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March 12, 2012 at 10:29 AM

Afghan killings: What we know so far and a Web roundup

An elderly Afghan man sits next to the covered body of a person who was killed by a U.S. service member in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul on Sunday, March 11 (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan).

UPDATE: 4:43 p.m.

As the national and international press continues to report on the Afghan killings, more attention is being focused on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, now increasingly described in broadcast, Internet and print reports as the most troubled base in the U.S.

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton’s story today, and much of his previous reporting, touched on many of the problems — and some of the stories reported by the national media draw from that story and another that ran in 2010 in the Stars and Stripes.

“As authorities investigate the circumstances of the deaths, international attention has turned to Lewis-McChord, a military base with a troubled and bloody history,” ABC Nightline reports. The news site has posted eight “infamous incidents” involving soldiers from Lewis-McChord on its website.

The Los Angeles Times is also describing the base as “one of the most troubled in the army.”  CBS News correspondent Ben Tracey is describing it as “one of the most troubled in the entire U.S. military.”  The U.K.’s Guardian describes Lewis-McChord as “no stranger to scandal.” And the International Business Times is running a lengthy timeline of problems at Lewis-McChord under the headline “Afghanistan shooting timeline: What’s really happening at Joint Base Lewis-McChord”.

Other headlines: “Afghan suspect’s US base ‘most troubled’” (Fox News), “Massacre another chapter of shame for the US military’s ‘most troubled’ base” (Sydney Morning Herald), “The Troubles at Joint Base Lewis-McChord” (KUOW).
UPDATE 3:42 p.m.

Seattle Times reporter Sandi Doughton reports from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where the mood is uneasy and journalists outnumber customers at some shops:

Many uniformed personnel shrugged off questions about the shootings in Afghanistan. Those who discussed it said they fear the consequences for their fellow troops in-country.

“I’m worried another war might break out,” said Specialist Eric Windley, of Connecticut. “They are going to retaliate.”

Coffee Strong, a pro-troop, anti-war Internet cafe near the base, had planned to hold a vigil for the 16 Afghans killed, but has since dropped those plans for fear it would be taken as a criticism of the thousands of soldiers at the base who did nothing wrong.

UPDATE: 2:56 p.m.

In two interviews with CBS News affiliates Monday, President Obama told why he doesn’t think the shooting of Afghan civilians on Sunday should prompt the U.S. to speed up its exit from Afghanistan.

“I think it’s important for us just to make sure that we are not … in Afghanistan longer than we need to be,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with Denver CBS affiliate KCNC television.

In a separate interview with Pittsburgh CBS affiliate KDKA, Mr Obama said, “it’s important for us to make sure that we get out in responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in…but what we don’t want to do is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits.”

Meanwhile, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has said he thinks the U.S. should leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. Candidate Mitt Romney has been critical of Obama for not being more clear about the mission’s goals, but this Washington Post analysis describes his position as not too different from Obama’s.

“As the past days have shown, Republicans face a debate within their party over what to do about a conflict whose objectives are so difficult to define and whose costs have been enormous,” Washington Post reporter Dan Balz wrote.

UPDATE 2:30 p.m.

CNN is reporting that the soldier suspected of killing 16 Afghans was a trained infantry sniper, and that he was injured in a roll-over accident in 2010 in Iraq, suffering a traumatic brain injury. However, he was found fit for duty.

CNN also reports that his family has been moved on to Joint Base Lewis-McChord for their safety.

UPDATE: 2:10 p.m.

A military defense attorney told MSNBC Monday that the solider accused of killing 16 Afghans near Kandahar could face the death penalty. The report described it as “one of the worst cases of alleged mass murder by a U.S. service member since the Vietnam War.”

“Based on what we’re hearing I suspect this will be prosecuted as a death penalty case,” Philip Cave, a Washington-based military defense attorney told msnbc.com. “You’ve got felony murder, and certainly the number of victims and the circumstances -– very young children as victims –- I think there will be sufficient grounds to move forward as a death penalty case.”

UPDATE: 1:47 p.m.

Seattle Times military reporter Hal Bernton, who covered the trial of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs in 2011, said one of the major differences between Gibbs’ crimes and the killings Sunday is that the media had immediate access to the scene in Kandahar.

Watch a video from Pajhwok Afghan News showing aftermath of attack (Warning: graphic images):

Gibbs was convicted in the killing of three unarmed Afghan civilians on three separate occasions. All three killings occurred in remote areas of Afghanistan, and were covered up.

“We didn’t hear about those crimes until well after the fact,” said Bernton, who also knows Afghanistan first-hand — he was embedded with one of the Stryker brigades in 2010.

In the case of the killing Sunday, journalists “learned about it right away and were able to travel to the crime scene,” he said. Not only were reporters able to interview witnesses immediately, but they were also able to take photos of the scene of the crime.

UPDATE: 12:29 p.m.

The Army staff sergeant who allegedly went on a rampage and killed 16 Afghans as they slept in their homes had a traumatic brain injury at one point and had problems at home after his last deployment, officials told ABC News.

An official told ABC News that the soldier has suffered a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the past, either from hitting his head on the hatch of a vehicle or in a car accident. He went through the advanced TBI treatment at Fort Lewis and was deemed to be fine.

He also underwent mental health screening necessary to become a sniper and passed in 2008. He had routine behavioral health screening after that and was cleared, the official said.

According to the report, the man was also having marital troubles.

Here’s video from ABC News:

UPDATE: 12:22 p.m.

Republican candidates are starting to weigh in on the situation in Afghanistan.

Rick Santorum, campaigning in Biloxi, Miss., has suggested that President Obama apologize for the killing of 16 Afghan civilians.

“We have to determine what’s happened. Obviously this is a horrible situation where if it turns out to be the case that this person did a horrible wrong and it was a deliberate act, a deliberate act by an American soldier, and that is something we should clearly say was something that we should apologize for, that it’s not a mistake, it wasn’t something that was inadvertent,” he said. “This was something that was deliberately done by an American soldier to innocent civilians. It’s something that the proper authorities should apologize for, for not doing their job in making sure that something like this wouldn’t happen. Something like this should not happen in our military, period.”

Santorum was also critical of Obama’s timetable for troop withdrawal:

“It continues to unravel because the president has given something to the enemy that we should have been able to deny them, which is hope,” Santorum said, referring to the withdrawal timeline, which would have American troops out of Afghanistan by 2014. “But when the president put a timeline in place, the rules of engagement that he has…he’s made this a very difficult mission, as we see it getting more and more difficult as we get closer to that timeline.”

UPDATE: 12:13 p.m.

How do Afghans view the Kandahar killing spree? Here’s one BBC correspondent who thinks the average person in Afghanistan was probably angrier about Americans burning Korans at the Bagram airbase than at the murder of civilians:

It is not that the killing near Kandahar is not an awful tragedy for the families concerned, nor that people locally will be indifferent to their loss. Rather the Afghan attitude to suffering in war is born of decades of struggle, often merciless, and that people there will not tolerate insults to their religion.

UPDATE: 12:02 p.m.

So how likely is it that the mass killing of Afghans Sunday, allegedly by an American soldier based at Lewis-McCord, will prompt the Obama administration to alter its strategy in Afghanistan?

Today, at least, the administration says it has no plans to change course.

 White House press secretary Jay Carney said Washington and its NATO allies remain on course to hand over security control to the Afghans by the end of 2014. Carney said the pace of the troop withdrawal will depend on a variety of factors, but he would not say whether those include the weekend killings.

A Pentagon spokesman called the killings deplorable, but an “isolated incident.”

UPDATE: 11:45 a.m.

The Pentagon will not release the name of the soldier being investigated in the shooting until after charges are filed, Pentagon sources said this morning. There’s no indication yet when that will happen, but probably not today.

According to news reports, the Lewis-McChord-based soldier is a 38-year-old staff sergeant, married with children, and has served three tours during the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He was on his first deployment to Afghanistan.

In a broadcast earlier today, NBC Chief Pentagon Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said military officials will be looking closely to see if the man has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism or drug abuse.

Meanwhile Chief Foreign Correspondent David Blair of the Daily Telegraph argues that Obama should waive the agreement with the Afghan government that says Americans can only be tried in their own country. Blair argues that the soldier should be tried by a U.S. military court sitting in Afghanistan. This could show that “Americans are genuinely accountable, not only to their own governments and people but also the Afghans as well.”

UPDATE: 11:17 a.m.

The Washington Post’s foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Ernesto Londono, did a live chat with readers earlier today. Londono has a number of interesting observations, including his concern that “the shootings boost to the Taliban narrative that the U.S. mission here is doomed and  that it is carried out by crusaders waging war on Islam.”

How likely is it that the gunman was accompanied by others? Londono thinks it’s unlikely.

In this case, the U.S. was pretty quick to admit the severity of what had happened. It will be interesting to see how full an account they present and whether it is convincing to Afghans who suspect more than one gunman carried out the killings. But if you compare this to prior incidents in which U.S. soldiers willfully killed civilians — Haditha is perhaps the best example — there is little evidence so far of a coverup. I think the military has learned it fares better when it comes clean early on incidents like these.

UPDATE: 11:03 a.m.

Al Jazeera English quotes a Kandahar shop owner:

“We have benefited little from the foreign troops here but lost everything – our lives, dignity and our country to them,” said Haji Najiq, a Kandahar shop owner. “The explanation or apologies will not bring back the dead. It is better for them to leave us alone and let us live in peace.”

“#Afghan elder tells BBC there will be no protests as long as killer is brought to justice. Victims have been buried bbc.in/AAZWEw”

And here’s a video from Al Jazeera:

The Telegraph quotes a British colonel as saying the attack has put the lives of British troops at risk.

And the U.S. Embassy in Kabul warns:  “There is a risk of anti-American feelings and protests in coming days, especially in eastern and southern provinces.

UPDATE: 10:54 a.m.

CNN has posted its own story on the history of Lewis-McChord, including comments from a sharp critic of the way things are run at the base:

“This was not just a rogue soldier,” said Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of G.I. Voice, a veteran-run nonprofit organization that operates a soldiers’ resource center near the base called Coffee Strong. The base is “a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem,” he said.

“If Fort Lewis was a college campus, it would have been closed down years ago,” Gonzalez said.

Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, also looked at Lewis-McChord in this piece from June 2010.

10:29 a.m.

There is not points to locate on the mapNews that an Army sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord may be responsible for killing at least 16 civilians in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early Sunday has riveted world attention on the American mission there.

As this story unfolds today, we’ll be using this blog to update readers on the latest news from here, from Washington, D.C., and from Afghanistan.

Seattle Times military reporter Hal Bernton explains that Lewis-McChord has been the focus before in the case of a civilian killing in Afghanistan. Last November, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs was court-martialed in the 2010 murders of three unarmed Afghan civilians.

Bernton writes:

Lewis-McChord, a sprawling complex of red brick buildings, training fields and forests, is about 45 miles south of Seattle and has grown quickly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Base officials have said that any community the size of the base is bound to have its problems and that its reputation has been tarred by “a small number of highly visible but isolated episodes” that don’t accurately reflect the remarkable accomplishments of its service members, including their work overseas and the creation of programs to support returning soldiers.

This year, after more than a decade of war, the Pentagon has tapped base soldiers to play a key role as the U.S. shrinks its troop strength in Afghanistan and turns over more of the war-fighting effort to Afghan troops.

The full story is here.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted yesterday shows that support for the war in Afghanistan is in the pits: 60 percent of Americans see the war as not worth its costs.

Here’s a tweet from a @washingtonpost follower with his reaction:

And does a decade seem like a long time to you? A lot’s happened in the past 10 years and AP has a good timeline and analysis of the war so far (click this link).

Comments | More in Roundups | Topics: Afghan killings, Lewis-McChord

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