we never invaded Iraq in the 90's then 9/11 probably would have never happened. If we want to make this country safer, we should stop policing the world and mind our own business. Lock our borders down and let other countries deal with their own crap, we have enough on our plates with our garbage economy. If people in these countries don't like whats going on its their job to deal with it; not ours. While we had SOME aid from other countries (France), the American Revolution was mostly fought by colonists and we did just fine. It's time we let the world know if they want change, they have to do it themselves. Ironically, that's what they want and yet we still invade sovereign countries in the name of spreading "peace". Ya, that's been working out so well. I love how a country only a few hundred years old is trying to tell a region of the world that's thousands of years old how to run itself. Ever ask yourself why the US has military bases all over the world in sovereign countries, buy not one country has one here in the US? Sounds like we're playing Rome and eventually it will come back to bite us like it did on 9/11. End the nonsense. End the Fed. End the needless wars over blood money and oil. Respect other countries and realize we are not king of the planet.

    March 13, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • millie

      Could not had been said better..out of Afghanistan NOW...

      March 13, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • mollyd

      The trial has to go forward. These people were murdered like rabid dogs. Seriously. An American Officer is accused of doing this.......the trial will tell all. He is accused of murdering sleeping children........many sleeping children............imagine American children getting blown away in their beds...........wake up people.....................this is so wrong.......God help us indeed!!!!

      March 14, 2012 at 12:36 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      FYI, Because Bias CNN didn't report this one, the US is now trying to demand China export more rare metals. As reported on a real news site BBC. Apparently we're demanding the WTO step in and seize the natural resources or there will be "consequences". Another war? Oh good, just what we need.

      I am so glad the country I am from is now telling other sovereign nations what to do with their own natural resources.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |
    • cjones

      I am very Religious but justification is justification... send his donkey butt to the middles east to punish. Wake up American our crap stinks too.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Sameer

      Very well said. I agree with every single word!

      March 14, 2012 at 3:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. Greek American

    Ahh yes another sophisticated member of the highly intelligent and best military in the world. Yeah right!!!
    And to all you idiots talking about Obama, your butt buddy GWB was the imbecile who started all this and dragged it out because he couldn't tell his head from his a*s and Dicky Cheneys fat war mongering a*s either!
    Leave Afghanistan now! If we wouldve stayed there and not went to Iraq for NO reason in the first place, this couldve been prevented!

    March 13, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Un Biased

    this is an awful thing but the media has blown it way out of proportion.

    what about all the car bombings that kill innocent civilians? HEY GUESS WHAT, NEWSFLASH, the people over there have killed many in cold blood and it never reaches the scope that this story does.

    media today sickens me...they are willing to denounce their own country and add fuel to our enemies JUST BECAUSE IT WOULD MAKE A GOOD STORY.


    March 13, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • AJ

      Two adults confronting each other F'em, but children in the middle of the night while sleeping being stabbed by a murderer. This is a cool-blooded murder is not just a media concern but the whole world and you should condemn this murderous action.

      March 14, 2012 at 3:31 am | Report abuse |
  10. Greek American

    @un biased

    I agree that sometimes the media blows things out of proportion but I do not agree with your opinion that car bombings and killings have not increased since Bush sent our troops there initially, wreaked havoc, and then just took most of them and diverted them to Iraq for no apparent reason.
    Think of something like this happening to families down your street. Don't you think that would be a big news story?

    March 14, 2012 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      Anybody remembers that the destruction of the towers happened BEFORE the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan? Even the US does not want to be involved in other countries business, remember Russia and China are trying ALL the time to provoke problems and gain power. This soldier who did the killing seem to be not normal, maybe he went through a shock or something, a normal person would not do such a thing.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  11. jerry synold

    It is unfortunate that the idea of veterans helping veterans or active duty helping active duty is soon to be lost with the decline of the Navy Drug and Alcohol Counselor school that could train up to 200 counselora a year to assist in the treatment and support of our returning Veterans it may have to close soon due to lack of support both financially (less than 1.5 million to operate a true drop in the bucket) . Support for a proram lke this would help train those who can identify with the returning soldiers , marines , airman and sailors . Helping some find emeployment and heling retain some who are threaten with being released. The Bureau of Medicine and the bureau of personnel are ignoring this solution . The Army has invested their money in professioals with little understanding of the needs of these service members and you can tell it is not successful bty the numerous vacancies they have in their treatment programs by requiring advanced derees with liscenses .

    March 14, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
  12. star

    answers?? he did what he was taught to do. kill. marines and all military are trained murderers. we started this here are the consequences.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Catt

      Bring him home get him help he was trained to kill no matter what child, adult or elderly this is what our military is trained to do. The towers all that had happened we lost so many US citizens and so many soliders already just bring him home he is ill and felt what he did was right at the time even tho it was wrong. So lets stop pointibg fingers already because if we were out there what would we do? Do the same thing? At least he turned himself in people instead of killing himself.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
    • dalosu

      To whoever is saying this guy is trained to kill women and children and justifying should be ashamed of yourself! That is NOT what the military is trained to do. He murdered sleeping children, unarmed civilians! This is called terrorism, plain and simple.

      March 14, 2012 at 2:22 am | Report abuse |
  13. marg


    March 14, 2012 at 1:21 am | Report abuse |
  14. marg


    March 14, 2012 at 1:33 am | Report abuse |
  15. krehator

    A whole mess of people screwed up badly. Now they are playing damage control. Fingers will be pointed everywhere, and some nitwit in the military will come up with a new mandatory brief, as if they ever prevent anything.

    March 14, 2012 at 2:24 am | Report abuse |
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