A US soldier has shot dead 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children, in a night-time shooting spree in a village outside his base in southernAfghanistan, a rampage the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said was “impossible to forgive”.
The unprecedented attack on families asleep in their homes came as anti-foreign sentiment was already running high after Afghans discovered US troops had burned copies of the Qur’an at a militarybase.
That discovery prompted days of deadly violence. The killings in the early hours of Sunday morning are likely to fuel more anger across Afghanistan and raise questions in Kabul and the US about the future of an increasingly unpopular war.
About 1,000 people gathered to protest outside the Zangabad military base, in southern Kandahar province, on Sunday as the bodies were prepared for burial and news of the killings spread throughout the area, a ribbon of mud adobe compounds interspersed with pomegranate orchards, vineyards and fields of opium and marijuana.
Among the dead was a young girl in a green and red dress who had been shot in the forehead. The bodies of other victims appeared partially burned. A villager claimed they had been wrapped in blankets and set on fire by the killer.
It is not the first time that US soldiers have intentionally killed Afghan civilians but the toll is unprecedented for a single soldier. He was arrested after the assault, and appears to have made no attempt to cover up the shootings.
The commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, promised a thorough investigation. “I am absolutely dedicated to making sure that anyone who is found to have committed wrongdoing is held fully accountable,” he said, but his response is unlikely to do much to dampen the fury of Afghan officials or people.
Ustad Abdul Halim, who lives in the same village in Panjwai district, said: “It is not the first time foreigners have killed Afghans. Even if the Americans kill Karzai, they won’t be killed.” The district, a former Talibanstronghold, has seen years of heavy fighting between insurgents and coalition forces and is still volatile.
Reports that the soldier, a staff sergeant, might have suffered some kind of breakdown before embarking on his killing spree were rejected. “If the US say this man has mental problems it raises questions for them, as they don’t register anyone in their army if they have mental problems,” said a Kandahar government spokesman, Javed Faisal.
The US embassy warned of “a risk of anti-American feelings and protests in coming days, especially in eastern and southern provinces”.
Karzai, listed the dead – nine children, three women and four men – and described the killings as intentional murders that could not be forgiven. He has long criticised the western military for failing to do enough to prevent civilian casualties.
One family bore the brunt of the losses. When the gunman broke into their compound at around 3am, he killed all 11 people inside, villagers and officials said. The father of the family, Wazir, and one child survived because they were away from home.
Four people from one family, headed by a man called Fahed Jan, died along with one child from another family. Two injured children had head wounds and would struggle to survive, Faisal said.
Some villagers reported that more than one US soldier was involved, but Afghan officials and the Nato-led coalition said they believed the killer worked alone.
A string of abuses has soured attitudes to foreign military. A group of US soldiers killed three Afghan civilians for sport in 2010 in a different part of Kandahar province. In January, a video surfaced showing US marines apparently urinating on the corpses of three insurgents, and in February anger flared over the burning of the Qur’an.
The latest incident, together with the rising number of US and other coalition troops killed at the hands of Afghan security forces, has pushed ties between Karzai and his backers to a low point.
The US president, Barack Obama, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, are due to discuss UK and American plans for Afghanistan at a meeting in Washington on Tuesday.
Obama said he was deeply saddened. “I offer my condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives, and to the people of Afghanistan, who have endured too much violence and suffering. This incident … does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.”
Writing in the Guardian, the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, argues that Cameron appears to have abandoned any intensive diplomatic effort to secure a stable Afghanistan before British troops leave in 2014. He claims he “has an end-date, but still no end-state: no clear and realistic vision of what will be left behind”.
“Afghanistan is becoming Britain’s invisible conflict, yet the prime minister came to office promising Afghanistan would be his ‘number one priority’,” Alexander writes.
Mokhtar Amiri contributed to this report
If civilians kill people in small numbers, then they are called murderers. If they kill slightly more than that, then they are terrorists. They are subjected by the usual punitive code against murders. What about professional soldiers who kill unarmed non combatant civilians and children?
What laws should they be tried and if found guilty, punished?
What about their superiors, who have the fiduciary duty to the stakeholders, which include in this case diplomatic relationship?
In the past, US soldiers have killed civilians in their military engagements. No Gun Ri during the Korean War and My Lai in the Vietnam War were classical examples. During the illegal Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, US military’s cruelty on civilians were clearly demonstrated with the Abu Ghraib prison tortures.
If the Nazis during 1933-45 were globally loathed for these same reasons, why shouldn’t the world rise against the United States of America? Their acts of terrorism and cruelty have been consistently ‘re-appearing’ since sixty years ago.
There are enough evidence for the international community strongly must impose that it is illegal for the US to have any forms deadly force outside their own borders.