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. Steve

    Remember the Pat Tillman case? Remember how much pressure the family put on the military for the TRUTH, and how many years it took? We are not getting the full story here. Think about it. How does one solitary many go into a village and SHOOT this many people with a GUN, and take time to burn the bodies, and no one else wakes up during this time? Surely 50 irate villagers could do him in whether he had a gun or not. The story makes no sense. He has no memory of the incidents. Obviously there were more involved. This guy is being framed.

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

      @steve: these are the same people that let the taliban get away with their crap. no reason to think they'd stand up for themselves now..

      March 30, 2012 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
    • yuri pelham

      It's in the natureof our government to lie to us. If the truth were exposed we'd have to leave. It would be a well deserved humiliation for our country. Maybe we'd learn something. We certainly didn't from Vietnam fiasco.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • J

      I don't know if he is being framed, but you're right none of this makes sense. How is it that we paid out the families already? Some of that money is going to end up in Taliban hands for sure, considering how poor most of these people are. We already paid the families but yet U.S. investigators have not been admitted to the crime scenes?

      March 30, 2012 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
    • OmniEye

      100% in agreement. Anyone with half a brain and knows how to do critical thinking instead of believing everything they're told by the media and gov't would come to this conclusion. And now they conveniently had "search parties" so they can explain why villagers saw multiple troops? fiiiiishy..... Oh, and if this guy was a normal guy after all, and he tells his friend that he's killing civilians, do you really think his friend would brush it off as nonsense? what is that all about? "Ha Ha! you kidder! Always joking around you are..."

      March 30, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  2. LeeCMH

    Bales was a Wall Street trader before his military career. He fleeced old people of their savings. He was found guilty and has a 1.2 million dollar judgement. The victims could not find Bales, as he went into the military. He is a PSYCHOPATH!

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

    Sounds more like a Blackwater attack to me...

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

    anyone who says he should be shipped back to stand trial should go along with him that way the afghans can hang them instead of him because clearly all of america was involved in this slaughter and the fact that that base did a count in the middle of the night has no impact on them whatsoever

    March 30, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
  5. Graced

    Bales, if guilty, should be put to death. But shame on you CNN for not making the story of Army Sergeant Dennis Weichel front page news. He ran in front of a tank to save a young Afghan child from being run over by it, and he ended up being run over. Father of three. Everything to live for. Saved a child. Show some love, CNN. Seriously, stop making our entire military look evil. For every Bales, there are 100 or more Sergeant Weichels. RIP Sergeant, thank you for your service.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Mori

      It is sad when the world does not pause to think and honor people like Sergeant Weichels.

      CNN- when are you going to carry this great sacrificial story of a brave soldier like Sergeant Weichels???

      March 30, 2012 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
    • rwdragon86

      Every one who reads this needs to contact CNN and shame them into reporting the story about how our soldier saved that girl's life.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Freedtoo

      Did the President comment on this heroic deed by a Sergeant Weichel?

      March 30, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Egadz

      This story gets better ratings, apparently.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  6. kathryn

    Reading a lot of your comments convinces me that I know our country's problem. Murder is murder! Putting a gun in the mouth of a crying baby and pulling the trigger is not a heroic behavior. Do not turn this man into a martyr. He is a disgrace to humankind and should be tried and convicted as such!

    March 30, 2012 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  7. cometallymebanana

    i hope he walks free the guys served more years in a warzone then the average american and who cares if he killed some afghan civilians he was simply trying to find the taliban among them and killing to get some answers

    March 30, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Sambo

      sad and scary you think that way. I feel for you

      March 30, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • High Hopes

      Looking for the Taliban all by himself in the middle of the night, stomping a two year old into the ground and killing three other two year olds and a two month old baby?

      Yeah, he may have been looking, but his code of conduct was deplorable!

      March 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. shahin2102

    @ Vince: maybe if you stopped installing dictatorships, stopped overthrowing democracies and stopped arming extremists the world wouldn't need to help you.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Halif Abu Dabad

      @ shahin2102: We should stop doing all of those things. Aswell as feeding the masses around the world and protecting people who gladly take any assitance we offer and try to shoot us in the back as soon as we turn around. They dont want to be civilized or helped in any fashion; let them stay in the dark ages. The sooner we get out of there, the sooner they can get back to killing each other instead of innocent foreigners.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  9. Mori

    It is very tragic when innocent lives are lost. May their souls R.I.P!

    March 30, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  10. BooseyBoo

    After reading the headlines about the US soldier who shot up Afghanistan civilians, I couldn’t help noticing an irony. There is all this clamor to try this guy quickly and execute him, never mind his having suffered a traumatic brain injury.

    Yet this Major Hasan, who shot up Fort Hood while screaming Allah akbar, still hasn’t stood trial, and they are still debating whether he was insane, even with the clear evidence regarding his motive: slay as many infidels as possible. So we have a guy in a war zone who cracks, and he must be executed immediately.

    But this Muslim psychiatrist who was stateside in a nice safe office all day murders 13, wounds 29 of our own guys, and they try to argue the poor lad suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome, from listening to real soldiers who had actual battle experience. Two and a half years later, they still haven’t tried him.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
    • rwdragon86

      Also a shame that none of the wounded or dead from the Texas base shooting were given a Purple Heart because the Obama administration wanted this classified as a work-place domestic disturbance instead of combat, even though Hassan pretty much admitted that he was working for the Al Quaeda network.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Freedtoo

      BooseyBoo.........Good comment

      March 30, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  11. Just Sayn

    Bales will get off either by insanity or through a lack of evidence. Either way we can expect the Afghanis to retaliate here on our soil. He should have been turned over the Afghan people as a sign of respect and to avoid future violence over this mess. Sick or not, it seems like Bales killed those people.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
  12. BD7

    There is more to this story than the Afgans and our military are telling us. Not once have I read anything about his gun. There should be evidence that his weapon had been fired and how many bullets had been used. That is not to say that he was not involved somehow (maybe he snapped...maybe he was drugged...maybe he was involved by choice..who knows), but I highly doubt that a single person could have killed that many people and gone in and out of the seperate villages and no one yell for help and it not be noticed by our military over there.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  13. Cheryl

    US soldiers accused of war crimes always get off with a slap on the wrists in American courts. Bales should be at The Hague facing justice, or better still, he should be turned over to Afghan authorities for prosecution. I still think that Bales did not act alone, and that he is protecting others.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  14. rwdragon86

    A U.S. Army National Guardsman died last week saving the life of a little Afghan girl. Where is it on CNN's website? Buried to where you have to actively search to even find it. Of course a good story like this doesn't meet CNN's agenda thus it is buried. It is front page on Army Times, Fox News and others but again CNN doesn't care for any stories from the combat theatre that paint our GIs in a good light.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  15. BigRed

    OK. We get it. I would comment on this story but it is the same story regurgitated over and over with the same picture of a tearful Afghan. Instead of rewriting the story with a different style, why not break a little new ground? All this info is the same old thing. The word NEWS connotes something that has come up that is NEW. This is not new.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
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