Location of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Panjwai District
makes up the central western portion of the province
|Location||Panjwai District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan|
|Date||11 March 2012
03:00 AFT (UTC+04:30)
|Attack type||Raid on three homes, spree killing, massacre|
|Weapon(s)||M4 carbine with M203 grenade launcher and an M9 pistol. Some victims were found stabbed in addition to being shot.|
|Injured (non-fatal)||6 civilians|
|Victims||Four men, four women, nine children|
|Assailants||Staff Sergeant Robert Bales|
The Kandahar massacre, more precisely identified as the Panjwai massacre, occurred in the early hours of 11 March 2012, when sixteen civilians were killed and six others wounded in the Panjwayi District of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Nine of the victims were children, and eleven of the dead were from the same family. Some of the corpses were partially burned. United States Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was taken into custody later that morning when he told authorities "I did it".
American and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) authorities apologized for the deaths. Afghan authorities condemned the act, describing it as "intentional murder". The National Assembly of Afghanistan passed a resolution demanding a public trial in Afghanistan, but former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the soldier would be tried under U.S. military law. Bales pleaded guilty on 5 June 2013 to 16 counts of premeditated murder in exchange for the prosecution not seeking the death penalty. At the time of the plea, he stated that he did not know why he committed the murders.
United States authorities concluded that the killings were the act of a single individual. On 15 March 2012, an Afghan parliamentary probe team made up of several members of the National Assembly of Afghanistan had speculated that up to 20 American soldiers were involved in the killings. The team later said they could not confirm claims that multiple soldiers took part in the killings.
The 'Surge' in southern Afghanistan
Panjwai is the birthplace of the Taliban movement and has traditionally been a stronghold of theirs. It has been an area of heavy fighting and was the focus of a military surge in 2010, which brought a more than two-fold increase in airstrikes, night raids into Afghan homes, insurgent casualties, and a six-fold increase in special forces operations throughout Afghanistan. Fighting in Panjwai and adjacent Zhari, Arghandab and Kandahar districts was particularly intense. Conflict between the civilian population and U.S. forces was exacerbated by the wholesale destruction of some villages by American forces, mass arrests, murder of civilians by rogue units, and high casualties from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
One of the families targeted in the Kandahar shootings had returned to the area in 2011 after previous being displaced by the surge. Fearing the Taliban but encouraged by the U.S. government, the Army, and the Afghan government, they settled near the American military base because they thought it would to be a safe place to live.
Approximately three weeks before the incidents, U.S.–Afghan relations were strained by an incident where copies of the Quran were burnt at the Bagram Air Base. A couple months before the shootings, U.S. Marines were videotaped urinating on dead Taliban fighters.
Allegations of issues at Fort Lewis
The alleged shooter, Robert Bales, was based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). The primary medical treatment facility at the base, Madigan Army Medical Center, has come under investigation for downgrading diagnoses of soldiers with PTSD to lesser ailments. Military support groups around the base have alleged that base commanders did not give returning troops sufficient time to recover before sending them on further deployments, and that the base's medical staff is understaffed and overwhelmed by the numbers of returning veterans with deployment-related medical and psychological trauma.
Soldiers from the base have been linked to other atrocities and crimes. The 2010 Maywand District murders involved JBLM-based soldiers. Also in 2010, a recently discharged AWOL soldier from JBLM shot a police officer in Salt Lake City. In April 2011, a JBLM soldier killed his wife and 5-year-old son before killing himself. In January 2012, a JBLM soldier murdered a Mount Rainier National Park ranger. In two separate incidents, unrelated JBLM soldiers have been charged with waterboarding their children.
Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of a veterans resource center near Fort Lewis, said that the Kandahar killings offer more proof that the base is dysfunctional: "This was not a rogue soldier. JBLM is a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem", he said in a statement. Base officials responded, saying that the crimes committed by its soldiers were isolated events which do not "reflect on the work and dedication of all service members." Robert H. Scales opined that conditions at JBLM were not necessarily an underlying factor in the shootings, instead suggesting that it was the ten years of constant warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and the repeated deployments required of the U.S.'s over-tasked military.
8 March roadside bombing
Residents of Mokhoyan, a village about 500 metres east of Camp Belamby, stated that a bomb had exploded in their vicinity on 8 March, destroying an armored vehicle and wounding several U.S. soldiers. They recounted that U.S. soldiers afterwards lined many of the male villagers against a wall, threatening to "get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people," and threatening that "you and your children will pay for this". One Mokhoyan resident told The Associated Press "It looked like they were going to shoot us, and I was very afraid." He continued, "Then a NATO soldier said through his translator that even our children will pay for this." American officials from The Pentagon declared that they had "no evidence" that villagers had been lined up against a wall and threatened in Mokhoyan. U.S. officials refused to confirm or deny that American soldiers were wounded outside the village on 8 March.
Bales' lawyer, John Henry Browne, later stated that his client was upset because a fellow soldier had lost a leg in an explosion on 9 March. It is unclear whether the bombing cited by Browne was the same as the one described by the villagers.
|* Mohamed Dawood (son of Abdullah)|
|* Khudaydad (son of Mohamed Juma)|
|* Nazar Mohamed|
|* Shatarina (daughter of Sultan Mohamed)|
|* Zahra (daughter of Abdul Hamid)|
|* Nazia (daughter of Dost Mohamed)|
|* Masooma (daughter of Mohamed Wazir)|
|* Farida (daughter of Mohamed Wazir)|
|* Palwasha (daughter of Mohamed Wazir)|
|* Nabia (daughter of Mohamed Wazir)|
|* Esmatullah, age 16 (son of Mohamed Wazir)|
|* Faizullah, age 9 (son of Mohamed Wazir)|
|* Essa Mohamed (son of Mohamed Hussain)|
|* Akhtar Mohamed (son of Murrad Ali)|
|* Haji Mohamed Naim (son of Haji Sakhawat)|
|* Mohamed Sediq (son of Mohamed Naim)|
According to official reports, a heavily armed male American soldier left combat outpost Camp Belamby at 3:00 a.m. local time wearing night vision goggles. The soldier was wearing traditional Afghan clothing over his ISAF fatigues.
According to government officials with knowledge of the investigation, the killings were carried out in 2 phases, with the killer returning to base in between. An Afghan guard reported a soldier returning to base at 1:30 am, and another guard reported a soldier leaving at 2:30 am. The killer is believed to have first gone to Alkozai, about 1/2 mile north of Camp Belambay, then to Najiban (called Balandi in earlier reports), located 1 1/2 miles south of the base. Four people were killed and six wounded in Alkozai, and 12 people were killed in Najiban. American sentries at the base heard gunshots in Alkozai, but did not take action besides attempting to view Alkozai from their post inside the base. Until 22 March, U.S. authorities recognized sixteen people killed, including nine children, four men, and three women. On 22 March that number was revised to 17, but later reduced back to 16. It was initially reported that five others were injured, and that number was eventually increased to six.
Four members of the same family were killed in Alkozai. According to a 16-year-old boy who was shot in the leg, the soldier woke up his family members before shooting them. Another witness said she saw the man drag a woman out of her house and repeatedly hit her head against a wall.
The first victim in Najiban appears to have been Mohammad Dawood. According to Dawood's brother, the assailant shot Dawood in the head, but spared Dawood's wife and six children after the wife screamed at him.
Eleven members of Abdul Samad's family were killed in a house in Najiban village, including his wife, four girls between the ages of 2 and 6, four boys between 8 and 12, and two other relatives. According to a witness, "he dragged the boys by their hair and shot them in the mouth". At least three of the child victims were killed by a single shot to the head of each. Their bodies were then set on fire. Then another civilian, Mohammad Dawoud, age 55, was killed in another house in this village. Witnesses reported that the perpetrator was wearing a headlamp and/or a spotlight attached to his weapon.
The perpetrator burned some of the victims' bodies, an act that would be considered desecration under Islamic law. Witnesses said that the eleven corpses from one family were shot in the head, stabbed, and then gathered into one room and set on fire. A pile of ashes was found on the floor of one victims' house; at least one child's body was found partially charred. A reporter for The New York Times inspected the bodies that had been taken to the nearby American military base and confirmed seeing burns on some of the children's legs and heads.
Surrender and confession
Following the events at Alkozai and Balandi, a U.S. soldier handed himself over into ISAF custody. Afghan forces spotted him leaving his outpost before the killings and U.S. commanders on base assembled their troops for a head count when it was discovered that the soldier was missing. A patrol was dispatched to find the missing soldier, but did not find him before he returned to base after the killings. He was reportedly taken into custody without incident. There were no military operations being conducted in the area at the time of the shootings.
The surveillance video from the base reportedly shows "the soldier walking up to his base covered in a traditional Afghan shawl. The soldier removes the shawl and lays his weapon on the ground, then raises his arms in surrender." The video has not been released to the public.
American investigators suspect that the shooter may have departed the base before midnight, committed the murders in Balandi, then returned to the base around 1:30 a.m. The shooter may have then departed the base at 2:30 a.m. and committed the murders in Alkozai. It was apparently the second departure which caused the alert and the commencement of the patrol to locate the missing soldier.
According to U.S. defense officials, upon his return to the base the soldier said three words: "I did it" and then told individuals what happened. Later the shooter retained a lawyer and refused to speak further with investigators. The United States flew the alleged shooter out of Afghanistan to Kuwait on 14 March 2012, then to the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas on 16 March. A Pentagon spokesman said the move was done because of a "legal recommendation".
The number of assailants
According to U.S. authorities, the attack was conducted by a single soldier – Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. The U.S. military showed Afghan authorities the footage from the surveillance video at the base as proof that there was only one perpetrator of the shootings.
According to Reuters, some neighbors and relatives of the dead saw a group of U.S. soldiers arrive at their village at about 2 a.m., enter homes and open fire. "They were all drunk and shooting all over the place," said neighbor Agha Lala. According to The New York Times, one of the attack's survivors and "at least five other villagers" described seeing a number of soldiers, while some other Afghan residents described seeing only one gunman. One mother-of-six, whose husband was killed during the incident, reported involvement of a large number of people: "When they shot dead my husband, I tried to drag him into the house... I saw more than 20 people when I looked out the house. The Americans pointed their guns at me and threatened me, telling me not to leave the house or they'd kill me." An eight-year-old girl named Noorbinak, whose father was killed reported that "one man entered the room and the others were standing in the yard, holding lights." The brother of another victim claimed his nephews and nieces had seen "numerous soldiers" with headlamps and lighted guns. Some elected officials said that they believed the attack was planned, claiming that one soldier could not have carried out such an act without help. In response, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed General Sher Mohammad Karimi to investigate the claims.
On 15 March 2012, an Afghan parliamentary probe team made up of several members of the National Assembly of Afghanistan announced that up to 20 American soldiers were involved in the killings, with support from two helicopters. They had spent two days in the province on site, interviewing the survivors and collecting evidence. One of the members of the probe team, Hamizai Lali, said: "We closely examined the site of the incident, talked to the families who lost their beloved ones, the injured people and tribal elders... The villages are one and a half kilometre from the American military base. We are convinced that one soldier cannot kill so many people in two villages within one hour... [the victims] have been killed by the two groups." Lali asked the Afghan government, the United Nations and the international community to ensure the perpetrators were punished in Afghanistan. While visiting one of the affected villages, Hamid Karzai pointed to one of the villagers and said: "In his family, in four rooms people were killed – children and women were killed – and then they were all brought together in one room and then set on fire. That, one man cannot do." However, the team later said they could not confirm that multiple soldiers took part in the killings.
Financial payments to victims' families
On 25 March 2012 at the office of the governor of Kandahar province, the United States gave a the equivalent of US$860,000 to the victims' families, allocated as $50,000 for each person killed and $10,000 for each person injured. The official who disbursed payments to the families said the money was not compensation, but rather the U.S. government's offering to help the victims and their families. A member of the Kandahar provincial council described the payments as assistance, but not as the kind of legal compensation that would absolve the accused.
The Army alleged that Robert Bales, a 38-year-old United States Army Staff Sergeant stationed at Camp Belambay, was the only person responsible for the shootings. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, immediately after being captured, Bales acknowledged the killings and "told individuals what happened". However, he quickly asked for an attorney and refused to speak with investigators about his motivations. Later, Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, stated: "I don't know that the government is going to prove much. There's no forensic evidence. There's no confessions".
Family and military career
Bales grew up in Norwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. After high school, he studied at Ohio State University but did not graduate. After leaving college in 1996, Bales worked for a number of financial services firms. In 2003, an arbitrator found Bales liable for financial fraud in the handling of a retirement account and ordered Bales to pay $1.4 million in damages. The victim said he "never got paid a penny" of the award.
Bales enlisted in the Army two months after the September 11 attacks and was assigned to 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2d Infantry Division from Fort Lewis. While working as an infantryman Bales received additional training as a sniper. He completed a total of three tours in the Iraq War, spanning 2003-2004 (12 months), 2006-2007 (15 months), and 2009-2010 (10 months). In the 2007 tour, he reportedly injured his foot and participated in the Battle of Najaf. During the 2010 tour, he was treated for traumatic brain injury after his vehicle rolled over in an accident. During Bales' military service, he had received a number of honours: the Army Commendation Medal with a silver oak leaf cluster, the Army Achievement Medal, and the Army Good Conduct Medal with three Good Conduct Loops.
While stationed at Fort Lewis, Bales had minor run-ins with law enforcement. In 2002, he got in a fight with a security guard at a Tacoma area casino; he was charged with misdemeanor "criminal assault", but charges were dismissed after he paid a small fine and attended anger management classes. A drunken confrontation outside of a bar in 2008 led to a police report, but no charges.
Bales had no history of behavioral problems. He passed the mental health screening required to become a sniper in 2008. In 2010, he suffered a concussion in a car accident. He went through the advanced traumatic brain injury treatment at Fort Lewis and was deemed to be fine. Investigators examining his medical history described his 10-year Army career as "unremarkable" and found no evidence of serious traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress.
According to officials, Bales may have been having marital problems, and the investigation of the shootings is looking into the possibility that an e-mail about marriage problems might have provoked Bales. His wife wrote on her blog about her disappointment after he was passed over for a promotion to Sergeant First Class (E-7). The family was also struggling with finances, and three days before the shootings Bales' wife put their home up for sale, as they had fallen behind with mortgage payments.
Shooting and legal defense
|Wikinews has related news: US Army sergeant charged with seventeen Afghan murders|
A senior American official said that Bales had been drinking alcohol with two other soldiers on the night of the shootings, which is a violation of military rules in combat zones. This account was later confirmed by the Pentagon. A high-ranking U.S. official told The New York Times: "When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues - he just snapped." There were no reports that he knew any of the victims.
Noted Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, who represented serial killer Ted Bundy among others, will defend Bales alongside military lawyers. Browne, who was retained by the sergeant's family, described Bales as a "mild-mannered" man and told reporters: "I think the message for the public in general is that he's one of our boys and they need to treat him fairly." Browne stressed that his client had been upset by seeing a friend's leg blown off the day before the killings, but held no animosity toward Muslims. The incident was not confirmed by the U.S. Army. Browne denied that the deadly rampage was caused by alcohol intoxication or marriage problems and said that Bales was "reluctant to serve". Browne criticized anonymous reports from government officials, stating "the government is going to want to blame this on an individual rather than blame it on the war." He said that the sergeant's wife has "a very good job", noting that he was being paid, not working on this case pro bono.
According to Gary Solis, an expert on war crimes and the military justice system, an insanity defense is likely: "It's hard to say whether the case will even go to trial because in war crimes like this it's very possible that there will be ... an insanity defense, that he is unable to recognize the wrongfulness of his act because of a severe mental disease or injury". Under the U.S. military legal code, the death penalty is possible but requires personal presidential sign-off. Six military members are currently on death row, but none has been executed since Private First Class John A. Bennett was hanged in 1961.
On 16 March, Bales was flown from Kuwait to the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, which is described by the Army officials as a state-of-the-art, medium/minimum custody facility. Bales is being held in special housing in his own cell and is able to go outside the cell "for hygiene and recreational purposes", according to Army Col. James Hutton, chief of media relations. The sudden transfer from Kuwait was reportedly caused by a diplomatic uproar with Kuwaiti government, which learned of the sergeant's move to an American base on Kuwaiti territory only from news reports and not from the U.S. government. "When they learned about it, the Kuwaitis blew a gasket and wanted him out of there," an official said.
Prior to the release of Bales' name, the U.S. military erased references of him from military websites. Photographs of him were removed and an article that quoted him extensively regarding a 2007 firefight was removed from his base's newspaper. Cached versions of the information remained accessible on the Internet and were published by news organizations. Officials commented that the removals were intended to protect the privacy of the Bales family.
On 23 March 2012, the U.S. government charged Bales with 17 counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder, and six counts of assault. On 24 March 2012, American investigators said they believe Bales split the killings in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai into two attacks, returning to Camp Belamby after the first attack before slipping out again an hour later. No other U.S. military persons have been disciplined for having any role in the incident.
On 1 June 2012, the U.S. Army dropped one of the murder charges, saying one of the victims had been counted twice. The reduction was made after "extensive interviews of family members" to confirm the number killed, said Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield. However, additional charges were filed against Bales on the same date. The charges included abuse of steroids, alcohol consumption, burning corpses, attempting to destroy evidence, and assaulting an Afghan man the month before the massacre. The number of assault charges was also raised from six to seven; the seventh charge being for an unrelated incident in February 2012. The first phase of trial, an Article 32 hearing, was scheduled to begin November 5, 2012 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Several of the Afghan witnesses were expected to testify via video teleconference. Bales was represented by John Henry Browne.
The preliminary hearing, which began on 5 November 2012 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Washington state base south of Seattle, included nighttime sessions on 9, 10 and 11 November 2012 for the convenience of eyewitnesses and victims who testified through a video link from Afghanistan. Bales did not testify. Closing arguments from US Army prosecutors and Bales' attorney were made on 13 November 2012. After making their closing arguments US Army prosecutors asked an investigative officer to recommend a death penalty court-martial for Bales. It was subsequently decided that the government would pursue the death penalty.
On May 29, 2013, it was reported that Bales would agree to plead guilty and recount the events of the massacre in exchange for avoiding the death penalty, which military prosecutors had said they would seek. On 5 June, Bales plead guilty to 16 counts of premeditated murder. When asked "What was your reason for killing them?" he said he had asked himself that question "a million times" and added "There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did". He said he did not remember setting bodies on fire, but said he must have done so given the evidence. Bales also plead guilty to use of illegal steroids to get "huge and jacked". He said the drug made him angry and prone to mood swings, but did not specify if they played a role in the murders. A sentencing trial was set for August to determine whether Bales would received a life sentence with the possibility of parole, or one without the possibility.
Reaction from family members and Afghan society
A woman who lost four family members in the incident said, "We don't know why this foreign soldier came and killed our innocent family members. Either he was drunk or he enjoyed killing civilians." Abdul Samad, a 60-year old farmer who lost 11 family members, eight of whom were children, spoke about the incident: "I don't know why they killed them. Our government told us to come back to the village, and then they let the Americans kill us." One grieving mother, holding a dead baby in her arms, said, "They killed a child, was this child the Taliban? Believe me, I haven't seen a 2-year-old member of the Taliban yet."
"I don't want any compensation. I don't want money, I don't want a trip to Mecca, I don't want a house. I want nothing. But what I absolutely want is the punishment of the Americans. This is my demand, my demand, my demand and my demand," said one villager, whose brother was killed.
More than 300 Panjwai locals gathered around the military base to protest the killings. Some brought burned blankets to represent those killed. In one house, an elderly woman screamed: "May God kill the only son of Karzai, so he feels what we feel." On 13 March, hundreds of university students protested in Afghanistan's eastern city of Jalalabad, shouting "Death to America – Death to Obama" and burning effigies of the U.S. president and a Christian cross. On 15 March about 2,000 people took part in another protest, in the southern province of Zabul.
The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, called the incident "intentional murder" and stated "this [was] an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven." He said the United States must now pull back its troops from village areas and allow Afghan security forces to take the lead in an effort to reduce civilian deaths. On 16 March Afghan President said the U.S. was not fully co-operating with a probe into the killings. He also said the problem of civilian casualties at the hands of NATO forces "has been going on for too long ... It is by all means the end of the rope here". A spokesperson for the Afghan Interior Ministry condemned the act "in the strongest possible terms."
Afghan politicians wanted Bales to face an Afghan court. The National Assembly of Afghanistan insisted that the U.S. soldier be put on public trial in Afghanistan: "We seriously demand and expect that the government of the United States punish the culprits and try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan." It also condemned the killings as "brutal and inhuman" and declared that "people are running out of patience over the ignorance of foreign forces." Abdul Rahim Ayobi, a member of parliament from Kandahar, said the shooting "gives us the message that now the American soldiers are out of the control of their generals." Kamal Safai, a member from Kunduz, said that while it was the act of a single man, "the public reaction will blame the government of America, not the soldier."
Reaction from U.S. and NATO
American and ISAF forces apologized and promised a full investigation, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stating that the soldier "will be brought to justice and be held accountable" and that the death penalty "could be a consideration." U.S. president Barack Obama called the incident "absolutely tragic and heartbreaking" but noted that he was "proud generally" of what U.S. troops have accomplished in Afghanistan. Obama said the incident did not represent the "exceptional character" of the American military and the respect that the United States had for the people of Afghanistan. On 13 March, he said, "the United States takes this as seriously as if it were our own citizens and our own children who were murdered. We’re heartbroken over the loss of innocent life. The killing of innocent civilians is outrageous and it’s unacceptable." In response to a reporter asking whether the killings could be likened to the 1968 My Lai massacre of civilians by U.S. forces in South Vietnam, Obama replied, "It's not comparable. It appeared you had a lone gunman who acted on his own."
General John R. Allen, commander of the ISAF, issued an apology as well. Adrian Bradshaw, the deputy commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, apologized "I wish to convey my profound regrets and dismay... I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorised ISAF military activity." A "rapid and thorough" inquiry was promised. U.S. officials said the killings would not affect their strategies in the area.
Reaction from the Taliban
The Taliban said in a statement on its website that "sick-minded American savages" committed the "blood-soaked and inhumane crime." The militant group promised the families of the victims that it would take revenge "for every single martyr". The Taliban also accused Afghan security officials of being complicit in the attack. The militant group called off peace talks in the wake of the deadly rampage. On 13 March, the Taliban launched an attack on an Afghan government delegation which was visiting the site of the killings, killing one government soldier and injuring three.
- War in Afghanistan (2001–present)
- Haditha killings (Iraq, 2005)
- Khosrow Sofla (Afghanistan, 2010)
- Mahmudiyah killings (Iraq, 2006)
- Maywand District murders (Afghanistan, 2010)
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- Images from the scene from Mail Online
- Video Anatomy of a Massacre from Special Broadcasting Service