12 Mar 2012

What now for US Afghan mission after Kandahar shootings?

Europe Editor and Presenter

With fears of reprisal attacks and a mass walk-out of Kabul’s parliament, Channel 4 News examines what lies ahead for the US soldier accused of killing Afghan civilians – and for the whole mission.

At about 3am on Saturday morning, a US Army staff sergeant left his barracks in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, and walked to two villages in the Panjwai district where he opened fire on residents as they slept in their beds.

Going from house to house the sergeant, who has not yet been officially identified, shot dead 16 people, including nine children, and wounded another five, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry told Channel 4 News.

Afterwards, a spokesman for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (Isaf) said, he returned back and handed himself in.

An investigation has now been launched into the killing spree, described by President Obama as “heartbreaking” and “tragic”.

The serviceman is being held in US military custody in Kandahar.

Mass walk-out

Earlier, members of parliament in the capital Kabul staged a mass walk-out in protest at the killings, demanding that the accused be tried and punished on Afghan soil.

The Taliban has vowed to take revenge, with a statement which reads: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [Taliban], while sympathising with the victims of this savage act as part of its Islamic and human obligation, gives assurance to their heirs that it shall take revenge from the invaders and the savage murderers for every single martyr… and they shall receive punishment for their barbaric actions.”

But the widespread revulsion has spread far beyond Afghanistan’s borders. In the UK and the US, a clamour for allied forces to speed up their withdrawal from Afghanistan is gaining more support, while the soldier responsible faces years in jail.

People are really sad. It is so tragic – these people were killed so brutally as they were sleeping in their beds. Kabul official

Captain Justin Brockhoff, Isaf joint command spokesman, told Channel 4 News: “According to our initial reports, the individual walked off post in the Panjwai district of Kandahar, in pre-dawn, and opened fire on Afghanistani civilians.”

Captain Brockhoff said that at least 13 civilians were killed, however Afghan authorities say that they are aware of 16 deaths.

“The individual, after conducting the alleged shooting, returned to the post and was taken into the custody of the coalition forces. US forces in Afghanistan directed an investigation, and that is underway now,” Captain Brockhoff said.

A US soldier keeps watch at sunset from Combat Outpost Terra Nova in the Arghandab Valley (Reuters)

Lone wolf?

US military officials believe the man, who is said to be in his mid-30s, and a married father-of-two, acted “alone, as one individual”. It is understood that he is from the Fort Lewis base in Washington state. The installation, known officially as the Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was also where Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, who was convicted in November last year of the “trophy” killings of three Afghan civilians in which he cut off the fingers of the corpse as souvenirs afterwards, was based.

Although officials are unable to give a precise timescale for the events which are due to follow, it is expected that officials based at the Kabul headquarters of the US forces, which are led by commander General John Allen, will conduct an investigation, and produce a report. The investigation could lead to criminal charges against the staff sergeant if he has violated US Uniform Code of Military Justice.

At that stage, military officials are entitled to officially release the identity of the staff sergeant, along with the charges he will face.

He will then go before the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing, known under the code as an Article 32 hearing, where military prosecutors may present evidence against him before proceeding with a court martial.

Any subsequent court martial may be heard in the open and can take place before a jury, consisting of military members, and presided over by a military judge. However, military officials say, “in some extreme circumstances”, or at the direction of the military judge, proceedings can also be heard in private.

If he is found guilty, sentences handed down will normally be considered against the severity of the crimes.

Demands for justice

The investigation will remain firmly in the hands of US officials, military sources have told Channel 4 News. The parliament in Kabul debated today whether the serviceman should be tried in Afghanistan, and punished in Afghanistan. The walkout was staged as a gesture of protest against the incident, with demands for justice on Afghanistani soil.

Coming just a month after US forces burned copies of the Islamic holy book, the Koran, at Bagram air base, and two months after a video of US forces urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters was leaked onto the internet, the latest incident has added to calls for allied forces to withdraw from the country soon.

One government official based in Kabul, who asked not to be named, said: “People are really sad. It is so tragic – these people were killed so brutally as they were sleeping in their beds. Poor kids, who were just two or three years old, somebody just came into their houses at night and killed them.

“Of course, people are now saying they want to see the international forces leave the country, especially after incidents like this, or like the Koran burning – after so many years, how could the US soldiers not know about the holy book of the Muslim population?

“These incidents increase the number of people who want to see the forces leave the country. And people are saying he should be punished in Afghanistan, so they can see justice being done.”

Sticking to the plan

When asked whether this would ever happen, US military officials admitted it was unlikely. “When an individual service member is charged with a crime, it’s the responsibility of [their] national authorities to prosecute if they have a reason to believe they should move forward with criminal action. US military officials would hold this individual under US military procedure. It just would not go to Afghanistan for justice,” the military source told Channel 4 News.

The incident has been condemned by US and British ministers, with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, saying she was “shocked and saddened by the killings of innocent Afghan villagers”.

Speaking at 10 Downing Street, David Cameron also condemned the killings, but vowed that Britain and its Nato allies would “stick to the plan” already set out. The US force is 90,000-strong, and the US government has said it intends to leave at the end of 2014.

Mr Cameron said: “This really is an absolutely appalling thing that has taken place and, of course, it will have its impact, but we must do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t in any way derail the very good work that American and British and other Isaf forces are doing in Afghanistan.

“In terms of my talks with President Obama, we have a good plan. We have a plan which is about transitioning Afghanistan over to Afghan control. The most important thing is that we stick to that plan, we deliver that plan and then we can bring our troops home, having done a good job giving Afghanistan at least a chance of stability and prosperity and growth for the future.

“That’s what we must do.”