Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Posts Tagged ‘Staff Sgt Robert Bales

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

Traumatic Brain Injury: Hidden Peril for U.S. Soldiers in Combat

leave a comment »

By John Wendle / Kabul

Monday, Mar. 19, 2012

It was mid-October 2011 and first platoon had already been fighting for its life for a few days. The 10 Afghans and 26 Americans had withstood repeated assaults by an estimated 300 to 500 insurgents who had crossed the border from bases in Pakistan. Fighters got within five meters of the platoon’s battle positions — with some coming through the perimeter wire. They almost overran the position four times — something that has happened before in Kunar province, with deadly consequences. Now the insurgents had the position dialed in on their 82mm mortars.

“Sgt. Sanes got hit with two rounds simultaneously on his position within five meters,” platoon Staff Sgt. Anthony Fuentes told TIME a few days after the fight. The rounds landed just as an Afghan Army sergeant was firing a recoilless rifle. The blast knocked him to the ground and his round exploded inside their position. After that, “our weapons squad leader [Sanes] was giving fire commands to a rock. That’s what happened in our case. They got nauseous, they couldn’t vomit (but they wanted to), they couldn’t focus and they had double vision,” says Fuentes.

(Alleged Afghan Slayer’s Growing List of Mitigating Circumstances)

His eyes still somewhat glassy after coming off the mountaintop position of Outpost Shal just four days before, Staff Sgt. Michael Sanes said, “I was a little out of it and I was screaming for my [machine] gunner to get back on the gun and shoot. I was like… ‘shoot and shoot,’ and he was already shooting. I was a little out of it from the blast. I got my bell rung.” It was Sanes’ third combat tour. The heavy fighting to take the mountaintop position lasted some eight days and the platoon had to call in multiple danger close artillery missions and airstrikes in which heavy ordnance was dropped within 300 meters of their positions. VIDEO: New Hope for Brain Trauma Victims

The pounding that Sanes and his men took may have been intense but multiply it by hundreds and thousands of incidents over a range of severity and you have the potential causes for what may be a murkily diagnosed set of symptoms affecting U.S. servicemen and veterans. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, has called Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) “the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Though no clear statistics exist for TBI, it is estimated that there are between 115,000 and 400,000 veterans who now suffer from at least mild versions of it.

(PHOTOS: The Afghan Massacre)

TBI may have a role in the case of staff sergeant Robert Bales who allegedly killed 16 civilians. According to his Seattle lawyer, Bales supposedly suffered a concussive brain injury. He reportedly lost part of a foot in another battle-sustained injury. The sergeant was averse to returning to duty, said the lawyer, who described his client as “decorated.” Bales, the lawyer said, had just seen his best friend lose a leg the day before. Sources talking to the New York Times described the suspect as having marriage, alcohol and stress related problems and “just snapped.” The lawyer, however, denied that alcohol and marital issues were involved in the incident.

On Tuesday, Rep. Pascrell sent a letter on Tuesday to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta seeking information on the staff sergeant’s injury, diagnosis and treatment. “Over the years I have become increasingly concerned about that the [Defense] Department’s system for identifying service members with traumatic brain injuries has not been working,” Pascrell wrote. “It is critical that we know whether the systems the Department has in place to identify these injuries and provide treatment are adequate and that the needs of our injured soldiers are being properly met,” The Star-Ledger reported.

Though the military has made some improvements over the past decade in diagnosing and treating TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), much more needs to be done, particularly because President Barack Obama has made it clear that the U.S. will stay in Afghanistan until scheduled 2014 deadline, ensuring that thousands more soldiers will suffer physical and emotional trauma.

The Veterans Affairs Department says that because protective and lifesaving technologies have advanced, soldiers who would have died from their wounds are living today — but they are living with TBI and PTSD. The VA defines TBI as the result of something striking the head with “significant force.” This can happen, for example, after an improvised explosive device explodes under a vehicle. The VA says, “individuals who sustain a TBI may experience a variety of effects, such as an inability to concentrate, an alteration of the senses, difficulty speaking, and emotional and behavioral changes.” The VA defines PTSD as an anxiety disorder occurring after living through a life-threatening or traumatic event. Symptoms include flashbacks, avoiding situations that remind the survivor of the event, feeling emotionally numb or feeling keyed up and jittery. All of these have led veterans to higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and relationship and employment problems.

“The military has a long way to go in addressing the mental health needs of soldiers. Young people come into the military at an age when mental health problems are often first emerging, and then are thrust into situations that even the healthiest person would find traumatic and destabilizing,” says Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch’s researcher in Afghanistan, who spent seven years working with mentally impaired prisoners in the U.S.

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

Part of the failure comes from a simple lack of mental health professionals in theater. Captain David Weller, a social worker in Regional Command East, the war torn area that covers most of Afghanistan’s violent border with Pakistan, was flown from his offices at Jalalabad Airbase to Combat Outpost Monti to counsel the Sgt. Sanes’ platoon just days after the battle to take OP Shal. Weller tells TIME that, besides himself, there is one psychiatrist, one psychologist, a second social worker and four technicians to look after the mental health of around 33,000 troops at 21 forward operating bases and combat outposts in one of Afghanistan’s most violent commands. “There are only a few of us for a big area.” By mid-October 2011, Cpt. Weller had seen close to 200 people one-on-one and “a lot more off the cuff.” He had been deployed for two months at that point. “I spend all my time counseling soldiers. But they need it.”

When asked if the soldiers could be scarred for their whole lives, Weller said, “if they don’t deal with it and they don’t learn how to deal with the emotional side of everything and learn how to process that. That’s why we have the stress team and we’re forward deployed. We try to get out there as quickly as possible and talk to them about what they’ve seen. Cause it doesn’t take a six day or ten day event. It could be one event. A rollover. An explosion. Seeing somebody dying. We don’t know what will trigger it. Everybody’s different.” Says Weller, “a lot of [first platoon’s soldiers] were very overwhelmed with what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced. The adrenaline rush. What we experience on a normal basis lasts 30 seconds to a couple minutes here and there. And they went through days of it at a time.”

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

Cpt. Weller says he sees, “issues related to insomnia and nightmares, a lot of guys that tend to avoid crowds. They feel like they’ve always got to check their surroundings. They feel like they need to check places where an IED might be, or they might check places where a sniper might be. And this could all be going on while they’re sitting in a restaurant back home. Or sitting at a ballgame, if they go to a ballgame. You see a lot of avoidance. We see a lot of people turn to drugs and alcohol, just cause its so difficult to deal with. And, if it’s bad enough, we see paranoia, and different things like that.”

Back in October 2011, Fuentes said that his soldiers were “having a hard time sleeping. It was our sister element who took the casualty, [when a helicopter’s rotor blade beheaded a medic who came in to collect the wounded Afghan sergeant and others], and it was our guys who stepped in and cleaned up all the… aftermath, and they’re having some problems with that. Not being able to wind down. Winding down’s the hardest thing.” Staff Sgt. Everett Bracey said, “just being in such a high stress environment for nine days has definitely taken its toll on everybody in this platoon.” Captain Michael Kolton, the company commander, said he had already evacuated around 25 soldiers diagnosed with TBI out of around 200 in the company by mid-October, just seven months into a yearlong deployment.

MORE: Post-Massacre: Whither Afghanistan?

MORE: What We Need to Learn From The Afghan Massacre

This article originally appeared at TIME at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2109277,00.html.

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 1,216 other followers