Kandahar massacre has provoked outrage from Afghan parliament

By Robert Whittaker

© The US Army

In the early hours of Sunday morning a US soldier broke into three homes in Panjwai district in Southern Afghanistan and killed 16 civilians including 9 children. A further five people were wounded.

US officials have announced that the suspected perpetrator, a 38-year-old staff sergeant, surrendered soon after the attacks and is currently being held. NATO has identified only one killer whilst some eye-witnesses claim that more soldiers were involved; President Hamid Karzai has sent a team to investigate.

In response to the massacre, President Barack Obama issued a statement offering his condolences to the Afghani people and described the incident as “tragic and shocking.” From the Afghani side, President Karzai has called the shootings “unforgivable” and the Parliament have gone further announcing that the Afghani people are “running out of patience” with the US-led NATO troops deployed in the country.

Unsurprisingly, they are also demanding a public trial and when US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta was asked whether a death sentence could be used, he replied “that could be a consideration.” In his March 11th statement, President Obama declared that the incident “does not represent the exceptional character of our [the US] military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.” But recent incidents do not lend themselves kindly to Obama’s defence of his troops. In January 2012 a video was released showing US soldiers urinating on dead Afghans and last month saw US troops accidentally burning copies of the Qur’an.

The total number of civilian deaths from the war has not been accurately recorded but the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) counted over 3000 civilian deaths in 2011. Most civilian deaths are attributed to the actions of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, but Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International decries a general “lack of accountability and compensation for casualties caused by NATO and Afghan forces.”

Of course, fatalities have been high on all sides with the US death toll nearly at 2000 and the UK’s recently rising above 400, but feelings of injustice and persecution on the part of the Afghan public can only make the tough task of the 130,000 NATO troops even harder.

The US Embassy in Kabul has issued an emergency message to US citizens in Afghanistan articulating fears that the massacre will provoke anti-American violence. A Panjwai district elder, however, told the BBC that as long as the soldier is put on trial, then there will be no protests.

Both NATO and President Karzai have announced that justice will be done, but some tribal elders have gone further, demanding that the US stops all night raids on Afghan homes. Of course, NATO and Afghan forces will fear a similar backlash to the one after the Qur’an burning catastrophe last month, when widespread protests coincided with two NATO officers being killed inside Kabul’s Interior Ministry.

Violent protests were also seen in response to last year’s burning of the Qur’an by the American pastor Terry Jones, with several UN staff losing their lives. Inevitably, the Taliban have used such incidents to their advantage and last month they encouraged people to attack NATO forces; the Kandahar massacre provides yet more ammunition for the Taliban propaganda machine.

The reasons for the killing are as yet unknown, with some speculation around mental health problems and the possible influence of drink or drugs. Hopefully a trial will shed some light on this. Similarly, only time will tell what the knock-on effect of this tragic incident will be. Some argued that the Qur’an-burning incident was a game-changer, a potential “tipping point” and inevitably there has been conjecture about the wide-reaching consequences of this attack.

Of course, in this quest for political stability in Afghanistan, so much depends on the Afghani public’s perception of foreign troops. Although the shootings appear to be the unsolicited actions of an individual soldier they are still tragic for this embattled nation. In addition, they will provoke yet more questions about what this war has achieved after 10 ½ years.

The Afghan, British and US governments were all quick to announce that NATO troops should remain in Afghanistan and Obama warned against “a rush for the exits.” Obama has reiterated the aim of a total withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014 and emphasised the need for a responsible exit from Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that Afghanistan’s long term problems cannot be solved in the next 2 ½ years and certainly Obama and David Cameron won’t be able to solve them in their meetings this week. Nevertheless, both countries still have a huge role to play in terms of financial and military support. As for the Kandahar massacre itself, let’s hope that a proper trial is enacted post-haste.

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