Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Posts Tagged ‘Kandahar

Afghan Local Police – New Portfolio at www.johnwendle.com

leave a comment »

I’ve posted a new portfolio of photos I took over a month spent embedded with US and Afghan troops in Arghandab in 2011. You can see the photos here: Afghan Local Police.

The story focuses on the Afghan Local Police. When General David Patraeus assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2010, one of his priorities was to launch a new country-wide program called the Afghan Local Police.

Overseen by American Special Operations Forces, the A.L.P. recruits, trains, arms, and pays Afghan men in rural communities to defend their home villages against insurgents. While the military claims the A.L.P. has had great success in clearing areas of Taliban, many experts and human-rights advocates have accused the program of empowering criminals and warlords who grossly abuse their authority.

The allegations of abuse have included charges of theft, kidnapping, rape, and murder. Many Afghans are alarmed by what the program might become once American oversight diminishes; they see it as a potentially regressive step toward the 1990s, when armed gangs ruled the country with impunity — a period still referred to by some Afghans as “the time of the men with guns.”

The whole website is available at www.johnwendle.com.

The Trouble With Vetting

leave a comment »

The recent spate of blue-on-green (or “insider”) attacks against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan prompted the Special Operations command to halt the training of its Afghan Local Police trainees this week – as part of a wider ranging implementation of more supposedly more stringent vetting and security measures across the Afghan army and police forces.

You can read about some of it here -

Seemingly simple questions often have no good answer in Afghanistan. When asked where he lived, Gul only said that “there are four or five houses between my home and the mosque.” Asked in what direction from the mosque, he, like many uneducated Afghans, did not know the meaning of north, south, east and west. He guessed his age as being “between 28 and 30.” His secondhand motorcycle was unregistered. He had no mobile number. It was even unclear at which mosque he worshipped, since he could not read a map and Staff Sergeant John Fox did not know the names of all the mosques in the area. Fox, working with experienced interpreter Aziz Mohammad Shirzada, was finally able to narrow it down to only: “Right there, when we come around that corner going into Bala Tabin.”

The answers were crucial since NATO and the U.S. uses registration numbers and interviews with mullahs and village-council members to find out more about the men who apply for positions with the ALP, as well as the army and the police. The vetting process was deemed critical after members of extremist militias in Iraq were inadvertently armed by the U.S. in a similar effort called the Sons of Iraq, put into place in 2005, after being insufficiently screened. But with no contact details, little verifiable history and no address or registration number, the Americans were running out of ways to figure out who exactly the young man was. Doing proper background checks to ascertain if recruits could have Taliban affiliations or sympathies is just one of the many challenges facing the U.S. and NATO as they prepare for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

My full story can be read at: Can the U.S. and NATO Prevent ‘Green on Blue’ Attacks in Afghanistan?

To read more, follow on Twitter at @johnwendle

Written by johnwendle

September 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

A Marine Two-Star: Why Afghanistan Is Like Vietnam

leave a comment »

By Mark Thompson

After years of U.S. officials insisting Afghanistan is not turning into another Vietnam, a two-star U.S. Marine general — just back from a year-long combat tour there — says Afghanistan could well end up resembling the southeast Asian nation.

Major General John Toolan insisted Tuesday that while Afghanistan may not be “highly successful” in the short term, the arc of history requires U.S. and allied efforts there to cauterize the regional instability that threatens Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, That’s not so different, he suggested, from the way the U.S. war in Indochina halted the communists’ deeper push into southeast Asia, and nurtured the economic powerhouses there today.

Toolan is just back from a year in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Over breakfast Tuesday, among the first words out of his mouth dealt with the lack of cooperation he got from the Pakistan military just across the border.

“Just on the other side on the other side of the Pakistani border they’ve got huge caches of IED-making material, et cetera,” he said. “My problem with [the Afghan border village of] Baramcha — right across Baramcha, in Pakistan, lethal aid is coming in, and drugs are going out. We saw it, we interdicted a lot…but it’s a pittance – it’s a really small percentage – I’m told by DEA that that’s probably less than 12% of the total amount of opium that’s moving across in and out of the border.”

So what’s happening just across that border, in Pakistan?

“The 12th Corps of the Pakistani army is right there and they’re not doing anything,” Toolan said forthrightly. “It’s frustrating.”

He acknowledged that Pakistan is leery of pressing insurgents on its side of the border too much for fear of angering Baluchistan rebels. So what should the U.S. and its allies do?

“I think that’s a question I really can’t answer,” he said. “From my perspective, as a military commander, having to deal with the problem, it’s like I can’t shut the water off — I can just keep mopping the floor, but I can’t turn the water off.”

Battleland began hearing echoes of the past. Building a house amid quicksand has always been a challenge. Toolan’s details of what’s happening along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier – after a decade of war – sounded familiar. The inability of the U.S. to stop the flow of men and materiel from flooding a nation the U.S. is trying to build led Battleland to ask: hey, is Pakistan the new North Vietnam? Are the Taliban the new Viet Cong?

Unlike many officers – who would have run from that question like a live hand grenade tossed into their lap – Toolan caught it, and studied it closely.

“Actually, I think I got that metaphor [shutting the water off, or mopping it up] from something I read about Vietnam, and the challenges that were associated in being able to reach out and suppress the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong,” he said. “If you take the short-term view of Afghanistan, or of Vietnam, for example, I think people might say we didn’t do very well, we’re very frustrated by the whole issue of communists having freedom of movement just outside the borders.”

But Toolan recalled what he’d overheard Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew telling then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld several years ago when Toolan was on Rumsfeld’s staff:

Secretary, you need to stay the course in Iraq, because I’m telling you, the only reason why Singapore and Malaysia and Indonesia and all those tigers are doing well today is because you stayed the course 40 years ago.

Wait a minute. The U.S. left South Vietnam in 1973, and it fell to the North two years later.

“You may not see the benefits of what occurred in Vietnam back in ‘60s and ‘70s, but certainly people recognize it today…we stayed the course in Vietnam for 10 years, and I think those 10 years were a tough 10 years, but because of that, we wore down the threat – the threat to the rest of southeast Asia,” Toolan said. “I think that there’s a parallel, in that we may not see, in the short term, a highly-successful Afghanistan, but what we will see is some stability in the region.”

And why is that important?

“I remind some people that there is a lot of nuclear weapons pretty close around Afghanistan, and that maintaining stability in the region is as important as establishing stability in Afghanistan,” Toolan concluded. “I think in the long term we’ll see, so long as this regional stability is sustained and we don’t have nuclear conflagration and all that kind of stuff, what we did will pay off.”

This story originally ran at http://battleland.blogs.time.com/2012/04/25/a-marine-two-star-why-afghanistan-is-like-vietnam/

Afghans use Facebook to Protest Kandahar Massacre

leave a comment »

By John Wendle / Kabul

Sunday, Apr. 01, 2012

The image is striking and heartbreaking. It captures a young teenage boy at the height of his grief. A tear streaks his cheek, his mouth drawn into a grimace and his eyes are swollen from crying. “Thank you USA And World For Killing My Complete Fmily and Helping My Tears to Shed [sic],” is the message written across the image in bright yellow letters. The internet meme of Afghan youth mourning the loss of family and neighbors after 17 Afghan civilians were murdered in Panjwai district on March 11 — allegedly by U.S. Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales — spread rapidly on social media networks among Afghans in and out of the country. It encapsulated the frustration of a generation that has grown up during the 10 year war that is finding its voice — albeit, on the internet.

“For me, as an Afghan, I was really angry. I could have done anything if I had seen an American soldier that day. But I knew how to use Facebook and I did. People were posting angry comments about what had happened, about the children being killed and about the Koran burnings,” an Afghan graphic designer from Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tells TIME. “This is the new way. This is the peaceful way. Not just going out and killing each other like happened during the Koran protests. Online social media can be used the same way here as it was during the Arab Spring. I think Afghanistan is becoming something like that. People are commenting on posts by friends and acquaintances. It’s connecting people,” the graphic designer says.

(MORE: Afghans: U.S. Paid $50K Per Massacre Death)

The killings and the meme generated a level of emotional connection and angry reaction — on Facebook in particular — that far surpassed anything seen by this correspondent in two and a half years in Afghanistan. Unlike the Koran burnings — which sparked violent street protests across the country that left around 30 dead — protests over the killings in Panjwai district were almost solely on the Internet, involving few public demonstrations.

“The killings in Panjwai were no different from other mass civilian killings — like with misguided airstrikes,” says an Afghan in Kandahar who spoke on condition of anonymity. The conventional perception among the majority of Afghan civilians is that NATO routinely kills civilians — either intentionally or accidentally — and so the deaths in Kandahar were nothing out of the ordinary. On the other hand, the burning of the Koran was the defamation of a sacred book held in high esteem in Afghanistan. Swept up by religious fervor or the mob, protests over the Koran burning were carried out by mostly poor and illiterate people. The online reaction to the Kandahar massacre however points to a interesting divide: social media is the protest sites of choice for a relatively affluent, urban segment of society that has access to the Internet and information.

“There is a big divide in education and between the literate and the illiterate. Generally there’s a large divide in terms of information flow. You can see this if you look at what kind of stuff people discuss and are interested in,” says Jes Kaliebe Petersen, the director of business development at Paywast, a mobile phone-based social networking service that is Afghanistan’s largest social network. “Literacy makes it much easier for people to access facts and get balanced information. That’s partially why you’re seeing what you’re seeing.”

(PHOTOS: The Afghan Massacre)

Right now, Petersen says only 3% to 4% of people have Internet in Afghanistan, while 50% have mobile phones. The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology claims that Internet penetration grew from 0.25% in 2005 to 10% in 2009 while the usage of mobile phones grew from 3% to 16% over the same period. Most likely, Paywast’s numbers are closer to the truth. The U.S. government estimates a current population of around 30.4 million Afghans.

Petersen says people use Paywast in the same way they use Facebook — voicing thoughts and opinions. “When something like this happens they talk about it in the same way they talk about things on Facebook,” Petersen says. But, if Facebook is any indication, anger ran higher about the Kandahar massacre among urban, educated Afghans — the very segment of the population it seems would be most supportive of NATO — since many are employed by the government or non-governmental organizations or by NATO itself.

Another meme drew a similar deluge of angry comments on Facebook. This one showed the same youth next to an image of President Barack Obama over images of children killed in Panjwai. Written in English, the text read, “You! Killed Usama, removed Mulla Omar from black list, started negotiation with Taliban and handed over Bagram jail… Tell me WHAT WAS MY SIN??? Your whole United States can’t compensate my complete family loss… Thanks to your civilization, democracy and Human Rights for gifting me such…” The image garnered 885 likes, 510 shares and 340 comments with the most recent comment on Monday, two weeks after the killings.

Some of the comments just showed straight anger and rage. One Afghan wrote, “Shame on you, America. Soon you will be destroyed, God willing.” Another wrote, “I wonder if the F—— Americans are satisfied and happy with their army? God willing they will all burn in Hell!” Other comments were less incendiary – though no less angry. Some, though, called for action. “We have to do something, only talking aint gonna change anything,” wrote one. Another wrote, “This is the time to unite,” adding that Afghans should get together to have the issue brought before the UN and the international community. “So please unite. I am afraid we will lose everything. I swear, you cry in Kandahar and I cry in London.” The posts are mostly in English or in Dari or Pashto written in English script.

(MORE: Ten Is Enough)

But the Afghan graphic designer says that while the growth of Internet usage is mostly a good thing, he also sees some drawbacks. “It’s a good thing, but there could be problems as well. It can be good for public awareness, but if I want to spread propaganda, most people won’t think about whether it is true or not. If people use it for public awareness and to fight for their rights, then it will be a good thing, but if it is used for propaganda, it will be bad for society.”

Regardless, as the 2014 date for the withdrawal of foreign troops looms along with possible Taliban rule, the Afghans TIME spoke with fear that the freedom of expression and the life they have created online may be constrained — as it is in China and Iran — or disappear altogether. “I think the Internet itself will remain as important as it is now, but it won’t be as easy to find Internet connections. It will be controlled. In Iran, they have fast Internet connections, but people are not allowed to access too many outside websites,” says the graphic designer.

An Afghan journalist, who also asked not to be named, is worried about the decline of social media. “If the Taliban come to power in 2014, they will not come in like they did ten years ago. They will come back and be a bit more moderate in their government. But for social media and the press, we are so worried because the Taliban, they have such radical thinking, they don’t believe in press freedom, in the media.”

But an Iranian media professional working in Kabul feels that, like life, the Internet will find a way. “People’s ambition will not end, but their access to it might. I’m sure that Afghans will find a way to get around it. It’s one of the only ways to state what you feel, to feel that you exist,” she says. The sentiment is echoed by Petersen, who tells TIME, “Afghans are looking at what is going on everywhere in the world, 3G, Smartphones, etc, a lot of cool stuff; and if you take that away from people, its not going to be taken lightly. People would get very, very upset if you tried to take these things away from them.”

But the graphic designer has a gloomier, and possibly more realistic outlook. “I believe if the Taliban comes back then it’ll be like Iran. It will be an Islamic, Talib Internet.”

This article originally appeared in TIME at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110622,00.html.

Written by johnwendle

April 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Timing and Location of an Afghan Massacre Threatens U.S. Strategy

leave a comment »

By John Wendle / Kabul

Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2012

The Panjwai massacre may not affect the U.S. schedule for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has dealt a major blow to the Obama Administration’s plan to slowly shift the military burden there from conventional units to Special Forces who rely on cooperation from the civilian population. And the setback occurred in an area that had become a key focus of the counterinsurgency effort.

“The relations between the U.S. forces and the Afghan people have been greatly affected by the massacre,” the head of the quasi-governmental Panjwai District Development Assembly, Hajji Niak Mohammad, tells TIME. “It has caused a big gap to form between the U.S. military and the Afghans. [The Americans] had come to fight against the insurgency and to bring peace and stability. People did not expect such a wild action.”

(MORE: Afghans Assess U.S. Presence After Massacre, Koran Burning)

No matter how many times President Obama apologizes for the mass killing of civilians by an American soldier early Sunday morning, the damage has already been done. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, visiting Camp Leatherneck in the desert in southern Helmand province while on a previously scheduled visit to Afghanistan, told Marines Wednesday that “Each of these incidents is deeply troubling” and that “We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve.” But, to the villagers in Panjwai district, in war-wracked Kandahar province, apologies are beside the point — “individual incidents” are defining how Afghans see the U.S. presence, and fueling demands for it to end.

“At the beginning, when [the Americans] first came to Afghanistan, people were really optimistic,” says Hajji Mohammad. “People believed in them. People thought they had come to rebuild Afghanistan, to bring peace and stability, to contribute people and economic support. But, slowly, slowly this belief has faded and been destroyed. The people don’t trust the U.S. military anymore.”

That erosion of trust underscores the flaw at the very heart of U.S. policy in in Afghanistan, regardless of Panetta telling the Marines at Camp Leatherneck that “our strategy is working”. Effective counterinsurgency depends on winning the support of the civilian population, but that becomes impossible when the locals lose trust and respect — not only because of egregious crimes like the murder of 16 civilians, but also through the small offenses and disappointments meted out daily by a poorly-informed military force from an alien culture that only spends six months to a year in an area before rotating home.

(MORE: Afghan Counterinsurgency: When Everything Is Personal)

The Panjwai murders happened in villages adjacent to a U.S. Special Forces compound, where the accused perpetrator was part of a static security detail for the forces expected to take on more of the responsibility for waging the war. Special Forces are deemed better able to build strong relationships with villagers through their Village Stabilization Operations (VSOs) and their setting up and training of Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces.

Says Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation political analyst and sometime-adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, “U.S. and Afghan Special Operations Forces have played a growing role in pushing into rural parts of Kandahar (and other provinces) to help local communities improve their security, governance (mostly informal governance through jirgas) and development. Unlike efforts to train Afghan National Security Forces and improve the formal justice system, Village Stability Operations are inherently bottom-up programs.”

Jones explains that Panjwai, along with several other districts outside of Kandahar City such as Shah Wali Kot, Maiwand, and Khakrez, have become a focus of U.S. and Afghan counterinsurgency efforts because of their strategic importance. “Over the past several years, Panjwai has not been pacified by either the Taliban or Afghan and NATO forces, but has repeatedly changed hands following intense and extremely violent fighting.”

In order to tip the balance, Special Forces groups called Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) units began setting up VSOs and ALP units and carrying out night raids to round up Taliban suspects. The massacre poses a challenge to their work. The impact of the Panjwai killings “could be devastating or could be minimal and quickly resolved through skillful diplomacy on the part of the team — it really depends on if these were villages which were cooperating with the ODA or if they were not,” says a foreign observer with extensive counterinsurgency experience in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If this is a worst-case scenario and the villages in question were active VSO villages with a good level of cooperation, [and if] those killed were truly indiscriminately targeted and they were respected people in the villages, then I think the ODAs will have a hard time recovering from this.”

Adds Adrian Melendez, a development worker who spent nine months working on agricultural stabilization projects in Marjah district in Helmand, the local culture is not conducive to easily resolving the issue. “For the Pashtuns, forgiveness is not a value — on the contrary, revenge is valued, and for hard Pashtuns it is an obligation,” he says. “So I’m guessing that the people affected will try to get revenge as an act of justice.”

(MORE: Afghan Massacre: Army Docs Say Brain Injury Could Have Sparked Attack)

Indeed, justice has been the rallying cry for many Afghans — both in Panjwai and across the country and the internet where images of the murdered children have proliferated and sparked angry and impassioned statements by young, urban Afghans who are more typically apolitical or supportive of the Western military mission — even as General John Allen, commander of all NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said the gunman will be punished according to the law. “They should bring the murderer, or murderers, to justice,” says Hajji Mohammad. “People should see with their own eyes that the perpetrators are punished — in Afghanistan, according to Afghan law. This is the only way to deal with the anger of the Afghans, to bring calmness to their anger.” But U.S. soldiers are exempt from Afghan law and it is most likely the killer will be tried back on home soil, under U.S. law — despite calls from the Afghan parliament for the accused to be tried in public in Afghanistan.

Justice being seen to be done is the key to restoring trust in Panjwai, warns Jones: “A lot will depend on how swiftly and transparently the Americans move on punishing the soldier responsible, as well as local sentiments toward the Taliban in the area.”

Regardless of how deftly — or otherwise — U.S. forces deal with the challenges raised by the massacre, they will face an escalation of hostilities in the coming weeks and months, as spring heralds a new fighting season. “I anticipate that there will be a big, big fight not only in Panjwai, but in most parts of Afghanistan in the spring and summer when the weather becomes warmer,” warns Hajji Mohammad. “These killings could increase anti-Americanism and more people will join the Taliban and other radical groups. On the other hand, the Taliban have already sworn they will double their attacks against the U.S. military and they will get revenge for this massacre. People are also sad and angry, so I anticipate that there will be more attacks against the US military and their allies in Panjwai.” One sign of what to expect will come within days, when many urban Afghans gather at mosques for Friday prayers for the first time since the massacre — many local and foreign observers are bracing for trouble.

This story originally appeared at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2109044,00.html

Written by johnwendle

April 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Afghanistan: Rising Anger over an American’s Rampage, but Also Fear of U.S. Departure

leave a comment »

 

By John Wendle / Kabul

Tuesday, Mar. 13, 2012

Shots rang out again Tuesday, March 13, at the site of Sunday’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, as a high-ranking Afghan government delegation left a village mosque after paying their respects to the families of the dead. The group, which included two of President Hamid Karzai’s brothers, had been in Kandahar’s Panjwai district to investigate the early-Sunday shootings by an American soldier. “We were coming out of a mosque when suddenly the Taliban began shooting,” Hajji Agha Lalai Dastagiri, head of the Kandahar provincial council, told TIME soon after his group came under fire — highlighting the shaky situation in the district.

Earlier in the day, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had said in a statement that the group “once again warns the American animals that the mujahedin will avenge them and with the help of Allah will kill and behead your sadistic murderous soldiers.” After hundreds of villagers gathered in Panjwai on Monday to protest the murders, Dastagiri said the mood of the people in Panjwai, a restive district west of Kandahar City, was somber and that people were “very angry about the actions of this American soldier.” It was hard to say whether those who fired on the government delegation were Taliban fighters or angry villagers.

(PHOTOS: The Afghan Massacre)

What is clear, however, is that outrage continues to grow across Afghanistan over the Panjwai atrocity, even as Karzai has called for calm and U.S. officials all the way up to President Barack Obama have apologized for the shootings. In the first large urban protest since the killings, about 400 students protested peacefully in the eastern city of Jalalabad, chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Obama,” while some burned an effigy of the President. One banner read, “Jihad is the only way to get the invading Americans out of Afghanistan,” AFP reported.

The invading Americans, of course, had planned to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Washington is weighing whether to withdraw troops earlier than planned. The U.S. has almost 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, but 22,000 of them will go home by September. And while Obama said last year that the pullout would continue “at a steady pace,” he told a radio interviewer that the massacre has made him “more determined to make sure we’re getting our troops home.”

“It’s time,” Obama said. “It’s been a decade, and frankly, now that we’ve gotten bin Laden, now that we’ve weakened al Qaeda, we’re in a stronger position to transition than we would have been two or three years ago.” But Obama also said, in a separate TV interview, that “we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy or the mission that we’re involved in.”

(MORE: Afghans React to Obama: 10,000? Why So Much So Fast?)

At the same time, the White House sought to cool speculation that the bad blood created by the mass murder of civilians and the burning of Korans at Bagram air base just three weeks ago will fast-forward the withdrawal schedule. “I do not believe this incident will change the timetable of a strategy that was designed and is being implemented in a way to allow for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, to allow for their transfer of lead security authority over to the Afghans,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

Even though Afghans across the country have for years demanded the withdrawal of foreign troops, many fear that a hasty departure that would leave behind a weak national army would lead to civil war and anarchy of the sort that reigned upon the collapse of the communist government three years after the withdrawal of the Soviet military. “People want Americans to be here until they become fully self-sufficient,” Dastagiri told TIME. “People now need American help — but they do not need this kind of cruel and inhuman action.”

(MORE: After Afghan Massacre, Some Call for Speeding Up U.S. Withdrawal)

That sentiment is echoed by Wadir Safi, a lecturer in law and political science at Kabul State University. “The Americans must determine if they have fulfilled their job or not,” Safi says. “The U.S. must think if they can really leave in 2013 or 2014. If they leave without reaching an agreement with the government and the insurgents, what will be the consequences of a withdrawal? If we can reach an agreement now, I would ask the Americans to go tomorrow, but if not, then they must stay here until they are sure that things will not become worse than they were 10 years ago, before they came.” Leaving behind chaos in Afghanistan “will show that the U.S. is not a superpower,” Safi warns.

That thought is echoed by Daud Sultanzoy, a former member of parliament and opposition politician. “Just because a lunatic does something does not mean the U.S. should shirk their responsibilities to Afghanistan,” Sultanzoy says. “It is their decision, but if they shirk their responsibilities, they are not the superpower they claim to be. A superpower acts not only according to their own needs but also to their responsibilities.”

This story originally appeared at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2108913,00.html

 

Written by johnwendle

April 2, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Taliban Vows Revenge for U.S. Soldier’s Alleged Shooting Rampage

leave a comment »

By John Wendle / Kabul

Monday, Mar. 12, 2012

Already battered by a wave of hostility over accidental Koran burnings, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan may face new perils over the deaths of 16 civilians in a shooting incident in Kandahar on Sunday. Afghan officials — including Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi — claim that a lone American soldier walked off his forward operating base in the early hours of the morning and randomly fired on civilians, leaving 16 dead, some of them women and children. An Afghan source in Panjwayi district told TIME that locals allege that some of the bodies were partially burned. Photographs purportedly taken at the scene show children and young men killed execution style, as well as blood splattered on the walls and floor inside an earthen house. A U.S. soldier is currently being held in military custody in connection with the incident, NATO spokesman Lt. Colonel Jimmie Cummings confirmed to TIME.

Reports from NATO allege that a soldier left his base early Sunday morning and entered the adjacent village, where he killed and wounded civilians. The Kandahar Media and Information Center reported that he entered three houses and executed the Afghan civilians there. TIME’s sources in Kandahar said the attack happened in Alokozai village, in the Zangawat area of Panjwayi district. While the situation remained relatively calm in Kandahar today — with only a small protest in the district — the incident threatens to reignite violence that has only recently cooled after U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Base near Kabul accidentally burned Korans and other religious publications in late February. The resulting protests that spread throughout the country — although, not in Kandahar and Helmand provinces — left around 30 Afghans dead and scores injured. On Monday, the Taliban said its fighters would “take revenge from the invaders and the savage murderers for every single martyr.” Describing U.S. forces as “sick minded American savages,” the Taliban said in a statement on its website that it would mete out punishment for the “barbaric actions.” U.S. troops in Afghanistan have been placed on alert as officials warned of reprisals.

(MORE: The Koran-Burning Riots: Can U.S. and Afghan Troops Work Together?)

“Either way, we will see more tomorrow because the news will not have spread yet,” a Kandahari source speaking on condition of anonymity told TIME. “Maybe there will be nothing, maybe there will be some protests. But, honestly, this incident is no different from what has happened in the past — there have been similar incidents; worse things have happened to civilians here. There will be a reaction. People will be upset for some days to come.” At the same time, he said he didn’t believe the incident would “destroy relations” between, the Afghan government, U.S. forces, Western aid organizations and local villagers.

Senior Afghan officials confirmed that Afghan President Hamid Karzai immediately sent a delegation south to investigate the incident. One senior Afghan official, who asked to remain anonymous because he did not have permission to speak, echoed the Kandahari source’s feeling that the killings may not lead to more violence, though it remains unclear. “The burning of the Korans was important and critical for all Muslims, and this was the actions of just one man. So after the investigation is complete, then we will know what will happen.” U.S. President Barack Obama called the killings “tragic and shocking,” and offered his condolences in a phone call to Karzai, the White House said.

The Afghan official also took a swipe at the foreign press for speculating that the recent spate of killings of U.S. and NATO military trainers by Afghan soldiers — or insurgents dressed in Afghan army uniforms — revealed a deep hostility and distrust. “This was the action of an individual, the same way one Afghan soldier does not represent the whole army,” the source said. “When one Afghan soldier kills four French soldiers, that does not mean the entire Afghan army wants to kill all foreign soldiers. We must first find out why and how it happened.”

Still, he added, “something needs to be done to calm the situation, especially for hard-core Muslims.”

(MORE: As Afghan Riots Subside, Koran-Burning Anger Simmers)

Hoping to take control of the story and blunt the feared wave of violence, the U.S. embassy and NATO reacted almost immediately. In a statement, NATO called the incident “appalling” and conveyed its “profound regrets and dismay at the actions apparently taken by one coalition member,” adding that it could not “explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorized ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] military activity.”

In a separate statement, the U.S. embassy said the wounded were being given the “highest level of care,” and that the U.S. deplores “any attack by a member of the U.S. Armed Forces against innocent civilians.” The embassy even posted condolences on YouTube with versions available in Dari and Pashto — the local languages — in an exceptional move to try to influence the narrative.

The Taliban appeared to be moving just as quickly to win the battle to define the incident. A statement posted on the group’s website within hours of the shootings said, “The so-called American peace keepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar province,” adding that, “the American invaders backed by their puppets (ANA) left their base last night and raided several homes of locals,” playing on repeated Afghan protests of NATO’s extremely unpopular night raids. (ANA refers to the Afghan National Army.) The statement, which shows a gruesome picture of slain children, claimed that 50 bodies had been recovered but that more people remain unaccounted for and that some of the houses were burnt in an effort to make the attack look like an air strike.

In the photos, Afghan villagers can be seen crowded around bodies wrapped in bloody blankets. TIME’s Afghan source in Panjwayi said the villagers were, like the Taliban, claiming the shootings were the work of more than one soldier since there was simultaneous firing in the north and south of the village. “This was not the job of one person,” the source was told. Regardless of investigations, press releases and YouTube videos, experience has shown that in Afghanistan, rumor often eclipses fact, and prospects for winning this particular battle for “hearts and minds” are slim. Instead, the coming week may see a new wave of violence.

This article originally appeared at: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2108764,00.html

Written by johnwendle

April 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,210 other followers