Afghanistan massacre: What we've learned in the past week
March 29th, 2012
10:57 PM ET

Afghanistan massacre: What we've learned in the past week

Allegations that a U.S. soldier suspected of killing 17 Afghan civilians briefly returned to his base in the midst of the attacks are among the developments that have surfaced in the case in recent days.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, is accused of walking into two villages near an Army outpost in Kandahar province’s Panjwai district and killing men, women and children on March 11. U.S. authorities have said Bales acted alone, leaving at night and eventually surrendering at his base.

The U.S. military has charged Bales with 17 counts of murder with premeditation, for which he could face the death penalty. He also faces six counts of attempted murder and two counts of assault and is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after being flown from Afghanistan a few days after the killings.

Here are some of the new developments in the case this week:

U.S. official: Bales left base twice, alleged to have talked of killings

Two senior U.S. officials told CNN that Bales sneaked off his remote outpost twice during his alleged rampage, entering one village during each trip.

One U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation said an Afghan guard allegedly spotted Bales leaving his outpost around 1 a.m. It is not clear why Bales' superiors weren’t alerted, and the official said Bales was not noticed when he allegedly returned to the compound an hour later.

During the roughly 30 minutes when he was on the base, he woke at least one roommate and claimed he had been killing Afghan civilians off the base, which his roommate dismissed as nonsense, the official said, according to CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh.

The official said a different Afghan guard saw Bales leave the base a second time. He alerted his command that someone had left the outpost, and U.S. troops formed a search party, according to the official.

About 3:30 a.m., the official said, a surveillance camera spotted Bales returning to the base, and the search team found him just outside the compound.

Afghan guards also told reporter Yalda Hakim of Australia’s SBS network that Bales left twice.

The U.S. official said Bales was supposed to have been on duty guarding the base that night and would have had full body armor and weaponry as standard.

Bales’ attorney, John Henry Browne, who has said the prosecution’s case will be difficult to prove, told CNN that the account of Bales leaving twice “is an allegation.”

“It’s certainly not proof of anything,” Browne said. “And obviously … I can’t tell you what my client remembers or (doesn’t) remember, other than telling you that he has some memory problems about everything that happened that night.”

Motive for killings unclear

U.S. officials haven’t suggested any motive in the slayings. Bales has maintained his silence on the killings, the U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation said.

An Afghan general charged with leading Afghanistan’s investigation into the killings told Yalda Hakim, the Australian reporter, that villagers have alleged that Bales was upset over an injury to a U.S. colleague.

In response to these suggestions, the U.S. official said that a soldier at the base had lost a leg in an explosion three or four days earlier, but that there was no reason to believe Bales had been present at the scene of that blast.

The official said he did not think alcohol had fueled the crime. "I do not think that drinking played a big role, but there may have been some level of drinking," the official said.

Villagers say there was more than one attacker

The U.S. military says there is no evidence that more than one man was involved in the shootings. But Australian reporter Hakim - the first Western journalist to visit the scene - said some survivors and relatives of survivors told her that they believe more than one U.S. soldier was present when the killings took place. Others speak of seeing a single American soldier leaving the camp that night.

One 8-year-old girl, who said she saw her father killed, told Hakim that there were other men with the gunman, “standing in the yard, holding lights.”

Mohammed Wazir, a man whose relatives were killed, told CNN he doubts the massacre was the act of a single man.

"The Americans insist there was one killer, but we insist there was more than one," he said. "The Americans should stop lying. They should confess what the reality and truth is. We want justice to be done. We want it from God."

U.S. pays families of victims; body count unclear

Over the weekend, the U.S. government paid a total of $860,000 to the families of victims, Afghan officials said - $50,000 for each of 16 dead, and $10,000 for each of six wounded.

On Monday, two men whose relatives were killed told CNN they refused the money.

"We want justice. We want our courts to make the decision, so the people who are involved are prosecuted. This happened in Afghanistan and we lost our family members here in Afghanistan, so we want these people to be prosecuted in front of us, so we can watch them while they are being hanged," said Mohammed Wazir.

But the governor of Kandahar, Tooryalai Wesa, said all four families who lost relatives on March 11 sent representatives to the meeting and accepted money.

The dead have been identified as Mohammad Dawood Abdullah, Khudaidad Mohmmad Jama, Nazar Mohammad Taj Mohammad, Payendo, Robina, Sahtarina Sultan Mohammad, Zuhra Abdul Hameed, Nazia Doost Mohammad, Mosooma Mohammad Wazir, Farida Mohammad Wazir, Palwasha Mohammad Wazir, Nabia Mohammad Wazir, Asmatullah Mohammad Wazir, Faizullah Mohammad Wazir, Esa Mohammad Mohammad Husain and Akhtar Mohammad Murad Ali.

The number of victims has been a source of confusion. Afghan officials initially said there were 16 fatalities, but U.S. military prosecutors charged Bales with killing 17.  The charge sheet listed four women among 17 victims, while initial U.S. and Afghan reports listed three women among 16 dead.

A NATO spokesman, Col. Gary Kolb, said last week that investigators felt they had evidence to charge Bales with 17 counts of murder.

Gen. John Allen, the American commander of the International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan, put the number of dead at 17.

"We should not be surprised, as the investigation went forward, that an additional number was added to that (original 16)," Allen told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. "As the investigation goes forward, we'll get greater clarity on that."

Questions surround legal process for Bales

Afghans are insisting that Bales be returned to Afghanistan to face trial, with villagers and lawmakers questioning the U.S. military's account of what happened. But a military official in Afghanistan has said that Bales will face military justice in the United States.

Bales could face the death penalty if convicted of any of the murder counts against him.

If and when the case comes to trial, Bales' lawyer, John Henry Browne, said, it is going to be "extremely difficult" for the prosecution.

"They have no murder scene, no forensics," Browne said outside his Seattle office. "I'm going to make them prove every claim."

Military law experts acknowledge that proving the case may be difficult, in part because the victims were buried quickly according to Muslim practice, which made autopsies impossible. It also will be difficult to bring Afghan witnesses to the United States and get them to testify.

U.S. military investigators have not been given access to the crime scenes, preventing them from collecting DNA and other evidence. However, Afghan investigators may have passed along DNA evidence they collected, an official said. Prosecutors presumably would want to tie victims' DNA to blood found on Bales' clothing.

U.S. policy and strategy remain unchanged - so far

Allen, the general in charge of the war, says the current plan to withdraw most foreign troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 has not changed.

"In the long run, our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces," he told the House Armed Services Committee last week. "Transition, then, is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the 'way out.'"

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was not swayed by a New York Times/CBS News poll that concluded that 69% of Americans want U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan now.

"We cannot fight wars by polls," Panetta said Tuesday. "There's no question that the American people have tired of war just like the Afghan people have tired of war," but the U.S. government would continue with its strategy in Afghanistan, he said.

"We have to operate based on what we believe is the best strategy to achieve the mission that we are embarked on," he said. "And the mission ... is to safeguard our country by ensuring that the Taliban and al Qaeda never again find a safe haven in Afghanistan."

CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen notes with alarm the rising number of attacks on NATO troops, particularly Americans, by Afghan police officers and soldiers who are supposed to be allies.

"This pattern of attacks raises a fundamental problem for the plans of the United States and other NATO countries to draw down their forces over the next two years," Bergen wrote in an analysis for CNN. "That plan is, in part, predicated on the idea that as Afghan forces take the lead in security operations, they will be supported by small numbers of U.S./NATO advisers embedded in Afghan army and police units. Those advisers will be quite vulnerable to attack."

Dr. James M. Lindsay, a senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an essay for CNN that the war has outlived its purpose and has become too costly.

"Even if the objectives of the stay-the-course camp could be achieved, they aren’t worth it in terms of blood and treasure," he wrote.

soundoff (215 Responses)
  1. AC Slater

    He looks like Christian Bale

    March 30, 2012 at 7:54 am | Report abuse |
  2. JamesDean

    He was probablly high on ProVigal combined with being around all of those smelly Afghan's that just look like they need to be shot.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Ash

      @JamesDean Did it feel good to release that verbal diarrhea?

      March 30, 2012 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
  3. michaelfury

    March 30, 2012 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |
  4. Steve Jones

    Whats amazing is the liberal press is ready to execute this guy (even though they are against death penalty). Meanwhile the muslim army colnel who shot soldiers at ft hood while chanting allah akbar has not even been tried. I believe our president said. dont jump to conclusions on the ft hood case. Maybe we should adopt that one here.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:27 am | Report abuse |
  5. Pharos

    If a group of American soldiers went to a village to kill everyone, how did the survivors survive? The 'witnesses' were not there. The Taliban need this to be about all Americans to get rid of them.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:29 am | Report abuse |
  6. CJH

    There's a lot more to this story than we're being told.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
  7. regina

    if a soldier or anyone else for that matter has recieved a head injury they are not always fit mentally.. the goverment should have never sent him over there with this. its the goverments fault for doing this. even without the head injury the men that come back from there are never the same. i feel for the family.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
  8. angel611

    You know, there were actually 18 Afghans killed. One was my cousin. Where do I go to get the $50,000 check?

    March 30, 2012 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
  9. Salahuddin

    the war machines roll on and we build monuments to destruction to make senseless death and gore seem heroic and even romantic. Great podcast at theruggedgent(dot)com called Monuments to Power about how war is remembered

    March 30, 2012 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
  10. mohammed

    you sound so ignorant when you say "smelly afghan's that look like they need to be shot. just because they look certain way doesnt mean they should be killed. They are Innocent poor ppl that are just living day to day. Show some sympothy, if the same thing happened to your family or ppl you know. How would you react? ppl take death as a joke, what kind of world are we living in...

    March 30, 2012 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
    • wayne317

      So you don't dispute that they are stinky afgans?

      March 30, 2012 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ruthless

    there was a whole group, but they blamed single man for it. (and his friends sold him :). This is how it works in US armies. Do it together, and blame single person 🙂

    March 30, 2012 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
  12. OncoMom

    My heart goes out to the families of the victims, but I'm having a hard time understanding why the government put a soldier back over there after multiple tours and a head injury. Is the government not as much to blame if not more so than Bales?

    March 30, 2012 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  13. Jim W

    I just read an Afghanastan police officer just shot 9 of his comrades while they slept. This country is just insane as the poeple in it. We have soldiers on thier 4th to 7th tours stressed out cause our volunteer army is being wasted and exhausted. True or false one thing is true its not kansas over there and people can snap. Mr President its time you pony up to your pledge and have the U.S. exit the middle east, stop wasting tax dollars and decent young soldiers.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Glh1

      It's easy to judge Afghans when you sit behind your computer in your comfortable home in a country that has never seen war on its soil in your lifetime, isn't it? How would you behave, and what might you do, if you'd spent the last decade living in an occupied nation?

      March 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Harold Trainer, USAF RET

    We should never have been in Iraq and this long in Afghanistan. Our govt is abusing our troops and senior military officials refuse to buck the president, they just go along and tell the troops to suck it up. If there were a valid war reason it would be one thing but this is all political. End the wars now.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
  15. shahin2102

    "what we've learned"

    What you've learned? Nothing. You're Americans, you never learn.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
    • thechad2

      Shut your dirty non mouth. and what do u mean by American. You know by saying that your refering to two entire continents and about fifty countries

      March 30, 2012 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
    • tullymd

      We didn't learn from Vietnam. We are a ship of fools. We are doing a lot of harm, but mostly to ourselves. There will be room for optimism after we hit bottom.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
    • vince

      this is so senseless, why did he not go kill the enemy instead? i mean come on , and to shahin2102 if the rest of the world would get off their rears and do something to help people being slaughtered, we Americans could stay out of ALL wars! we Americans at home are mad as you know what over this man killing children! many of us want our government to ship him back to stand trial on Afghan soil !

      March 30, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Halif Abu Dabad

      Agreed. We are still in the same region attempting to pull an entire culture out of the dark ages kicking and screaming. These people have violence so intertwined with their religion that the two are inseperable. They do not want democracy, they do not want peace.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Amack

      @Steve: Bingo. Something is missing. This is the fall guy.

      and to the people speaking about Americans, watch it. We are the only country on Earth that gives two sh**ts about other countries. You may need us sometime. Don't invite Karma before a tsunami, famine or holocaust....

      March 30, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
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