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History > 2012 > USA > War > Afghanistan (II)




Afghanistan Should Love Us

Daryl Cagle


March 14, 2012
















Pakistan Says U.S. Drone

Strike Kills Suspected Militants


May 24, 2012
The New York Times


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An American drone struck militant hide-outs in northwestern Pakistan for the second consecutive day on Thursday, despite public calls by the Pakistani government to halt the covert C.I.A. campaign.

Estimates varied on the number of fatalities in Thursday’s strike. Seven to 10 people suspected of being militants were believed to have died, government and locals said.

The drone strikes come at a time when diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan have worsened over Pakistan’s refusal to reopen NATO supply lines that were closed down last November. Pakistan has been demanding an American apology over an airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. In order to reopen the NATO supply lines, Pakistan’s Parliament has also demanded an end to drone strikes, and the government is seeking a much higher transit fee for each NATO container.

Thursday’s drone strike occurred in Hasso Khe in the Lar Dewar area of North Waziristan, an area considered a redoubt of local and foreign militants. Most of the militants killed in the strike were Uzbek fighters who belonged to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, said local residents who were reached by telephone.

A strike on Wednesday in the village of Datta Khel Kalai, also in North Waziristan, killed four suspected militants, The Associated Press reported, citing Pakistani intelligence officials.

The American drone strikes are immensely unpopular in the country and have caused increasing friction between the two countries. While the United States views the remotely piloted aircraft as vital in the fight against militants, the drones are seen as a breach of national sovereignty that also cause civilian deaths.

Politicians across the Pakistani political spectrum have been unanimous in their criticism of the drone strikes.

Earlier this week, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and the son of President Asif Ali Zardari and the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, demanded a halt in drone strikes during a speech in New York.

“The continuing unilateral U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil are a constant irritant to Pakistani public opinion — both as a clear violation of our sovereignty and the toll of collateral damage to innocent victims,” Mr. Zardari said, addressing a gathering of supporters. “I would like the American public to consider what their reaction would have been if American troops had been killed in such an attack on their border with Mexico.”

Political analysts here say that the anti-American public sentiment and the view that drones have caused a high number of civilian casualties forced the government to adopt a tough posture on the strikes, even though some officials previously gave tacit support for the strategy.

Protests against the drones have been more visible in the country’s urban areas though rarely seen in the tribal regions, where local residents acknowledge the drones have forced the militants to flee deeper into the mountains.

“It’s quite obvious that drones are giving the Americans the kind of results they want against the militants,” said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a columnist for the English language daily Dawn. “Drone strikes fill the gap that Pakistan’s armed forces and government should be filling, but are not.”

Mr. Paracha said that despite the public outcry, it is obvious that drone strikes will continue. “In reaction, there will be lots of the same old rhetoric, very little about the on-ground realities,” he said.

    Pakistan Says U.S. Drone Strike Kills Suspected Militants, NYT, 24.5.2012,






Supply Lines Cast Shadow

at NATO Meeting on Afghan War


May 20, 2012
The New York Times


CHICAGO — President Obama was struggling to balance the United States’ relationship with two crucial but difficult allies on Sunday, after a deal to reopen supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan fell apart just as Mr. Obama began talks on ending the NATO alliance’s combat role in the Afghan war.

As a two-day NATO summit meeting opened in Chicago, Mr. Obama remained at loggerheads with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, refusing even to meet with him without an agreement on the supply routes, which officials in both countries acknowledged would not be coming soon.

Mr. Zardari, who flew to Chicago with hopes of lifting his stature with a meeting with Mr. Obama, was preparing to leave empty-handed as the two countries continued to feel the repercussions of a fatal American airstrike last November, for which Mr. Obama has offered condolences but no apology. Mr. Zardari did, however, meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss the supply routes.

Pakistan closed the routes into Afghanistan after the strike, heightening tensions with Pakistani officials who say that the United States has repeatedly infringed on their sovereignty with drone strikes and other activities.

“This whole breakdown in the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has come down to a fixation of this apology issue,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Pakistan. The combination of no apology and no meeting, Mr. Nasr said, “will send a powerfully humiliating message back to Pakistan.”

American officials hope the summit of the 28-member alliance will set in motion an orderly conclusion of the decade-long war in Afghanistan, a huge undertaking. NATO aims to give Afghan forces the lead in combat operations next year to pave the way for the departure of NATO troops by the end of 2014. The NATO summit will also focus on financing Afghan forces for the next several years.

In a sign of the tensions surrounding Afghanistan, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Chicago on Sunday in opposition to the war and to NATO. The police clashed with some demonstrators who refused to disperse after a march down Michigan Avenue to McCormick Place, where world leaders were meeting.

Mr. Obama and his other tenuous ally in the region, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, huddled together Sunday morning to grapple with stalled reconciliation talks with the Taliban.

It was a measure of just how bad things have gotten between the United States and Pakistan that, by contrast, Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Karzai — which has been rocky ever since Mr. Obama came into office vowing to end what he viewed as former President George W. Bush’s coddling of the mercurial Afghan leader — looked calm and stable on Sunday.

The two men, fresh off Mr. Obama’s unannounced trip to Kabul this month to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Mr. Karzai that set the terms for relations after the departure of American troops in 2014, presented a united front before reporters after a one-hour meeting on the outskirts of the NATO summit. It was a sharp contrast with the past, when Mr. Karzai berated American troops, threatened to join the Taliban and chastised the American-led NATO mission.

There was none of that on Sunday. During their session, the two men joked about limits in both of their countries that would prevent them from serving more than two terms; Mr. Obama trotted out his familiar “look at all the gray hair I have now” line that he likes using to describe how tough his term has been.

“I want to express my appreciation for the hard work that President Karzai has done,” Mr. Obama said after the meeting, standing next to Mr. Karzai. “He recognizes the enormous sacrifices American troops have made.”

Mr. Obama quickly added: “We recognize the hardships that Afghans have been through during these many many years of war.”

Mr. Karzai, for his part, said he would work to make sure that Afghanistan is not a “burden on the shoulders of our friends” in the international community.

“For all the twists and turns in this relationship, we now very much want to get to very much the same place,” one Obama administration official said. He credited the strategic partnership agreement, which he says has given Mr. Karzai a level of reassurance that the United States and NATO will not abandon Afghanistan once combat troops leave the country. “The discussion today was very much about what do we have to do over the next two years to close out our piece of the war.”

On the Pakistani front, however, things seem to deteriorate.

American and Pakistani officials expressed optimism last week that an agreement on re-establishing supply routes was imminent. Negotiators were narrowing their differences after three weeks of intense deliberations, they said, and it was hoped that an invitation for Pakistan to attend the summit would engender the good will needed to close the gap between the two sides.

The invitation was accepted, and Mr. Zardari arrived in Chicago on Saturday. But a deal on the supply lines remained elusive, and Mr. Obama would not meet with Mr. Zardari without it, American officials said.

The supply lines, through which about 40 percent of NATO’s nonlethal supplies had passed, were closed in late November after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in American airstrikes along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The deaths capped a year of crises between the United States and Pakistan that put immense strain on the two countries’ already fragile relationship.

The failure to strike a deal on the supply routes ahead of the summit injects new tension into the relationship. “When NATO extended the invitation, we thought it would move the Pakistanis off the dime,” a senior American official said. Without the deal, “it’s going to be really uncomfortable” for Mr. Zardari at the summit, which runs through Monday, said the official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the talks.

American officials said the main sticking point was the amount NATO would pay for each truck carrying supplies from Karachi, on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, to the Afghan border. Before the closing, the payment per truck was about $250. Pakistan is now asking for “upward of $5,000” for each truck, another American official said.

Mr. Obama called off a planned visit to Pakistan last year after the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden. That Bin Laden had been living there confirmed what American officials had long suspected: Despite Pakistani protests to the contrary, the man behind the Sept. 11 attacks had been hiding in the country for years.

Mr. Obama did telephone Mr. Zardari a few hours after the raid to inform him that Navy Seals had done an incursion into Pakistani territory to kill Bin Laden, and during that conversation Mr. Zardari “spoke with emotion about the fact that these people were associated with the killing of his wife,” Benazir Bhutto, the senior official said.

The NATO summit formally opened on Sunday, with leaders listening to taps to honor the soldiers killed in the Afghan conflict.

In remarks at the opening session, Mr. Obama said the end of the war was in sight. Officials hope to announce on Monday that by the middle of 2013, American soldiers will no longer be in the lead in any combat operations around the country, and Afghanistan’s own national security forces will assume control.

It remains unclear just how smooth that transition will go, as Afghan forces have not demonstrated a lasting ability to secure the country. But after more than a decade of war, there is combat fatigue in the NATO countries.

Mr. Obama, who has pushed to bring troops home, has been at odds with his own military commanders over the pace of the American withdrawal. Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Gen. John Allen, the top United States military commander in Afghanistan, said that American troops will still be involved in combat next year even after the United States shifts to a support role.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington,

and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan.

    Supply Lines Cast Shadow at NATO Meeting on Afghan War, NYT, 20.5.2012,






Parents of P.O.W. Reveal U.S. Talks on Taliban Swap


May 9, 2012
The New York Times


HAILEY, Idaho — The parents of the only American soldier held captive by Afghan insurgents have broken a yearlong silence about the status of their son, abruptly making public that he is a focus of secret negotiations between the Obama administration and the Taliban over a proposed prisoner exchange.

The negotiations, currently stalled, involved a trade of five Taliban prisoners held at the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of the Army, who is believed to be held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan’s northwest frontier, on the Afghan border. Sergeant Bergdahl was captured in Paktika Province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. His family has not heard from him in a year, since they saw him in a Taliban video, although they and the Pentagon believe that he is alive and well.

The family’s decision to end its silence could free up the Obama administration to discuss the case publicly and reframe the debate in Washington about releasing the Taliban prisoners, which is seen as a crucial confidence-building measure in efforts to strike a political settlement with the Taliban. American officials believe that a peace deal would help ensure Afghanistan’s stability after 2014, when most American and NATO forces will have left the country. In the absence of a prisoner exchange agreement, those talks are “moribund,” one Western official said.

Until now, the administration has said publicly only that the negotiations included talks about releasing the five prisoners from Guantánamo to the custody of the government in Qatar — which some Democrats and Republicans in Congress have opposed — and not that the five might be exchanged for Sergeant Bergdahl.

Sergeant Bergdahl’s father, Robert Bergdahl, said in interviews with The New York Times near the family’s home here on Tuesday and Wednesday that he was frustrated by the lack of progress on the talks, which he believes are stalled because the Obama administration is reacting to pressure from Congress in an election year not to negotiate with terrorists.

“We don’t have faith in the U.S. government being able to reconcile this,” Mr. Bergdahl said.

Although Sergeant Bergdahl’s captivity has long been publicly known, the family had kept the prisoner exchange negotiations secret at the urging of the Obama administration and out of fear that their son might be harmed. But the Taliban suspended talks in March in large part because of their frustration with what they see as Washington’s dragging its feet over the exchange.

American officials counter that the Taliban have not agreed to a major American demand: a travel ban intended to keep the transferred detainees from leaving Qatar and returning to the battlefields of Afghanistan or insurgent havens in Pakistan.

Mr. Bergdahl, who said he wanted to bring more attention to his son’s plight and pressure the administration to revive the negotiations, decided to go public after a P.O.W. group asked him to speak in Washington during the coming Memorial Day weekend. “The rhetoric is that ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ ” Mr. Bergdahl said in the interview, describing political talk in Washington. “And therefore what do we do? Well, you push it hard with everything you have.”

The talks encompass not only the prisoner exchange but also broader issues aimed at bringing the war to an end. Pentagon officials said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, after Mr. Bergdahl’s comments became public, that they sympathized with the parents’ anguish and that they were working hard to gain Sergeant Bergdahl’s release, although they declined to offer details. “If they’re angry and/or frustrated, that’s certainly understandable,” said Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I would say our leaders are frustrated as well.”

The Times learned late last year that Sergeant Bergdahl was part of the negotiations, but agreed to withhold the information at the request of the administration and his family over concerns for his safety. On Wednesday, though, a newspaper in Hailey, The Idaho Mountain Express, published an interview with Sergeant Bergdahl’s father describing the situation.

Both Mr. Bergdahl and his wife, Jani, said they were upset that although they had had good relations with the State Department and the Pentagon during the three years that their son has been missing, they had never heard from President Obama. The two are Ron Paul supporters and have turned increasingly against the war in Afghanistan, although they support the president’s plan not to withdraw most American troops until 2014.

“He has never contacted us,” Jani Bergdahl said about Mr. Obama. “We haven’t gotten a Hallmark card, we haven’t gotten a note signed by an aide, nothing. Is it because he thinks we’re not Democrats?”

Mr. Bergdahl said that he had started to deal directly with the Taliban by e-mail in recent months, initially through a “contact us” tab on a Taliban Web site, but then through a member of the Taliban he believes has knowledge of his son’s circumstances. Mr. Bergdahl said he believed that the Taliban would not harm his son, and said that he had told them that their videos of his son have had little impact on the American public and that it would be more effective to direct their appeals to Mr. Obama. “I told them I am doing what I can to see that the president understands this issue,” Mr. Bergdahl said.

Congress has to be given 30 days’ notice of any prisoner releases from Guantánamo. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a former prisoner of war, has been among the most opposed in Congress to transferring the five Taliban detainees. In January, when he thought the prisoners were to be exchanged for a Taliban statement renouncing violence, Mr. McCain lashed out at the deal, calling it “bizarre” and “highly questionable.”

Through much of 2011, American negotiators engaged in a series of intensifying contacts with Taliban representatives, culminating in an announcement at the start of this year that the insurgents would soon open a negotiating office in Qatar. The office has not opened yet, however. Some American officials have pointed out as the talks stalled that there has been no movement by the Taliban toward fulfilling their promise to distance themselves publicly from Al Qaeda.

Mr. Bergdahl, 26, who grew up in Hailey, a town of 6,000 in the Northern Rockies that is down the road from the Sun Valley ski resort, was captured in a mountainous region along the Pakistani border where the Taliban have a large presence. The circumstances of his capture remain unclear. Initially, American military officials said he had walked off his outpost, but in a video that the Taliban sent out a month later, he said he had been captured when he lagged behind during a patrol.

Elisabeth Bumiller reported from Hailey, Idaho,

and Matthew Rosenberg from Washington.

    Parents of P.O.W. Reveal U.S. Talks on Taliban Swap, NYT, 9.5.2012,






7 Afghans Die as Suicide Attacker Strikes in Kabul


May 2, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Less than two hours after President Obama left Afghanistan airspace on Wednesday, explosions shook the capital and the Interior Ministry said a suicide attacker had exploded a large bomb at the gates of a compound used by foreigners in the east of Kabul, killing seven Afghans.

The dead included four civilians who were passing in a car when they were caught by the blast, a security guard at the compound, a student and another person who was on foot nearby, said Sediq Sediqqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman. Hospital officials said 18 other people had been hospitalized with injuries, including seven schoolchildren who were at a nearby school, and one person was in a critical condition.

The attack took place at the gate of a large compound called the Green Village, which houses private security guards, some foreign diplomats, United Nations employees and other foreign workers in the city, the spokesman said.

The attacker struck at about 6 a.m. local time on Wednesday morning and at least two loud consecutive explosions sounded across the city. Kabul was already on edge following a series of coordinated attacks by insurgents on April 15 when three groups of attackers breached the capital’s security cordons and launched rocket attacks on areas including the Parliament and the embassy district.

Residents living near to the Green Village and people within the compound reported Wednesday hearing a number of blasts, mortar explosions, and ensuing gunfire. News reports said the attack involved a number of insurgents and was continuing more than three hours later. Residents also reported hearing heavy gunfire.

The situation was confusing. Mr. Sediqqi said there had been a single attack, and that the consecutive blasts had been caused by a number of explosives placed in the same car. "We strongly believe there was one explosion," he said. He said the gunfire could have been caused by security guards firing after the attack.

President Obama made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, including a visit to Kabul, and met with President Hamid Karzai to sign a strategic partnership agreement.

But he had left the country before the explosions hit, the American Embassy said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was a “message” to President Obama.

In a telephone interview, Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said: “As soon as the mujahedeen learned about Obama’s trip to Kabul we planned to conduct an operation at the heart of the city to send a message to Obama that instead of signing strategic partnerships and instead of imposing a corrupt and unpopular government over the people of Afghanistan, he should think of ways to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan.”

He said a group of insurgents had led the attack on the compound.

A local resident in the east of the city reached by telephone phone said the compound is located near a school and that parents could be seen taking their children out of the building.

Some of the explosions were loud enough to be heard easily on the opposite side of the city.

By about 7:15 a.m. local time, the local resident said that flames and black smoke could be seen rising from the area but that the smaller explosions and gunfire had diminished.

The United Nations sent out warning to its employees, warning them to remain under cover but said all of its personnel had been accounted for.

A Western diplomatic official speaking by telephone from the Green Village said: "I am not sure what happened. We heard a big explosion about 6:15 a.m. We moved to the bunker. We heard a few shots. Since then there have been a couple of explosions."

She said the Green Village was a varied community, mainly of foreigners, who were used to the security situation in Afghanistan. "They are being pretty sober about it," she said.

Stephen Mackenzie, an American who works in Afghanistan and lives at the Green Village where he is also a security warden for the compound, said by e-mail that two large explosions had hit the area right outside the compound and some rocket-propelled grenades had struck nearby.

"Lots of small-arms fire," he said.

He said there was heavy security surrounding the compound, mainly Afghan National Army officers.

    7 Afghans Die as Suicide Attacker Strikes in Kabul, NYT, 2.5.2012,






Missed Chance


May 1, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama gave his first speech on Afghanistan in nearly a year, speaking from Bagram Air Base on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing. The White House set it up as a big moment, but the president squandered the chance to fully explain his exit strategy from a war Americans are desperate to see brought to an end.

Mr. Obama repeated his commitment that American combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014 and that Afghan troops would be ready long before that to take over prime responsibility for the fight against the Taliban.

But the speech was frustratingly short on specifics. Mr. Obama didn’t explain what the United States and its allies planned to do to improve the training of Afghan forces so they can hold off the Taliban. Nor did he explain what President Hamid Karzai plans to do to rein in the corruption and incompetence that are the hallmark of his leadership and that have alienated so many of his own people, playing into the hands of the Taliban.

We have long supported the war in Afghanistan as a painful but necessary fight to ensure that Al Qaeda does not again have a major launching pad for attacking the United States. But we are increasingly concerned that Mr. Obama does not have a clear policy to ensure that the country does not implode once the Americans are gone.

The president’s brief, unannounced trip did accomplish one thing. He signed a long-delayed strategic partnership agreement with Mr. Karzai that is intended to signal that the United States will not cut and run, even after the 2014 withdrawal. That agreement is also short on specifics, but American officials say that Washington — and, they hope, the NATO allies — will provide some number of troops for years to come and billions in military and economic aid.

That may be a disappointment to Americans. But the United States will need some presence there to keep pummeling Al Qaeda and the Taliban on either side of the Pakistan-Afghan border.

That longer-term commitment also sends an important message to Afghans that Washington will not abandon them as it did after the Soviets were driven out, and that it is worth taking a chance on their government despite its deficiencies. It also tells the Taliban that they can’t just wait out the West — and need to seriously consider Mr. Obama’s offer of negotiations. Pakistan has long believed that it has to hedge its bets by cutting side deals with the extremists. We don’t know if this will change minds in Pakistan, but it takes away a rhetorical excuse.

Although the timing of Mr. Obama’s visit on the anniversary of the Bin Laden kill was contrived, his speech, wisely, had only a tinge of triumphalism. He said Washington has “devastated Al Qaeda’s leadership,” and insisted “the goal that I set — to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.”

Mr. Obama’s political message, and motivation, for this trip was undeniable. Still, he deserves enormous credit for going after Bin Laden and for the relentless pursuit of Al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan. He has made far more progress, with far less posturing, than his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama’s strongest argument for staying in Afghanistan for another two years is that it is the main base for continuing that fight and that, by 2014, the United States will be able to withdraw without seeing it turn once again into a haven for Al Qaeda. He didn’t make the case Tuesday night.

    Missed Chance, NYT, 1.5.2012,






Veterans and Brain Disease


April 25, 2012
The New York Times


He was a 27-year-old former Marine, struggling to adjust to civilian life after two tours in Iraq. Once an A student, he now found himself unable to remember conversations, dates and routine bits of daily life. He became irritable, snapped at his children and withdrew from his family. He and his wife began divorce proceedings.

This young man took to alcohol, and a drunken car crash cost him his driver’s license. The Department of Veterans Affairs diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D. When his parents hadn’t heard from him in two days, they asked the police to check on him. The officers found his body; he had hanged himself with a belt.

That story is devastatingly common, but the autopsy of this young man’s brain may have been historic. It revealed something startling that may shed light on the epidemic of suicides and other troubles experienced by veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His brain had been physically changed by a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. That’s a degenerative condition best-known for affecting boxers, football players and other athletes who endure repeated blows to the head.

In people with C.T.E., an abnormal form of a protein accumulates and eventually destroys cells throughout the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes. Those are areas that regulate impulse control, judgment, multitasking, memory and emotions.

That Marine was the first Iraq veteran found to have C.T.E., but experts have since autopsied a dozen or more other veterans’ brains and have repeatedly found C.T.E. The findings raise a critical question: Could blasts from bombs or grenades have a catastrophic impact similar to those of repeated concussions in sports, and could the rash of suicides among young veterans be a result?

“P.T.S.D. in a high-risk cohort like war veterans could actually be a physical disease from permanent brain damage, not a psychological disease,” said Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who examined the veteran. Dr. Omalu published an article about the 27-year-old veteran as a sentinel case in Neurosurgical Focus, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

The discovery of C.T.E. in veterans could be stunningly important. Sadly, it could also suggest that the worst is yet to come, for C.T.E. typically develops in midlife, decades after exposure. If we are seeing C.T.E. now in war veterans, we may see much more in the coming years.

So far, just this one case of a veteran with C.T.E. has been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. But at least three groups of scientists are now conducting brain autopsies on veterans, and they have found C.T.E. again and again, experts tell me. Publication of this research is in the works.

The finding of C.T.E. may help answer a puzzle. Returning Vietnam veterans did not have sharply elevated suicide rates as Iraq and Afghan veterans do today. One obvious difference is that Afghan and Iraq veterans are much more likely to have been exposed to blasts, whose shock waves send the brain crashing into the skull.

“Imagine a squishy, gelatinous material, surrounded by fluid, and then surrounded by a hard skull,” explained Robert A. Stern, a C.T.E. expert at Boston University School of Medicine. “The brain is going to move, jiggle around inside the skull. A helmet cannot do anything about that.”

Dr. Stern emphasized that the study of C.T.E. is still in its infancy. But he said that his hunch is that C.T.E. accounts for a share — he has no idea how large — of veteran suicides. C.T.E. leads to a degenerative loss of memory and thinking ability and, eventually, to dementia. There is also often a pattern of depression, impulsiveness and, all too often, suicide. There is now no treatment, or even a way of diagnosing C.T.E. other than examining the brain after death.

While the sports industry has lagged in responding to the discovery of C.T.E., and still does not adequately protect athletes from repeated concussions, the military has been far more proactive. The Defense Department has formed its own unit to autopsy brains and study whether blasts may be causing C.T.E.

Frankly, I was hesitant to write this column. Some veterans and their families are at wit’s end. If the problem in some cases is a degenerative physical ailment, currently incurable and fated to get worse, do they want to know?

I called Cheryl DeBow, a mother I wrote about recently. She sent two strong, healthy sons to Iraq. One committed suicide, and the other is struggling. DeBow said that it would actually be comforting to know that there might be an underlying physical ailment, even if it is progressive.

“You’re dealing with a ghost when it’s P.T.S.D.,” she told me a couple of days ago. “Everything changes when it’s something physical. People are more understanding. It’s a relief to the veterans and to the family. And, anyway, we want to know.”

    Veterans and Brain Disease, NYT, 25.4.2012,






Veterans Department to Increase Mental Health Staffing


April 19, 2012
The New York Times


The Department of Veterans Affairs will announce on Thursday that it plans to hire about 1,600 additional psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other mental health clinicians in an effort to reduce long wait times for services at many veterans medical centers.

The hiring, which would be augmented by the addition of 300 clerical workers, would increase the department’s mental health staff by nearly 10 percent at a time when the veterans health system is being overwhelmed not just by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by aging veterans from the Vietnam era.

“History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended,” Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said in a statement to be released Thursday. “As more veterans return home, we must ensure that all veterans have access to quality mental health care.”

The announcement comes as the department is facing intensified criticism for delays in providing psychological services to veterans at some of its major medical centers.

The department’s own inspector general is expected to release a report as soon as next week asserting that wait times for mental health services are significantly longer than the department has been willing to acknowledge.

Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has also scheduled hearings next week about the delays.

And last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, issued a scathing ruling saying that the department had failed to provide adequate mental health services to veterans.

“No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligation,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the majority. The Obama administration has appealed the ruling.

The veterans department says that it has worked hard to keep pace with the tide of new veterans needing psychological care, increasing its mental health care budget by 39 percent since 2009 and hiring more than 3,500 mental health professionals.

The department says it has also established a policy to do mental health evaluations of all veterans not in crisis within 14 days, a goal it says it meets 95 percent of the time.

However, the inspector general’s report is expected to question the validity of that claim.

One issue confronting the department has been finding enough mental health clinicians to fill job openings, particularly in rural areas. The director of veterans health care in Montana recently was reassigned, for instance, amid complaints that she had been unable to hire psychiatrists to staff a new psychiatric unit.

But department officials said they were confident that they would be able to find qualified mental health clinicians in most regions. Funds for the new jobs will be allocated out of the current department budget, the officials said, and clinicians will be added to all 21 of the department’s service networks.

The vast majority of the new hires, about 1,400, will be patient care providers. But the department also plans to hire more than 100 people for a crisis hot line as well as 100 examiners to review disability compensation and pension claims.

That disability compensation system is struggling with a growing backlog, with nearly 900,000 veterans currently waiting for decisions on their claims.

    Veterans Department to Increase Mental Health Staffing, NYT, 19.4.2012,






Images of G.I.’s and Remains Fuel Fears of Ebbing Discipline


April 18, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A new revelation of young American soldiers caught on camera while defiling insurgents’ remains in Afghanistan has intensified questions within the military community about whether fundamental discipline is breaking down given the nature and length of the war.

The photographs, published by The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, show more than a dozen soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team, along with some Afghan security forces, posing with the severed hands and legs of Taliban attackers in Zabul Province in 2010. They seemed likely to further bruise an American-Afghan relationship that has been battered by crisis after crisis over the past year, even as the two governments are in the midst of negotiations over a long-term strategic agreement.

The images also add to a troubling list of cases — including Marines videotaped urinating on Taliban bodies, the burning of Korans, and the massacre of villagers attributed to a lone Army sergeant — that have cast American soldiers in the harshest possible light before the Afghan public. Accordingly, combat veterans and military analysts are beginning to look inside the catchall phrase “stress on the force” to identify factors that could be contributing to the breaches.

One potential explanation put forth by these analysts is the exhaustion felt by the class of non-commissioned officers that forms the backbone of the all-volunteer force: the sergeants responsible for training, mentoring and disciplining small groups of 18- and 19-year-old soldiers at the small-unit level, hour by hour, patrol by patrol.

Another factor, they say, may be the demands of a counterinsurgency strategy that has distributed small units across vast distances to serve at primitive combat outposts. Self-reliance required in isolation may promote heroic camaraderie. But the rugged terrain, logistical challenges and the in-your-face violence of the insurgency may also present great challenges to the noncommissioned officers in charge of these small units, operating far beyond the more consistent senior supervision in past wars.

Officers and analysts express concerns that some of these isolated units are falling prey to diminished standards of behavior and revert to what one combat veteran described as “Lord of the Flies” syndrome, after the William Golding novel portraying a band of cultured British schoolboys reverting to tribal violence when severed from society.

“Some of these incidents certainly seem to be the fault of a breakdown in leadership at the small-unit level,” said Andrew Exum, a defense policy analyst at the Center for a New American Security who teaches a course on irregular warfare at Columbia University.

“Where was the sergeant who is supposed to say: ‘Stop, boys. We don’t do that. We don’t disrespect the dead’?” said Mr. Exum, who led a light infantry platoon in Afghanistan in 2002 and then led a platoon of Rangers in both Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004.

Early reports indicate that the soldiers had been sent to gather fingerprints or retina scans for identification of the suicide bomber. Mr. Exum noted how the horrific experience of being ordered to interact with bloody, severed body parts of an enemy may cause soldiers to develop self-defense mechanisms — in particular dark humor around corpses. “But the line is crossed when you disrespect the dead body,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a psychological release valve, and another thing to take trophy pictures.”

Pentagon and military officials, noting that the proliferation of soldiers’ carrying camera phones has been involved in many of the cases, said that technology and a changing culture had presented new problems, as well. Troops have behaved badly since the beginning of warfare, of course. But now, those actions can be captured in real time, and spread rapidly without commanders’ control, via social networks.

Army officials said Wednesday that the service had guidelines and rules for photos — basically, “think before you post” — but they also acknowledged that social media are evolving so rapidly that regulations were not keeping pace. Rules are set by commanders at the company, battalion and brigade level, but those standards are sometimes ignored by small units in the field.

“Technology today presents definite challenges related to security and propriety,” said Col. Thomas W. Collins, an Army spokesman. “In this case, these photos are probably a manifestation of the soldiers’ relief that this insurgent no longer posed a threat to them or their fellow soldiers. That cannot excuse what they did. We are the United States Army, and the world rightly has very high expectations that our soldiers will do what’s right. Clearly, that didn’t happen in this case.”

With more than a million military personnel having deployed overseas since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the recent cases represent only a tiny percentage of the force. Senior American officials responding on Wednesday noted that, even as they condemned the soldiers’ behavior.

“This is not who we are, and it’s certainly not what we represent when it comes to the great majority of men and women in uniform,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said at a NATO conference in Brussels, calling the soldiers’ behavior unacceptable and promising a full investigation. President Obama said that those responsible for the actions would be “held accountable,” and Gen. John R. Allen, the senior allied commander in Afghanistan, sounded similar themes. But Afghan officials described an increasing skepticism among the public after case after case of misbehavior has come to light over the past year.

Nadir Nadiry, an Afghan human rights activist in Kabul, said Afghans would likely react negatively because similar photographs had surfaced before and despite military investigations the latest pictures suggested that the actions continued to be perpetrated. “It gives them a sense of, ‘Oh they are continuing to do this,’ ” he said. “Each time they say they will conduct a thorough investigation, but these investigations are not being made public, so the results are not known to the Afghan people.”

Some Afghan officials said the behavior shown in the images was deeply offensive given Muslim views of how to treat dead bodies. Hajji Baz Mohammed, a tribal elder and head of the development council in Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province, where the soldiers were operating, told of how residents were enraged last year after a similar incident involved Afghan security forces.

“Eight months ago, Afghan security forces dishonored the bodies of two dead insurgents, which really infuriated the people here in Zabul,” he said. “People went to the streets, and three more went to the streets and three more died in the clashes between angry mobs and security forces.”

He added, “In the past episode, it was Afghans who insulted the bodies and three people were killed as a result — one can imagine what will happen if the people got to know that non-Muslims are insulting the dead bodies of Muslims.”

Several of the military analysts commenting Wednesday said the kind of lapses shown in the photos struck directly at the ability of American troops to perform their mission, given how important winning Afghans’ sympathies is to keeping the Taliban at bay.

Mr. Mohammed raised the same issue: “These kinds of acts would further increase the already widened gap between the people and the government, and would drive some government supporters toward the Taliban. In the meantime, it’s not good for the Americans: these kinds of acts would generate more hatred and would motivate people to vengeance.”


Thom Shanker reported from Washington,

and Graham Bowley from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Alissa J. Rubin and Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul,

and Elisabeth Bumiller from Brussels.

    Images of G.I.’s and Remains Fuel Fears of Ebbing Discipline, NYT, 18.4.2012,






Pentagon Sought to Stop Paper From Using Photos


April 18, 2012
The New York Times


The grisly photographs of American soldiers posing with the body parts of Afghan insurgents during a 2010 deployment in Afghanistan were the source of a dispute between The Los Angeles Times and the Pentagon lasting weeks.

Two of the 18 photographs given to the paper were published Wednesday by The Times over fierce objections by military officials who said that the photographs could incite violence. The officials had asked The Times not to publish any of the photographs, a fact that the defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, reiterated on Wednesday as the images spread across the Internet.

“The reason for that is those kinds of photos are used by the enemy to incite violence, and lives have been lost as the result of the publication of similar photos,” Mr. Panetta said at a news conference.

But the newspaper’s editors said that the photographs were newsworthy. “We considered this very carefully,” the newspaper’s editor, Davan Maharaj, said in a Web chat with readers. “At the end of the day, our job is to publish information that our readers need to make informed decisions. We have a particular duty to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan. On balance, in this case, we felt that the public interest here was served by publishing a limited, but representative sample of these photos, along with a story explaining the circumstances under which they were taken.”

The article was by David Zucchino, a longtime war correspondent for the paper, who got an unsolicited e-mail two months ago from a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division. The soldier said that he had “some information” that might interest Mr. Zucchino. The information included the photographs. Mr. Zucchino later met three times with the soldier, to whom The Times granted anonymity. “He said he was very, very concerned about what he said was a breakdown in security, discipline and professionalism,” Mr. Zucchino said.

Mr. Zucchino contacted military officials weeks ago and showed them some of the images. Within the newsroom, he said, there was “a vigorous debate about whether to publish; and if we publish, what to publish; and what to say in the story.”

Amid that internal debate, military officials, including the commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, registered their concerns with editors.

“Our concern is not about embarrassment,” George E. Little, a Pentagon press secretary, said in a telephone interview after Mr. Panetta’s news conference. “We recognize that this is inexcusable behavior depicted in the photos. This is all about force protection in Afghanistan.”

Once the paper decided it would publish the images, the military officials asked, and the editors agreed, to wait for extra security precautions to be put in place in Afghanistan. The newspaper waited more than 72 hours.

“We did have to bump up our security posture in the country,” Mr. Little said. “If the story had run without the photos, I’m not sure that we would have had to undertake those additional security measures.”

Mr. Maharaj said the newspaper had no plans to publish the other 16 images. Mr. Zucchino supported that decision. “They are just awful,” he said, calling the two that were published “the least gruesome.”


Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Brussels.

    Pentagon Sought to Stop Paper From Using Photos, NYT, 18.4.2012,






Afghan Assaults Signal Evolution of a Militant Foe


April 16, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Western military and intelligence officials acknowledged on Monday that they were surprised by the scale and sophistication of the synchronized attacks in Afghanistan on Sunday, seeing it as a troubling step in the evolution of the Haqqani Taliban network from a crime mob to a leading militant force.

Even as the Western officials praised the Afghan security forces’ response and sought to play down the attacks’ strategic impact, they privately agreed with the criticism by President Hamid Karzai on Monday. He said the assaults — involving dozens of attackers who crossed hundreds of miles to strike at seven different secured targets, all around 1:45 p.m. on Sunday — represented an “intelligence failure for us, and especially NATO.”

The officials said the episode raised two pivotal questions: whether the militants now had the ability to mount such audacious assaults repeatedly, rather than just once every several months, and whether the Afghan government would be able to blunt such plots after 2014, the deadline for Western troop withdrawal, when its access to allied intelligence assistance would be limited.

“It certainly seems there’s some kind of gap in intelligence collection or in sifting through the volume of what’s collected,” said John K. Wood, an associate professor at the National Defense University who was senior director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council in the Bush and Obama administrations, and who just visited Kabul.

For the Haqqani network, a family of border criminals and smugglers that has gained an astonishing notoriety in recent years as a leading killer of allied troops in Afghanistan, the attacks on Sunday represented more than just the ability to paralyze the mostly tightly secured districts of Kabul for hours. They were proof that the Taliban offshoot could create the vast network of logistical support and planning needed to mount terrorist attacks without anything leaking to the intelligence groups so tightly focused on it.

American intelligence officials view the Haqqani network, which operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as a strategic asset of Pakistan’s spy agency in the Afghan theater. At the same time, though, the Haqqanis are in league with the Pakistani Taliban, who are fighting the Pakistani Army, highlighting the bewildering web of alliances and plots that spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While Afghan officials said they thought that Sunday’s attacks originated in Pakistan, where Haqqani leaders are in hiding, American officials said that unlike in the group’s prior attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan did not serve as the launching pad. “Though the evidence leads us to believe that the Haqqani network was involved in this, it doesn’t lead back into Pakistan at this time,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington.

Mr. Karzai laid the blame for the failure to detect the plots at the door of NATO, above all, but members of the Afghan Parliament were more inclined to point fingers at the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. “There is a big question mark: How did they manage to bring all these weapons and all this ammunition and rockets and keep it here in the vicinity of the sensitive installation of Afghan government and international community?” said Fatima Aziz, a lawmaker from Kunduz and a member of the internal security committee.

NATO’s main intelligence strength in the region is based on capturing and analyzing communications from cellphones and other electronic devices. The Afghans, with their cultural and linguistic advantage, provide a large network of informants. In reality, the work of the two are intertwined, said American and Western officials here, so it is of some concern that neither picked up on the imminent threat of multiple, simultaneous attacks in four different provinces.

While allowing that the shared intelligence was not perfect, NATO officials emphasized that there was nothing harder than pre-empting attacks, and said that “9 times out of 10,” the Afghans and their Western allies had prevented attacks that the public never learned about.

“There is no intelligence service that gets all the threats, but the enemy gets to choose the place and time,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a NATO spokesman in Kabul.

Colonel Cummings noted that Sunday’s attacks were the first major coordinated assaults in Afghanistan since Sept. 13, when men linked to the Haqqani network struck at the American Embassy in Kabul and the nearby NATO headquarters, ultimately to little effect.

A senior NATO official said there had been at least a few instances since then when NATO and Afghan forces, acting on intelligence, had intercepted, in or near Kabul, supplies and fighters who were preparing to carry out attacks. The official did not provide details and, as with several others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss classified intelligence.

Privately, however, American and Western officials were more blunt in their self-criticism, in an almost grudging respect for their foe. “It was not lost on anybody that these were very well-coordinated, well-timed attacks,” a senior American official said. A Western official added, “We had general indications that they were planning something in April, but nothing specific enough to actually act on.”

While it is true that it is all but impossible to intercept every terrorist attack, there was not one attack on Sunday, but at least seven — three in Kabul, two in Jalalabad, one in Paktia Province’s capital, Gardez, and another in Logar Province’s capital, Pul-e-Alam. There would have been dozens more people involved than just the assailants who struck on Sunday.

The nearly 40 fighters who took up positions in vacant buildings in strategic locations in the four provinces were the tip of the iceberg, while the bulk of the terrorist activity that made their attacks possible was hidden: the financers, trainers, reconnaissance agents who chose the sites, logistics experts who arranged transport, and the weapons suppliers who provided what they needed for the attack.

“It’s always hard to stop small groups from doing things like this,” said Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research institution in Kabul, who has studied the country since the 1990s.

“But that they cannot stop them in Jalalabad, Kabul, Paktia, and Logar — which are all focus areas for U.S. troops — that is very striking,” he said, adding that whereas there have been complex attacks before, he could not remember an instance when there had been simultaneous ones in several provinces.

Still, Mr. Ruttig cautioned against overstating the episode’s significance: “At the same time, it doesn’t mean that the Taliban are capable of taking over Afghanistan. But it is a sign the Taliban are here.”

One troubling facet of the attacks, Western officials said, was that there was little indication that the Americans had picked up much cellphone or satellite phone chatter about it. Often the Americans, who have enormous listening capability, can pick up insurgent chatter and piece together enough information to work with Afghan intelligence services to disrupt the planning or actually detain the plotters.

One Western official suggested that perhaps the insurgents, and specifically leaders in the Haqqani network, were more aware of the danger of using electronic communications and were imposing more discipline in their ranks.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned of more violence as the Taliban’s spring offensive unfolds. “We’re going to continue to see suicide attacks,” Mr. Panetta said. “We’re going to continue to see efforts by them to try to undermine confidence in Afghanistan that we’re headed in the right direction.”

He added: “It hasn’t worked in the past. I don’t think it’ll work in the present.”


Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

    Afghan Assaults Signal Evolution of a Militant Foe, NYT, 16.4.2012,






A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame


April 14, 2012
The New York Times


HERE’S a window into a tragedy within the American military: For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.

An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year — more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.

These unnoticed killing fields are places like New Middletown, Ohio, where Cheryl DeBow raised two sons, Michael and Ryan Yurchison, and saw them depart for Iraq. Michael, then 22, signed up soon after the 9/11 attacks.

“I can’t just sit back and do nothing,” he told his mom. Two years later, Ryan followed his beloved older brother to the Army.

When Michael was discharged, DeBow picked him up at the airport — and was staggered. “When he got off the plane and I picked him up, it was like he was an empty shell,” she told me. “His body was shaking.” Michael began drinking and abusing drugs, his mother says, and he terrified her by buying the same kind of gun he had carried in Iraq. “He said he slept with his gun over there, and he needed it here,” she recalls.

Then Ryan returned home in 2007, and he too began to show signs of severe strain. He couldn’t sleep, abused drugs and alcohol, and suffered extreme jitters.

“He was so anxious, he couldn’t stand to sit next to you and hear you breathe,” DeBow remembers. A talented filmmaker, Ryan turned the lens on himself to record heartbreaking video of his own sleeplessness, his own irrational behavior — even his own mock suicide.

One reason for veteran suicides (and crimes, which get far more attention) may be post-traumatic stress disorder, along with a related condition, traumatic brain injury. Ryan suffered a concussion in an explosion in Iraq, and Michael finally had traumatic brain injury diagnosed two months ago.

Estimates of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury vary widely, but a ballpark figure is that the problems afflict at least one in five veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. One study found that by their third or fourth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, more than one-quarter of soldiers had such mental health problems.

Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one’s risk of suicide. For young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health.

Michael and Ryan, like so many other veterans, sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, declined to speak to me, but the most common view among those I interviewed was that the V.A. has improved but still doesn’t do nearly enough about the suicide problem.

“It’s an epidemic that is not being addressed fully,” said Bob Filner, a Democratic congressman from San Diego and the senior Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “We could be doing so much more.”

To its credit, the V.A. has established a suicide hotline and appointed suicide-prevention coordinators. It is also chipping away at a warrior culture in which mental health concerns are considered sissy. Still, veterans routinely slip through the cracks. Last year, the United States Court of Appeals in San Francisco excoriated the V.A. for “unchecked incompetence” in dealing with veterans’ mental health.

Patrick Bellon, head of Veterans for Common Sense, which filed the suit in that case, says the V.A. has genuinely improved but is still struggling. “There are going to be one million new veterans in the next five years,” he said. “They’re already having trouble coping with the population they have now, so I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Last month, the V.A.’s own inspector general reported on a 26-year-old veteran who was found wandering naked through traffic in California. The police tried to get care for him, but a V.A. hospital reportedly said it couldn’t accept him until morning. The young man didn’t go in, and after a series of other missed opportunities to get treatment, he stepped in front of a train and killed himself.

Likewise, neither Michael nor Ryan received much help from V.A. hospitals. In early 2010, Ryan began to talk more about suicide, and DeBow rushed him to emergency rooms and pleaded with the V.A. for help. She says she was told that an inpatient treatment program had a six-month waiting list. (The V.A. says it has no record of a request for hospitalization for Ryan.)

“Ryan was hurting, saying he was going to end it all, stuff like that,” recalls his best friend, Steve Schaeffer, who served with him in Iraq and says he has likewise struggled with the V.A. to get mental health services. “Getting an appointment is like pulling teeth,” he said. “You get an appointment in six weeks when you need it today.”

While Ryan was waiting for a spot in the addiction program, in May 2010, he died of a drug overdose. It was listed as an accidental death, but family and friends are convinced it was suicide.

The heartbreak of Ryan’s death added to his brother’s despair, but DeBow says Michael is now making slow progress. “He is able to get out of bed most mornings,” she told me. “That is a huge improvement.” Michael asked not to be interviewed: he wants to look forward, not back.

As for DeBow, every day is a struggle. She sent two strong, healthy men to serve her country, and now her family has been hollowed in ways that aren’t as tidy, as honored, or as easy to explain as when the battle wounds are physical. I wanted to make sure that her family would be comfortable with the spotlight this article would bring, so I asked her why she was speaking out.

“When Ryan joined the Army, he was willing to sacrifice his life for his country,” she said. “And he did, just in a different way, without the glory. He would want it this way.”

“My home has been a nightmare,” DeBow added through tears, recounting how three of Ryan’s friends in the military have killed themselves since their return. “You hear my story, but it’s happening everywhere.”

We refurbish tanks after time in combat, but don’t much help men and women exorcise the demons of war. Presidents commit troops to distant battlefields, but don’t commit enough dollars to veterans’ services afterward. We enlist soldiers to protect us, but when they come home we don’t protect them.

“Things need to change,” DeBow said, and her voice broke as she added: “These are guys who went through so much. If anybody deserves help, it’s them.”

    A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame, NYT, 14.4.2012,






U.S. Sees Iran in Bids to Stir Unrest in Afghanistan


April 4, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Just hours after it was revealed that American soldiers had burned Korans seized at an Afghan detention center in late February, Iran secretly ordered its agents operating inside Afghanistan to exploit the anticipated public outrage by trying to instigate violent protests in the capital, Kabul, and across the western part of the country, according to American officials.

For the most part, the efforts by Iranian agents and local surrogates failed to provoke widespread or lasting unrest, the officials said. Yet with NATO governments preparing for the possibility of retaliation by Iran in the event of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities, the issue of Iran’s willingness and ability to foment violence in Afghanistan and elsewhere has taken on added urgency.

With Iran’s motives and operational intentions a subject of intense interest, American officials have closely studied the episodes. A mixed picture of Iranian capabilities has emerged, according to interviews with more than a dozen government officials, most of whom discussed the risks on the condition of anonymity because their comments were based on intelligence reports.

One United States government official described the Iranian Embassy in Kabul as having “a very active” program of anti-American provocation, but it is not clear whether Iran deliberately chose to limit its efforts after the Koran burning or was unable to carry out operations that would have caused more significant harm.

In offering an overall view of the threat from Tehran, Gen. John R. Allen, the senior allied commander in Afghanistan, told Congress in recent public testimony that Iran continued to “fuel the flames of violence” by supporting the Afghan insurgency. “Our sense is that Iran could do more if they chose to,” General Allen said. “But they have not, and we watch the activity and the relationships very closely.”

The most visible rioting that American officials say bears Iranian fingerprints occurred in Herat Province, along Afghanistan’s western border with Iran. In a melee after the Koran burning, 7 people were killed and 65 were wounded, Afghan and American officials said. That violence peaked when a police ammunition truck was hit by gunfire from a rioter and exploded.

Iran has denied any government-backed effort to foment unrest in Afghanistan, but American officials see a pattern of malign meddling to increase Iran’s influence across the Middle East and South Asia. Iran appears to have increased its political outreach and arms shipments to rebels and other political figures in Yemen, and it is arming and advising the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Those activities also reflect a broader campaign that includes what American officials say was a failed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in October, and what appears to have been a coordinated effort by Iran to attack Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia this year. Iran has denied any role in the attacks, which caused several injuries but did not kill anyone.

But the absence of a sustained record of clear success in these plots, including Iran’s suspected role in the riots in Herat and in similar disturbances in Kabul, has stirred a vigorous debate among Western intelligence agencies about the country’s surprisingly low level of professionalism, and about whether Iran maintains the ability to carry out effective strikes against rivals beyond its traditional networks in the Middle East.

“The attacks failed, so clearly there are kinks in Iran’s planning and tradecraft,” one United States official said.

Intelligence analysts emphasize that Iran can still tap the formidable resources of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group. And some American officials are wary of viewing the plots as a sign of Iran’s diminishing ability to stir violence.

“They’re learning from each of these incidents and becoming more dangerous,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Rogers said that Iran’s intelligence service and the Quds Force, an elite international operations unit within the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, appeared to be competing with each other for influence, increasing the risk to the West.

“The intent is not devastating operations, but raising the temperature to create deterrence,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official who worked on these issues and was recently named dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Amateurs are tougher to detect and catch. It caught our surveillance off guard. We were looking for pros. They went below the radar.”

The plots have also prompted American and other intelligence agencies to renew their focus on state-sponsored terrorism after a decade dominated by Al Qaeda, its regional affiliates and other shadowy terrorist networks.

American officials say they never took their eye off state-sponsored threats, but rising tensions with Iran have caused these organizations to re-emerge in the public eye. In Afghanistan, according to American officials, Iranian assistance to militants and insurgents is limited to training, money, explosive material, small arms, rockets and mortars.

But General Allen, in two days of testimony before Congress, disclosed that NATO forces were watching for an infusion of more-advanced weapons — in particular a high-powered roadway bomb called an explosively formed projectile, or E.F.P., which can pierce American armored vehicles. These bombs proved their deadly effectiveness when Iran funneled them to Shiite militants during the height of the sectarian violence in Iraq.

“So we’re going to keep a very close eye on those signature weapons,” General Allen said, “because we think that that will be an indicator of Iran’s desire to up the ante, in which case we’ll have to take other actions.”

Iran has long faced a quandary in shaping an Afghan policy. It has wanted to target the Americans fighting in Afghanistan, and the best mechanism for doing that is the Taliban insurgency. But at the same time, Iran has little interest in the return of a Taliban regime. When they were in power, the Taliban often persecuted the Hazara minority, who, like most Iranians, are Shiite, and whom Iran supports.

What Iran has pursued more relentlessly is an effort to pull the Afghan government away from the Americans, a strategy that has included payments to promote Iran’s interests with President Hamid Karzai.

One American intelligence analyst noted that Iran had long supported Afghan minorities, both Shiite and Sunni, and had built a network of support among Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks. Iran has exercised other means of “soft power,” the analyst said, opening schools in western Afghanistan to extend its influence. The Iranians have also opened schools in Kabul and have largely financed a university attached to a large new Shiite mosque.

Iran is thought to back at least eight newspapers in Kabul and a number of television and radio stations, according to Afghan and Western officials. The Iranian-backed news organs kept fanning anti-American sentiment for days after the Koran burnings.


Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington,

and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan.

    U.S. Sees Iran in Bids to Stir Unrest in Afghanistan, NYT, 4.4.2012,






In Afghanistan, Businesses Plan Their Own Exits


March 30, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — America may be struggling to come up with a viable exit plan for Afghanistan, but Abdul Wasay Manani is sure of his.

The broad-set Afghan butcher spent the past seven years trucking cattle in from the Pakistan border and building a thriving business for himself and his family, serving up some of the best hamburgers in Kabul for the embassies and expatriates and their barbecues.

But this month, Mr. Manani, 38, flew to India for 14 days to scout out a new business, and a new home, ready to leave Afghanistan and everything he worked to build here, just in case things fall apart when most Americans and other foreign troops leave in 2014. “If the Taliban come like last time, ordering people around with whips, I can’t stay here,” he said. “I have to leave this country to keep my family safe.”

Many Afghans share his concern. Interviews with business owners, analysts and economists paint a picture of extreme anxiety in both the domestic and international business communities here as the Afghan-United States relationship deteriorates and as the Western drawdown begins.

In this environment, troubling indicators are not hard to find. More than 30,400 Afghans applied for asylum in industrialized nations in 2011, the highest level in 10 years and four times the number seeking asylum in 2005, according to provisional figures from the United Nations. Meanwhile, the number of displaced Afghans outside the country seeking to come the other way slowed to 68,000 last year, down from 110,000 in 2010 and a big decrease from the 1.8 million Afghans who repatriated in 2002, the year after the Taliban were driven out of power.

The only Western bank operating here said on Wednesday that it would be leaving. Piles of cash equaling about a quarter of Afghanistan’s annual economic output were physically carried out of Afghanistan last year. Fewer foreign companies are seeking to do business here, and those already here are downsizing and putting off new investments. And there are businessmen like Mr. Manani who already have a foot out the door, working actively toward a Plan B for life and business outside Afghanistan.

Senior Afghan officials are acutely aware of it, and are alternately worried and angry. “Sometimes I hear that some businessmen are fleeing and moving their businesses to outside Afghanistan,” President Hamid Karzai said at a news conference this month. “Curses be upon such businessmen that made tons of money here and now that the Americans are leaving they flee. They can leave right now. We don’t need them.”

Given the importance of trying to bolster economic independence in the overall plan for Afghanistan, the skittish responses and decreasing investment and hiring strike right at hopes that this impoverished nation, still barely on the cusp of modernity, can thrive on its own.

Large companies are expressing worries about security. One of the most significant is Standard Chartered, the only big Western bank with a branch in the country, which said Wednesday that it was turning over its operations to a local Afghan bank and withdrawing mainly because of deteriorating conditions.

Mohammad Qurban Haqjo, chief executive of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, said the head of one of the country’s four big cellphone companies had told him that he planned to take his investments out of the country after 2014.

“It is still two years to go, but we are hearing from our businesses that everybody is raising this question,” Mr. Haqjo said.

Even those who are trying to stay, foreign companies in particular, have become very conservative. According to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, capital spending by foreign companies newly registered in the past year, at $55 million, was the lowest rate in at least seven years, and about one-eighth the rate’s peak in 2006.

According to Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American businesswoman who grew up in Queens, the caution is expressing itself in businesses that are downsizing work forces, for example, or holding off on new investments.

“Among the people I know, there is planning going on in terms of investment decisions,” she said. “They are not packing up their bags just yet, but people are looking to diversify abroad or into other business sectors within Afghanistan.”

Some of the companies that are more heavily dependent on the military and the aid economy, like construction and logistics businesses, are trying to stay put by reconfiguring toward the few areas where analysts feel Afghanistan might have growth potential, like mining or trade.

But others are nervous that Afghanistan’s nebulous private sector will not be enough to fill the gap left by the United States’ military and development spending. World Bank figures back up those fears: the bank estimates that outside aid is equivalent to more than 90 percent of the country’s total economic activity, and forecasts a slowdown in growth in the coming years to 5 or 6 percent from about 9 percent, or much lower if security worsens.

That is in part because, despite the billions in reconstruction and aid money poured into Afghanistan, there still is no major manufacturing or technology base that could be a driver of future prosperity. A new Pepsi bottling plant on the outskirts of Kabul is trumpeted as one of the few new investment triumphs.

“There is a sense that they have to change from a war economy to a postwar economy, and people definitely expect it to contract,” said Thomas Rosenstock, a lawyer, originally from New York, who helps foreign companies entering the Afghan market. “It’s uncertain how dramatic the contraction would be.”

Then there are those who are voting with their cash.

Each week tens of millions of dollars — some thought to be diverted American aid or drug money — are packed into suitcases or boxes and loaded onto planes leaving Kabul International Airport for destinations like Dubai, capital flight that is increasing steadily ahead of the 2014 deadline, officials say.

Noorullah Delawari, the central bank governor, recently imposed restrictions limiting the amount a passenger can take out of the country to $20,000 a trip.

But the mountain of departing cash that is officially declared — about $4.6 billion last year, the same size as the Afghan government’s annual budget — may be matched by money fleeing through other airports and over borders, or seeping out through the black market, an Afghan official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We really don’t know how much is being moved,” the official said.

Security officials are still struggling to ensure that people passing through the V.I.P. area of the Kabul airport put their bags through X-ray machines installed a few years ago in part to keep people from sneaking cash out, the official said.

For Mr. Manani, the butcher, and others like him who do not have huge amounts of capital as a safety blanket, the hopes that they can stay at home and still expand their businesses are being tempered by the need to ensure their families’ safety.

His plan is rooted in an effort to start a second business in New Delhi with his local Sikh business partner there, he says. That would enable him to get a long-term visa, and so a way out for his wife and five children, as well as his parents, brothers and a sister and their children, all of whom depend on him and would have to move with him, he says.

“Every businessman is just thinking about how to move from here, about how to be safe,” Mr. Manani said as he stood in front of a big cooler where sides of beef and lamb were hanging. Through the doorway into another room, four workers were busily cutting and packing.

He grew up in the north of Afghanistan and fought in the bitter civil war of the 1990s. There is no way he wants to relive that experience, he said.

“I don’t have the energy to take the gun again and start fighting,” he said. “That’s why I am looking for a way out.”


Habib Zohori contributed reporting.

    In Afghanistan, Businesses Plan Their Own Exits, NYT, 30.3.2912,






For Lawyer in Afghan Killings,

the Latest in a Series of Challenging Defenses


March 24, 2012
The New York Times


SEATTLE — The Vietnam War was raging, and John Henry Browne believed it was unjust. When his draft number came up, he refused to go.

A litigious lifetime would pass before he would become the lawyer for the soldier accused of one of the worst American war crimes in decades, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who was charged on Friday with 17 counts of murder in the shooting deaths of Afghan civilians, including nine children. But even 40 years ago, long before Mr. Browne was known as one of the Pacific Northwest’s most prominent and controversial defense lawyers, he was inclined to make a distinctive case.

“I did all the research and learned that you would not qualify if you were over 6 feet 6 inches tall,” Mr. Browne recalled.

He was tall, but was he tall enough? He consulted with pacifist Quakers. He received notes from two doctors. He did stretching exercises. Then he faced the recruiter.

“They made me take my shoes off, push my arches down to the ground and do all sorts of things,” Mr. Browne said. “I was still well over 6-6.”

It was not the last time Mr. Browne would prove expansive and elusive. And although he never went to war, he did go into a kind of perpetual combat. For four decades, he has been the voluble and sometimes victorious defender of the virtually indefensible.

“Attorney John Henry Browne,” read a headline on the cover of Pacific, a Seattle news magazine. “He shoots from the hip to defend the notorious.”

That article ran in 1983.

Benjamin Ng, convicted of killing 13 in the 1983 Wah Mee massacre, this city’s worst mass murder? Mr. Browne saved him from the death penalty by arguing that Mr. Ng had suffered a brain injury earlier in life.

Martin Pang, who set a fire that killed four firefighters in 1995? Charged with murder, pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Colton Harris-Moore, the teenager known as the Barefoot Bandit, whose two-year, three-country crime spree terrorized families, littered the landscape with crashed stolen planes and ended in 2010 with an armed boat chase in the Bahamas? He should be free by the time he is 25.

Now, at 65, Mr. Browne has taken on still another case of a lifetime, one that will play out far beyond any Seattle courtroom.

Sergeant Bales, a decorated veteran of three tours in Iraq before he went to Afghanistan in December, is accused of killing 17 civilians and trying to kill six others on March 11. Some reports say he set some victims on fire. The killings have enraged Afghans and Americans and have increased calls for the United States to exit Afghanistan.

The Army kept Sergeant Bales’s identity secret for five days after he was arrested, and it has tried to purge the Internet of information about him.

But global tension and military reserve have done little to quiet Mr. Browne, a talkative man who works out of a century-old brick building in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

“He’s definitely a renegade among defense attorneys,” said Daniel T. Satterberg, the King County prosecuting attorney, who has known Mr. Browne for a quarter-century and has clashed with him more than once. “And I mean that in a respectful sense. He is his own man. He calls his own shots, and he doesn’t have to answer to anybody.”

Mr. Browne is as loose and improvisational as the Army is buttoned-up and scripted. They wear camouflage and crew cuts. He wears blue velvet blazers and shoulder-length hair. Ask him a question, and he might not stop answering it.

“People understand that we have created these soldiers,” Mr. Browne said in an interview. “Your tax dollars, my tax dollars are funding this. We all have responsibility there. That’s why the government wants to paint him as a rogue soldier, because the government doesn’t want to take responsibility. I’m not sure if this is a good metaphor, but in the Frankenstein movies, Frankenstein was not the monster. The monster was Dr. Frankenstein, who created Frankenstein.”

“We’re putting these young men and women in impossible situations,” he continued. “I think the general public knows that, and I think this has brought to the public attention a dialogue about the war that the government would rather not have.”

Mr. Browne has plenty of detractors. He is all flair and splash in a city not known for either. He does not mix frequently with the city’s other powerful lawyers.

When he rides the ferry home to Bainbridge Island in the evening, he sits alone, reading or listening to an iPod. (The guitarist William Ackerman is a favorite.)

He says there is “an REI arrogance” about Seattle that he dislikes. He hopes to eventually live full time in Mexico, where he owns a house with his wife of seven years. (He has been married “too many” times, he said, not disclosing the number, which apparently would round up toward double digits.)

His father worked on the Manhattan Project and later for the Atomic Energy Commission. Mr. Browne played bass in the Crystal Palace Guard, a band that opened for some of the most popular bands of the 1960s. His office includes a black-and-white etching of a somber Abraham Lincoln, a framed 45 of “Imagine,” by John Lennon and a sculpture of a laughing Buddha. He is happy to talk about “the curse of awareness” and how he struggles “to keep my ego under control.”

“My skeletons aren’t in the closet,” he said. “They’re on the front lawn.”

He mentioned more than once that he had drafted a memoir (the tentative title: “Music, Metaphysics and Murderers”), but also said it would be inappropriate to try to pitch it to publishers right now.

He said that his practice struggles to make ends meet, and that he recently moved to more modest settings in Pioneer Square in part to cut costs. He sometimes takes cases for which he receives little or no pay (he said he was paid $1 for the Barefoot Bandit case), though those cases can generate publicity that brings in better-paying clients.

“John is a storyteller, that’s his primary strength,” Mr. Satterberg said. “He has a flair for the dramatic, and I’m not sure how that will play out in front of a military tribunal. But he is in many ways the right defense attorney to be out there if the goal is to save the life of this client by saying in essence that the real villain here is the war.”

Mr. Browne, who frequently credits the work of the three other lawyers in his practice, particularly Emma Scanlan, said it was not certain that he would be able to see the Bales case to its completion. The Bales family has largely spent what it can on legal fees, he said. On Friday, the family announced that it would solicit donations for a defense fund.

Mr. Browne said he had an emotional moment with Sergeant Bales last week at Fort Leavenworth, where the soldier is being held.

“He actually touched me and looked at me and said, ‘You’ll be with me the whole way won’t you?’ ” Mr. Browne said. “I didn’t know what to say. I said, ‘I’ll be there as long as I can afford to be there.’ ”

    For Lawyer in Afghan Killings, the Latest in a Series of Challenging Defenses, NYT, 24.3.2012,






Afghans: US Paid $50,000 Per Shooting Spree Death


March 25, 2012
The New York Times


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States has paid $50,000 in compensation for each Afghan killed and $11,000 for each person wounded in the shooting spree allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official and a community elder said Sunday.

The sums, much larger than typical payments made by the U.S. to families of civilians killed in military operations in Afghanistan, come as the U.S. tries to mend relations following the killing rampage that has threatened to undermine the international effort here.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused of sneaking off his base on March 11, then creeping into houses in two nearby villages and opening fire on families as they slept.

U.S. investigators believe the gunman returned to his base after the first attack and later slipped away to kill again, American officials have said. Bales has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder and other crimes and could face the death penalty if convicted.

That would seem to support the U.S. government's assertion — contested by some Afghans — that the shooter acted alone, since the killings would have been perpetrated over a longer period of time than assumed when Bales was detained outside his base in Kandahar province's Panjwai district.

But it also raises new questions about how the suspect could have carried out the pre-dawn attacks without drawing attention from any Americans on the base.

The families of the dead, who received the money Saturday at the governor's office, were told that the money came from U.S. President Barack Obama, said Kandahar provincial council member Agha Lalai. He and community elder Jan Agha confirmed the payout amounts.

Survivors previously had received smaller compensation payments from Afghan officials — $2,000 for each death and $1,000 for each person wounded.

Two U.S. officials confirmed that compensation had been paid but declined to discuss exact amounts, saying only that it reflected the devastating nature of the incident. The officials spoke anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

A spokesman for NATO and U.S. forces, Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, said only that coalition members often make compensation payments, but they are usually kept private.

"As the settlement of claims is in most cases a sensitive topic for those who have suffered loss, it is usually a matter of agreement that the terms of the settlement remain confidential," Cummings said.

However, civilian death compensations are occasionally made public. In 2010, U.S. troops in Helmand province said they paid $1,500-$2,000 for a death and $600-$1,500 for a serious injury.

The provided compensation figures would mean that at least $866,000 was paid out in all. Afghan officials and villagers have counted 16 dead — 12 in the village of Balandi and four in neighboring Alkozai — and six wounded. The U.S. military has charged Bales with 17 murders without explaining the discrepancy.

The 38-year-old soldier, who is from Lake Tapps, Washington, is accused of using his 9mm pistol and M-4 rifle, which was outfitted with a grenade launcher, to kill four men, four women, two boys and seven girls, then burning some of the bodies. The ages of the children were not disclosed in the charge sheet.

Bales is being held in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The mandatory minimum sentence if he is convicted is life imprisonment with the chance of parole. He could also receive the death penalty.

Families of the dead declined to comment on any payments by U.S. officials on Sunday, but some said previously that they were more concerned about seeing the perpetrator punished than money.

Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban and remains a dangerous area despite several offensives.

In the latest violence, a bomb struck a joint NATO-Afghan foot patrol in Kandahar's Arghandab district late Saturday, killing nine Afghans and one international service member, according to Shah Mohammad, the district administrator.

Arghandab is a farming region just outside Kandahar city that has long provided refuge for Taliban insurgents. It was one of a number of communities around Kandahar city that were targeted in a 2010 sweep to oust the insurgency from the area.

The Afghan dead included one soldier, three police officers, four members of the Afghan "local police" — a government-sponsored militia force — and one translator, Mohammad said.

NATO reported earlier Sunday that one of its service members was killed in a bomb attack in southern Afghanistan on Saturday but did not provide additional details. It was not clear if this referred to the same incident, as NATO usually waits for individual coalition nations to confirm the details of deaths of their troops.


Associated Press writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Washington


Vogt reported from Kabul, and can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/heidivogt

    Afghans: US Paid $50,000 Per Shooting Spree Death, NYT, 25.3.2012,






U.S. Plans No Charges Over Deadly Strike in Pakistan


March 24, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The United States military has decided that no service members will face disciplinary charges for their involvement in a NATO airstrike in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, an accident that plunged relations between the two countries to new depths and has greatly complicated the allied mission in Afghanistan.

An American investigation in December found fault with both American and Pakistani troops for the deadly exchange of fire, but noted that the Pakistanis fired first from two border posts that were not on coalition maps, and that they kept firing even after the Americans tried to warn them that they were shooting at allied troops. Pakistan has rejected these conclusions and ascribed most of the blame to the American forces.

The American findings set up a second inquiry to determine whether any American military personnel should be punished. That recently completed review said no, three senior military officials said, explaining that the Americans fired in self-defense. Other mistakes that contributed to the fatal cross-border strike were the regrettable result of battlefield confusion, they said.

“We found nothing criminally negligent on the part of any individual in our investigations of the incident,” said one senior American military official involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the results of the review had not been made public.

The military’s decision is expected to anger Pakistani officials at a time when the two countries are gingerly trying to patch up a security relationship left in tatters over the past year from a series of episodes, including the shooting of two Pakistanis in Lahore by a C.I.A. contractor, the Navy SEALs raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden and the deadly airstrike in November.

Pakistan’s Parliament is scheduled to resume debate as early as Monday on a major review of relations with the United States, a debate that the Obama administration hopes will bring a resumption of full diplomatic relations and the reopening of NATO supply lines into Afghanistan through Pakistan. As part of that debate, Pakistani legislators have demanded an unconditional formal apology from the United States for the fatal airstrike.

In the highest-level parley of leaders of the two countries since the accident, President Obama is to meet with Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, on Tuesday in Seoul, South Korea, after a nuclear security conference there, to discuss Afghanistan and other security issues. But Mr. Obama is not expected to go beyond the regrets he conveyed to Pakistan soon after the airstrike on Nov. 25.

Some administration aides said at the time that they worried that if Mr. Obama formally apologized to Pakistan, it could provide ammunition for his Republican opponents in the presidential race.

By contrast, Mr. Obama offered a personal apology last month to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan for the burning of Korans by American soldiers there, as well as regrets about the massacre of Afghan civilians in which an Army staff sergeant has been charged.

Gen. James N. Mattis, the head of the military’s Central Command, is scheduled to hold long-delayed meetings this week in Islamabad with Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani Army chief of staff, to discuss the airstrike investigation, as well as new border coordination procedures to prevent a recurrence of the episode.

General Mattis will also discuss opportunities for training, arms sales and improving border coordination centers, military officials said. Other senior American officials, like Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides, and Marc Grossman, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, are also expected to meet soon with senior Pakistani officials to begin mending relations.

The accidental cross-border attack in November set in motion two inquiries. The first investigation, conducted by the Central Command in December, found that Pakistani troops fired first on a joint Afghan-American patrol, prompting the deadly return fire. That inquiry also concluded that checks and balances put in place to prevent cross-border accidents with Pakistan failed in part because American officials did not trust their Pakistani counterparts enough to give them detailed information about American troop locations in Afghanistan.

That investigation also determined that it took about 45 minutes for a NATO operations officer in Afghanistan to notify a senior allied commander about Pakistan’s calls that its outposts were under attack, one of several breakdowns in communication that contributed to the airstrike.

Once alerted, the commander immediately ordered a halt to the American attacks. By then, communications between the two militaries had sorted out the chain of errors and the shooting stopped. The delay, by at least one officer and possibly a second, raised questions about whether a faster response could have spared some lives.

Officials “did not respond correctly, quickly enough or with the sense of urgency or initiative required given the gravity of the situation and the well-known sensitivity surrounding the Afghan-Pakistan border region,” the December report found.

Pakistan’s military in January issued a withering rejection of the American investigation. It stated that the report was “factually not correct” and that the Americans attacked first; accused the United States of failing to share information “at any level”; and denied any responsibility for the lethal episode.

Pakistan’s generals are likely to be privately angered by the latest American decision, although in public the military is deferring to the parliamentary process. “A full investigation was done by our military, and the conclusions were sent to the parliamentary committee,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military’s spokesman. “Now the government should communicate to the U.S. whatever they want.”

Armed with the information from the first inquiry, the American chain of command in Afghanistan and at the Central Command set out to determine any culpability. They found none that warranted criminal charges, military officials said, nor significant discipline like fines or demotions. It is possible, the officials said, that at some level of the chain of command a soldier could receive an administrative reprimand, but those matters are held privately within the unit or command.

American military legal experts said that the episode illustrated the difficulties of assigning blame when an unintended chain of events results in tragedy.

“The absence of disciplinary action in a specific case doesn’t mean that there was a cover-up or anything like that,” said Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major general who served as deputy judge advocate general and is now executive director of the Duke University Law School’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. “Rather, it may well simply indicate that a tragic accident occurred, and the fog and friction of war make the facts such that assigning criminal responsibility is just not the right thing to do.”

Under orders from General Mattis, American commanders have taken several steps in the wake of the airstrike to prevent such an accident from happening again. These changes include reviewing and harmonizing all directives related to border operations, increased training and coordination, improved surveillance before missions, and more current information on the location of border installations on both sides.

“Cross-border communications have been improved, command levels at border coordination centers have increased, and command relationships have been redefined where needed,” Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr., a NATO spokesman, wrote by e-mail.


Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

    U.S. Plans No Charges Over Deadly Strike in Pakistan, NYT, 24.3.2012,






Suicides Highlight Failures of Veterans’ Support System


March 24, 2012
The New York Times


Francis Guilfoyle, a 55-year-old homeless veteran, drove his 1985 Toyota Camry to the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in Menlo Park early in the morning of Dec. 3, took a stepladder and a rope out of the car, threw the rope over a tree limb and hanged himself.

It was an hour before his body was cut down, according to the county coroner’s report.

“When I saw him, my heart just sank,” said Dennis Robinson, 51, a formerly homeless Army veteran who discovered Mr. Guilfoyle’s body. “This is supposed to be a safe place where a vet can get help. Something failed him.”

Mr. Guilfoyle’s death is one of a series of recent suicides by veterans who live in the jurisdiction of the Department of Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. The Palo Alto V.A. is one of the agency’s elite campuses, home to the Congressionally chartered National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The poor record of the Department of Veterans Affairs in decreasing the high suicide rate of veterans has already emerged as a major issue for policy makers and the judiciary.

On Wednesday, the V.A. Inspector General in Washington released the results of a nine-month investigation into the May 2010 death of another veteran, William Hamilton. The report said social workers at the department in Palo Alto made “no attempt” to ensure that Hamilton, a mentally ill 26-year-old who served in Iraq, was hospitalized at a department facility in the days before he killed himself by stepping in front of a train in Modesto.

The Bay Area was also shocked by the March 14 death of Abel Gutierrez, a 27-year-old Iraq war veteran, who the police said killed his mother and his 11-year-old sister before shooting himself. Two weeks earlier the Gilroy Police Department intervened to ask the V.A. to help Mr. Gutierrez.

An examination of each case reveals faulty communication inside the V.A. system, which missed opportunities to help the veterans.

“I know people at the V.A. care a lot and work hard, but it’s a pattern that’s disturbing,” said Representative Jerry McNerney, a Democrat from Pleasanton who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “It doesn’t look good.”

Last May, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit accused the department of “unchecked incompetence” and ordered it to overhaul the way it provides mental health care and disability benefits.

Noting that an average of 18 veterans commit suicide every day, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote, “No more veterans should be compelled to agonize and perish while the government fails to perform its obligations.” The department appealed, and Judge Reinhardt’s opinion has been temporarily vacated, pending a ruling from a an 11-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit.

Gordon Erspamer, a San Francisco lawyer representing the two groups that brought the suit, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, said it was “incredible that this sorry record of ineptitude and lack of procedures for emergency cases continues even under the watchful eye of the Ninth Circuit.”

Two weeks before Mr. Gutierrez’s death, his family called the Gilroy Police Department and asked for officers to come to their home “to get him some help,” according to Sgt. Chad Gallacinao, a spokesman for the police department. Sergeant Gallacinao said a police officer who was also a military veteran was dispatched to the house and took notes.

Two days later, Sergeant Gallacinao said, the officer returned to the Gutierrez home with a representative of the Community Veterans Project, a nonprofit organization that trains law enforcement officials in interaction with psychologically wounded veterans.

“They made contact with the V.A. specifically to obtain services for Mr. Gutierrez,” Sergeant Gallacinao said.

Dave Bayard, a V.A. spokesman in Los Angeles, confirmed that a call had been placed to the Vet Center in Santa Cruz, but said the request was mild. “It wasn’t like ‘This guy is really in need of mental health,’ ” Mr. Bayard said.

The V.A. said Mr. Gutierrez had briefly received care at a department facility in Washington State, where he was a National Guardsman, but never visited a department campus in California.

In an e-mail, Kerri Childress, spokeswoman for the V.A. Palo Alto Health Care System, said that despite the intervention of the Gilroy Police Department in Mr. Gutierrez’s case, “We had no way of knowing he was even in the area.”

Shad Meshad, a Vietnam War veteran and former combat medic who heads the National Veterans Foundation, was unpersuaded. “It’s about time that they don’t make excuses,” Mr. Meshad said. “Why would you say it’s not serious when the police called?”

Mr. Meshad said the responses of Mr. Bayard and Ms. Childress were typical of the “finger-pointing” exhibited by the department when tragedy strikes.

Before Mr. Hamilton killed himself, he said he saw demon women and regularly talked to a man he had killed in Iraq. He had been admitted to the Palo Alto V.A.’s psychiatric ward before on nine separate occasions. Three days before he died, Mr. Hamilton’s father brought him to a community hospital in Calaveras County, which, according to hospital records obtained by The Bay Citizen, tried to transfer him to three V.A. hospitals, including the one in Palo Alto. But at 4:39 p.m., a department social worker wrote that day in his notes, the Palo Alto facilities “would not accept a transfer of a veteran for admittance this late in the day.”

Later that night, Mr. Hamilton was admitted to David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force base in Fairfield. That Sunday, the medical center discharged Mr. Hamilton. Within hours, he was dead.

V.A. officials have said they have no record of Mr. Hamilton being denied care and that their records do not show any telephone calls between the Calaveras County hospital and the Palo Alto V.A. But the inspector general’s report revealed that the Palo Alto hospital had no method of tracking incoming calls and that “no outgoing calls were recorded” from any Veterans Affairs Medical Center extension.

During the investigation into Mr. Hamilton’s death, the inspector general learned of yet another incident, in May 2011, when the doctor on duty refused to accept a veteran for treatment. According to the report, the psychiatrist said, “We don’t accept patients for transfer at night.”

In an e-mailed response to questions, Dr. Stephen Ezeji-Okoye, deputy chief of staff of the Palo Alto V.A., said that since Mr. Hamilton’s death his network had “revised our tracking mechanism so we are better able to analyze the disposition of any cases referred to the V.A. Palo Alto Health Care System.” Dr. Ezeji-Okoye said the Palo Alto V.A. had always accepted psychiatric patients 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Ms. Childress, the agency spokeswoman, said the Palo Alto V.A. was committed to improving the quality and availability of mental health care. The hospital is building a new 80-bed inpatient mental health center, she said, which is scheduled to open in June. It will have “patient access to enclosed, landscaped gardens” and “ample use of natural light to all internal patients,” she said, with a color scheme “specifically selected to support the healing process.”

    Suicides Highlight Failures of Veterans’ Support System, NYT, 24.3.2012,






U.S. Sergeant

Charged With 17 Counts of Murder in Afghan Killings


March 23, 2012
The New York Times


Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged on Friday with 17 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of assault and attempted murder in connection with a March 11 attack on Afghan civilians, American forces in Afghanistan said.

If convicted of premeditated murder, Sergeant Bales could face the death penalty, according to the announcement, which was made by American officials in Kabul.

Afghan and American officials have said that Sergeant Bales, a 38-year-old soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State serving his fourth combat tour overseas, walked away from his remote outpost in southern Afghanistan and shot and stabbed members of several families in a nighttime ambush. Many officials initially said that 16 people were killed in the rampage; at least 9 were children and others were women. But the military said Friday that Sergeant Bales was accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians.

Afghan officials on Friday, however, stuck to the initial death toll. None of the six people whom Sergeant Bales is accused of assaulting and attempting to murder had died from wounds sustained in the attack, though three remain hospitalized, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the government of Kandahar Province, where the killings took place.

The deaths were listed individually in a spare charge sheet that redacted the names of victims and provided no narrative description of how the attack took place other than to locate the alleged crimes “at or near Belambay, Afghanistan, on or about 11 March 2012.” In two cases, no victim name appears to have been listed.

Multiple reports have said that Sergeant Bales also stabbed and set fire to some victims, but the charge sheet says only that the dead were killed by a firearm. It also does not specify which of the murder victims were children.

Eric S. Montalvo, a private lawyer involved in many military cases, including the recent defense of one of the “kill team” defendants at Lewis-McChord, said the brevity of the charge sheet does not necessarily mean the Army does not believe other crimes were committed.

“What they’ve been getting in trouble with is overcharging the case and having to backpedal,” said Mr. Montalvo, whose client in the kill team case was charged with murder but pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 2010 killings of Afghan civilians. “There’s no rush to pack the charge sheet at this point. They can let the Article 32 investigation come up with additional facts.”

The completion of an Article 32, in which the Army broadens its investigation and formally decides on charges, could be several months away. Sergeant Bales is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., but the Army said Friday that future legal proceedings would take place at Lewis-McChord.

The charge sheet did not address how the Army concluded Sergeant Bales acted with premeditation. John Henry Browne, a lawyer for Sergeant Bales, has said his client cannot remember some of the events at the time of the attack. Mr. Browne said in interviews this week that the sergeant had not sought or received treatment for a concussion he apparently suffered during a vehicle rollover in Iraq in a previous deployment.

“There’s definitely brain injury, no question about it,” Mr. Browne said.*


Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.

    U.S. Sergeant Charged With 17 Counts of Murder in Afghan Killings, NYT, 23.3.2012,






U.S. Sergeant Faces 17 Counts of Murder in Afghan Killings


March 22, 2012
The New York Times


Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will be charged on Friday with 17 counts of murder and various other charges, including attempted murder, in connection with the March 11 attack on Afghan civilians, a senior United States official said on Thursday.

Sergeant Bales, who is 38 and had been serving his fourth combat tour overseas, is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

He is accused of walking away from his remote base in southern Afghanistan and shooting and stabbing members of several families in a nighttime ambush. At least nine victims were children and some others were women. Several sources said 16 people were killed, though some also said the number could be higher. The Army has not suggested a motive.

John Henry Browne, a lawyer for the soldier, has said that Sergeant Bales did not remember some events at the time of the attack. Mr. Browne said in interviews this week that the sergeant had not sought or received treatment for a concussion he apparently suffered during a vehicle rollover in Iraq in a previous deployment.

“There’s definitely brain injury, no question about it,” Mr. Browne said.

Mr. Browne said Thursday that he expected the charges.

“I’m not persuaded by many facts,” he said. “There’s no crime scene. There’s no DNA. There’s no confession, although they’re leaking something, which I don’t believe until I see it. This is going to be a hard case for the government to prove. And my client can’t help me a lot with some of the things because he has mental problems and I believe they’re totally legitimate.”

The attack, most likely the deadliest war crime by a single American soldier in the decade of war that has followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has further frayed the relationship between the American and Afghan governments. Earlier this year United States military personnel burned Korans at an Afghan base, an act that prompted widespread public protests and a series of killings.

Gen. John R. Allen of the Marines, who commands the American-led allied forces in Afghanistan, told Congress this week that there would be an administrative investigation into the headquarters organization and the command of the sergeant’s unit.

Sergeant Bales’s legal proceedings could last years. He next faces an Article 32 hearing, in which the Army formally decides whether to press charges. If he is charged in an Article 32 hearing, he will most likely face a court-martial.

The sergeant has been based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Tacoma, Wash., when he was not deployed overseas. Although Sergeant Bales is being held in Kansas, Mr. Browne said Thursday that he believed there was a strong chance legal proceedings in the future could take place at Lewis-McChord.


Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

    U.S. Sergeant Faces 17 Counts of Murder in Afghan Killings, NYT, 22.3.2012,






Falling In and Out of War


March 18, 2012
The New York Times


WHEN you’ve been wrong about something as important as war, as I have, you owe yourself some hard thinking about how to avoid repeating the mistake. And if that’s true for a mere kibitzing columnist, it’s immeasurably more true for those in a position to actually start a war.

So here we are, finally, messily winding down the long war in Afghanistan and simultaneously being goaded toward new military ventures against the regimes in Syria and Iran. Being in the question-asking business, I’ve been pondering this: What are the right questions the president should ask — and we as his employers should ask — when deciding whether going to war is (a) justified and (b) worth it? Here are five, plus two caveats, and some thoughts about how all this applies to the wars before us.


It ought to be the first question we ask. Sometimes the answer is obvious. There is a broad agreement that it was in America’s vital national interest in 2001 to go after the homicidal zealots behind the 9/11 attacks on America, and the Afghan regime that hosted them. Whatever you think of how the war was waged or how long it should continue, the going-in was, as the cops say, a righteous shoot.

Often the American stake is not so clear-cut. We may feel an obligation to defend an ally. (Some allies more than others.) We have been known to fight for our economic interests. We intervene in the name of American values, an elastic rubric that can mean anything from halting a genocide to, in George W. Bush’s expansive doctrine, promoting freedom.

Senator John McCain, demanding American air strikes to help rebels topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, adopts the Bush “freedom agenda” rationale: by halting suffering and helping overthrow tyranny, we earn some leverage with the victors, improving the odds that Syria will become less hostile to our interests. For a variety of robust dissents, look no further than the conservative Web site National Review Online. There you find the neocon view that intervention is not about fomenting a Syrian democracy; it is about striking at an Islamist, anti-American cabal centered on Iran. You also find the libertarian view that our national interest is best served by staying out of a situation we can only make worse.

Nobody said these would be easy questions.


Judged solely by Question No. 1, there is little difference between Libya, where we helped an inchoate mix of rebels overthrow a brutally oppressive regime, and Syria, where we have so far chosen not to help an inchoate mix of rebels overthrow an even more brutally oppressive regime. The critical difference: Syria is much harder. Libya had weak air defenses deployed along the coastline, easily accessible to Western bombers. Syria’s defenses are more lethal, more plentiful and spread across inland population centers. “We’d have to carpet-bomb a path in and out, or risk American pilots being shot down by the regime and used as human shields,” said John Nagl, a retired Army counterinsurgency expert who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. “We’d be killing a lot more people.”

Cost-benefit analysis may seem a cold-blooded discipline — you can’t put a price on freedom, blah blah blah — but it is inseparable from the question of our national interests. After more than 10 years of war that have bled our treasury of at least $3 trillion, killed or disabled many thousands of our troops, and created the kind of multiple-rotation stress that invites atrocities and desecrations, every incremental commitment has to be weighed against the cost to our economic security and our readiness to face the next real threat.

Karl Eikenberry, who served in Afghanistan both as a military commander and as ambassador, put it this way: “If we do not in the future better align ends, ways and means, historians may find that in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the United States was compelled to contract its global posture similar to the British when they announced their ‘East of Suez’ policy in the late 1960s.”


Policy makers should — and President Obama mostly has — put a premium on appraising alternatives to war. Most notably, the president has held off an Israeli air assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities by mobilizing tough sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking industries, and by all but declaring that if Iran gets too close to making nuclear weapons the U.S. will send in the bombs. The sanctions show some signs of working.

The ultimate “or what” question about Iran is, if sanctions and threats fail, could we live with a nuclear Iran? Could we trust that like every other nuclear state Iran would be deterred from using its weapons by the certain knowledge that a counterstrike would turn Persia into a wasteland? It’s worth serious discussion, but while the idea of containment by deterrence is gaining ground in pundit-land, President Obama can’t touch it; to do so would undermine the whole effort to halt Iran’s program and, not incidentally, would be hazardous to his reelection.


In these optional wars, it is useful to have company — to enhance our moral authority, to amplify the intelligence, to share the cost, to spread the risk — and to second-guess us. In Libya, we had 17 other nations enforcing a blockade and no-fly zone, Arabs and Turks among them. “Leading from behind” may have been a mockable phrase, but it was a serviceable strategy.

In Syria, no one is volunteering to join us yet.


This is the question Robert Gates made a mantra at the Defense Department: What happens next? How does this play out? What are the second-order and third-order effects?

One unintended (but foreseeable) consequence of invading Iraq was that it distracted our attention and energy from the far more important undertaking in Afghanistan. Now one possible consequence of rushing too fast for the exits in Afghanistan — tempting as that may be given the breakdown of Afghan-American trust — is the increased likelihood that a collapsing Afghanistan would spill into a wobbly Pakistan. In Pakistan there are both numerous nuclear weapons and an abundance of rogue fanatics who would not hesitate to use them.

Syria, says Nagl, is another good place to think hard about collateral chaos: “The hard part is not toppling Assad, it’s what comes afterwards. Everybody raise your hands if you’re up for another occupation of an Islamic country.”

My first caveat is public opinion, which no democracy can ignore. Fighting wars is not something you do by poll. Public opinion can be wrong. It lagged behind F.D.R. before World War II; it was riding along enthusiastically with President Bush when he invaded Iraq. But public opinion puts a thumb on the scale. The U.S. used force to stop a genocide in Bosnia, but did not in Rwanda or Darfur — one critical difference being that Americans (and American TV screens) were paying attention to the European slaughter, but not to the African atrocities.

My second caveat is that asking the right questions only works if you are prepared to hear answers you might not like. Sometimes our leaders start with the answers and work backward, fixing the facts to the policy, as the head of Britain’s MI6 said of the Potemkin intelligence used to sell the invasion of Iraq. To pick just one example from the no-fact zone of Republican primary season, Rick Santorum, the most hawkish of the Republican candidates on Iran, keeps suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program is not under international inspection. It’s possible that Iran has hidden away some facility we don’t know about, but everything we know about — that is, everything we would bomb if we decided to attack — is monitored by international inspectors.

If Iraq taught us nothing else, it should have taught us this: Before you deploy the troops, deploy the fact-checkers.

    Falling In and Out of War, NYT, 18.2.2012,






At Home,

Asking How ‘Our Bobby’ Became War Crime Suspect


March 18, 2012
The New York Times


He was not the star, just a well-regarded young man who seemed to try to do the right thing. That was Robert Bales, “our Bobby,” friends said. He was a busy, popular kid, but he made time for the autistic man down the block. Other neighborhood boys admired him. As a high school linebacker, he was good enough to be captain, but also gracious enough to help a more talented player take over his starting position. It was good for the team, he said.

That solid-guy reputation followed him into the Army infantry. He joined at the relatively seasoned age of 27, just a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and became respected for his maturity and calm, including in battle. “He was a damn good leader and a damn good soldier,” said Zachary Parsons, who served with Staff Sergeant Bales in Iraq in 2007.

So when many of his old neighbors from Norwood, Ohio, and former battalion mates from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State heard the news that Sergeant Bales had been accused of coldbloodedly shooting to death 16 Afghan civilians on March 11, nine of them children, they were not simply shocked. They grieved.

Michelle Caddell, 48, who knew Sergeant Bales when he was growing up, watched a video clip of the news over and over and over again, mesmerized by disbelief. “I wanted to see, maybe, a different face,” she said, fighting back tears. “Because that’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”

Friends, relatives and his lawyer say they have an idea of what that horrible thing was: war.

Three deployments in Iraq, where he saw heavy fighting, and a fourth in Afghanistan, where he went reluctantly, left him struggling financially, in danger of losing his home.

And there were more direct impacts. During his deployments, Sergeant Bales, 38, lost part of a foot and injured his head, saw fellow soldiers badly wounded, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, was treated for mild traumatic brain injury and possibly developed post-traumatic stress disorder, his lawyer and military officials said.

But there are also glimpses of a darkness in his personal life. Sergeant Bales’s past includes an arrest on a misdemeanor charge of assault on a woman, which was dropped after he completed anger-management counseling; an accident in which he overturned his car, something he attributed to falling asleep at the wheel; and an accumulation of rejections and disappointments.

A year ago, according to a blog written by his wife, he was denied a promotion to sergeant first class, a rank that would have brought not just added responsibility and respect but also money at a time when his finances seemed stretched.

Neighbors remember him, in between earlier deployments, as a gung-ho solider, eager to get back to the fight. But that seemed to have changed. He trained to become a recruiter, a job that would have allowed him to skip Afghanistan, but the Army kept him in the infantry. And though he felt that his injuries were significant enough to keep him out of combat, his lawyer said, Army doctors said he was fit to deploy. Weeks later, he arrived in one of the roughest precincts of Afghanistan.

A long legal process — starting with the formal filing of charges in the coming weeks and ending, most likely, in a court-martial — will sort out whether Sergeant Bales was guilty of atrocities and may shed light on which, if any, of these factors played a role.

From dozens of interviews with lawyers, friends and military officials, competing legal narratives are already starting to emerge.

A military official, speaking anonymously, has said Sergeant Bales had marital problems, felt stressed by the Afghanistan deployment and snapped after drinking alcohol before the shootings.

Sergeant Bales’s lawyers contend that he had a solid marriage and no drinking problems. If he cracked, they said, it was because he probably had P.T.S.D. that the Army failed to diagnose, had been dispatched to a war he did not want to fight and had seen a friend gravely wounded just before the killings.

Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired brigadier general who was an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that after a decade of combat, where hundreds of thousands of troops have sustained traumatic brain injury and P.T.S.D., those syndromes by themselves seem inadequate to explain how a seemingly normal and widely admired sergeant might have single-handedly committed one of the worst war crimes of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

With his multiple deployments and wounds, Dr. Xenakis said, Sergeant Bales seems emblematic of bigger problems: an overstretched military battered by 11 years of combat; failures by the military to properly identify and treat its weary, suffering troops; and the thin line dividing “normal” behavior in war from what later is deemed “snapping.”

“This is equivalent to what My Lai did to reveal all the problems with the conduct of the Vietnam War,” Dr. Xenakis said. “The Army will want to say that soldiers who commit crimes are rogues, that they are individual, isolated cases. But they are not.”


Inspirational Teenager

Sergeant Bales grew up in Norwood, a modest suburb of Cincinnati, the youngest of five boys who lived in a two-story brick home still known as “the Bales house,” though no Baleses live in it anymore. The family was that well known, and that well liked.

“They’re down-home country,” Ms. Caddell said.

Mr. Bales was a gregarious, chatty, engaged teenager who played football and threw himself into an array of clubs and activities, including theater. In his yearbook, he signed the football team photo with a nickname, “Doom,” and is listed on the “senior superlatives” page as one of the best dancers in his class.

“He’s one of those kids you remember,” said David C. Griffel, the principal of Norwood High School when Mr. Bales attended. “A real extrovert.”

Mr. Bales was a leader on the football team, a feisty middle linebacker who was not big but strong, able to bench press 300 pounds. But in his junior year, a freshman star named Marc Edwards arrived, and the coach wanted the newcomer to be the starting middle linebacker. There might have been an unpleasant rivalry, but instead Mr. Bales shared tips on the position.

“He got the idea in that situation that Marc was going to be better for the team,” said Aaron M. Smith, the author of a book about Mr. Edwards.

Mr. Edwards was surprised by Mr. Bales’s generosity. “He credited Bob Bales with teaching him what leadership meant, and how to handle a situation that doesn’t favor you,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Edwards went on to be named Ohio’s “Mr. Football” for 1992 and to play for Notre Dame, the San Francisco 49ers, the Cleveland Browns, the New England Patriots, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Chicago Bears.

Mr. Bales was enrolled in the College of Mount St. Joseph in 1991 and 1992. He attended Ohio State University from 1993 until 1996, declaring an economics major, according to Jim Lynch, a university spokesman. It is not clear why he left, Mr. Lynch said.

Details about Mr. Bales’s life during the next several years are sketchy. Friends and his lawyer said he had worked in financial services in Columbus, Ohio, then started an investment business with his brother Mark. No sign remains of their Spartina Investments at the modest office building where they leased space in Doral, Fla., a few blocks west of Miami International Airport and south of the Doral Golf Resort and Spa.

By November 2001, he had joined the Army.

“It wasn’t really anger when he joined,” said Michael Blevins, 35, a childhood friend. “It was — they had hurt something,” he added, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorists.

Ms. Caddell said that she had worried about his decision, but that he had assured her, “Nothing’s going to happen to me.” The decision made sense to Ms. Caddell’s son Mark, who had idolized Mr. Bales since he was a toddler.

He has to join, Ms. Caddell recalled her son saying. “He takes care of everybody.”


Introduction to Warfare

After basic training, Sergeant Bales was assigned to what was then known as Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, which would become the Army’s Western deployment hub for the wars. For the next 11 years, he would spend his career with the Second Battalion, Third Infantry Regiment in a Stryker brigade.

In 2002, the criminal assault occurred in a Tacoma-area hotel room, but he paid his fine and completed court-mandated anger-management counseling, court records show.

Not long after, he married Karilyn Primeau, a woman he had met online, his lawyer said, and they went on to have two children, a daughter named Quincy and a son named Bobby.

The Third Brigade deployed to northern Iraq from November 2003 to November 2004, a time when the country was quickly devolving into looting, insurgency and chaos. But it was Sergeant Bales’s second tour, from June 2006 into September 2007, that was particularly eventful.

By then, Iraq was in the throes of sectarian civil war, and American troops were dying at a rate of about 80 a month. David Hardt, a Third Brigade soldier who wrote a blog about the deployment, said that the enemy had almost always been invisible and that soldiers had grown bitterly frustrated at their inability to fight back.

“You sort of got used to seeing dead bodies, seeing things blow up in front of you,” said Mr. Hardt, who did not know Sergeant Bales but was in Iraq at the same time. “We wanted to get insurgents, but it’s so rare that we succeeded.”

In one extraordinary battle in January 2007, however, Sergeant Bales’s battalion encountered as many as 600 Shiite militia fighters while trying to recover a downed Apache helicopter in Najaf. In a pitched two-day battle that included airstrikes and mortar exchanges, the American forces claimed to have killed 250 enemy fighters while losing none of their own.

“The cool part about this was, World War II-style, you dug in,” Sergeant Bales, then a team leader, was quoted as saying in a recounting of the battle by the Fort Lewis newspaper. “You’re taking a shovel and digging as fast as you can.”

“I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day,” he added.

Somewhere during that deployment, Sergeant Bales injured his foot, though his lawyer said he did not know how. The Army has declined to provide details about the sergeant’s record.

But the injury did not seem significant enough to remove him from Iraq, and he seems to have finished the tour, which was extended to 15 months from 12 in what became known as the surge.

Mr. Hardt said most soldiers he knew were angry about the extension because they were exhausted by the continuous fighting and the threats of roadside bombs. But if Sergeant Bales was upset, he did not seem to complain. When he returned to the Tacoma area, he was limping, neighbors said, but also working hard to rehabilitate his foot because he wanted to return to full duty.

“He was a gung-ho Army guy,” said Tim Burgess, 59, a retired trucker and warehouse worker who lived next door to Sergeant Bales at the time. “He still wanted to see action even though he had been wounded.”

Neighbors remembered his wife as an avid bicyclist but not particularly sociable. Records show that she worked as a project manager at now-defunct Washington Mutual, then became an associate technical project manager at Amaxra, a business communications company in Redmond.

Sergeant Bales was home for nearly two years after his second deployment. Mrs. Bales, also an avid blogger, cheerfully recounted baking cookies, reading books and visiting her parents in Bellingham with their daughter.

By August 2009, he was gone again. It was a quieter tour, with more nation building than combat. In a Facebook exchange with a childhood friend, Steven Berling, Sergeant Bales called the deployment “boring” and “pretty dumb,” then lamented the lack of fighting.

“Giving money to Hagji instead of bullets just don’t seem right,” he wrote, apparently misspelling Hajji, a term used by soldiers, often pejoratively, in referring to Arab people.


Financial and Career Setbacks

About the time Sergeant Bales was preparing to deploy in 2009, the Baleses were having financial problems, records show.

Early in their relationship, they had lived in a house in Auburn, between Seattle and Tacoma, that Mrs. Bales had owned before they were together. According to records, they received a notice of a trustee sale in mid-2009. The couple, who had moved out by then, had missed $17,000 in payments and owed a total of $195,000 to the bank.

A trustee auction was scheduled for October 2009, while Sergeant Bales was in Iraq, but the auction was postponed three times and then called off in early 2010 for reasons that are unclear.

Robert Baggett, president of the neighborhood’s Riverpark Estates Homeowners Association, said the Baleses had stopped paying their annual association dues of about $120 at least two years ago. The house, which for a while was occupied by renters whose noise drew complaints from neighbors, has been vacant for about 18 months and is now filthy and in disrepair. “We are parking cars there to keep it looking like it is occupied so no homeless move in,” Mr. Baggett said.

The Baleses bought their two-story house in Lake Tapps, east of Tacoma, in 2005, records show. But just three days before the shootings in Afghanistan, Mrs. Bales told a real estate agent, Phillip Rodocker, that she wanted to sell the house because they were financially stretched. The house is listed for sale at $229,000, about $50,000 less than what the family paid for it.

Asked about the mortgage problems, Sergeant Bales’s lawyer, John Henry Browne, said, “There are no financial pressures on the family right now other than the normal ones that are experienced by the 99 percenters.”

Last March, Mrs. Bales wrote on her blog that her husband had not gotten the hoped-for promotion to sergeant first class, which would have raised his pay by about $370 a month and made him eligible to be the senior noncommissioned officer for a platoon. (He was also paid an extra $400 a month during his deployments.) The promotion probably would have also given him some peace of mind about his Army career, which was nearly halfway to the 20 years needed for retirement with pay.

Though “sad and disappointed” by the news, Mrs. Bales said she was also relieved. “We can finally move on to the next phase of our lives,” she wrote.


The Final Deployment

That next phase, the Baleses hoped, would take them to Germany, Italy or Hawaii. But the Army did not move Sergeant Bales from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Nor did it allow him to become a recruiter, though he was in training for the job. Instead, he was told he would go with the Third Brigade to Afghanistan in December.

“He was not happy about it,” Mr. Browne said, but took his orders like a professional soldier.

Before deploying, Sergeant Bales would have undergone physical exams, including on his foot, and a computer-based survey for traumatic brain injury intended to measure attention, memory and thinking ability. The survey is not well regarded among many specialists, but it remains the Army’s chief screening tool for traumatic brain injury. Sergeant Bales was declared fit to deploy.

Little is known about his time in Afghanistan, other than that he and others in his battalion were assigned to work alongside Army Special Forces soldiers in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, a longtime hotbed of Taliban activity that has grown more secure in recent years. Sergeant Bales would probably have provided security for the Green Berets while they carried out night raids, built relations with village leaders and organized local militias.

A Green Beret who has spent time in Panjwai in the past year said the combat outpost would have been relatively small, protected by dirt-filled containers known as Hesco barriers, with guard towers and perhaps a blimp with a high-powered camera capable of capturing images more than a mile away. It would have been difficult, but not impossible, for Sergeant Bales to slip away at night unnoticed, as the Army says he did.

Supervision in the outpost might also have been more lax than at larger bases, which could explain the presence of alcohol. Sergeant Bales might have even been among the more senior noncommissioned officers on his team. Special Forces teams typically have 12 members, sometimes fewer, and Sergeant Bales’s unit might have been as small as a platoon of two dozen soldiers.

Many younger soldiers consider such assignments exciting and more fulfilling, though they are also potentially more dangerous. But Mr. Browne said Sergeant Bales had considered the posting “grueling,” noting that the soldiers lived in metal cargo containers.

“It was very tough and rustic,” the lawyer said.

About a week ago, Mr. Browne said, Sergeant Bales saw a friend lose a leg to a buried mine. Soon after, according to Mr. Browne, he sent his wife a short message: “Hard day for the good guys.”

About a day later, Army officials said, Sergeant Bales walked out of the outpost and headed toward the nearby village.


Reporting was contributed by William Yardley and Serge F. Kovaleski from Tacoma, Wash.; Michael Cooper and Theo Emery from Norwood, Ohio; Isolde Raftery from Seattle; Lizette Alvarez from Miami; Eric Schmitt from Washington; and Jennifer Preston from New York. Jack Begg and Toby Lyles contributed research.

    At Home, Asking How ‘Our Bobby’ Became War Crime Suspect, NYT, 18.2.2012,






Gulf Widens Between U.S. and a More Volatile Karzai


March 17, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The Americans in Afghanistan are “demons.”

They claim they burned Korans by mistake, but really those were “Satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies.”

The massacre of 16 Afghan children, women and men by an American soldier “was not the first incident, indeed it was the 100th, the 200th and 500th incident.”

Such harsh talk may sound as if it comes from the Taliban, but those are all remarks either made personally by the United States’ increasingly hostile ally here, President Hamid Karzai, or issued by his office in recent days and weeks.

The strongest such outburst came Friday. “Let’s pray for God to rescue us from these two demons,” Mr. Karzai said, apparently holding back tears at a meeting with relatives of the massacre victims, and clearly referring to the United States and the Taliban in the same breath. “There are two demons in our country now.”

Ever since the Koran-burning episode on Feb. 20 and its violent aftermath, the relationship between the two governments has lurched from one crisis to another. American officials have scrambled to run damage control, with President Obama expressing a personal apology for the Koran burning, as well as regrets about the massacre, while calling Mr. Karzai twice in the past week.

The White House went to lengths last week to depict Mr. Karzai’s call for Americans to hand over control a year earlier, by 2013, as no change in policy — only to have Mr. Karzai pointedly insist the next day that it was. The Americans fret that Mr. Karzai is making a difficult job almost impossible, with demands they often see as unreasonable; Mr. Karzai worries that the Americans seek to undermine him, and may yet abandon his country and him, once again, to their fate.

The Koran burnings brought these differences into sharp relief, and led to a rupture in trust some view as irreparable. After an American unit at Bagram Air Base inadvertently burned Korans, embassy officials were deeply worried about an investigation conducted by the country’s Ulema Council, its highest religious body.

The council’s pronouncements, however, are closely controlled by Mr. Karzai’s office — they are even issued by the presidential palace — and American officials were assured by senior members on the president’s staff that the council’s report would be tough but not incendiary.

“We were ready to get knocked a bit,” said an American official who asked not to be identified to preserve his relationship with Afghan officials. “We messed up pretty badly.”

The original draft, in fact, was relatively moderate, American and Afghan officials said. But at the last minute more hard-line elements of Mr. Karzai’s staff weighed in, and the joint statement finally issued by the Ulema Council and the palace used language like “Satanic act” and “unforgivable, wild and inhuman” about the book burnings, and “justifiable emotion” in regard to the violent reaction, which claimed the lives of at least 29 Afghans and 6 Americans.

Western diplomats have often viewed Mr. Karzai’s outbursts as playing to the galleries, meant for consumption by his own people only, not as serious statements of policy. But the galleries also include the public in the United States and its NATO allies, where majorities in nearly every country oppose remaining in Afghanistan, and every new contretemps risks further eroding an already tenuous support.

“I think this is very serious because Mr. Karzai has always had a very ambivalent attitude toward the West and toward the war — he has never really believed violence is the answer,” said Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 through 2009. “He is also very conscious and very resentful that his political survival and even perhaps his personal safety depend on the Americans.”

The current American ambassador, the veteran diplomat Ryan C. Crocker, was brought out of semiretirement by President Obama last July at least in part because he had known Mr. Karzai since the beginning: Mr. Crocker was the first envoy to Afghanistan after the invasion that defeated the Taliban, when Mr. Karzai was appointed interim leader here.

Like many of his predecessors, Mr. Crocker began his latest tour on an optimistic note. “President Karzai has the toughest job in the world, and he has been doing it for the last 10 years,” Mr. Crocker said early on, and has repeated often since. “You have to give him credit.”

While the two men still have a working relationship and meet often, according to aides to both, there are many signs that the warmth has gone out of that relationship once again.

Mr. Crocker insisted in an interview with PBS on Friday that this was not the case.

“I think he is a committed Afghan nationalist, that at the end of the day he seeks the same goals we do,” the ambassador said. “And sometimes the rhetoric gets a little heated. Sometimes my rhetoric has been known to get a little bit heated in a few of these meetings, and then I go sit under a tree and think about the larger equities at stake, and we move on.”

From Mr. Karzai’s point of view, the Americans have repeatedly defied his demands to end commando night raids, and one civilian casualty after another has put him in the position of either criticizing the Americans and angering them, or not criticizing them and angering Afghans.

“In any relationship there are things that one party does that the other party doesn’t particularly care for, and that goes both ways,” said James Cunningham, the deputy ambassador to Afghanistan. “The question is not just whether President Karzai is a partner; we’re discussing and putting into place a partnership that is going to look forward a decade or so, and that’s a partnership with Afghanistan and its leaders, whoever they are.”

The relationship is so frayed, however, that Mr. Karzai often is quick to view everything through the prism of presumed American perfidy.

When American diplomats meet with his political opponents, he sees it as a sign that they are out to topple him from power — something that has reportedly obsessed him ever since the presidential election in 2009, which the international community saw as widely fraudulent. American officials pressured him into agreeing to a runoff, which in the end his opponents refused.

“We don’t have to be here running Afghanistan, and that is what people are afraid of,” Mr. Cunningham said. “We are not running Afghanistan, we are easing our way out, and I think that’s what feeds this whole dynamic. The notion that somehow we hold the upper hand, that’s not the right way to look at what we are trying to arrange. We are really, actually trying to arrange a partnership in which Afghans run their affairs,” he said.

The Taliban routinely deride Mr. Karzai as nothing more than an American puppet, but that is certainly not the view of his purported puppet masters. “Never in history has any superpower spent so much money, sent so many troops to a country, and had so little influence over what its president says and does,” one European diplomat marveled.

Americans have, however, wielded influence on many occasions, and President Karzai is still smarting from many of them. When an aide to Mr. Karzai was arrested by an American-backed corruption task force, the president intervened to secure his release, and then eviscerated the anticorruption body, the Major Crimes Task Force. But from Mr. Karzai’s point of view, the Americans never gave him the courtesy of warning that they planned to arrest a top official.

Bette Dam, a Dutch author who interviewed Mr. Karzai extensively for her book, “Expedition Uruzgan: Hamid Karzai’s Journey Into the Palace,” says that what the Americans saw as corruption, Mr. Karzai and his family saw as simply patronage. Because the government was weak, with the Americans providing all the muscle, patronage was the only thing Mr. Karzai had to maintain his power base.

“Then you have President Obama, who says we have to do it differently. But the only thing that changed was Obama criticizing Karzai, making his government transparent, setting up task forces openly attacking his corruption,” she said. “It was not likely something would change; Karzai’s patronage system that was built up was too strong, and he himself too proud.”

The inquiry over the apparent embezzlement of nearly a billion dollars from Kabul Bank, which implicated Mr. Karzai’s brother and the brother of his first vice president, was deeply embarrassing, and he blamed American officials for leaking it to the press — and then using the threat of aid cuts to force him to dismember the bank.

From the point of view of the United States and its Western allies, they have only been trying to push Mr. Karzai to do the right thing. The Kabul Bank swindle was so notorious that it risked chasing away foreign aid donors.

From either perspective, it is a less-than-ideal situation — but the Americans have no alternative to Mr. Karzai, and Mr. Karzai has no alternative to the American-led coalition supporting him.

“The Americans are prepared to walk away,” said a senior Western official in Kabul. “And you’ve got an Afghan political establishment that is heavily dependent on the international presence. It’s a dynamic that is very unfortunate.”

“Karzai wants revenge on the U.S. because of the systematic insults he has suffered, that he feels his family suffered, because of Kabul Bank,” said a former Afghan government official. “The culture in the U.S. is about policy, it is about mutually rational interests. Revenge is at times more important in this part of the world, more important than any political or economic interest.”

    Gulf Widens Between U.S. and a More Volatile Karzai, NYT, 17.3.2012,






Sergeant’s Wife Kept a Blog on the Travails of Army Life


March 17, 2012
The New York Times


She detailed her pregnancy, with her husband a world away. She described the knot she got in her stomach from missing him. She wrote of her disappointment after he was passed over for a promotion.

But mostly, Karilyn Bales — the wife of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers last week — relayed the simple anguish of life as a military spouse, tending to a home with two young children, with a husband summoned for repeated deployments.

“Bob left for Iraq this morning,” she wrote in her family blog on Aug. 9, 2009. “Quincy slept in our bed last night.”

Though much of the family’s online presence appears to have been removed in recent days, the fragments that remain capture the daily travails typical of any family with a loved one stationed abroad.

A little less than a year ago, in March 2011, Ms. Bales wrote on her blog that her husband had not received a promotion to E-7, sergeant first class. The family was disappointed, she said, “after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends.”

But Ms. Bales was also relieved, she wrote, because she hoped that the Army might allow the family some autonomy in choosing its next location, after Sergeant Bales had spent years at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.

She listed her top choices: Germany (“best adventure opportunity!”); Italy (“2nd best adventure opp”); Hawaii (“nuff said”); Kentucky (“we would at least be near Bob’s family”); and Georgia (“to be a sniper teacher, not because it is a fun place to live”).

In some of these locations, Sergeant Bales’s chances of being deployed to a war zone would probably have been lower. Wherever they went, Ms. Bales said, she hoped to rent out their house in Lake Tapps, Wash., she wrote, “so that we would have it to come back to when our adventure is over.”

More often, Ms. Bales focused on ordinary struggles. She described surprise phone calls and solo doctor’s appointments, attempts to clean the house while Sergeant Bales was gone and the “bad dreams” she woke from after a nap on the day he left in 2009.

She recalled discussions of baby names with him while he was away, and celebrating Easter one Sunday early, so that Sergeant Bales could decorate eggs with their daughter, Quincy, before leaving home again.

In 2006, while she was pregnant with Quincy, Ms. Bales wrote that though she was careful not to wish the days away, “I only want the days to go by fast when it comes to Bob coming back home.”

A few days later, Ms. Bales wrote about a common tic she shared with her unborn child: “I get the hiccups all the time these days, I always think that Bob is thinking about me.”

One morning, she continued, she could feel the baby hiccupping in her belly. “I guess Bob was thinking about her too,” Ms. Bales wrote.

When Quincy was born in December 2006, Ms. Bales wrote, she received a call at the hospital. “It was Bob calling from the airport in Kuwait!!” she wrote. “It was so good to hear his voice. I told him how the birth went and he got to hear Quincy squeaking in the background.”

In August 2007, she described some of the child’s first words. “Much to Daddy’s happiness,” she wrote, “she now says ‘D’ as in Dadadadadada.”

Ms. Bales’s post from March 2011, about the Army promotion, appears to have been the blog’s latest entry. In it, she seemed to hint at why she maintained the site in the first place. The collection of posts was a “time capsule,” she wrote, and she hoped that her children would one day “enjoy reading about the decisions that Mom and Dad went through during their lives.”

With a relocation expected, she said, the family’s coming months would be full of change. “I am hoping to blog about it and look back in a year,” she wrote, “to see how far we have come from right now.”


Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting.

    Sergeant’s Wife Kept a Blog on the Travails of Army Life, NYT, 17.3.2012,






U.S. Identifies Army Sergeant in Killing of 16 in Afghanistan


March 16, 2012
The New York Times


The military on Friday identified the soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers earlier this week as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a 38-year-old father of two who had been injured twice in combat over the course of four deployments and had, his lawyer said, an exemplary military record.

The release of Sergeant Bales’s name, first reported by Fox News, ended an extraordinary six-day blackout of public information about him from the Pentagon, which said it withheld his identity for so long because of concerns about his and his family’s security.

An official said on Friday that Sergeant Bales had been transferred from Kuwait to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he had a cell to himself in the medium-security prison there. His wife and children were moved from their home in Lake Tapps, Wash., east of Tacoma, onto Joint Base Lewis-McChord, his home base, earlier this week.

Military officials say Sergeant Bales, who has yet to be formally charged, left his small combat outpost in the volatile Panjwai district of Kandahar Province early in the morning last Sunday, walked into two nearby villages and there shot or stabbed 16 people, 9 of them children.

Little more than the outlines of Sergeant Bales’s life are publicly known. His family lived in Lake Tapps, a community about 20 miles northeast of his Army post. NBC News reported that he was from Ohio, and he may have lived there until he joined the Army at 27. Sergeant Bales’s Seattle-based lawyer, John Henry Browne, said several members of the sergeant’s family moved to Washington after he was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Mr. Browne said the sergeant joined the Army right after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and then spent almost all of his career at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he was part of the Third Stryker Brigade in the Second Infantry Division, named after the armored Stryker vehicles.

The killings have severely undermined longstanding NATO efforts to win support from villages in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and have shaken relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai, who this week told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who was on a visit to Afghanistan, that he wanted American forces out of villages by next year.

Pentagon officials, who have been scouring the sergeant’s military and health records for clues, have said little about what they think motivated the killings. But one senior government official said Thursday that Sergeant Bales had been drinking alcohol before the killings and that he might have had marital problems.

“When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues — he just snapped,” said the official, who had been briefed on the investigation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because the sergeant had not yet been charged.

Mr. Browne has disputed those assertions, telling reporters on Thursday that the sergeant’s marriage was sound and questioning reports about drinking. On the day before the shootings, he said, the sergeant had seen a fellow soldier lose his leg from a buried mine.

Mr. Browne, who said he had had a short conversation with Sergeant Bales because he was worried that their phone call was being monitored, added that the sergeant had thought he could avoid this deployment and was upset when he could not.

“The family was counting on him not being redeployed,” Mr. Browne said. “He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over.”

He added, “I think that it would be fair to say that he and the family were not happy that he was going back.”

The Bales family lived in a two-story, wood-frame house beneath tall fir and cedar evergreens in Lake Tapps, an unincorporated section of Pierce County, Wash. Kassie Holland, a neighbor, said that as far as she could tell, they were a happy family and the sergeant was a devoted father to his young children, a daughter, Quincy, and a son, Bobby. “There were no signs,” Ms. Holland said when asked whether Mr. Bales seemed troubled.

The Baleses’ house had a lock box on the front door on Friday. Phillip Rodocker, a real estate agent, said that he was contacted by Ms. Bales on March 8, three days before the shooting in Afghanistan, and that she told him she wanted to sell the house in Lake Tapps.

“She told me she was behind in our payments,” Mr. Rodocker said. “She said he was on his fourth tour and it was getting kind of old and they needed to stabilize their finances.”

Mr. Rodocker said he and a colleague met with Ms. Bales at the house the next day. “It looked like it had been really, really neglected,” he said. “Four tours of duty and nobody around to take care of the exterior of the property.”

Because it took time for the paperwork to go through, the house was not officially put on the market until Monday, the day after the shooting. On Tuesday, Mr. Rodocker said, “She called and said needed to take the house off the market due to a family emergency.”

He said that the house remained on the market because he had not received a written request for it to be removed.

Zillow, the real estate Web site, shows the house listed for $229,000, about $50,000 less than the family paid for it in 2005. Mr. Rodocker said the house was going to be a short sale, meaning the Baleses owed more to the bank than what it would sell for.

Mr. Rodocker said Ms. Bales also asked his colleague to sell a second property, a house in Auburn, Wash., that he said she had bought before the Baleses were married.

Boxes were piled on the front porch at the house in Lake Tapps along with a snow sled, while toys, a barbecue grill and a weathered hot tub sat in the fenced backyard. Mr. Rodocker said Ms. Bales told him she was collecting boxes to prepare for a move.

Over the course of the decade, Sergeant Bales was deployed three times to Iraq, Army records show: between 2003 and 2004; for 15 months between June 2006 and September 2007, during the height of the civil war and at the beginning of what became known as the surge; and then between August 2009 and August 2010.

During his second tour, his unit, the Second Battalion, Third Infantry Regiment, was involved in a major battle in the city of Najaf while trying to recover a downed Apache helicopter.

On his third deployment, in 2010, a Humvee carrying Sergeant Bales flipped over, possibly because of a roadside bomb, Mr. Browne said. Sergeant Bales injured his head and probably sustained a minor traumatic brain injury, which in chronic cases can lead to cognitive problems, personality changes and a loss of impulse control. Mr. Browne said it was possible that Sergeant Bales also had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mr. Browne also said the sergeant lost part of a foot in another episode, also apparently from an explosive device. It was not clear whether he might have sustained a second traumatic brain injury then.

Court records show that Sergeant Bales was charged with assault in 2002, but that the charge was dismissed. In 2008, he was charged with a hit-and-run involving a parked car, but that too was dropped, the records indicate.

Though the Army has said nothing about the case, investigators have been poring over Sergeant Bales’s evaluations, health records and computers in search of telltale information. But Mr. Browne said his client’s record was good and that he had been awarded a number of medals.

“He’s never said anything antagonistic about Muslims,” Mr. Browne said. “He’s in general been very mild-mannered.”

Joint Base Lewis-McChord has come under scrutiny because of a string of problems in recent years. In 2010, rogue soldiers from another Stryker brigade murdered three Afghan civilians during combat episodes staged by the soldiers. This year, the Army opened investigations into the base’s Madigan Army Medical Center after soldiers complained that diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder were being changed or dismissed.

Some advocates for active-duty troops and veterans say the problems demonstrate that the sprawling base, the Army’s largest on the West Coast, with nearly 40,000 soldiers, was not prepared to handle the strain of repeated deployments. Between 2009 and 2010, when Sergeant Bales was on his third deployment to Iraq, about 18,000 soldiers from the post were sent to war zones, and almost all returned at roughly the same time, overwhelming base services, the critics contend.

But on Friday, the general in charge of managing military bases said that the installation was not under an exceptional amount of strain from multiple deployments and was not seeing an unusual number of crimes or mental health issues, at least when compared with other bases.

“There’s nothing different here than most places,” said Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the commanding general of the United States Army Forces Command. “Again, those things happen. Everybody knows that doesn’t reflect our standards and our values.”


Reporting was contributed by William Yardley

and Serge Kovaleski from Lake Tapps, Wash., Isolde Raftery

from Seattle and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

    U.S. Identifies Army Sergeant in Killing of 16 in Afghanistan, NYT, 16.3.2012,






Accused G.I. ‘Snapped’ Under Strain, Official Says


March 15, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The American staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers had been drinking alcohol — a violation of military rules in combat zones — and suffering from the stress related to his fourth combat tour and tensions with his wife about the deployments on the night of the massacre, a senior American official said Thursday.

“When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues — he just snapped,” said the official, who has been briefed on the investigation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the soldier has not yet been formally charged.

As new details emerged about possible reasons behind the shootings, the American official said the military was preparing to move the sergeant to a prison in the United States as early as Friday, most likely to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., just a day after he was flown to a detention site in Kuwait from Afghanistan.

The sergeant’s sudden transfer to the United States is the result of a behind-the-scenes diplomatic uproar with Kuwait, which learned of the sergeant’s move to an American base on Kuwaiti territory from news reports before the United States government could alert the Kuwaitis about it, the senior American official said.

“When they learned about it, the Kuwaitis blew a gasket and wanted him out of there,” the official said.

The account by the American official, confirmed by a senior official at the Pentagon, is the most detailed description so far of the state of mind of the sergeant, a 38-year-old married father of two who was on his first combat tour in Afghanistan but his fourth over all, including three in Iraq, since he enlisted in 2001.

“There will be questions raised about his emotional and mental stability for a fourth deployment,” the American official said.

The Army still has not named the soldier, but on Thursday a lawyer who said he had been retained by his family offered some information and questioned some of the American official’s claims.

The lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said it was “nonsense” that there were exceptional marital tensions. “I know that is not true,” he said at a news conference at his office Thursday night in Seattle.

Mr. Browne added that the inaccuracy of the claim made him “suspicious” of the suggestion that alcohol and stress contributed, though he noted that virtually anyone at a remote base in Afghanistan would be under stress.

The soldier and his wife had “a very healthy marriage,” Mr. Browne said. Their two children are 3 and 4 years old.

A decorated soldier who grew up in the Midwest, the man enlisted within a week of the terrorist attacks of 2001, he said.

“He felt it was his duty to stand up for the United States,” said Mr. Browne, who has handled many high-profile cases in the Northwest, including the recent defense of the teenage fugitive known as the Barefoot Bandit, Colton Harris-Moore.

Mr. Browne, who said he met with “a very large group of family members” on Wednesday and spoke with the soldier by telephone on Thursday, said the man had “been decorated many, many times. He’s been to Iraq twice. He was injured twice and he was deployed back to Afghanistan. He is a career military man.”

He added, “He was injured in Iraq in two places on his body, so he wasn’t certain he was healthy enough to go back, physically.”

Mr. Browne said the soldier suffered a concussion during a vehicle rollover accident caused by a roadside bomb. He also lost part of a foot in another episode.

He confirmed that the soldier, part of the Third Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry, had served three tours in Iraq with that unit.

He declined to say whether the sergeant might have psychological or mental health issues, and he also would not say whether the soldier had confessed. Mr. Browne said he would wait for the government to release the man’s name.

Mr. Browne criticized anonymous reports from government officials, calling them baseless.

“The government is going to want to blame this on an individual rather than blame it on the war,” he said.

Mr. Browne said that his client had been based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just south of Tacoma, Wash., for his entire career. He said that many but not all of his family members had moved from the Midwest to western Washington. He said the soldier had done “blue collar” work in the Midwest before he enlisted. The soldier’s wife had “a very good job,” he said, noting that he was being paid, not working on the case pro bono. Mr. Browne said that the day before the shooting a soldier in the same unit had been “gravely injured.”

The senior American official said the account of the sergeant’s state of mind came from two other soldiers with whom he drank alcohol on the night of the shootings. Those soldiers face disciplinary action.

The sergeant has refused to speak to investigators, invoking his right to a lawyer shortly after he surrendered on returning to his base after the shootings.

The soldier’s wife and children have been moved from their home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for their protection in anticipation of the release of the sergeant’s name, the American official said. Concern for their safety was among the reasons for initially withholding the sergeant’s identity, the official said.


Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, D.C., and William Yardley from Seattle.

    Accused G.I. ‘Snapped’ Under Strain, Official Says, NYT, 15.3.2012,






In Reactions to Two Incidents, a U.S.-Afghan Disconnect


March 14, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The mullah was astounded and a little angered to be asked why the accidental burning of Korans last month could provoke violence nationwide, while an intentional mass murder that included nine children last Sunday did not.

“How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?” said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Koran burnings. “The whole goal of our life is religion.”

That many Americans are just as surprised that what appears to be the massacre of 16 people at the hands of an American soldier has not led to mass protests or revenge killings speaks volumes about a fundamental disconnect with their Afghan partners, one that has undermined a longstanding objective to win the hearts and minds of the population. After more than 10 years, many deaths and billions of dollars invested, Americans still fail to grasp the Afghans’ basic values. Faith is paramount and a death can be compensated with blood money.

“To Muslims, and especially to Afghans, religion is much higher a concern than civilian or human casualties,” said Hafez Abdul Qayoom, a member of Afghanistan’s highest clerical body, the Ulema Council. “When something happens to their religion, they are much more sensitive and have much stronger reaction to it.”

The attack by a still unidentified United States Army soldier near his base in the Panjwai district, in southern Kandahar Province, has certainly infuriated Afghans and added to already strained relations. But the anger has been more polemical than violent — at least so far.

“We have to hold our breath here — people are jumping too fast on this idea that Afghans don’t care about 16 people being killed, compared to, say, the Koran-burning episode,” said Haseeb Humayoon, a social scientist here who has studied the phenomenon of mass protests.

There have been delayed reactions to past foreign offenses, like when a Florida evangelist deliberately destroyed a Koran last year. And Friday Prayers, which often touch off mass protests, have yet to take place this week. Still, the contrast with the reaction to the Feb. 20 Koran burnings is striking. Within a day of the burnings, violent protests outside NATO bases broke out, and apologies from top officials did little to stem two weeks of violence that took at least 29 lives.

In the case of the massacre in Kandahar, prompt apologies and condemnations from not only Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of the international force, but also President Obama — along with quick action by local leaders — seemed to head off violence and contain the blowback.

In Kandahar, villagers at first wanted to take the bodies of their victims into the city, but elders persuaded them that displaying them to crowds would lead to mass violence, and they desisted. Instead, they expressed their anguish to top officials who rushed there from Kabul, and in phone calls with President Hamid Karzai. In Jalalabad, university students organized a demonstration, burning Mr. Obama and a Christian cross in effigy, but despite strident demands that the Americans leave, the protest remained peaceful and disbanded without incident.

Partly, many observers say, the Americans have had a lot of practice at apologizing for carnage, accidental and otherwise, and have gotten better at doing it quickly and convincingly.

“The statement coming from President Obama, saying the killing of Afghan children felt the same as if they were American children, was reported widely by the local press,” Mr. Humayoon said. “Previously you would have a bland apology.”

The Ulema Council, which is heavily influenced by the presidential palace, had immediately issued a passionate denunciation, saying of the Americans, “The human rights violators of the 21st century once more committed a wild, inhuman and shameful act and relentlessly martyred innocent children, women and men.” But Mullah Qayoom said the quick reaction and prompt apology helped tamp down fury.

Afghan officials helped, too, by quickly paying compensation to the victims’ relatives, who are very poor and are part of a culture where “blood money” is regularly paid for even accidental deaths. A high-level delegation brought the money on Tuesday to the village in Panjwai where the massacre happened, drawing an attack by Taliban insurgents.

Still, the speed of the official response does not explain everything. Military officials quickly apologized for the Koran burnings as well, but it seemed to do little to quiet matters.

Mullah Qayoom is surprised that anyone is surprised.

“Humans were sent here to worship and protect religion,” he said. “That is what the purpose of a Muslim’s life is.”

Also, Afghans were very much aware that burning a Koran under American law normally would not be a crime, any more than burning a Bible would be — so those responsible were not going to suffer anything that Afghans would view as appropriate punishment.

In the case of murder, the military does have capital punishment, at least in theory — though no American soldier has ever been sentenced to death for acts committed in Afghanistan, including murders.

“In your laws there is the death penalty, so we are hopeful,” Mullah Qayoom said. “With the Koran burning, your people do not even respect your own books, so in the end they will say ‘sorry’ and the person will be released.”

That Afghans find Koran desecration more distressing does not mean they have been indifferent to the murders, particularly of the children. By now, any Afghan with a computer has seen the victims’ cherubic but lifeless visages on Facebook, and the images have been passed around on cellphones. Wrapped in blankets, some look as if they had just fallen asleep — the coverings hide gaping forehead wounds. A toddler in a blood-stained pinafore looks alive at first glance.

The Taliban certainly did their best to instigate a reaction to the Kandahar killings, issuing a broadside within hours calling on local residents to pour into the streets and attack NATO bases.

So far, at least, nothing of the sort has happened. Afghans are quick to recall a proverb: “You give your money away for your life, but you give your life away for your religion.” Ahmad Nader Nadery, a human rights activist, said that when the heat of the moment settled, many Afghans would be ready to see the Kandahar massacre as the criminal act of a single individual, particularly because it did not come as part of a military operation.

Perhaps most important, however, is that civilian casualties have long since stopped being the particular province of foreign military forces, who were once responsible for 75 percent of them. Now the Taliban commit 75 percent of them, according to figures by the United Nations and Afghan rights groups. As one American military official said, “When have the Taliban ever apologized for killing?”

    In Reactions to Two Incidents, a U.S.-Afghan Disconnect, NYT, 14.3.2012,






Long-Planned Visit Lands Panetta in Tense Afghanistan


March 14, 2012
The New York Times


CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta landed here Wednesday morning on an unannounced and tense trip, the first by a senior member of the Obama administration since an American soldier reportedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, mostly children and women.

The two-day visit, which was planned months ago, has taken on a new urgency since an American staff sergeant slipped out of military base in the southern province of Kandahar on Sunday and, according to villagers and senior defense officials, went door to door in a nearby village, shooting civilians.

Mr. Panetta, like President Obama, has denounced the killings and vowed to bring the killer to justice, a message he is to deliver in person to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, top Afghan defense and interior officials, and provincial leaders. The killings have further upended rocky Afghan-American relations after more than 10 years of war.

Mr. Panetta is not scheduled to go to Panjwai, the district in Kandahar where the killings occurred, and where on Tuesday militants on motorcycles attacked a high-level Afghan government delegation with machine guns and assault rifles during a memorial service for the 16 victims. That assault, on a Panjwai mosque, left at least one Afghan soldier dead and ended the relative calm in the country since the massacre.

Mr. Panetta is scheduled to speak to American forces in the neighboring province of Helmand, where Marines have pushed back the Taliban from major areas but where fighting continues in the northern reaches. He is also to speak to troops from the country of Georgia who are deployed to Helmand Province.

Mr. Panetta has insisted that the rampage will not accelerate the administration’s exit strategy from Afghanistan and has said the military is on track to withdraw 23,000 troops from the country by the end of the summer. That would bring the total number of American troops in Afghanistan to 68,000.

The rest are to be out by 2014, although some could be left behind if the Afghans and Americas negotiate a deal.

Mr. Panetta told reporters on his plane on Monday that the killings in Panjwai were a horrific part of the decade-old conflict in Afghanistan.

“War is hell,” he said. “These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place, they’ve taken place in any war, they’re terrible events, and this is not the first of those events and it probably will not be the last.” He added: “But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy.”

    Long-Planned Visit Lands Panetta in Tense Afghanistan, NYT, 14.3.2012,






U.S. Officials Debate Speeding Afghan Pullout


March 13, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.

Accelerating the withdrawal of United States forces has been under consideration for weeks by senior White House officials, but those discussions are now taking place in the context of two major setbacks to American efforts in Afghanistan — the killings on Sunday of Afghan civilians attributed to a United States Army staff sergeant and the violence touched off by burning of Korans last month by American troops.

Administration officials cautioned on Monday that no decisions on additional troop cuts have been made, and in a radio interview President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the Afghan mission in spite of the recent setbacks, warning against “a rush for the exits” amid questions about the American war strategy. “It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with KDKA in Pittsburgh.

Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.

The United States now has just under 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, with 22,000 of them due home by September. There has been no schedule set for the withdrawal of the remaining 68,000 American troops, although Mr. Obama said last year that the drawdown would continue “at a steady pace” until the United States handed over security to the Afghan forces in 2014.

At least three options are now under consideration, according to officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. One plan, backed by Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, would be to announce that at least 10,000 more troops would come home by the end of December, and then 10,000 to 20,000 more by June 2013.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been pushing for a bigger withdrawal that would reduce the bulk of the troops around the same time the mission shifts to a support role, leaving behind Special Operations teams to conduct targeted raids. Mr. Biden has long said that the United States mission in Afghanistan is too broad and should focus primarily on a narrow counterterrorism mission against insurgents seeking to attack the United States.

Mr. Obama’s military commanders, meanwhile, want to maintain troops in Afghanistan as long as possible. If cuts have to be made, the commanders favor making them at the end of 2013, after the fighting season is largely finished. Any troop cuts made midyear would mean that those forces would not be available during the main fighting season, which runs from spring to early fall.

“We’ve come up with several options, but they’re back-of-the-envelope options,” said a senior military official, who said the internal discussions were just now beginning to focus on the costs, logistics and security risks of each plan.

Additional troop reductions would be consistent with a shift in mission that Mr. Obama plans to announce at a meeting of NATO members in Chicago in May. Under this plan, American troops would step away from the lead combat role to a supporting mission focused primarily on counterterrorism and training Afghan security forces. Mr. Obama will not announce the next troop reduction at the NATO meeting, aides said on Monday, but the size of the reduction will flow from the NATO decision on when to shift the mission in Afghanistan from combat to support.

In his news conference last week, Mr. Obama called the goal for the NATO meeting to make “sure that the transition is not a cliff, but that there are benchmarks and steps that are taken along the way.”

Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of the president’s senior national security advisers, said in an interview on Monday that “the trajectory we’ve set here is one of transition and Afghan sovereignty.” He added, “We have a goal here of having the Afghans move into the lead and having us steadily pulling back.”

Once the United States and its allies agree on the timing for the shift in mission —Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has already said that it will take place as early as mid-2013 — the administration must decide exactly when the remaining 68,000 troops will come home. Already, debate there has fallen along familiar lines, according to the officials.

Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, is expected to face tough questioning on the mission and the pace of withdrawal in Congressional hearings scheduled for next week. “The campaign is sound,” General Allen said in an interview on Monday with Wolf Blitzer of CNN. “It is solid. It does not contemplate, at this time, any form of an accelerated drawdown.”

His comments were similar to those of Mr. Panetta, who told reporters on Monday while flying to Kyrgyzstan that the killings of Afghan civilians a day earlier would not undermine United States strategy in Afghanistan or speed up a planned drawdown of American troops over the next two years.

One prominent supporter of the Afghan mission, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, warned that steep troop cuts before 2014 could jeopardize General Allen’s ability to carry out the mission. “You don’t put a man in charge of a war and undercut his ability to do his job,” Mr. Graham said in a telephone interview.

The shootings on Sunday, and the burning of the Korans, come at a time when Afghans seem increasingly uncertain about their country’s fate once the Americans withdraw. Asylum applications to other countries are at an all-time high, while passport applications have overwhelmed the Afghan Foreign Ministry’s ability to process them. More than 500 people line up outside the passport office in Kabul every morning even in the bitterest weather.

Many respected Afghans have fled the country or lost their jobs, including the head of the country’s Central Bank and the deputy head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Meanwhile, analysts say the Afghan economy appears more and more to be built on the Western aid that has enriched the country’s elite, who have taken much of the money out of the country. Cash moving through Kabul International Airport has gone up drastically in the past year, so that now about $4 billion is leaving the country, in a legitimate annual economy of about $15 billion.

Little of that is expected to be mentioned publicly at the Chicago meeting. Mr. Obama and the NATO allies, European and American officials said, must instead present a picture of success that includes the possibility of reconciliation talks with the Taliban and a NATO withdrawal that is coming only after a job well done.

“The critical issue in Chicago is for the president to make the case that the military picture is good, the insurgency has been weakened, and the Afghan security forces are ready to take over,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official under the Obama administration who worked on these issues. “And that reconciliation is under way.”

Mr. Obama will be discussing the NATO mission in Afghanistan when he meets with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain on Tuesday and Wednesday. A European official said Monday that it was imperative that the United States and its NATO partners project a public face to the Afghans that while NATO troops will be leaving Afghanistan, the West will not abandon the country. “The most important thing now is the messaging,” the official said.


Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin, Matthew Rosenberg, Graham Bowley

and Rod Nordland from Kabul, Afghanistan, and by Elisabeth Bumiller

en route to Kyrgyzstan.

    U.S. Officials Debate Speeding Afghan Pullout, NYT, 13.2.2012,






Horror in Kandahar


March 12, 2012
The New York Times


The massacre of at least 16 civilians in three Afghan villages by an American soldier on Sunday was an unspeakable horror. The United States said Monday that an investigation is under way. It must be fast, transparent and conclusive so that Afghans can see that America is committed to justice and responsive to their outrage. The punishment must be swift.

According to American and Afghan officials, the soldier shot the civilians execution-style, including nine children, after methodically breaking into three separate houses in a district of Kandahar Province. After killing the civilians, he set some of their bodies on fire. The soldier’s name has not been disclosed, but, according to The Times, he is a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant and a married father of two children based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash. He had three tours in Iraq and was on his first tour in Afghanistan.

This atrocity appears to be the act of one individual. No one has suggested a motive. But if the investigation reveals that the sergeant showed signs of mental illness or other forms of distress, then this tragedy clearly has significant implications for how the military identifies, monitors and treats troubled service members. The Pentagon needs to make that issue part of a thorough inquiry.

Sunday’s massacre is another dangerous setback for the United States as it tries to adhere to a plan for drawing down its forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and reaching a peace agreement with the Taliban.

This is the third recent incident to enrage Afghans and provoke ever more forceful demands that American troops leave immediately. Last month, American personnel inadvertently burned some Korans, and, in January, American Marines were shown on video urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban militants. Anti-American tensions are running so high that an agreement with Afghanistan now being negotiated to authorize the long-term stationing of American special operations forces could be in jeopardy. And there are growing concerns that any Americans, military or civilian, could be subject to retaliation.

There are roughly 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan now, with 22,000 scheduled to leave by this fall. The Obama administration is now considering reducing troop levels in Afghanistan by at least 20,000 by 2013, and possibly even deeper, according to Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt of The Times. The United States has a vital interest in ensuring Afghanistan doesn’t again become a launching pad for terrorist attacks. It has to keep moving forward with negotiations on an American presence after 2014, while continuing to review whether there are prudent ways to speed the process for withdrawal.

    Horror in Kandahar, NYT, 12.3.2012,






An Afghan Comes Home to a Massacre


March 12, 2012
The New York Times


PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Displaced by the war, Abdul Samad finally moved his large family back home to this volatile district of southern Afghanistan last year. He feared the Taliban, but his new house was nestled near an American military base, where he considered himself safe.

But when Mr. Samad, 60, walked into his mud-walled dwelling here on Sunday morning and found 11 of his relatives sprawled in all directions, shot in the head, stabbed and burned, he learned the culprit was not a Taliban insurgent. The shooting suspect was a 38-year-old United States staff sergeant who had slipped out of the base to kill.

The American soldier is accused of killing 16 people in all in a bloody rampage that has further tarnished Afghan-American relations and devastated Mr. Samad, a respected village elder whose tired eyes poured forth tears one minute and glared ahead in anger the next.

Once a believer in the offensive against the Taliban, he is now insistent that the Americans get out. “I don’t know why they killed them,” said Mr. Samad, a short, feeble man with a white beard and white turban, as he struggled in an interview to come to terms with the loss of his wife, four daughters between the ages of 2 and 6, four sons between 8 and 12, and two other relatives.

“Our government told us to come back to the village, and then they let the Americans kill us,” Mr. Samad said outside the military base, known as Camp Belambay, with outraged villagers who came to support him. They transported the bodies of Mr. Samad’s family members, as well as the other victims, and the burned blankets that had covered them as proof of the awful crime that had occurred.

After years of war, Mr. Samad, a poor farmer, had been reluctant to return to his home in Panjwai, which was known in good times for its grapes and mulberries.

But unlike other displaced villagers who stayed in the city of Kandahar, about 15 miles away, and other places around the troubled province, Mr. Samad listened to the urgings of the provincial governor and the Afghan Army. They had encouraged residents to return and reassured them that American forces would protect them.

Back in his village, a collection of a few houses known as Najibian, Mr. Samad and his family moved into a neighbor’s house because his own had been destroyed by NATO bombardments in the years of fierce battles.

His home in Panjwai and the other districts around Kandahar city — long the Taliban’s heartland — had been a main hub of mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation. The districts became ground zero for the surge of force ordered at the end of 2009 by the Obama administration.

There had been little to no coalition presence in the area in the decade since the war began, and American soldiers fought hard over the past two years to clear Taliban fighters from the mud villages like Mr. Samad’s that dot the area.

At the same time, they struggled to win the trust of the Afghans who live in the district, many of whom have proved wary of foreigners and fearful that the Taliban — who were pushed to the margins in many areas but still remained a forceful presence — would eventually return and extract a heavy toll from those who cooperated with the Americans. Some American actions in the area also alienated villagers, like the wholesale destruction of villages that commanders decided were too riddled with booby traps to safely control.

While the Taliban were pushed back for a while, villagers like Mr. Samad say they are still active and describe what an intolerable life caught between the coalition forces and the Taliban while their meager vineyards and wheat fields are consumed.

“Taliban are attacking the bases, planting mines, and the bases are firing mortars and shooting indiscriminately toward the villages when they come under attack,” said Malak Muhammad Mama, 50, a villager who now lives in Kandahar. He said that a month ago, a mortar fired from the base killed a woman, and that last week a roadside bomb hit an American armored vehicle.

It was against this background that, United States officials said, the soldier left the American base and walked south about a mile to Mr. Samad’s village. Mr. Samad and his teenage son survived because they had been visiting the nearby town of Spinbaldak. When he reached his home, neighbors were putting out the fire set on his family. One of his neighbors, an elderly woman named Anar Gula, who had been cowering in her home, said she had heard an explosion, screaming and shooting as the soldier broke down the door of Mr. Samad’s house and chased his wife and two other female family members from room to room before he shot them.

Two of the women and some of the children had been stabbed, she and other villagers said, and blankets had been laid over them and set alight — to hide the stab wounds, she said.

Afterward, the soldier circled back north around the base to another village, where he attacked the home of Hajji-Sayed Jan, 45, a poor laborer who had fled to Kandahar city three times during the years of fighting but who had brought his family back because he could not afford to live in the city, villagers said.

He was in Kandahar for the evening and so survived, but his wife, nephew, grandson and brother were killed. Further on in the same village, the soldier entered a home and fatally shot Muhammad Dawoud, 55, a farmer, when he emerged from a room; his wife and children escaped to a neighbor’s house.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday that the staff sergeant returned to the base after the killings “and basically turned himself in, told individuals what had happened.” Asked if the soldier had confessed, Mr. Panetta replied, “I suspect that was the case.”

Mr. Panetta, who spoke to reporters on his plane en route to Kyrgyzstan, said that it was an Afghan soldier at the base who first noticed that the sergeant was missing. “He reported it, they did a bed check, they had prepared a search team to go out and try to find out where he was when they got news of what had happened, and this individual then turned himself in,” he said.

The military would bring “appropriate charges” against the soldier, Mr. Panetta said, and the death penalty “could be a consideration.”

He said the military was still struggling to understand a motive. “We’re not sure why, what the reasons were,” he said. But he called the killings “a criminal act” and said that he had assured President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that the soldier “will be brought to justice and be held accountable.”

The soldier, who started his first tour in Afghanistan in December after three tours in Iraq, had been trained as a sniper and suffered a head injury in a noncombat-related vehicle accident during a recent tour of duty in Iraq, according to The Associated Press, which cited United States officials who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. One official said there was no information on whether the head injury could be linked to any later abnormal behavior, The A.P. reported.

A Congressional source told The A.P. that the soldier was attached to a village stability program in Belambi, a half-mile from where one attack took place.

Local elders and members of the provincial council gathered in Kandahar on Monday to condemn the attacks, denounce their poor living conditions and question the value of the American troop presence.

But while the mood in the south and in the capital, Kabul, was tense, there was less of the outright fury that brought thousands onto the streets after Koran burnings last month.

The Taliban posted some gory photographs from the attack on their Web site, and photographs of the charred children circulated on many Afghan blogs and social networks, along with enraged anti-American comments. In Kabul, Parliament issued a statement saying its patience with the coalition forces was wearing thin. About 10 deputies from Kandahar walked out in protest of the killings.

“We urge the United States government to punish the culprits and put them on trial in an open court so that the rest of those who want to shed our innocent people’s blood take a lesson from it,” the statement said.

Many Afghans, including Mr. Samad, continued to doubt that the attack was the work of a single gunman, as the military said. Several of the villagers in Panjwai said they had seen more than one soldier, as well as helicopters, suggesting that it was an intentional coordinated attack.

However, in Kabul, senior American diplomats said in private meetings with other allied officials what they have been insisting in public: that the shootings were carried out by a single assailant who was now in the custody of United States forces, according to American officials privy to the conversations. They said helicopters were sent out after the attack to ferry at least five wounded people from the villages to a NATO military hospital.

As for Mr. Samad, he said he was in too much despair to even think about how he would carry on with his life. But he said the lesson of the deadly shootings was clear: the Americans should leave. Mr. Karzai called Mr. Samad on Sunday after the killings, and Mr. Samad, barefoot as he spoke plaintively into a satellite phone with district officials gathered around, told the president: “Either finish us or get rid of the Americans.”

“We made you president, and what happens to our family?” he told Mr. Karzai. “The Americans kill us and then burn the dead bodies.”


Taimoor Shah reported from Panjwai, and Graham Bowley from Kabul, Afghanistan. Matthew Rosenberg and Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul, and Elisabeth Bumiller en route to Kyrgyzstan.

    An Afghan Comes Home to a Massacre, NYT, 12.3.2012,






In Assessing the Damage, Fears of an Emboldened Taliban


March 11, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The outrage from the back-to-back episodes of the Koran burning and the killing on Sunday of at least 16 Afghan civilians imperils what the Obama administration once saw as an orderly plan for 2012: to speed the training of Afghan forces so that they can take the lead in combat missions, all while drawing the Taliban into negotiations to end more than a decade of constant war.

President Obama and his aides had once hoped that by now they would have cemented the narrative that the Taliban were a spent force being pounded into peace negotiations and recognizing that they could never retake control of the country.

But in conversations on Sunday, both in Washington and Kabul, some American military and civilian officials acknowledged that the events would embolden the hard-liners within the Taliban, who oppose negotiations with a force that is leaving the country anyway and who want to use the next two years to appeal to the understandable national allergy to foreign occupation.

“The fear,” one American military official said, “is that all these incidents, taken together, play into the Taliban’s account of how we treat the Afghan religion and people. And while we all know that’s a false account — think how many the Taliban have killed, and never once taken responsibility — it’s a very hard perception to combat.”

The United States discovered as much in Iraq, where in 2005 American Marines killed 26 unarmed Iraqis, many of them women and children, in Haditha — a remote city in Anbar Province. That episode helped contribute to what became some of the worst months of the war. No one is predicting the same result from the Afghan case, in part because the United States has made it abundantly clear that it is leaving, save for some kind of smaller “enduring presence” it plans to have to keep the peace.

As recently as last week, testifying before the Senate, Adm. James G. Stavridis, the overall commander of NATO forces, declared, “I believe we will have an enduring partnership between NATO and the Republic of Afghanistan” beyond 2014.

The speed with which Washington reacted to the news of the killings on Sunday — an attack that was said to be carried out by a single American soldier — underscored the depth of the concern that such an agreement could become harder and harder to sell to Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president. Mr. Karzai has long faced accusations of being a lap dog to the Americans.

Both Mr. Obama and the defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, called Mr. Karzai, promising a full investigation and offering deep regrets and an assurance that anyone involved in the killings would be held to account. Mr. Panetta added in a statement that “we are steadfast in our resolve to work hand in hand with our Afghan partners to accomplish the missions and goals on which we have been working together for so long.”

And at the White House, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Benjamin J. Rhodes, acknowledged in an interview Sunday that such events were “heart-wrenching, very difficult moments, and they take a lot of time and effort for both sides to move beyond.” But he added that the United States had learned during the Koran burning that “if you respond appropriately, you can actually build trust with the Afghans.”

Mr. Rhodes noted, for example, that shortly after the Koran burning and the retaliation, in which several Americans were killed, the two countries reached an agreement on the transfer of detainees to Afghan control over the next few months, an effort to show “that we are serious about a steady handover of all authority.”

But to many Americans — even onetime supporters of the Afghan mission in both parties — these episodes and the inevitable reaction they prompt only underscore the need to hurry to the exits in a war whose outcome, some military officials say, now seems less certain than at any time since Mr. Obama took office.

While it may take weeks or months to determine the motives of the killer in this case, military officials have said in recent days that these are the kinds of episodes that happen when a military force has been at constant war, with many repeat rotations in battle zones.

While some Republican presidential candidates — notably Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts — have criticized Mr. Obama for committing to leave Afghanistan before the Taliban are defeated, a growing number seem to be joining Democrats who say there is little more the United States can do.

“I think it’s very likely that we have lost — tragically lost the lives and suffered injuries to a considerable number of young Americans on a mission that we’re going to discover is not doable,” Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who has struck perhaps the most negative tone on the war of any of Mr. Obama’s potential rivals, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

In words quite close to what some Democrats have told the White House, Mr. Gingrich added: “Look at the things that are going on around the region and then ask yourself, ‘Is this, in fact, a harder, deeper problem that is not going to be susceptible to military force, at least not military forces in the scale we are prepared to do?’ ”

As a practical matter, there are two major concerns that grow out of these episodes, and that make some in the administration wonder whether Mr. Obama’s speeded-up pullout plan should be hurried up even more.

The first has to do with the training mission. After the Koran burning, there were fears in the military that it would become harder for American or NATO military trainers to move freely among an Afghan Army force of 350,000 troops, most of whom are poorly trained. Fearing for their own safety, the trainers will bring along larger security details, to assure they do not fall under attack.

In fact, American counterinsurgency experts said on Sunday that the shootings could well have a devastating impact on the painstaking efforts by American Green Berets and other troops over the past year to win the trust of Afghan villagers.

“It takes months and months to build the trust of the local populations, and then something like this happens and it’s gone, literally overnight,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who worked in Panjwai, where the attack took place, in 2009 and 2010 as an adviser to the military’s Special Operations Command.

But the second concern is even harder to assess: that the Taliban will conclude that events like this will, in the end, only increase the pressure on the United States to get out quickly. So far, the efforts to bring the Taliban to the table in Qatar, where Ambassador Marc Grossman and other American diplomats are seeking to arrange talks, have gone painfully slowly.

The first steps — a confidence-building prisoner exchange that would require moving some detainees from the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar — have taken months. It is episodes like this, one American official said, “that create an instant windfall for the Taliban,” at just the moment that the United States is trying to persuade them that their cause is all but lost.


Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

    In Assessing the Damage, Fears of an Emboldened Taliban, NYT, 11.3.2012,






U.S. Sergeant Is Said to Kill 16 Civilians in Afghanistan


March 11, 2012
The New York Times


PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Stalking from home to home, a United States Army sergeant methodically killed at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early on Sunday, igniting fears of a new wave of anti-American hostility, Afghan and American officials said.

Residents of three villages in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province described a terrifying string of attacks in which the soldier, who had walked more than a mile from his base, tried door after door, eventually breaking in to kill within three separate houses. The man gathered 11 bodies, including those of 4 girls younger than 6, and set fire to them, villagers said.

Coming after a period of deepening public outrage, spurred by the Koran burning by American personnel last month and an earlier video showing American Marines urinating on dead militants, the possibility of a violent reaction to the killings added to a feeling of siege here among Western personnel. Officials described growing concern over a cascade of missteps and offenses that has cast doubt on the ability of NATO personnel to carry out their mission and has left troops and trainers increasingly vulnerable to violence by Afghans seeking revenge.

President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks, calling them in a statement an “inhuman and intentional act” and demanding justice. Both President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called Mr. Karzai, expressing condolences and promising thorough investigations. “This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said in a statement.

American officials in Kabul were scrambling to understand what had happened, and appealed for calm, at a moment when the United States and Afghanistan are in tense negotiations on the terms of the long-term American presence in the country.

The officials said the suspect was an Army staff sergeant who acted alone and then surrendered. “The initial reporting that we have at this time indicates there was one shooter, and we have one man in custody,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a NATO spokesman.

A senior American military official said Sunday evening that the sergeant was attached to a unit based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a major Army and Air Force installation near Tacoma, Wash., and that he had been part of what is called a village stabilization operation in Afghanistan. In those operations, teams of Green Berets, supported by other soldiers, try to develop close ties with village elders, organize local police units and track down Taliban leaders. The official said the sergeant was not a Green Beret himself.

Another senior military official said the sergeant was 38 and married with two children. He had served three tours of duty in Iraq, this official said, and had been deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in December. Yet another military official said he has served in the Army for 11 years.

In Panjwai, a reporter for The New York Times who inspected bodies that had been taken to the nearby American military base counted 16 dead, including five children with single gunshot wounds to the head, and saw burns on some of the children’s legs and heads. “All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned,” said Anar Gula, an elderly neighbor who rushed to the house after the soldier had left. “We put out the fire.”

The villagers also brought some of the burned blankets on motorbikes to display at the base, Camp Belambay, in Kandahar, and show that the bodies had been set alight. Soon, more than 300 people had gathered outside to protest.

At least five Afghans were wounded in the attacks, officials said, some of them seriously, indicating the death toll could rise. NATO said several casualties were being treated at a military hospital.

One of the survivors from the attacks, Abdul Hadi, 40, said he was at home when a soldier broke down the door.

“My father went out to find out what was happening, and he was killed,” he said. “I was trying to go out and find out about the shooting, but someone told me not to move, and I was covered by the women in my family in my room, so that is why I survived.”

Mr. Hadi said there was more than one soldier involved in the attacks, and at least five other villagers described seeing a number of soldiers, and also a helicopter and flares at the scene. But that claim was unconfirmed — other Afghan residents described seeing only one gunman — and it was unclear whether extra troops had been sent out to the village after the attack to catch the gunman.

In a measure of the mounting mistrust between Afghans and the coalition, however, many Afghans, including lawmakers and other officials, said they believed the attacks had been planned, and were incredulous that one American soldier could have carried out such attacks without help. In his statement, Mr. Karzai said “American forces” had entered the houses in Panjwai, but at another point he said the killings were the act of an individual soldier.

Others called for calm. Abdul Hadi Arghandihwal, the minister of economy and the leader of Hezb-e-Islami, a major Afghan political party with Islamist leanings, said there would probably be new protests. But he said the killings should be seen as the act of an individual and not of the United States.

“It is not the decision of the Army officer to order somebody to do something like this,” he said. “Probably there are going to be many demonstrations, but it will not change the decisions of our government about our relationship with the United States.”

Elsewhere, news of the killings was spreading only slowly. Other than the protest at the base in Kandahar, there were no immediate signs of the fury that fueled rioting across the country after the burning of Korans by American military personnel in February.

Both the United States Embassy in Kabul, which immediately urged caution among Americans traveling or living in Afghanistan, and the military coalition rushed to head off any further outrage, deploring the attacks, offering condolences for the families and promising the soldier would be brought to justice. Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, the NATO spokesman, expressed his “deep sadness” and said that while the motive was not yet clear, it looked like an isolated episode.

“I am not linking this to the recent incidents over the recent days and weeks,” he said. “It looks very much like an individual act. We have to look into the background behind it.”

Adding to the sense of concern, the killings occurred two days after an episode in Kapisa Province, in eastern Afghanistan, in which NATO helicopters apparently hunting Taliban insurgents instead fired on civilians, killing four and wounding three others, Afghan officials said. About 1,200 demonstrators marched in protest in Kapisa on Saturday.

The rapid arrest on Sunday could help prevent a repeat of last month’s unrest. The reaction to the Koran-burning case revealed a huge cultural gap between the Americans, who saw it as an unfortunate mistake, and the Afghans, who viewed it as a crime and wanted to see those responsible tried as criminals.

The Afghans and Americans agreed on the severity of the killings on Sunday, though, and General Jacobson said the case would be aggressively pursued by American legal authorities.

It was less clear how the attacks would affect the talks between Kabul and Washington, known as strategic partnership talks, which will define the American presence and role in the country after the withdrawal of combat troops. The upheaval prompted by the Koran burnings led to a near-breakdown in those talks, but they appeared tentatively back on track after a deal struck Friday for the Afghans to assume control of the main coalition prison in six months.

The strategic partnership talks must still address differences over the American campaign of night raids on Afghan houses. The attack on Sunday may complicate that issue, because it bore some similarities to the night raids carried out by coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The shootings also carried some echoes of an attack in March 2007 in eastern Afghanistan, when several Marines opened fire with automatic weapons, killing as many as 19 civilians after a suicide car bomb struck the Marines’ convoy, wounding one Marine.

Panjwai, a rural district near the city of Kandahar, was traditionally a Taliban stronghold. It was a focus of the United States military offensive in 2010 and was the scene of heavy fighting.

Two American soldiers were killed by small-arms fire in Panjwai on March 1, and three died in a roadside bomb attack in February.


Taimoor Shah reported from Panjwai, and Graham Bowley from Kabul, Afghanistan. Reporting was contributed by Sharifullah Sahak, Rod Nordland and Matthew Rosenberg from Kabul; Eric Schmitt from Washington; William Yardley from Tacoma, Wash.; James Dao from New York; and Isolde Raftery from Seattle.

    U.S. Sergeant Is Said to Kill 16 Civilians in Afghanistan, NYT, 11.3.2012,






American Is Held After Shooting of Civilians in Afghanistan


March 11, 2012
The New York Times


PANJWAY, Afghanistan — A United States service member walked out of a military base in a rural district of southern Afghanistan on Sunday and opened fire on three nearby houses, killing at least 15 civilians, local villagers and provincial officials said.

The shooting risks further inciting anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan and troubling a relationship that had already been brought to a new low by the burning of Korans at an American military base last month. The American embassy in Afghanistan quickly issued a statement on Sunday urging calm.

The NATO-led coalition said in a statement on Sunday that a United States service member had been detained after an incident in Kandahar Province, in the south of the country, and that there had been a number of civilian casualties.

Villagers in Belandi in the Panjway district of Kandahar, where the shooting took place, said the service member had attacked three houses, killing 11 people in one house and four in a second home. Five other villagers were wounded, they said.

Panjway, a rural suburb of Kandahar, was traditionally a Taliban stronghold. It was a focus of the United States surge in 2010 and was the scene of heavy fighting.

The governor of Kandahar Province, Tooryalai Wesa, condemned the shooting, although he could not immediately confirm the number of people killed. A coalition spokesman in Kabul, Capt. Justin Brockhoff, said that it was not clear what had led to the incident. He said the civilians wounded in the shooting were taken to a coalition hospital where they were being treated.

One of the houses attacked in the village belonged to a tribal elder, according to a person from the village. “We don’t know why he killed people,” said the villager, Aminullah, who like many Afghans goes by a single name. Aminullah said the soldier was alone. “There was no fighting or attacks.”

In the statement, the United States military raced to head off Afghan outrage. “This is a deeply regrettable incident and we extend our thoughts and concerns to the families involved,” the statement said.

It went on to say that American forces, in cooperation with the Afghan authorities, would investigate the incident.

In its comments, the American Embassy also sought to ease tensions, offering “its deepest condolences to the families of the victims of today’s tragic shooting.”

“We are saddened by this violent act against our Afghan friends,” the statement said.

In a separate incident, four Afghans were killed and three wounded on Friday when coalition helicopters apparently hunting Taliban insurgents fired instead on villagers in Kapisa province in eastern Afghanistan, according to Abdul Hakim Akhondzada, governor of Tagab district in Kapisa.

Last month, the burning of the Korans touched off nationwide rioting and increased the targeting of American troops, resulting in at least 29 Afghans dead and 6 American soldiers killed.

The results of the official military inquiry into the Koran burnings are still awaited, including any decision on what kind of disciplinary action may be faced by the American service members identified as being directly linked to the incident.

The upheaval provoked by the Koran burnings put a temporary halt to cooperation between the Afghans and Americans, and disrupted planning for the military withdrawal.

But relations seemed somewhat back on track after the two governments on Friday broke an impasse on a long-term strategic partnership deal by agreeing for the Afghans to assume control of the main coalition prison in six months.

In another incident in January, American officials had to contend with the fallout from a video that showed four United States Marines urinating on the corpses of what appeared to be the corpses of three Taliban members.

In 2010, a rogue group of American soldiers, whose members patrolled roads and small villages, also near Kandahar, killed three Afghan civilians for sport in a series of crimes. The soldier accused of being the ringleader of the group was convicted of three counts of murder by an American military panel in November.


Taimoor Shah from reported from Panjway,

Kandahar Province, and Graham Bowley from Kabul.

    American Is Held After Shooting of Civilians in Afghanistan, NYT, 11.3.2012,






Chain of Avoidable Errors Cited in Koran Burning


March 2, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — American and Afghan officials investigating the Koran-burning episode that has brought relations between the countries to a new low say that the destruction could have been headed off at several points along a chain of mishaps, poor judgments and ignored procedures, according to interviews over the past week.

Even as Americans have raced to ease Afghan outrage over the burning, releasing information on Friday that American service members could face disciplinary action, accounts from more than a dozen Americans and Afghans involved in investigating the incineration laid out a complex string of events that will do little to assuage an Afghan public that in some quarters has called for deaths to avenge the sacrilege.

The crisis over the burning, carried out by American soldiers near the detention center in Parwan on Feb. 20, brought a short-term halt to cooperation between the Americans and Afghans and has complicated almost every aspect of planning and negotiation for a military withdrawal. The burning touched off nationwide rioting and the increased targeting of American troops, leaving at least 29 Afghans and 6 American soldiers dead in the past week.

On Friday, an American official close to a joint Afghan-American investigation into the episode noted that the final report would call for disciplinary review for at least six people involved in the Koran burning, including American military “leaders” and an American interpreter. Afghans familiar with the case described the interpreter as an Afghan-American.

The same day, the pre-eminent body of Afghan religious leaders, the Ulema Council, which conducted its own inquiry, demanded that the United States immediately hand over prison operations to the Afghan government and publicly punish those involved in the Koran burning. There is also a formal United States military inquiry.

The responses highlighted continuing and deep differences between American and Afghan concepts of justice: American officials insist that no deliberate insult was intended and that the military justice system and apologies should suffice, while the Afghan religious leaders demand that public identification and punishment of the offenders is the only path to soothe the outrage of Afghans over what they see as an unforgivable desecration of God’s words.

“There are some crimes that cannot be forgiven, but that need to be punished,” said Maulavi Khaliq Dad, a member of the Ulema Council. “This is not any book; this is the book of the whole Muslim nation, and if a few people are punished, America will not be destroyed. But if that doesn’t happen, it will create animosity and enmity between America and the Muslim world.”

Some officials found the current case particularly troubling because it followed more than 10 years at war in the Muslim world, in which outrage over even the rumor of American defacement of Korans has caused previous crises in Afghanistan and Iraq. Several of the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the investigations.

An American military official familiar with the joint investigation somberly described the burning as a “tragedy,” but rejected any suggestion that it was intentional. He said that the joint commission of three senior Afghan security officials and an American military officer was convinced that the military personnel involved in making the decision to get rid of the Korans and those who carried out the order did not set out to defile the Muslim holy book.

“There was no maliciousness, there was no deliberateness, there was not an intentional disrespect of Islam,” he said.

At the very least, the accounts of the Americans and the Afghans involved in the investigation offer a parable of the dire consequences of carelessness about Afghan values, despite the cultural training required for most American service members serving in Afghanistan.

The account begins about a week before the burning, when officers at the detention center in Parwan became worried that detainees were secretly communicating through notes scribbled in library books, possibly to plot an attack.

“There was a suspicion that this was being used as a means to communicate, internal and external,” said the American military official familiar with the investigation, adding that the fear was that the detainees might “organize.”

Two Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to sift through the library’s books and set aside those that had writing that might constitute a security risk, said Maulavi Dad and other members of the Ulema Council team who visited the detention center and were briefed by the military.

By the time the interpreters were finished, 1,652 books were stacked on the floor and tables for removal, including some Korans, many other religious or scholarly texts, and a number of secular works, including novels and poetry.

Whether the inscriptions were a security risk is a matter of debate. Members of the Ulema Council doubted that the writings were anything other than personal notations, and American military officials and Afghan security officials were unsure because so many books were involved that they had not been able to review them all.

“We saw some notes on the margins of the books in which some of the detainees had written memories of their imprisonment, their name, their father’s name, location and the place where they were arrested,” said Qazi Nazir Ahmad Hanifi, a member of Parliament from Herat who is a mullah and was on the Ulema’s investigating team.

He and others said that in some of the books, including Korans, words were occasionally written in the margins, translations of difficult Arabic words into Pashto or Dari. “These had nothing to do with terrorism or criminal activities,” he said.

The American military official did not go into details, but said only that “we overly rely around here on linguists,” the military term for interpreters and translators. “None of the U.S. soldiers can read this.”

But the linguists were responsible only for the sorting of the books, not for the decision to burn them. It was in asking why the books were not simply stored that one of several faulty decisions became apparent, the official said.

“You have separated a huge number of books — it will come out 1,652,” he said, “and those that are in charge say, ‘We don’t have the storage capacity; this is sensitive material.’ ”

“So the decision is ‘We are going to burn these books,’ ” he continued. “It is part of their procedures to do that, but there’s a process in place that that is the last thing. Things should be retained for a while, but in this case they don’t.”

Sometime on Monday, Feb. 20, the books were transported by a work detail of several soldiers to the truck that would ultimately take them to the incinerator. That posed another missed opportunity.

As the books lay in boxes waiting to be piled in the truck, some Afghan Army soldiers saw them and recognized them as religious books, and they became worried, Maulavi Dad said. They asked where the books were being taken and were told by soldiers that the books were destined for storage. Worried that Korans might be among the books and that something wrong might happen to them, the Afghan soldiers reported to their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Safiullah, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

The American military official corroborated that account and said the problem was that by the time the Afghan officer relayed the concerns to his American counterpart, who came to check the truck, the vehicle and its cargo were already on the way to the incinerator.

Both Afghan and American officials believed that the three soldiers driving the holy books to their destination had little or no understanding of what they were carrying. “For those three soldiers, this was nothing more than a work detail,” one military official said.

Just minutes later, when the work detail began to heave the books into the flames, an Afghan laborer standing nearby offered to help. But when he drew close, he realized what was happening and began to scream.

For him and others it was a nightmare come to life. “One of my friends called to me, ‘The Americans are burning our holy books,’ and we rushed over there,” said Mohammed Zafar, 24, who has worked for five years as a laborer near the gate.

As the Afghan laborers tried to extinguish the flames with their water bottles, at least one laborer plunged into the smoldering ashes to retrieve the books, Mr. Zafar said.

The Americans immediately stopped, but not before at least four books had been badly burned, according to a notice from the presidential palace shortly afterward.

What should have happened was far different, Maulavi Dad said. He gently lifted up his Koran, a beautifully bound one with dark blue ornamentation, and described the religiously approved way one would dispose of it if it were damaged or too old to use.

“We have two suggestions: You can cover it with a clean cloth and bury it on holy ground, a shrine or a graveyard, a place where people don’t walk,” he said.

“Or you can wrap it and place it in the sea, the river, in flowing water.”

He added, “You see, we believe the earth and the water are the two cleanest elements on the planet, and since we give great value to holy books and papers, this is where we bury them.”


Graham Bowley and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.

    Chain of Avoidable Errors Cited in Koran Burning, NYT, 2.3.2012,




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