Panjwai: Was There One Killer at Alkozai But Multiple at Najiban?
I’m working on a theory about the Panwjai killings: that there was just one gunman at the village of Alkozai, but multiple solders were present at Najiban. At this point, it’s just a wildarsed guess, but it is consistent with what at least some of the witnesses say, and it might explain conflicting stories about timing and the purported helicopter search for Sergeant Robert Bales.
While there remain inconsistencies on the number dead, for this post I will assume the dead consist of Mohammed Wazir’s 11 family members, with Ismatullah counted as female, Mohammad Dawood, Syed Jaan’s 4 family members, and one additional girl, probably killed at Alkozai.
While reading this post, it may be useful to open the sources listed at the bottom.
Alkozai is the village north of the base. Nalda Hakim suggests the shooting happened here first; WSJ suggests it was second. Given that Sergeant Bales reportedly returned to the base between villages and his roommate didn’t believe he had been shooting Afghans, Najiban would have had to have been second, given that moving victims as happened there would have–and apparently did–leave his clothing bloodied.
In Alkozai, multiple reports describe people running into a central (and larger) house in the village, that of Habibullah’s father, where at least Syed Jaan’s family members were killed. See Global Post for a diagram. In addition to Jaan’s family members, most of the wounded appear to come from Alkozai, as well. Both Hakim’s footage–showing bullets splattered all over the room–and WSJ’s report suggest the shooting was less accurate here than in Najiban.
Of the witnesses at Alkozai, Habibullah says there were 2-3 soldiers (though not in the range of 12-20 like reports from Najiban), though he admits he doesn’t remember well. Jan Agha, in his confusing or inaccurate Reuters report, says there were multiple soldiers; in his apparently more accurate–based on the number of dead and wounded–interview with McClatchy, he appears to say it was a single soldier.
Najiban is the village south of–and further–from the base. Mohammad Dawood–the husband of Massouma and the brother of Mullah Baran (who in addition to his comments to the WSJ is one of the two men in Hakim’s report)–and Mohammed Wazir’s 11 family members died in Najiban. WSJ states that Dawood was killed first, then Wazir’s family.
Massouma and “Aminea” (which Hakim says is not her real name) may be the same person, because Baran describes scraping up his brother’s brain in WSJ, which is consistent with Aminea’s description of capturing her husband’s brain in her hands, and because Aminea has the same number of children as Dawood, 6 (though Global Post says 7; it’s not clear which of Aminea’s very young children would be the 7-year old son of Massouma described in the Global Post, though biologically, barring twins, one of them must be that old). That said, you would think Baran would have accompanied Hakim for the interview, as he guarded his sister-in-law from journalists elsewhere. In any case, Massouma refers to one soldier doing the killing, but a number more searching her compound. Her and Dawood’s children have also repeatedly said there were multiple soldiers with lights standing outside of their home.
That, added to the circumstances surrounding the killings in Wazir’s home–both the layout over four rooms and the attempt to burn the victims–suggest the involvement of multiple solders in Najiban.
Agha Lala, who hid in his Najiban home and then checked his neighbors after the soldiers left, spoke of multiple soldiers. He also said the attack started around 2:00, a time when both US sources and the Afghan guards at the base would have placed Bales at the base.
In addition to the statements of the guards–who describe a single soldier leaving, then returning, then leaving again by himself (though none attest that it was Bales or that the departing soldier was the same man), the statements of two children support the government’s claim there was just one killer. Both the young boy Hakim filmed (Sediqullah, according to the transcript) and another that doesn’t appear on film but whom she references in her follow-up spoke of just one soldier doing the shooting.
But then there are the comments of Noorbinak, the 8-year old girl Hakim films. While Noorbinak speaks of just one soldier shooting her father, she said “others were standing in the yard holding lights.” Now, that sounds precisely like what Dawood and Massouma’s kids said–that there were a bunch of soldiers in the yard with lights. And at least given what we know about victims, it seems likely her father was Dawood. That’s because there were no survivors from Wazir’s household. so she can’t be from that family and therefore none of his dead relatives could be Noorbinak’s deceased father. And while Syed Jaan notes that two of his nephews and a niece were wounded (presumably the children of his brother who died), the niece’s head wound was so bad she was not expected to survive. Noorbinak was wounded only in the knee. That is, the imperfect information we have about the dead seems to rule out Jaan’s brother being Noorbinak’s now deceased father, which seems to leave just Dawood as a deceased adult male who could be Noorbinak’s father. Therefore her report of men with lights in the courtyard repeats the same thing her siblings have said. (Note, this makes it less likely that Massouma and Aminea are the same woman.)
The wounded in the charge sheet
While trying to discern anything from a redacted charge sheet is fraught with problems, and there are more problems matching descriptions of the wounded with the charge sheet than the dead. Nevertheless, the charge sheet may also support the possibility that Noorbinak is from Najiban.
Bales was charged for assault and attempted murder of 6 people:
- Adult male wounded in the neck
- Girl wounded in the head
- Boy wounded in the thigh
- Adult female wounded in the chest and groin
- Boy without grievous wounds
- Girl without grievous wounds.
As a threshold matter, if the two children in Hakim’s video are among those named in Bales’ charge sheet, they’re probably the last two, as they don’t have apparent grievous wounds and certainly not the thigh and head wounds described for the other two wounded children.
In the section listing the dead, I believe Specifications 6 through 17 describe the Najiban dead; that’s because the long string of female victims listed in specifications 7 through 14 probably describes 6 female victims from Wazir’s family plus Ismatullah. If the charge sheet is separated by village, that would mean either specification 6 or 17 would name Dawood (the adult males seem to be the longer redacted names).
If I’m right–and now I’m building on a wildarsed guess by assuming regularity from the government–then it’s possible the wounded are also listed by village. Certainly, the wounded girl listed under specification 2 sounds like Syed Jaan’s niece Zardana, who was gravely wounded in the head (assuming of course she hasn’t since died and become victim number 17). Specification 1 might be Habibullah’s father. Curiously, there’s still a discrepancy, as there are just two other boys listed among the wounded, but Sediquallah does not appear to be either of Jaan’s two wounded nephews, who are named Rafiullah and Shokriy and who were wounded “in the lower part of their bodies,” though Sediqullah appears to be roughly the same age as these boys, who are 7 and 8. In addition, Jan Agha’s more accurate McClatchy report says his brother-in-law, as well as his daughter and son were injured, plus two from Jaan’s family; none of these 5 wounded account for the adult female also listed as wounded.
Note the soldiers in Hakim’s video say 15-16 were killed or wounded “in this area” while they were showing her Alkozai; it’s not clear whether they meant between both villages (in which case they would be short by at least 7) or just in Alkozai (in which case there are up to 6 more people wounded in Alkozai).
All of which is a very elaborate way to say that a series of guesses might support the notion that Noorbinak is the last listed wounded victim, which might support her living in Najiban.
To repeat, this is all a wildarsed guess. But I’m suggesting that it’s possible Bales went first to Alkozai and in a spray of gunfire killed 4 or 5 and wounded at least 5 more, then returned to the base, told others what he had done, and more followed him in helicopters to Najiban. That would explain the larger number of men described by Dawood’s children, how 11 people in 4 rooms were killed in Wazir’s home, and also how Bales was able to drag all 11 bodies to one room and attempt to burn them (though the timing is still short, given that Najiban is at least a mile from the base and Bales was reportedly gone just an hour total on that second trip). If some men followed Bales to join in the killing–rather than to find him, as the government claims–it might explain why they claim it took at least a half hour to search the FOB when what purportedly initiated the search was an Afghan guard telling the Americans one of their men had left the base (that is, the “search” story is a way to fudge the timing).
Mind you, I’m not saying that’s what I think happened, but I did want to establish that it’s not necessarily the case that the same number of men were present at Alkolai as at Najiban.
CNN, Extended Yalda Hakim video (transcript): Includes footage from Alkozai and then Najiban, interviews with Afghan guards, non-witness family members Mohammed Wazir and Mullah Baran, boy Sediquillah, girl Noorbinak, and “Aminea” (possibly the widow of widow of Mohammad Dawood).
CNN, Yalda Hakim video: Includes mention of second boy who spoke of single killer.
WSJ: Includes detailed descriptions of the two killings, though suggesting Najiban came first. Interviews with non-witness family members Mohammed Wazir, Mullah Baran, and Syed Jaan.
Reuters: Includes interviews with Jan Agha (which appears to be inaccurate) and Agha Lala.
McClatchy: Includes interview with Jan Agha.
Global Post: Includes diagram and interviews with Habibullah and Massouma, as well as non-witness family member Mullah Baran.
In related news, Bales’ lawyer says the government dicked his investigative team over on access to the witness survivors.
Now, I find the timing of this very interesting, bc it would mean Hakim did her report, Browne’s team asked to do an interview but were delayed a day, DOD did interviews w/o Browne, and the witnesses disappeared.
In other words, it’s possible that Hakim’s interviews (she’s perfectly bilingual, presumably unlike a lot of the military investigators, plus comes w/Karzai’s blessing) alerted DOD that the claims of multiple soldiers might be true.
Also note, in this version of the “withholding witness” story, Bales’ lawyer says he doesn’t believe Bales returned to the base between attacks.
That could mean all sorts of things. About the only thing they seem confident of is that Bales returned around 3:30.
So are they dropping the notion that he got really drunk, then not just evaded security but blew a big hole in it and went on a rampage?
In discussing all this with colleagues and friends, what people have found so hard to understand is why either one man or conversely a group of people would have conducted this massacre. Such incredulity recently led to extremely speculative reports about mefloquine madness, which unfortunately published as near fact, but which I debunked.
As for a group of soldiers, I think we need to begin to understand how Special Forces are actually operating in the counterinsurgency campaign and what that campaign consists of. I’ll write more on this later, but suffice it to say that Bales and his company were most likely involved in Village Stability Operations (VSO), the program of SOF in Afghanistan starting at least in summer 2009. The idea was to get the SOF out of the forward operating bases and literally into the field.
The VSO’s attempt to create Village Stability Platforms (VSPs) inside the villages, as a means to counter the Taliban in the countryside. While the open source material (that I’ve found thus far) is fairly vague about what SOF/ISAF does when a village is hostile to the establishment of a VSP. But history tells us (for instance Vietnam’s “rural pacification” and “strategic hamlet” ops) that the result is a military operation directly in the village. Such operations are classically performed at night, to highlight the element of surprise, shock and minimize organized opposition.
I think that we need to begin to put together a joint theory of what happened that takes into account the reality of what is happening, sourced to actual special operations accounts.
The idea that the VSP’s are directly linked to the Marines’ Combined Action Program (CAP) in Vietnam was discussed in Small Wars Journal in Sept. 2011.
@Jeff Kaye: This article is a must read, as it helps explain the phases re establishment of the VSO program, the VSP’s etc.
I’d say Bales’ unit (and these VSPs are run with low-ranking officers, like Sargeants) was possibly, if my hypotheses remain true, in the “shaping” phase, as they had not yet successfully established “safe houses” in these villages. That, indeed, may have been the problem, from the standpoint of SOF forces.
Obviously I’ve been interested in pursuing these possibilities based on my comments here and the time I’ve put in to tracking down links and different versions of stories.
I do think one limiting factor is the existence of Afghan National Army guards at the base in Zangabad. It’s hard to see them covering for the American military. And it’s hard to see them missing the departure of a squad late at night.
There are other possibilities – special forces from elsewhere, perhaps coming in by helicopter, though it’s hard to see motive. The presumed motive behind an intentional massacre is revenge for the previous week’s explosion. But it would be hard to recruit outside units for a revenge attack, since that is not official military strategy.
And I don’t really see Karzai (and the Afghan government generally) as having an interest in lying to minimize what happened and how it happened. If anything, they have used the incident to further their case against night raids. Yet they seem generally to have based their understanding of a larger attack on the idea that “one man couldn’t have done all this” rather than coherent testimony about more than one being involved. This was true about Karzai’s comments, and also the Afghan (English-language) reporting on the parliamentary investigation. That makes me feel that they’ve had trouble finding more solid evidence of wider involvement – with no one in the villages nor in Zangabad talking about having seen large numbers of troops except Massouma and her 7 year old son (and EW also mentions Dawood’s children, so they must also, though I hadn’t seent that previously.)
I think it’s possible to explain the children’s testimony as being cloudy, being awakened at 2:00 am to witness the worst disaster imaginable to a child while you’re still half-asleep, and then half an hour later having troops searching your house and neighborhoods with spotlights while your eyes are still acclimated to a dark Afghan night …
I’m not very clear on what happened, and remain open to the idea that there was a larger attack, but I’m not convinced at this point. I think that’s basically EW’s perspective too. Just trying to be a bit of a devil’s advocate.
Jeff, it’s tough to believe that a massacre of children is in keeping with even a very violent and cynical pacification policy.
@ryan: No, I agree the Afghan troops aren’t going to cover for Americans here. That’s one of the reasons I find their comments the most credible of anyone’s. Keep in mind it’s very possible that Wazir and Baran/Dawood and Jaan were behind the IED earlier in the week, the Americans found about it, the Afghans left to forestall any attack, and bc the night raid included Bales he lost it (note that Dawood’s attack looks like a night raid would look, with the adult male targeted, a search, multiple people involved).
But remember the Afghan guards do say something like a search took place. My suggestion here is that it might be hard to distinguish from a helicopter search and an assist on the attack from the standpoint of a perimeter guard who doesn’t speak English. One thing that bugs me about the search story is that it’s hard to understand why the Americans would spend 30 minutes or more ON THE BASE searching for Bales when what alerted them to the need to do a search was a guard reporting someone was leaving. So I’m suggesting the story about the search on the base may be cover to give the helicopters enough time to get to Najiban.
“But it would be hard to recruit outside units for a revenge attack, since that is not official military strategy.”
It would not be hard to “recruit outside units” if they were fed false information as to what was occurring at the sites. We have committed many massacres under the official shield of “We had bad information”.
Since when is a “revenge” attack “not official military strategy”?
The other thing is to put a “village pacification” program in context, you have to realize that these aren’t villages in that sense. On-line listings suggest Zangabad has between 1600 and 2800 people living within a 7 km radius. Zangabad is the relatively big place here. The various outlying clusters are pretty tiny – 50 or 80 people would be my guess for these different places. No one would think killing 12 people in a hamlet of 80 people would be a good method of pacifying that hamlet so you can live among them. I think in the context of a “village pacification strategy”, Zangabad is the village and Najiban and Alkozai are little more than rural neighborhood’s, overgrown farms.
One other thing that strikes me is that three different approaches were used. In Alkozai, there was little surprise, and perhaps a result the attack was far more random both in terms of killing people and who got killed. In Najiban, there was the Dawood attack which looks like it was run just like a night raid, but then the Wazir attack, which was horribly efficient, but which killed kids and women, so not a night raid at all. And the effort to cover up at Najiban whereas nothing like that was tried at Alkozai, even though women and children were killed there too (though in far smaller numbers).
In a room full of men, women, and kids in Alkozai, just one child and one woman were killed, though a lot of kids got shot.
@ryan: Then you must read up more.
From the last dirty war the US conducted, via the Winter Soldier investigations:
And these are only a miniscule amount of the testimonies.
But that was so long ago, one might complain.
From the Independent, Oct 2010
Once again, tip of the iceberg, Ryan.
@ryan: Well, exactly. To maintain the pacification and “security”, then, of Zangabad. In this context, a “safe house” is really a safe hamlet.
Do you dispute the existence of the VSPs? One way or another, these hamlets had to be secured as part of the VSO program. The latter always meant taking the war inside the village, i.e., to focal sites of insurgent support.
My god. Do we have to educate everybody all over again over how it was done? My hypothesis should have been the first hypothesis, since there is more than ample historical and contemporaneous evidence for the barbarity of how CI is conducted by occupying forces. Anything else is just an attempt to bury one’s head in the sand, or to cover for the operations, or possibly an ignorance of the history of such actions (which are largely covered up by official US histories and propaganda to muddle the issues).
You’re certainly right that this is an extremely weak point of the official story, though there still might be reasons to trust that story: half hour is giving a rough sense of time; it may include time for the Afghan soldier to alert his officer, his officer to alert the Americans, some time for translation and mistranslation, a muster of sleeping men to figure out who is gone. And it does seem like mustering to figure out who’s gone is the first step in figuring out where you might look for someone who is missing – is he headed to see a mistress? a prostitute? Although here, I head smack into my own previous point. There are limited places to go at 2:00 am in a village of maybe 1,500 in the center of a few rural hamlets of a hundred each.
I’m also skeptical of your proposed narrative. He kills people at 1:00 am, comes back and tells people of his lone wolf operation, and they pile into multiple helicopters to watch him do something similar, telling him, “why don’t you walk there past that security guard like you did before.” It also doesn’t sound like night raid protocol, nor even like anything anyone planning a military operation (nor a lark massacre by men who knew how to conduct a night raid) to send one guy in while the rest of you stand around in the garden. My guess is that night raids normally involve 4 or 5 men bursting into a house to secure it with overwhelming firepower, rather than one guy, not knowing whether he’ll face cowering women and childen or two armed assailant leaning against the wall with kalashnikovs. After all, this second raid took place after what by itself would have constituted a major massacre, and if you were going to avenge yourself against people you perceived as conspirators in a Taliban alliance against you, you’d be aware of the possibility that someone had slipped word to Najiban about the fate of their friends in Alkozai.
I think you’ll understand that I’m still just tugging at what I see as weak strands in your own narrative, as you’re doing with the military. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn yours was the truth. And of course it’s tougher to cobble together the truth out of a cloud of mistification than to cobble together a decent sounding lie when you know the truth – if that’s what’s going on. But I’m still not sure we’ve found a plausible outline ourselves.
Is it possible that it’s cover for a withdrawal strategy? Saving face by creating a distraction. There’s an election coming up, after all.
I think Marcy also has pointed to the difference between a night raid (which I abhor and deplore) in which 2 men, a woman and 2 children were killed, like the one which you reference; and a night raid in which 2 men, 1 woman and 8 children were killed, many of the children being dispatched by a single bullet through the skull. I’m not entirely naive about war, but yet I don’t think this was policy. There’s a reason this has led to controversy out of all proportion with anything that went before, despite the fact that it occurred in an extremely isolated spot.
And I’m not trying to say my points are definitive. I’m merely probing the storylines being tested. You could be right. But I’d appreciate more civility than the patronizing “do we have to teach everyone all over again.” I mean, for fuck’s sake, of course we do. I’m surely among the 2% of the population of our country that even cares.
@ryan: Ryan, point taken. But you do not know how many people I have spoken to of late who have fought me very hard, full of righteous incredulity, that US forces would ever engage in any atrocities.
As for the guards aspect of the story. We have contradictory accounts of what the guards saw and reported, as EW has pointed out in an earlier post. What I find interesting is that the Walsh CNN story erases the fact that Bales was reported on returning the first time. If true (which is what the guard interviewed by Hakim said (granted, we don’t know if that was actually Bales), then what went on in that interval before Bales went out again?
In any case, I don’t think we gain much conclusively from the guard’s evidence as we currently have it, because it is contradictory and incomplete. No one really cross-examined them, e.g., what the first soldier looked like, how he was dressed, his gait, etc.
But we do have multiple reports of multiple soldiers. Besides the CNN report, there’s Massouma, from the Global Post story.
You might have interpreted my skepticism of your theory as being harsher than it was intended. I can well imagine you’ve spoken to people who were simply incredulous. Sad to say, I mostly don’t talk to friends about such things.
My point about the guard is that he presumably reports through a line of people to Karzai, and that the Afghan parliamentary committee would likely have access to him as well. He hasn’t been cross-examined, but there are still ample pathways for his testimony to reach us, if he really has anything that contradicts the USAF version. The fact that none of them have said “the guard at their base also tells us …” is suggestive (but not conclusive).
As Marcy mentions, this could still be consistent with something else having happened, the search at the base being a stall as choppers head out, for instance. But I’m still having trouble following the exact outlines of such a theory. It seems to depend on one guy walking there while the others go by chopper. And one guy entering the houses and committing the raid-cum-massacre while the others gawk. We have to suppose an awful lot, for a relatively small payoff. Sort of the lone gunman theory vs. the lone gunman with a big fanclub theory.
This is a major aside, but I have to say the idea of a sleeping American base guarded by ANA soldiers paints a much different picture than I’d had. It suggests a level of trust that is surprising to me. Or perhaps I’m misunderstanding the situation. Surely there was an American guard as well (it had been surmised that Bales may have been on guard duty, and someone seemed to confirm it a few days ago in a comment here, though I don’t remember the comment well and haven’t seen another source for that.)
@Steve H.: He’s gonna screw up his “I forgot everything” defense!
But if Bales is going to be best served by covering up for something larger, this might help him.
I was reading Kim Murphy’s piece from yesterday’s Los Angeles Times and the one from Maureen O’Hagan of the Seattle Times.
They cover much of the same material from the defense lawyer Browne interview on Friday that is in the NYT and Reuter pieces that EW’s first 2 comments have, but they also include the following that was absent from both the NYT and Reuter pieces.
From the Los Angeles Times piece:
From the Seattle Times piece:
While I’m still in the camp of the “lone gunman”, I am not dissing anyone’s (EW, Jeff, etc.) theories about multiple actors. I remain open to this possibility.
The biggest hurdle I have toward multiple actors that I haven’t been able to overcome is the issue of Bales himself.
It’s the idea that Bales would willingly take all of the blame, and perhaps even the death penalty, to protect someone else.
That is something that a Hollywood script writer would gush over and include in his/her latest melodrama, but I think it is a far rarer thing to find in real life.
@MadDog: Looks like I exceeded the 3 links per comment rule (I had 4) and got stuck in moderation. Free me EW, please! *g*
@ryan: FWIW, I’m not sure we can be sure that whoever hit Dawood’s house is different from Bales–after all, he conducted a traditional night raid–nor can we be sure that Bales hit Wazir’s house alone; there are no witnesses alive, after all.
That’s part of what I was getting at w/my comment that all three houses were hit using a different style: haywire at Alkozai, a traditional night raid at Dawood’s, and coldly executed massacre at Wazir’s house. How are all three styles conducted by one person?
Though I’ll admit that Mullah Baran’s claim that the killer stuck his gun in the mouth of the 6 month hold suggests pretty cold-blooded killer.
We have a lot of chaff, but little wheat so far. News reports from Afghanistan stringers, some who have official access like CNN’s Yalda Hakim, and others with unknown access.
What we don’t have are any DOD/Army reports, and yes, I wonder why. The conventional rationale from the DOD/Army is that the investigation is ongoing, but that reasoning often serves to hide a strong institutional bias for self-serving secrecy.
These provoke a couple additional areas where I have questions:
1) Who was the officer in charge of Camp Belambay? Was he/she Regular Army (an officer in Bales’ unit) or Special Forces Green Beret?
Both of these answers add potential complications to the conflicting narratives. Such as if an officer in Bales’ unit, then he/she has a vested interest in minimizing the unit’s involvement.
Correspondingly, if a Special Forces Green Beret officer was in charge of the base, so too would that person have a vested interest in minimizing any suggestion or appearance of that unit’s involvement.
2) The “Search Party” – did it consist of Camp Belambay Regular Army personnel – comrades of Bales? Did it consist of the Camp’s Special Forces Green Beret forces? Did it come from another base altogether (Kandarhar airfield is 15 miles away with numerous troops and helicopters)?
Answers to these sets of questions may play a role in the conflicting narratives we’ve seen in MSM reports, and perhaps more importantly, the lack of information from DOD/Army sources.
I think this is a really excellent point! It’s just as important in pattern recognition to recognize when patterns don’t match as when they do.
1) From the Global Post article:
I don’t know why a witness (Massouma) would fabricate a detail like this. And if he was talking into his radio, who was he speaking to?
2) I’ve been reading the articles and following this since day one. In one of the early articles (it might have been the first Reuters article Marcy quoted about the questioning of how many soldiers were involved), they have a witness talking about helicopters and the article said, IIRC, that the witness was probably confusing the helicopters that came later as part of the response after Bales returned to the base. So did the so called search party go to the villages or did they encounter Bales on the way back, as the current official story says?
In the second village, Najiban, and the question of whether there was one or more soldiers — it seems more likely to me that if there was only one shooter, then more soldiers might have come later to help with moving the bodies, etc. I am thinking about the cover up operation in Iraq where they called in a bomb strike to try to cover things up. But it does seem odd that if they were trying to do a cover up, why didn’t they do a more thorough job of it? Maybe there was an officer somewhere along the line who would not allow it? Maybe some Afghan troops objected? Now I am just throwing out guesses. But I do wonder why they did not try harder to “fix” this before the word got out. Then again, maybe things like this happen more than we know and they figured it would not get out to the big media or would not become such a big deal as it did. Considering the tensions, it’s hard to believe that they would not think it would become a big deal. But there is a chance that if this type of thing happens fairly often, it doesn’t get through to the media like it did this time. Something is very different about this situation, I strongly suspect. There is something different about this situation. I wonder what it is. Lack of cooperation of the Afghans (govt or military or both) might be it.
@emptywheel: Bales is taking the fall. This is what someone else w/experience in SOF told me. Of course, such assertions are just that, mere assertions, fodder for a comment thread. But I will be looking into this as much as I can. Even more, I am trusting you to do even more, as you already have.
Occam’s Razor: If this were a straight-forward revenge killing, drug or alcohol enhanced or not, the narrative should have been relatively straight-forward. But there’s waaay too many hanging threads and competing narratives. Hence the simplest explanation thus far is that the revenge narrative (re one man anyway) doesn’t hold up.
I still think we have a counter-terror op (or counterinsurgency op, or antisubversive op) here, one of many, but this one went public. For those wondering what I mean by “counter-terror” operation, see the book, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in ALgeria, 1955-1957, by General Paul Aussaresses, or Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad by Marnia Lazreg. The latter makes the link between what the US learned from French methods, and how they were applied even up to the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Another comment I’ve been meaning to make regarding Bales’ attorney Browne and his public
He has on a number of occasions stated that he thinks there is little in the way of evidence to convict his client; particularly forensic evidence.
This may yet turn out to be true regarding the murder charges; perhaps less true regarding the attempted murder charges where there are living eyewitnesses, and in the case of the “dereliction of duty” charge, though NAL, I’ll wager Browne any amount of money that they have his client Bales nailed on this one.
And in case one isn’t aware, conviction on the dereliction of duty charge can carry any penalty up to and including the death penalty in time of war.
Again IANAL, but if Bales was supposed to be on guard duty that night as has been reported, and the search party found him “outside of the wire”, there ain’t no military jury in the world that isn’t going to come to a guilty verdict on dereliction of duty; in particular that of a Sentinel/Lookout who left his post without being properly relieved.
And if I had to hazard a guess, I can’t see a military judge or jury hitting Bales with a light sentence on this charge. As I mentioned earlier in the week, the military takes guard duty with the utmost in seriousness.
Particularly guard duty in a warzone!
I would venture that there is almost nothing that is loathed more than someone who abandons one’s post in wartime. Not a traitor, not even a coward.
No, the person who abandons his post in wartime and leaves his comrades totally vulnerable to attack and death, that person is not liable to get any sympathy from a jury of his military peers.
Defense attorney Browne’s best hope may be to somehow to make an insanity or diminished capacity plea work. I don’t know if he has components to do that or not. The various military law experts quoted in the MSM seem to agree that it rarely happens in military cases and that it will be an extremely tough row to hoe.
@MadDog: They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse ;-)
My actual take, he may have done something, e.g., excessive brutality, that made him a logical person for the takedown. His own sense of guilt may play into this.
After the arrest, and whatever they told him, he may well feel he has no chance. In any case, he may also have been told sit tight, you’ll be out of this in a year or two. (The Calley scenario)
I read the story about Bales’ lawyer (Browne) this morning complaining about the media black out being imposed by the US and how they are impeding him from getting the information he needs to build a defense for his client. Bales’ tone seems to have changed a lot from last week. Last week he sounded almost cocky, saying that “there is no crime scene” and that his client remembered leaving the events before and the events after but that he remembered nothing in between. He mentioned nothing about two trips from the base and returns to the base. I suppose that if his client really was in some kind of fugue, he could have left and returned multiple times and not remembered it.
But now his tone sounds different, as if he suddenly realizes that the US military is going to pin this all on his client.
This lawyer is known to be an attention seeking type of lawyer and to be combative, but the tone changes seems palpable to me.
And why the heck would the military restrict him from interviewing the injured witnesses? Even more curious, why would they allow the journalist to interview them and not allow the defense lawyer? I think Marcy makes a very good point in the early comments, that there was alarm after the Hakim interview. But it could also be that Hakim was not supposed to be allowed to interview them either. Too many witnesses talking about multiple soldiers involved. So why did Hakim get in to do the interview? I didn’t think Karzai had that much power. Maybe it was a detail that got past the higher ups, though with something as important as this you would think they would be attending to every last detail.
Were the injured also given money by the US like the families of the dead? Presumably, all or most of the injured were related to some of the dead so their families have the money to go wherever they like now. I heard that the families of the dead have left the villages and have gone to “the city” but I don’t know if anyone is still able to reach them and interview them. If not, I don’t see how they keep this under wraps for long. The defense lawyer seems like the kind of guy who will find them to depose them if they are to be found.
Bales has three lawyers, according to early reports: Browne (the civilian) and two military lawyers.
I expect you folks to have this fully figured out by Friday evening, when I return. I’m going to be missing until then and likely won’t have time to post. Gonna be chaperoning the high school kids from my hippie church as they spend spring break repairing housing for migrant farm workers.
@joanneleon: I’ll add some further questions:
1) The US government reported paid $50,000 for each dead victim. In one sense, I can understand that. Murdering civilians, particularly children can bring out a lot of official “remorse”. That said, the massive amount of money paid out in this instance when compared to the pitiful sums that the US government had normally paid out for civilian deaths in both Afghanistan and Iraq lends itself to a suspicion of “bribery” and “cover-up”.
2) On the journalist access, from EW has posted, it seems like Karzai provided permission. That might be understandable if one assumed that access to the villagers by US forces wasn’t in the cards given the massacre by the same US forces, and that therefore only the Afghans were going to be in a position to meet with the villagers.
3) I agree that the game played by the US regarding Browne’s investigators not being allowed to interview the injured witnesses really smells. They were supposedly in a Kandahar hospital and the next day they were gone. Really? Supposedly critically injured folks somehow managed to heal themselves in a day, and then just got up and left? Really?
I’ve been under the weather with the bug myself since last Sunday. I could sure use some of that miraculous medical care where you get healed in a day. As I said, something smells. Really!
A thought on Marcy’s hypothesis that the men (including Wazir) who were not in the villages that night might have been suspected of being behind the IED attacks the week before: One thing I have wondered about is why two villages were attacked. One man on a drunken or psychotic killing spree is one explanation, but one that doesn’t seem right. Killing spree, then return to base, then back out to another village for another killing spree? Just doesn’t seem realistic. Didn’t satisfy whatever needs he was satisfying so he went back for more? I don’t know.
But if some suspect insurgents were in the city that night and could not be found in their village, it might make sense that it was a search for them all along and that when they were not found, the next closest or most likely village was searched too. Or, as has been suggested before, that it was a vengeance attack all along and the suspects were from both villages.
@Jim White: Good on you! Though you might give your chaperonies a wee bit of time off for really good behavior. It is after all, spring break. :-)
One more question. Everyone keeps focusing on this one FOB. Is it not possible that there are other kinds of squads/units that we are not even aware of, and other small bases that we are not aware of? What about the mixes of intel and military? I am not well versed enough in the different forces. More reading to do. The VSO/VSF that Jeff Kaye speaks of in comments above are news to me. The more you learn, the more you realize that you don’t know.
@joanneleon: And they charged him w/premeditated murder. It would have been murder in any case, but if it were revenge for the IED, it’s more premeditated.
@Jeff Kaye: I also want to come back to a previous thought – did the whoever did this believe that they could get away with the massacre?
This question still sits out there regardless whether its a lone gunman or multiple gunmen scenario.
It would seem reasonable to think that whoever did this had an expectation of not getting caught. Most who commit crimes think that way.
If that was the case in this massacre, what was the expected outcome? Somehow it still seems that the US would be blamed because of the US weapons supposedly used and eyewitnesses left alive.
I originally posited that perhaps Bales intended the US to be blamed (though not an identification of himself individually), perhaps as a US “night raid” gone bad, and that the resulting firestorm would force the closure of Special Forces Camp Belambay with its primitive living conditions and thereby getting Bales transferred to a more amenable duty posting.
I still hold that high on my list of “possibles”.
The supposed “fact” that Bales and/or somebody was leaving and entering the base without going through the security access point still seems to buttress the idea that he and/or others didn’t intend to get caught.
Again, what was supposed to result from the massacre?
@joanneleon: There were some news reports that indicated that there were other nearby bases, so it is entirely possible that those other bases had some involvement (night raids, night patrols, the search party, the medevac helicopters, etc.)
@emptywheel: A good point, and one I think has not been sufficiently explored.
News reports have stated that after returning to Camp Belambay, Bales supposedly told another soldier that he had killed some folks.
In line with premeditated aspect of the charges, is there information that the Army hasn’t released that Bales and/or others discussed the intent to go on a killing spree beforehand?
@joanneleon: Agree there’s been a shift. Maybe his client finally unforgot what he forgot.
From what I have read about the night raids, it is not at all uncommon for a male in the house to be killed during the raid.
What happens when they go in on a night raid with a specific insurgent in mind and the insurgent is not there, not at home? What typically happens?
I would think they would try to get information from the people in the home at the time about the insurgent’s whereabouts. Does that ever get really, really ugly? I think that is very likely.
Totally OT – Via Eric Lichtblau of the NYT on one of our favorite EW topics:
This does not come as a surprise, does it?
And I had to add this update for EW’s benefit:
i’ve puzzle and speculated many conditions for bales, including some sort of temporary psychosis,
but after the reading i did on friday, i’ve come to the conclusion that the most likely explanation was that he was extraordinarily drunk – drunk enough to lose all normal inhibition.
he was described from the beginning as having been drinking with buddies (some of whom could have accompanied him on a part of his rampage).
bales, i learned from my reading, has had three “official” interactions involving serious drunkenness with civil authorities in the u.s. over a period of years in the vicinity of his base. he was twice so drunk and disruptive in public places that police were called. in the third incident he rolled his car, got out bleeding and ran away. witnesses say they detected the smell of alcohol.
one problem with this hypothesis is that i can’t understand how a person so drunk could function in the dark, using night vision goggles (if he did), use his weapons effectively, avoid stumbling, falling, injuring or even shooting himself accidentally.
istamullah was male, 13 yrs, the oldest of wazir’s two sons. see wsj online article, para 10.
now that, jim, is time well spent – both in helping and in teaching young folks about helping,
not to mention the benefit that teens love nothing better than doing serious, non-fake, adult things in the world – like fixing their cars, or fixing up houses, including roofs, floors, windows, doors, and painting.
“blessed work” as the folks around here like to say.
in my readings on friday, i learned that western reporting of non-western events is, to put it kindly, incomplete, confusing, poorly cross-checked, and often contradictory. there are, for example, two individuals who made western-media-reported claims of having lost 10 or 11 family members.
as for “habibullah khan”,
this bloomberg report has him claiming he lost the following family members:
“…Before opening fire, the soldier had to walk about a kilometer from his base, Khan said in a phone interview.
“The soldier killed four of my family members including my wife, sisters and a baby nephew,” he said. “I was out of the district, in the city of Kandahar, but when I came back I saw blood and all four people had been killed in their beds…”
no mention of sayed jaan.
there is still some serious information gathering that needs to be done in this matter – with careful crosschecking.
most critical in my mind is the location, relative to each other, of the three houses where 16 deaths appear to be accounted for, and the relative time of the assaults in each, i.e., did they occur close together in time.
I share Ryan’s puzzlement over the motive for these killings.
If the murders were part of some “village pacification” strategy, similar to what we saw in Viet Nam – we would expect to see some form of paper trail, and other similar events, along with a broad PR push – just as we saw in the VN war. It would also seem likely that the USAF could come up with a better cover story than a “lone psycho” excuse.
If Bales was a lone killer, it’s hard to imagine a drunken or psychotic man could have done so much work, killed at different locations, taking time in between to talk about it.
If there were some more-specific target, some rational if criminal motive – why slaughter children, magnifying the inevitable publicity and investigation?
I really appreciate EW and other braniac posters. But I remain mystified. The only certainty seems to be the “Pat Tillman rule”: whatever we get from the USAF is going to be a collection of BS, smoke, and flat lies.
@orionATL: Yes, I’ve posted on that. But other sources such as Al Jazeera have listed him as a daughter. Given the Wazir has twice said he lost two sons in the attack and that Ismatullah is a male name, I’m pretty certain he’s male (again, as I’ve posted). But given that some public sources are treating him as female and given that there are too few male children and too many female children in the official counts, I think it likely that the official count is (mis)counting Ismatullah as female.
Which of course would do wonders for the govt’s case, if they couldn’t even get the sex of the victims right before they charged Bales.
@orionATL: It’s not entirely the fault of western media. Naming conventions in Afghanistan are not what they are here. The same confused plagues detainee records, only partly bc detainees work under different names bu also because they’re following different naming conventions.
Though one thing that seems clear is that reporters working with a translator–rather than reporting team that involve bilingual people (like Hakim) are introducing some errors in the family relations.
There are 17 dead. Is is clear that 12 or 13 are from Najiban. It is clear that 4 or 5 are from Alkozai, along with a number of wounded.
@al75: According to statements made by Panjwai villagers in the Australian interview, an American soldier or soldiers threatened to specifically kill villagers’ families only a few days before the massacre. Shouldn’t that be perceived as more than a coincidence?
i definitely agree.
i wondered about the naming conventions and also about how words like “cousin”(male or female?), or “brother” vs “brother-in-law” are translated.
similarly, educated afghanis, e.g., translators, may speak a very different version of pashto than folks in the countryside.
in the end, i felt like i was in a hall of mirrors. it was really hard to get (or keep) my bearings and hard for this foreigner to be confident of his interpretations of events.
I hadn’t previously read the WSJ account, with this detail:
>The intruder faced no resistance because the locals were used to U.S. night raids. There was one in the same cluster of houses just five days earlier, Mr. Wazir says, after a roadside bomb hit a U.S. armored vehicle nearby.
That bombing happened in Mokhoyan, a third village. But someone must have been pretty certain that the source of the bomb was in Najiban, if the night raid response and the massacre both took place here and not in Mokhoyan.
Here are the best maps I’ve found.
You get a sense that the population of Panjwai is mostly well north of Zangabad. The milbloggers call this area the Horn of Panjwai. And you also get a sense of something a milblogger wrote – that the locals use different names, and the maps might refer to these clusters as Zangabad 1, 2 & 3. In other words, these separate villages may all be the constituent parts of Zangabad, with no actual central population.
I also hadn’t seen the longer version of the Hakim report on CNN. Three different Afghan guards all say they saw Bales (well, an American) that night on separate occasions. First entering, then leaving, then coming back (alone, and he says he alerted the Americans to it, which is at odds with other reports that the camera found him, or possibly these things happened penecontemporaneously.)
I had to laugh when the 2nd Afghan guard acted affronted that a reporter might ask him whether he recognized the American, one of about 50 stationed there, and simply said “they all look alike.” How could anyone be expected to differentiate between the foreigners!
Hakim suggests a sequence for the two villages, but it’s not clear how she established that. The CNN diagram seems to suggest the American base had more than one entrance. (It doesn’t seem as secure as say, the Mexican military bases I’ve seen in my travels. Maybe superior firepower allows lax physical prep.)
The Afghan army initially told Hakim she couldn’t visit the villages because it was too dangerous, laced with mines, with angry villagers and the Taliban. A day or two later, she goes, and when she asks where everyone is, the ANA people tell her everyone has scattered to the city (presumably Kandahar) and other villages because they’re scared.
The thing that makes me think there was a lie here is the comment about mines – it would be difficult for the villagers to have laid many mines right after the massacre, and if they had wanted to and had the ability, why wouldn’t they have done so long before, and/or right after the previous night raid. There’s also the glib, idiotic answer to her question what is the plan to remove the mines. “oh, we have a very big plan, big operation …”
I think that’s very possible.
On the other hand, apparently a retaliatory raid, but a more circumscribed one typical of ISAF responses, had already been launched a few days before the massacre.
Thank you for informing me of that. However, because of the timing of events, I don’t think the more circumscribed raid can account for the fulfillment of the threats made.
The IED explosion that precipitated the threats took place on either March 7 or 8. So even if the Americans came right away thereafter on either March 7 or 8 and made the threats there would really be no time for ANOTHER retaliatory raid to be launched before the massacre, which took place in the early hours of March 11. The timing between the explosion, the threats and the massacre is pretty tight. IMO.
Quote from RT news:
“Residents from the villages where the rampage took place claim soon after a roadside bomb accident that happened on March 7 or 8, some US soldiers came and threatened that the habitants would be punished for what they called “supporting anti-US forces”.
“The soldiers called all the people to come out of their houses and from the mosque,” Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from Panjwai district said.
According to Rasool, the soldiers told the villagers: “A bomb exploded on our vehicle. We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people.”
Resident of Mokhoyan village Naek Mohammad also described how the soldiers assembled the villagers. A US soldier, speaking through a translator, told the Afghans: “I know you are all involved and you support the insurgents. So now you will pay for it – you and your children will pay for this,” Mohammad told journalists.
usa sheds light on 17th Afghan victim in shooting rampage
The death toll in the March 11 shootings is higher than that given by Afghan officials because the 17th victim, an adult, was identified later, officials say.
The 17th victim of a shooting rampage in Afghanistan was identified after investigators arrived at the scene, the top usa commander in the country said Monday in explaining why the usa toll is higher than that originally provided by Afghan officials.
The usa commander in Afghanistan, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, said the widely reported toll of 16 dead came from Afghans immediately after the shooting, but another victim was identified later. “We should not be surprised that in fact as the investigation went forward, an additional number was added,” he said.
Another senior military official said there was no evidence that the additional victim was a fetus, disputing media reports that quoted local Afghan officials as saying that one of the female casualties was found to be pregnant. The additional victim was an adult, said the usa military officer, speaking anonymously because he was discussing an ongoing investigation.
Basic details are so tough to sort out. Based on the map in the CNN report (about 4:15), I think that the Zangabad in question is Zangabar Ghar, or Zangabad Mountain, which is just south of the road from Kandahar to Mushan in the Horn of Panjwai. While this may be named for Zangabad, as that place shows up in Google maps and in other discussions, it’s a relatively long way away. I think the villages are in the shadow of the mountain.
@ryan: Yeah, I liked that “They all look the same to me” comment too.
Pretty sure that Hakim wasn’t buying that mine story either. I’ve written before about the multiple layers of pressure on everyone involved here–and the ANA and APA folks seem to be trying to meet Karzai’s needs without pissing off the local Taliban.
Somewhere there’s an article that said this FOB was less reinforced than others.
@EPU: Interesting. I’m not sure how that makes sense, but I guess I’ll have to think on it some more.
There’s also the fact that the villagers who said they’d been lined up and threatened were in Mokhoyan, apparently the only one of the three villages or hamlets around the base that DIDN’T get hit in the massacre.
Hmmm–maybe it’s a reverse image of the Afghan guard’s perception of Americans in that he saw all Americans as alike and interchangeable.
Maybe they threatened one village and destroyed some others and meticulousness wasn’t important. I don’t know, but thanks for the input. There’s a lot to think about.