Afghan Attack Suspect at Leavenworth

By: Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press
By: Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press

Afghan Attack Suspect at Leavenworth

Fort Leavenworth, KS (AP) - The soldier accused of gunning down 16 Afghan villagers has arrived at a U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Army officials said in a statement released early to The Associated Press that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales arrived at the prison in northeast Kansas Friday night. He placed in his own cell at the prison adjacent to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks.

Bales is a 38-year-old Army veteran who was in the midst of his fourth war zone tour. He arrived in Afghanistan in December. He was assigned Feb. 1 to work with a force that pairs troops with villagers to help provide neighborhood security.

He's accused of going on a shooting rampage near his southern Afghanistan base early Sunday, killing nine children and seven other civilians, then burning some bodies.

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Suspect in Killing of Afghan Civilians Identified
by Robert Burns, AP

Washington, D.C. (AP) - A senior U.S. official says the soldier accused in the killing of 16 Afghan civilians is Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation into an incident that has roiled relations with Afghanistan.

American officials had previously said the suspect was a 38-year staff sergeant and that he had spent 11 years in the Army. But they had refused to release his name, saying it is military policy to publicly name a suspect only after he has been charged with an offense.

Bales has not yet been charged. He was being flown Friday from Kuwait to a military detention center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

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Panetta: Death Penalty Possible in Afghan Shooting
-- March 12, 2012 --

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the death penalty is a consideration as the military moves to investigate and possibly put on trial a U.S. soldier suspected of gunning down 16 Afghans.

In his first public remarks on the incident, Panetta said Monday the shootings must not derail the military mission in Afghanistan, and pressure to do so from political leaders in Kabul and Washington must not alter that course.

He said the U.S. seems to get confronted every other day with challenges that test U.S. leadership and its commitment to the mission.

Panetta shed little light on what may have triggered the weekend massacre, but said officials will use the military justice system, and that capital punishment is possible.

He spoke with reporters traveling with him to Kyrgyzstan on Monday.

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U.S. Official: Suspect in Killings Trained as Sniper
by Heidi Vogt and Mirwais Khan

Kandahar, Afghanistan (AP) - The soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, most of them children, and burning their bodies was trained as a sniper and recently suffered a head injury in Iraq, U.S. officials said Monday.

The name of the suspect, a married, 38-year-old father of two, has not been released. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said he may face capital charges, and that the U.S. must resist pressure from Washington and Kabul to change course in Afghanistan because of anti-American outrage over the shooting.

"We seem to get tested almost every other day with challenges that test our leadership and our commitment to the mission that we're involved in," Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Kyrgyzstan. "War is hell."

A U.S. official said that during a recent tour of duty in Iraq, the suspect was involved in a vehicle accident and suffered a head injury. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is under investigation.

The vehicle accident was not a combat-related event, the official said. There was no available indication about the extent of the injury, or whether his injury could be linked to any abnormal behavior afterward.

Two U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the suspect had been trained as a sniper.

Sunday's attack in southern Kandahar province unfolded in two villages near a U.S. base. Villager Mohammad Zahir recounted how an American soldier burst into his home in the middle of the night, searched the rooms, then dropped to a knee and shot his father in the thigh as he emerged from a bedroom.

"He was not holding anything - not even a cup of tea," Zahir said.

The shootings come as anti-Americanism already is boiling over in Afghanistan after U.S. troops burned Qurans last month and a video of Marines urinating on alleged Taliban corpses was posted on the Internet in January.

If the attack unleashes another wave of anti-foreigner hatred, it could threaten the future of the U.S.-led coalition's mission in Afghanistan. The events have also raised doubts among U.S. political figures that the long and costly war is worthy.

An enraged Afghan President Hamid Karzai called it "an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians" that cannot be forgiven. He demanded an explanation from Washington for the deaths, which included nine children and three women.

NATO and member countries said the slayings were a blow to the alliance's efforts to cultivate trust but would not affect the timeline to hand over security operations to Afghans by the end of 2014. The White House said U.S. objectives will not change because of the killings.

Outraged Afghan lawmakers called for a suspension of talks on how to formalize a long-term U.S. military presence in the country and demanded that the shooter face trial in an Afghan court.

The soldier, a staff sergeant who has been in the military for 11 years and served three tours in Iraq, was being held in pretrial confinement in Kandahar by the U.S. military while Army officials review his complete deployment and medical history, Pentagon officials said.

The soldier's name was not released because it would be "inappropriate" to do so before charges are filed, said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

But Panetta, his first public remarks on the incident, said Monday evening the death penalty is a consideration as the military moves to investigate and possibly put the suspect on trial.

The soldier was deployed to Afghanistan on Dec. 3 with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord located south of Seattle, according to a congressional source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

He was attached Feb. 1 to the village stability program in Belambai, a half-mile from one of the villages where the attack took place, the source said.

Zahir told how he watched the soldier enter his house and move through it methodically, checking each room.

"I heard a gunshot. When I came out of my room, somebody entered our house. He was in a NATO forces uniform. I didn't see his face because it was dark," he said.

Zahir, 26, said he quickly went to a part of the house where animals are penned.

"After that, I saw him moving to different areas of the house - like he was searching," he said.

His father, unarmed, then took a few steps out of his bedroom, Zahir recalled. Then the soldier fired.

"I love my father, but I was sure that if I came out he would shoot me too. So I waited." Zahir said. His mother started pulling his father into the room, and he helped cover his father's bullet wound with a cloth. Zahir's father survived.

After the gunman left, Zahir said he heard more gunshots near the house, and he stayed in hiding for a few minutes to make sure he was gone.

Tensions between Afghanistan and the United States soared last month after word of the Quran burnings got out. President Barack Obama said the burnings were a mistake and apologized.

The strains had appeared to be easing as recently as Friday, when the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding about the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan control - a key step toward an eventual strategic partnership to govern U.S. forces in the country after most combat troops leave in 2014.

In Afghanistan's parliament, however, lawmakers called Monday for a halt to talks on the strategic partnership document until it is clear that soldier behind the shooting rampage is facing justice in Afghanistan.

"We said to Karzai: If you sign that document, you are betraying your country," said Shikiba Ashimi, a parliamentarian from Kandahar. "There is no more tolerance for this kind of incident. It is over, over. We want such people on trial inside Afghanistan, in Afghan courts."

"The U.S. should be very careful. It is sabotaging the atmosphere of this strategic partnership," she added.

Currently, American service members in Afghanistan are subject to U.S. military law and proceedings. But the parliamentarians said they want this changed in the document under negotiation. The U.S. is unlikely to agree to that issue, pulling out of Iraq when Baghdad demanded the right to prosecute U.S. forces.

The photographs of dead toddlers wrapped in bloody blankets in Panjwai district started to make the rounds in Afghanistan on Monday. The images were broadcast on Afghan TV stations, and people posted them on social network sites and blogs.

The public response to the shootings so far has been calmer than the six days of riots and attacks after Qurans were burned at Bagram Air Field, leaving 30 people dead including six U.S. soldiers.

The more muted response could be a result of Afghans being used to dealing with civilian casualties over a decade of war. Some said the slayings in Panjwai was more in keeping with Afghans' experience of deadly night raids and airstrikes than the Quran burnings were.

"It's not that these things have an immediate effect, it's that they exacerbate tensions, and I think we're seeing the U.S. and the Afghan governments being really impatient with each other. There's an element of mistrust, and these incidents really exacerbate that," said Kate Clark, of the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network.

There's also a question of how the slayings will affect ongoing attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, who may feel that they have a stronger position to appeal to the people. The insurgent group vowed revenge for the attack.

The al-Qaida-linked militant group said in a statement on their website that "sick-minded American savages" committed the "blood-soaked and inhumane crime" in a rural region that is the cradle of the Taliban and where coalition forces have fought for control for years.

U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan have stepped up security following the shootings out of concern about retaliatory attacks. The U.S. Embassy has also warned American citizens in Afghanistan about the possibility of reprisals. As standard practice, the coalition increased security following the shootings out of concern about retaliatory attacks, said German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a coalition spokesman.

The suspect in the shootings began his first deployment to Afghanistan in December, according to a senior U.S. official. However, he had only been assigned to the base in Panjwai about six weeks ago, the congressional source said.

He is from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and was assigned to support a special operations unit of either Green Berets or Navy SEALs engaged in a village stability operation, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still ongoing. Special operations troops pair with local residents chosen by village elders to become essentially a sanctioned, armed neighborhood watch.

The Army Criminal Investigation Division has started an investigation into the incident, said Chris Grey, a spokesman for the division. He declined to give other details to protect the integrity of the investigation.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said the gunman left the base in Panjwai district and walked about one mile (1,800 meters) to Balandi village. Villagers described how they cowered in fear around 3 a.m. as gunshots rang out and the soldier roamed from house to house, firing on those inside. They said he entered three homes in all and set fire to some of the bodies after he killed them.

Eleven of the 12 civilians killed in Balandi were from the same family. The remaining victim was a neighbor.

From Balandi, the gunman walked roughly one mile to the village of Alkozai, which was only about 500 meters from the American military base. There the gunman killed four people in one house and then moved to Zahir's house, where he shot his father in the leg.

The exact circumstances of his arrest were unclear. Some U.S. officials said the soldier returned to base after the shootings and was taken into custody, while later reports suggested he did not turn himself in.

Some Afghan officials and villagers expressed doubt that a single U.S. soldier could have carried out all the killings and burned the bodies afterward. Some villagers also told officials there were multiple soldiers and heard shooting from different directions. But many others said they only saw a single soldier.

Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, another spokesman for the coalition, insisted there was only one gunman.

"There's no indication that there was more than one shooter," he said.

Agha Lalia, member of the Kandahar provincial council who is from Panjwai district, said he spoke to two people who were injured in the shooting at a hospital at Kandahar Air Field, where they are being treated by coalition medical personnel. Both said they only saw one soldier shooting.

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Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez, Amir Shah, Sebastian Abbot and Deb Riechmann in Kabul and Pauline Jelinek and Bob Burns in Washington contributed to this report. Gene Johnson contributed from Seattle.

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Shootings Further Dent Americans' Support for War
by Anne Gearan, AP National Security Writer

Washington, D.C. (AP) - The weekend massacre of Afghan civilians, allegedly carried out by a U.S. soldier, newly undermines the rationale for a war that a majority of Americans already thought wasn't worth fighting. But the Obama administration and its allies insisted Monday the horrific episode would not speed up plans to pull out foreign forces.

President Barack Obama cautioned against a "rush for the exits," telling television interviewers that the killings underscored the need to hand over responsibility for security to Afghans. He called the episode tragic, but said he would stick to his plan to gradually withdraw forces over the next two years.

"Keep in mind that I have put us on a path where we're going to have this war over by the end of 2014, that our troops will be coming out, but we'll be coming out responsibly," Obama said in an interview with KABC in Los Angeles.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the killings "inexplicable."

Speaking at the United Nations in New York, Clinton vowed that the incident "does not change our steadfast dedication to protecting the Afghan people and to doing everything we can to build a strong and stable Afghanistan."

A U.S. Army staff sergeant is accused of slipping away from his base in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and shooting nearby villagers in their homes. The house-by-house attack killed 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children asleep in their beds. The Pentagon offered no explanation of a possible motive, and would not release the soldier's name.

The killings were the latest in a series of deadly incidents that caused outrage for both Americans and Afghans.

The killing of Americans by their Afghan hosts and of Afghans by the Americans who are supposed to help them have forced an acute examination of a war strategy that calls for Afghans to assume greater responsibility for security through mentoring and "shoulder by shoulder" joint operations.

Despite the deaths, "Our strategic objectives have not changed and they will not change," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking with reporters traveling with him to Kyrgyzstan, said the death penalty is a consideration as the military moves to investigate and possibly put on trial the soldier suspected in the deaths. In his first public remarks on the incident, Panetta said Monday the shootings must not derail the military mission in Afghanistan, and pressure to do so from political leaders in Kabul and Washington must not alter that course.

Obama expanded the Afghan war in the first year of his presidency, saying it was in keeping with U.S. national security interests in contrast to the Iraq war he opposed. But the war, now in its 11th year, remains a stalemate in much of the country, while the al-Qaida terror network that the war is supposed to deter has largely abandoned Afghanistan. U.S. commandos killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden last year.

"It's been a decade, and frankly now that we've gotten bin Laden and we've weakened al-Qaida, we're in a stronger position" to hand over security control to the Afghans, Obama said in an interview with Pittsburgh station KDKA.

The war is increasingly becoming a political headache for Obama, with American voters showing increased frustration and Republican rivals accusing him of mishandling it.

In results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted before the killings and released Sunday, 55 percent of respondents said they think most Afghans oppose what the United States is trying to do there. And 60 percent said the war in Afghanistan has been "not worth fighting."

Under an agreement with the Afghan government, some U.S. and NATO forces are to stay in Afghanistan at least through the end of 2014.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sought assurances that the foreign forces that support his fragile government will not leave en masse. He is due to leave office in 2014, and both he and Western leaders have said it will take that long to get the Afghan military ready to take on Taliban-led militants who are unlikely to quit the fight.

Carney would not say whether Obama worries that the killings increase security risks for Americans in Afghanistan. The United States has about 90,000 troops in the country; that number is scheduled to drop to 68,000 by the end of September.

Military movements were kept to a minimum Monday near the shooting site as commanders waited to see how the local population reacts, but there were no huge protests in the country. U.S. officials were worried that the Taliban would stoke public outrage this week in an attempt to turn the regular Friday prayer sessions into mass demonstrations.

"We're fully aware that this has the possibility of raising ire and emotions in a place where tensions are already running high," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "We would appeal for calm. "

Like other U.S. officials, Toner promised a thorough U.S. investigation and prosecution.

Many Republicans - who as a party fought against a quick exodus in Iraq and criticized Obama's 2008 presidential campaign promise to end that war - are now reluctant to embrace a continued commitment in Afghanistan.

"We have to either make a decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out and probably get out sooner" than planned in 2014, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said Monday. He spoke on NBC's "Today" show.

Said GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich: "I think that we're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may, frankly, not be doable."

Still, Mitt Romney said he "wouldn't jump to a new policy based upon some deranged, crazy person."

Even before the shootings, anti-Americanism was boiling in Afghanistan over U.S. troops burning Muslim holy books, including Qurans, last month on an American base. The burnings came to light soon after a video purporting to show four Marines urinating on Taliban corpses was posted on the Internet in January.

Americans, meanwhile, were outraged by the killings of American military advisers by Afghan soldiers. In the month of February, there were at least seven cases of Americans killed by Afghan soldiers - more than died in combat.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said the weekend killing spree has not changed the U.S. approach to the war. He said the incident should be seen as an aberration.

"This is having no impact on the war effort at this time," he said. "No one should think that we are steering away from our partnership with the Afghan people, from our partnership with the Afghan security forces and from our commitment to prosecute the war effort."

But the strategy is already changing in small ways, with plans to shift combat operations to the Afghans earlier than once envisioned and some of the NATO partners largely recruited to the war by the U.S. increasingly entertaining an earlier exit.

Many war analysts predict a further telescoping of the withdrawal calendar after a NATO summit in May. Obama is hosting that meeting, in his adopted home town of Chicago.

Some of Obama's close advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, opposed the large troop buildup Obama authorized in 2009. Obama has heard from advisers and analysts who remain ambivalent about whether a large U.S. "footprint" may do more harm than good, by presenting a target for Afghan anger and feeding the insurgent narrative that the Americans are colonial invaders.

The U.S. and Afghanistan are currently struggling to frame a security agreement that would govern how smaller numbers of U.S. forces can operate in the country after 2014, when the mission would narrow to hunting terrorists, conducting specialized military training and keeping an eye on neighboring Iran. The U.S. envisions a force of perhaps 20,000, according to military officials.

The U.S. role in civilian deaths has been a major sticking point in negotiations.

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Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor traveling with Panetta and Matthew Lee, Robert Burns, Julie Pace and Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.


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