The murder of 17 Afghan civilians – most of them children – by staff sergeant Robert Bales may be far worse than we think at present. The semi-official story, as related by our compliant news media, is that a formerly model soldier went bananas under the pressure of war-related injuries, financial problems at home, and the all-purpose PTSD explanation for military misbehavior, whereupon he decided – at 3 am in the morning, after drinking with his army buddies – to walk the couple of miles to an Afghan village, shoot 16 people sleeping in their beds, pile the bodies atop a funeral pyre and set the whole thing alight.
How did he get out of the base at 3 am unchallenged and without anyone’s knowledge? How did he manage to do so much damage alone? These questions automatically register in the minimally critical mind – unless, of course, you’re an American reporter, who is quite used to accepting what our government tells us without question. On the other hand, without clear evidence of another – darker – scenario, all one can do is engage in problematic speculation. That problem has been solved, however, because evidence of an alternative explanation is now coming to light which throws the whole "lone nut" theory into question.
A few days before Bales went postal, there was a bomb attack on a US convoy in which a friend of Bales’s lost a leg: Bales’s lawyer has been detailing his client’s anger at this incident, implying it precipitated the murder spree. There are indications, however, that this is not the whole story. One local resident relates how the Americans paid a visit to the village where the killings took place and threatened residents with retaliation:
"Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from Panjwai district, gave an account of the bombing at a March 16 meeting in Kabul with Mr Karzai in the wake of the shootings. ‘After the incident, they took the wreckage of their destroyed tank and their wounded people from the area," Mr Rasool said. ‘After that, they came back to the village nearby the explosion site. The soldiers called all the people to come out of their houses and from the mosque,’ he said. ‘The Americans told the villagers ‘A bomb exploded on our vehicle. … We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people,’ Mr Rasool said."
So there was a direct threat, and not specifically from Bales but from an organized group of American soldiers presumably under the command of US army officers. Even more sinister is this report from the Christian Science Monitor:
"Several Afghans near the villages where an American soldier is alleged to have killed 16 civilians say U.S. troops lined them up against a wall after a roadside bombing and told them that they, and even their children, would pay a price for the attack.
"…One Mokhoyan resident, Ahmad Shah Khan, told The Associated Press that after the bombing, U.S. soldiers and their Afghan army counterparts arrived in his village and made many of the male villagers stand against a wall.
"’It looked like they were going to shoot us, and I was very afraid,’ Khan said. ‘Then a NATO soldier said through his translator that even our children will pay for this. Now they have done it and taken their revenge.’"
Another resident of Mokhoyan, Naek Mohammad, says that on the day of the IED attack he heard a loud explosion, went outside to investigate, and spoke with a neighbor. As they spoke, a group of Afghan army soldiers rounded them up and stood them against a wall. Mohammad says:
"’One of the villagers asked what was happening. The Afghan army soldier told him, ‘Shut up and stand there.’ Mohammad said a U.S. soldier, speaking through a translator, then said: ‘I know you are all involved and you support the insurgents. So now, you will pay for it — you and your children will pay for this.’"
Bales murdered 17 civilians, half of them children sleeping in their bed.
"In an emotional meeting with relatives of the shooting victims, Karzai said the villagers’ accounts of the massacre were widely different from the scenario depicted by U.S. military officials. The relatives and villagers insisted that it was impossible for one gunmen to kill nine children, four men and three women in three houses of two villages near a U.S. combat outpost in southern Afghanistan.
"Karzai pointed to one of the villagers from Panjwai district of Kandahar province 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.’
"Karzai said the delegation he sent to Kandahar province to investigate the shootings did not receive the expected co-operation from the United States. He said many questions remained about what occurred, and he would be raising the questions with the U.S. military ‘very loudly.’"
"The method employed is simple: Identify those who provide financial support or protection to the militants. And those who even have sympathies with them. Constitute teams which would go to the houses so identified, knock at the door and as soon as the wanted man appears, shoot him dead. At times a substitute is killed who may be a guest in the house but was unlucky to greet the intruders at the door. On an average about 50 night raids take place daily. And every night about 25 people are killed in cold blood in different parts of the country."
This is the "new" counterinsurgency doctrine – which is supposed to win "hearts and minds" – in practice: a program of systematic terror designed to dry up support for the Taliban by driving up the costs of collaborating with them. One may credibly argue it isn’t working, but this question seems beside the point: such a murderous strategy mandates the commission of war crimes. Whether it is "working" or not is irrelevant.
Another suspicious aspect of this whole affair is the extraordinary aura of secrecy surrounding it. The Pentagon kept Bales’s identity under wraps as long as it could, unlike in the case of, say, Major Hasan, the Ft. Hood shooter, whose name was out there almost as soon as the news hit the wires. In addition, they have treated Bales as if he were a cache of radioactive material, keeping him in complete isolation after spiriting him out of Afghanistan to Kuwait – without having notified the Kuwaitis – where his presence caused consternation and protests from the local authorities when it was discovered. He was soon back in the US, greeted by a cascade of sympathetic accounts in the media detailing his battlefield injuries, his "patriotic" persona, his alleged PTSD, and his myriad financial problems. As of this writing, he has been charged with 17 counts of murder: apparently the initial count of the dead was wrong.
The Afghans say the US military has been less than cooperative with the parliamentary investigation, and the Afghan chief of staff claims he was refused permission to see Bales. All of this has led to an outcry in Afghanistan, where the local are saying this was an organized revenge killing rather than Sergeant Psycho on a rampage. Which raises an intriguing question: organized by whom?
It seems to me there are two possibilities:
1) This was the result of a "rogue" group of soldiers acting on their own, motivated by the previous IED attack. Reports that Bales was drinking with a group of other soldiers the night of the massacre conjure images of a late-night venting climaxed by a senseless act of terror.
2) It was a "night raid" gone horribly wrong. This is suggested by the fact that the "official" story of what happened that night limns these night raids to a tee, except for the number of military personnel involved. And Karzai has a point: it is certainly possible Bales went to two residences, killed 16 women and children, and then gathered up the bodies and burned them in the space of a couple of hours, with no assistance from anyone — but how likely is it? About as likely as Bales’s claim not to remember anything of that night.
What is striking is how seamlessly these two scenarios blend into each other: even if this heinous crime was carried out by a "rogue" group of soldiers, how different is it from those night raids where they are acting under orders? The direct threats issued to the villagers, however, points to the possibility that they were acting with the knowledge of at least some higher-ups, who must have authorized the round-up, the use of a translator, and even the participation of the Afghan army.
What is worrying is that the numerous reports coming out of Afghanistan of rampant war crimes committed by "rogue" soldiers – "kill teams" – indicates a complete breakdown of the US chain of command. At the top of the command structure, the grand strategists and theoreticians are constructing elaborate theories of counterinsurgency warfare designed to win over the populace and deny the Taliban a victory. However, by the time "clear, hold, and build" trickles down to the ranks in the field, it becomes "clear, hold, and kill."
The reason is because no theory of counterinsurgency warfare, no strategy — no matter how clever — can win the hearts and minds of an occupied people. We can clear the Taliban out of a district, and even hold it with enough troops, but all we are building, in the end, is resentment and hatred of our presence.
The villagers are saying this was an act of revenge, but doesn’t that accurately describe the entire Afghan campaign in a nutshell? Short of actually getting Osama bin Laden at the outset of the invasion, revenge for the 9/11 attacks was clearly the reason we stayed after the battle of Tora Bora. The thin pretext given by the Bush administration — and, subsequently, the Obama administration – was that we had to stay in order to deprive al-Qaeda of a "safe haven." When it was discovered al-Qaeda was no longer around, the War Party turned to its fallback position: we can’t leave, they said, because the real "safe haven" is in Pakistan, and we need to guard the Afghan-Pakistan border to not only prevent the terrorists’ return but also to strike at them in their newfound lair.
The latest massacre has put the administration in a precarious position, not only with our Afghan allies but also with the American public. Story after story of nasty atrocities isn’t helping the battle for hearts and minds on the home front: polls show most Americans want out sooner rather than later. A deluge of sympathetic stories about the accused killer isn’t going to change this. What remains to be seen, however, is how this crime is going to be investigated – or not investigated – by the US military. If the testimony of the villagers contradicting the "lone nut" theory continues to be ignored by the Americans, we’ll know a cover up is in progress.