Was Mohammed Wazir’s 2-Year Old, Palwasha, the Victim of a Revenge Killing?

The Wall Street Journal has the story on the Panjwai killing that should have been written on Monday, not Friday. It tells the story of the massacre from the perspectives of Mohammed Wazir, Mullah Baran, and Syed Jaan, Afghan men who lost family members in the attack.

Wazir, for example, describes what it’s like to lose his 12 and 13-year old sons, and what it’s like to find the fabric his wife planned to use to make outfits for Eid.

Mr. Wazir says he is haunted by guilt. “It hurts me a lot when I remember occasions when I shouted at my sons because I asked them to do something and they ignored it,” he says. “I feel so very sorry now.”

At least, he says, he can take solace in knowing he had bought his two sons two new bicycles, which they had so badly wanted, before they died.

Mr. Wazir says his family had rolls of freshly bought cloth that his wife and mother intended to use to sew new outfits for his children for the Eid al Fitr Islamic festival—still five months away. “It is still there—and there is no one to wear them,” he sighed.

He also suggests his youngest child–2 year old Palwasha–may have been burned alive.

Mr. Wazir says the corpse of his 2-year-old daughter Palwasha was amid the charred bodies. He believes she was burned alive. “I checked her body, and there were no bullet marks.”

Wazir also mentioned a story reported elsewhere today–that the Americans had recently conducted night raids in retaliation for an IED they blamed on the village; the frequent night raids meant no one reacted when the intruders came.

As the Australian elaborates on that part of the story, the IED went off on March 7 or 8 (the attack was March 11). In response, Americans lined the male villagers up and said they’d get revenge.

Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from Panjwai district, gave an account of the bombing at a March 16 meeting in Kabul with Mr Karzai in the wake of the shootings.

“After the incident, they took the wreckage of their destroyed tank and their wounded people from the area,” Mr Rasool said. “After that, they came back to the village nearby the explosion site.

“The soldiers called all the people to come out of their houses and from the mosque,” he said.

“The Americans told the villagers ‘A bomb exploded on our vehicle. … We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people,”‘ Mr Rasool said. “These are the reasons why we say they took their revenge by killing women and children in the villages.”

Now, we’re still unable to discern which of the many competing narratives lies closer to the truth (aside from Wazir and the other family members’ descriptions of their grief).

But it does seem that if these threats of revenge took place in the week before the massacre–particularly if the IED attack caused Sergeant Robert Bales’ buddy to lose his leg–the US loses credibility by not admitting as much.

That may not affect the story about whether or not Bales operated alone, but it is part of the story.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

40 replies
  1. Ben Franklin says:

    Of all the bureaucracies, the Military is the worst internal investigator. My Lai, Pat Tillman et al.

    One thing is for sure; Lariam must be looked at closer. Ft Bragg killings also give pause. Immunizations, DNA, and environmental toxins create the Perfect Storm But it is a small percentage of the population, so affected; ergo, no problem. Cost effectiveness is King.

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    That may not affect the story about whether or not Bales operated alone, but it is part of the story.

    Oh, it does affect it, and quite a bit. That Australian story, btw, is actually an AP account. Also, this is not a new story, just not reported in the US press until now. Villagers had been telling this story all the way back to at least March 13. See this story from a Kabul newspaper.

    Another tribal elder, Hajji Khan Aka, said besides murdering the villagers, foreigners had also uprooted the orchards and destroyed the irrigation system in the areas.

    “How is it possible that a soldier kills 11 people including women and children in different rooms of a house, bring their corpses to a room then burnt them,” he questioned.

    A tribal elder from Zangabad area, Syed Mohammad Azim Agha, said that it was a flimsy excuse that a mentally sick soldier performed such a brazen act without shooting his own comrades first.

    Another resident of the district, Ahmad Shah, said three days earlier a convoy of foreign troops hit roadside bombs in the area, where they suffered many casualties, but now they revenged on defenceless people.

    “After the roadside bombings, foreign troops summoned tribal elders to their military base and warned that US soldiers will revenge on their children and women,” he said.

    I don’t think anyone has noted the other claimed destruction contemporaneous with the murders, i.e., the destruction of orchards and irrigation systems. This sure appears to be taking on the shape of a reprisal to me.
    Abdul Rahim Ayubi,quoted in the AP/Australian story as having heard the multiple accounts of the US threats after the attack, is not just a Kandahar lawmaker, as quoted in the story, but a former five-year member of the Interior Ministry.

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    The intruder faced no resistance because the locals were used to U.S. night raids.

    This is a quote from WSJ article. I’m not sure if the reporter is quoting Mr. Wazir or not. But he doesn’t attribute the statement to anyone, so it sounds like editorializing.

    We are to believe, from this account, that as Bales supposedly went from house to house, with gunshots and screaming, people in nearby houses did nothing? Did not try to hide or run away, but are shot in their rooms and beds???

    They didn’t run because there wasn’t time, IMO. There is more than enough evidence from these accounts to back a larger operation.

  4. Ben Franklin says:

    @Jeff Kaye:

    It appears most Western agencies are picking up the AP. ‘No witnesses confirm multiple shooters’.

    The Culture, like Arabs, are quick to create urban/rural legends.

    FARS (Iran) has nothing on it as far as I could see.

  5. MadDog says:

    I’m personally of the opinion (and that’s all it is) of a “single US soldier” theory, though having said that, I’m open to the “multiple US soldiers” theory, but the reports of such in my mind just haven’t risen above the rumor level.

    In any event, this was from 3 days ago in the Los Angeles Times:

    “The Army staff sergeant held in the killing of 16 Afghan civilians initially told other soldiers that he had shot several Afghan men outside a U.S. combat outpost in southern Afghanistan on March 11, but did not mention that a dozen women and children were among the dead, according to a senior U.S. official briefed on the case.

    Staff Sgt. Robert Bales had “indicated to his buddies that he had taken out some military-aged males,” the senior official told The Times. Soldiers frequently use that term to denote insurgents.

    But Bales’ account, suggesting he had a legitimate military purpose for an unauthorized foray off base in the middle of the night, apparently unraveled when base commanders began learning the grisly details of the massacre of the Afghan civilians in their homes.

    At that point, the 38-year-old Army veteran was taken into custody. Bales refused to talk further and soon asked to speak to a lawyer, two officials said…”

  6. emptywheel says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Well, Wazir wasn’t there in any case. He was in Spin Boldak during the attack.

    One interesting suggestion the WSJ piece is that the shooting taht occurred later in the night was less accurate.

    Bales is a sniper. Even drunk, I assume he’s an accurate shot.

  7. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And why am I of the opinion this were acts of single US soldier you ask?

    Here’s why (and remember, this is just my opinion):

    1) I don’t think the Army would avoid charging or covering up if this were the actions of multiple US soldiers, and then just charge a single US soldier. To me, such an attempt flies in the face of reasonableness.

    2) Bales’ civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, in media interviews has made no assertion of the involvement of multiple US soldiers. Instead, he has repeatedly made statements that a defense of “diminished capacity” is likely, which suggests that he knows/believes that Bales did what has been charged, but that he believes he may be able to present mitigating factors as to why Bales did this. To me, that says “guilty, but extenuating circumstance”, and it doesn’t say “not guilty”.

  8. Jeff Kaye says:

    @emptywheel: Less accurate shooting that occurred later in the night… or maybe different shooters. Why did that one family get spared? Maybe one of the shooters had a conscience.

    Mr. Baran, who says he had to scrape his brother’s brain and pieces of skull from the floor of their home, lost only one relative. His brother’s wife started screaming at the intruder, he says, and the gunman spared her and her six children.

    @MadDog: I’m sorry, but I’d believe the Afghan villagers before what a “senior U.S. official” said. I’m not rigid in my hypothesis of many shooters. I just don’t trust DoD to investigate. Why were the Afghans (slow to respond in any case) frozen out? Why were the demands for a UN investigation ignored?

    And you didn’t answer my question: why, if Bales was going from house to house, taking time to burn his victims, did the other villagers, hearing screams and shots, not take the time to hide, or flee.

    Mr. Wazir—judging by bloodstains, the layout of his home, and his knowledge of where his family sleeps—says his 60-year-old mother, Shah Tarina, was shot first as she greeted the intruder. In his bare bedroom, his wife Bibi Zohra was shot together with their daughters, 4-year-old Nabiya, 6-year-old Farida and 9-year-old Masooma.

    In another room, Mr. Wazir’s sons Faizullah, 12, and Ismatullah, 13, were shot dead in their beds. Then, in a third room, Mr. Wazir’s brother, Akhtar Mohammed, 20, his brother’s new bride, 18-year-old Bibi Nazia, and a nephew, Essa Mohammed, 15, were killed.

    This also must have one of the few Afghan houses without a Kalishnikov.

    What Pajhwok Afghan News reported from Kabul back on March 13 (10 days ago!):

    Another tribal elder, Hajji Khan Aka, said besides murdering the villagers, foreigners had also uprooted the orchards and destroyed the irrigation system in the areas.

    “How is it possible that a soldier kills 11 people including women and children in different rooms of a house, bring their corpses to a room then burnt them,” he questioned.

    A tribal elder from Zangabad area, Syed Mohammad Azim Agha, said that it was a flimsy excuse that a mentally sick soldier performed such a brazen act without shooting his own comrades first.

    Another resident of the district, Ahmad Shah, said three days earlier a convoy of foreign troops hit roadside bombs in the area, where they suffered many casualties, but now they revenged on defenceless people.

    “After the roadside bombings, foreign troops summoned tribal elders to their military base and warned that US soldiers will revenge on their children and women,” he said.

    MP Ayubi criticised that the government’s investigation team is yet to reach to Kandahar, despite the incident happened on Sunday.

    He asked the United Nations (UN), human rights agencies and the government to probe the killings of innocent people in Panjwae.

  9. Quanto says:

    @MadDog:
    This is is pure speculation on my part but here is goes:

    From Emptywheel:“The Americans told the villagers ‘A bomb exploded on our vehicle. … We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people,”

    If they made the threat they had to carry out on it to make their word good. I believe it was a group that carried this out and when it was found out by command somebody had to take the fall.

    If they admitted that a squad carried out these murders then the narrative would have been the US is a rouge army.

    Its much easier to explain away a lone gunman then an entire squad.

  10. P J Evans says:

    @Quanto:
    They blamed My Lai on one guy, too, although there were a lot more than that actually involved.
    The DoD doesn’t want any more of an investigation than it takes to find one person to blame everything on. If they did a real investigation, they’d probably find that it’s much, much worse.

  11. Bob Schacht says:

    @emptywheel: Bales may be a sniper, but from what I recall from some accounts, some of his victims were inside, lying down, and shot in the head. Now, unless you’ve got a very good silencer and are very quiet, it’s pretty difficult to sneak into someone’s bedroom and kill a family without arousing anyone.

    And then there’s the burned bodies thing. How do you do that without attracting a lot of attention? All by yourself?

    There’s a lot more to learn about this episode.

  12. JThomason says:

    I would not think Brown’s statements can really be relied upon as advancing the factual situation. He is presented with a client who reportedly admitted to being involved in a shooting. At this point it may be a point of “honor” with Bales to protect others who may have been involved. I am not aware that Brown is on the ground in Afghanistan or otherwise able to conduct much of a factual investigation. Besides how would the involvement of others mitigate Bales’ culpability absent some proof of organization that indicates the involvement of Bales’ chain of command?

  13. MadDog says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Ok, let me see if I can answer some of your questions. Mind you, I’m just going on what I’ve read as all of us are.

    “…why, if Bales was going from house to house, taking time to burn his victims, did the other villagers, hearing screams and shots, not take the time to hide, or flee…”

    Let’s take this one step by step. First of all, we don’t know what actually comprises the “villages” of Alokzai and Balandi where the killings took place. From the sound of things, those “villages” may only have a couple dozen residents total.

    It may be that the homes in these “villages” are some distance from each other. Think of rural farm country in the US where homes are separated by 1/2 mile or more.

    From the WSJ article that EW linked to at the top of this post, they don’t specify in which of the 2 “villages” Mr. Wazir had his “small mud home” where 11 of his relatives were killed, but they said this:

    “…”The only people who have remained are those who couldn’t afford the expense of moving their families to the city,” says Mullah Baran, a 38-year-old whose brother, Mohammad Dawood, was the first victim of the March 11 rampage…

    …Mr. Baran, who says he had to scrape his brother’s brain and pieces of skull from the floor of their home, lost only one relative. His brother’s wife started screaming at the intruder, he says, and the gunman spared her and her six children.

    In the Wazirs’ mud compound a few hundred yards away—a dwelling so poor that a piece of cloth served as a front door—no one was spared…”

    A couple of points here:

    1) It is the middle of the night. It was dark outside. Very dark!

    2) There are no streetlights. No fookin’ lights at all!

    3) As the WSJ article also noted, very few folks remain in the “villages” and they do so because they are too poor to move to somewhere else.

    4) As the WSJ article also notes, this area of the Panjwai district has been a battlefield for years, so not only are there few residents left, but those that remain wouldn’t dare think of strolling outside in the middle of the night in the total darkness after hearing gunfire nearby. It’s probably the very last thing they’d ever consider doing. Fear that they themselves would become a target would be a normal reaction.

    5) A majority of those killed (11) were in the Wazirs’ mud compound. Add another 1 in the Mohammad Dawood home and we’re up to 12 out of the total of 17 killed.

    6) A number of news reports had Bales doing his shooting in 2 separate village locations; Alokzai and Balandi. Some of those news reports indicated that one village was south of the FOB Camp Belambay where Bales sneaked out, and the other village was north of FOB Camp Belambay. Based on that, it would seem perhaps that there was some distance between the 1st village location where at least 12 were killed, and the second village.

    7) You mentioned that there are probably few Afghan house without a Kalashnikov. I agree that it is probably true. But, and it is a big but, can you imagine these poor frightened villagers upon hearing gunfire in the middle of the night in total darkness would somehow have the courage to poke their heads outside to find out what was happening?

    Sounds pretty iffy to me. And even less likely would be one or more of them firing off their Kalashnikovs only to make themselves potentially into an even bigger target from the folks who had been doing that shooting they heard.

    8) As to believing DOD officials, I think most of what I’ve found has been from news reporters rather than from DOD folks.

    9) Lastly, I really think that Bales’ attorney would be running his mouth about SODDI (Some Other Dude Did It) if he had even the tiniest inkling that others had been involved. As a matter of fact, I can’t imagine any defense attorney not raising this point loudly if they had a smidgen of information that there were more folks involved.

  14. Bob Schacht says:

    @MadDog: Good points.

    1) It is the middle of the night. It was dark outside. Very dark!

    2) There are no streetlights. No fookin’ lights at all!

    What phase was the moon in? If the moon was full it was not “very dark” outside. In fact, it is easy to see what is going on. Was it cloudy or clear? For desert areas, it would usually be clear.

    Bob in AZ

  15. Jeff Kaye says:

    @BobShacht It was a waning gibbous moon that night, i.e., btw 1/2 & 2/3 full. So not a super dark night.

    @MadDog These are not bad points, but I still think 1) the Wazirs hut, w/ no door but a blanket for a door, is couple 100 yrds from the Baran house where there were screams. 2) I do not believe that if you lived in a war zone where there had been recent attacks, a parent wd not have a plan to try and protect the children, hide them, etc.

    3) I don’t think we can speculate re atty’s motives, except save his client. Anyway, if this were a secret counterterrorism op, he wouldn’t be read in anyway. FWIW, Browne says he’s going to Afghanistan to gather evidence himself.

    Despite my doubts, Bales may be a lone shooter, but I think we she be dubious re any DoD story (which is mostly what press reports). The WSJ article seems 1st US article to go on site to check around.

  16. MadDog says:

    @Bob Schacht: @Jeff Kaye: Ahhhh…the phase of the moon. That was something that I didn’t check.

    But…I did check the weather for the night of March 11 for Kandahar which is around 15 miles away or so from the Panjwai district, and it was raining according to this cached webpage.

    Regardless of the weather or moon phase, the specific point I was trying to make is that night is the most dangerous time of day, and for the poorest of folks who live in rudimentary mud brick homes, probably without electricity, and in this case in the Panjwai district that had been the scene of constant battles for years, generally going outside at night is tantamount to suicide.

    I still think that is true. Remember that these folks are living in a hellhole of a war zone, are the poorest of the poor who couldn’t afford to move away, and when night time comes, their only safety is to retreat into their homes and hope they’re still alive when day breaks.

  17. emptywheel says:

    @Jeff Kaye: I’m with you. I think it possible that Bales was the lone shooter.

    But there were some earlier reports from on the scene in teh first day, and those too said there were multiple soldiers involved. Those are some of the witnesses I find to be more credible.

    But this seems to be the first one that actually asked the surviving family members about their lost relatives.

  18. bmaz says:

    @emptywheel: Yeah, agree with all that, but also strikes me that killing one group/house is a rage moment of perhaps a lone gunman; going to multiple houses – even a different village – seems more likely a group wilding.

  19. bmaz says:

    Well, I see that Marcy’s boy, Trevor Thomas, has up and gone all Hollywood on western Michigan; fundraising with elite stuffed shirts like – GASP – Howie Klein tonight in Beverly Hills!

  20. joanneleon says:

    Having a really hard time with this whole thing, the massacre, the children, the cover up.

  21. MadDog says:

    The latest disturbing news via the AP:

    US says soldier split killing spree

    “U.S. investigators believe the U.S. soldier accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians split the slaughter into two episodes, returning to his base after the first attack and later slipping away to kill again, two American officials said Saturday.

    This scenario seems to support the U.S. government’s assertion – contested by some Afghans – that the killings were done by one person, since they would have been perpetrated over a longer period of time than assumed when Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was detained March 11 outside his base in southern Afghanistan.

    But it also raises new questions about how Bales, who was formally charged Friday with 17 counts of premeditated murder and other crimes, could have carried out the nighttime attacks without drawing attention from any Americans on the Kandahar province base…”

  22. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: As EW’s post raised the issue that revenge might be motivation for the killings, I wanted to raise a corresponding issue about expectations. Namely, what was expected to result from the Afghan civilian slayings.

    For sake of discussion, assume that Bales was the lone gunman.

    It would seem that he made some level of conscious planned effort ahead of time, large or small depending on your viewpoint, to:

    1) Avoid discovery in exiting FOB Camp Belambay by “sneaking” out over the razor wire fence of the base as described in news reports (and now the AP reports Bales left and returned twice), as opposed to using the regular method of passing through the FOB’s security perimeter of a sentry-manned access control point It would appear that he was apparently intending on using the same method in returning to the FOB.

    2) Ensure he was able to see in the dark of night by using NVGs (Night Vision Googles).

    3) Camouflage his appearance by obtaining and wearing traditional Afghan clothing over his Army fatigues.

    If he had made it back onto FOB Camp Belambay (now twice according to the latest AP report) without being discovered by base security, what was he expecting to happen as a result of the massacre?

    It has been reported in the news media that Bales was not happy to be ordered to deploy to Afghanistan after his 3 tours in Iraq. It is likely that he might have been even more unhappy upon arrival at the small remote outpost that is FOB Camp Belambay. MREs for meals, no shower facilities, holes in the ground for latrines, etc.

    Did Bales expect that as a result of his massacre of Afghan civilians the US would be blamed, and that it would result in the disestablishment of FOB Camp Belambay, and therefore his transfer to some other more acceptable duty station?

    Remember that Bales was armed with both a 9mm pistol and an M4 automatic rifle. The brass cartridges of the M4 would provide forensic evidence of the usage of a US military weapon.

    Did Bales expect to pick up all of his brass? That would seem unlikely since automatic weapons like the M4 tend to spray their spent cartridges all over the place. It would seem unlikely that Bales expected to have the time to get down on his hands and knees to locate and remove all of the expended brass, and to somehow do this all in the darkness of the middle of night.

    Did Bales expect to leave any witnesses alive? Hard to tell one way or another, but it would seem logical that he wouldn’t want to leave eye-witnesses to identify him behind.

    Did Bales have help from other US soldiers on the FOB?

    Such as obtaining the Afghan traditional clothing he is reported to have used to camouflage his appearance. Such as help in sneaking on and off the FOB.

    Conventional wisdom is that most folks who commit crimes expect to get away with them. In the end, was Bales expecting to get caught or not? I’d say not.

  23. rosalind says:

    OT: posted w/out comment – Dick Cheney has had a heart transplant, per AP. Been on waiting list 20 months.

  24. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: So add that to Ben Franklin‘s link and it looks more like what I’ve said from the start: the two other guys drinking with Bales were with him on at least part of his killing spree. I suspect, anyway.

  25. Bob Schacht says:

    @mark: Be careful how you do it. You could be tagged as aiding and abetting terrorists, or people who support terrorists. Never mind that they were the victims in this case. I’d contribute to Doctors without Borders or some such outfight, designated for Afghanistan.

    Bob in AZ

  26. spanishinquisition says:

    In reading this thread, it sounds like it could be a combination of both a single shooter as well as others on the base knowing of a night raid as they are aren’t mutually exclusive conditions. Bales would have been the only one doing the shooting, but others on the base would know that the shooting is going on and why. Actually awhile back I had posted that the military may have thought the village elder (who brought in the Village Stability with them there as it takes the village elders to get a VSO established) was a double agent and if what is being said is correct, that would point to that conclusion as the most damage was done to the village elder’s place.

  27. rosalind says:

    war related: really interesting interview up at Salon with an actor i knew from “The Wire” who turns out spent two tours in Iraq, inbetween shooting the show, the last time in Ramadi. quote that stands out:

    “Unless you’re going to come in there like the British empire and establish infrastructure and reform an entire place in its image, then you’re going to be wholly ineffective. We are definitely not the British empire in the way that we do business. We went in there awkwardly, we built mistakes upon mistakes. And after a while, you know, we wore ourselves down being wrong about things. It just took a little perspective, and some specialists. The people in the State Department knew all about Iraq. I would have liked to have had them in my vehicle.”

  28. Jim White says:

    Pure speculation here, but if there were two excursions off the outpost, one idea that comes to mind is that the first trip was to retrieve something from the villagers that was brought back to the outpost. Whatever that was would then seem to have fueled the second attack. It would be very interesting to know how many villagers were killed on each trip out.

    If we are to go with the multiple troops involved theory, keep in mind Bales was the flunky assigned to the JSOC hot shots. Is his foggy memory the result of some heavy drugging to put him into the scapegoat role?

    Bales, what the hell did you do?

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