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Shooting Is Another Blow To U.S.-Afghan Relations


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's try now to understand how an American soldier came to be accused of a mass killing in Afghanistan. He turned himself in after the shooting of more than a dozen men, women and children near his combat outpost in Kandahar Province. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us to talk about what's known and what this could mean for the U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan. Tom, what is the latest is the latest that military officials are telling you about what happened here?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Steve, officials say an American soldier, a staff sergeant, walked out of his combat outpost in a rural area just outside Kandahar City a few hours before dawn, (technical difficulty) for a village or maybe a series of villages just several hundred yards away. And then he opened fire, killing anywhere from 13 to 16 men, women and children. Several more were wounded and taken to an American base for medical care. And then the sergeant returned to his outpost and simply turned himself in.

INSKEEP: One of the mysteries here is that some of the survivors are contending that they thought that there was more than one American, some even have said many Americans, according to Quil Lawrence, our correspondent in Afghanistan. Is the military clearing that up at all?

BOWMAN: You know, as far as they know there's just one solider at this time. They said they only have one in custody. They have no knowledge of more than one soldier. So that's all we have at this point.

INSKEEP: OK. So, why? Why would this one soldier go on a shooting spree?

BOWMAN: There's really know explanation yet, Steve, and no idea what motivated him. Officials say there were no combat operations in the area at the time. We're told this sergeant was on his first deployment to Afghanistan. He'd done multiple tours in Iraq. He's 38 years old, married with two kids. His unit's from Fort Lewis, Washington. And they were supporting Special Forces in the area - Green Berets who were creating local police forces.

INSKEEP: I'm sure it's quite early to speculate on the state of mind of this person, but you said something that sounds significant. You said, no combat operations in the area at the time, which would appear to leave out the possibility that this was some inadvertent killing of civilians during an operation against Taliban guerrillas or something. This is something else entirely.

BOWMAN: That's right. Of course, there are civilian casualties at times, so, and it usually happens when, you know, there's a mistake in target, let's say; an airstrike or, you know, civilians get caught in the crossfire. That's not what happened in this case. And intentionally killing civilians is very rare. We've seen some instances of crimes being committed over the years by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq that left like maybe a handful of civilians dead, but nothing of this magnitude.

INSKEEP: You know, when you think, Tom Bowman, of the way that the U.S. military approaches counterinsurgency, trying to win over the populace, realizing it's a political fight as well as a military fight, this has got to be about the worst possible thing that could happen and at a particularly bad time.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. You're right. You know, counterinsurgency is all about winning over the people and getting them to work with you and with their government. And something like this can really destroy the fiber of that relationship.

And what's really bad now for American soldiers is as they draw down in Afghanistan - they're going to cut another 22,000 troops this year - they'll be breaking down small training teams, going out there into these rural areas, 18 member teams, and working with larger Afghan units. And that's going to put American soldiers in greater peril as more and more of these incidents come to light.

This is the third incident, actually, by the way. There's an incident involving Marines urinating on dead insurgents. A video was circulating about that. And also the Quran burning that happened up at Bagram Air Base. So this clearly doesn't help matters.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And our correspondent Quil Lawrence said that President Hamid Karzai was just trying to get past the latest episode when this one occurred.

Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.