War in Afghanistan
2:55 pm
Sun March 11, 2012

Suspect in killing of 16 Afghans was from Fort Lewis

WASHINGTON — A U.S. official says the American who killed 16 Afghan villagers Sunday is a soldier from Washington who was assigned to a remote special operations site.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, added that the suspect is married and has two children. He served three tours in Iraq, and had been serving his first deployment in Afghanistan since December.

U.S. officials say the soldier acted alone, leaving his base in southern Afghanistan and opening fire on sleeping families in two villages.

The official says he is a conventional soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. He was assigned to support a special operations unit of either Green Berets or Navy SEALs engaged in a village stability operation.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of the largest military installations in the U.S. — and one that has seen its share of controversies and violence in the past few years.

The base is about 45 miles south of Seattle and home to about 100,000 military and civilian personnel. A former soldier shot and injured a Salt Lake City police officer in 2010, and on Jan. 1, a 24-year-old Iraq War veteran shot and killed a Mount Rainier National Park ranger.

Four Lewis-McChord soldiers were convicted in the deliberate thrill killings of three Afghan civilians in 2010.

The military newspaper Stars and Stripes called it "the most troubled base in the military" that year.

Key operation in Afghanistan

Village operations are among NATO's best hopes for transitioning out of Afghanistan. They pair special operations troops with local villagers chosen by village elders to become essentially a sanctioned, armed neighborhood watch.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still ongoing.

President Barack Obama is offering condolences to the families of the Afghans who were allegedly shot by a U.S. soldier on Sunday.

'Tragic and shocking'

In a statement releasd by the White House, Obama called the attack "tragic and shocking." He also vowed "to get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible."

Afghan officials reported that 16 people were killed, including nine children and three women, in southern Kandahar province.

In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai furiously demanded an explanation and noted his repeated demands that U.S. forces stop killing civilians. He calls the incident in Kandahar "an assassination" of innocent civilians that cannot be forgiven.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he told Karzai on Sunday that a suspect was in custody and that "we will bring those responsible to justice."

Analysis: Obama's Afghanistan problem gets worse

President Barack Obama has a PR problem when it comes to Afghanistan, to say the least.

Once the must-fight war for America, the decade-long mission has spiraled into a series of U.S. missteps and violent outbreaks that have left few ardent political supporters. After NATO detained a U.S. soldier Sunday for allegedly killing sleeping Afghan villagers, Republicans and Democrats alike pointed to the stress on troops after years of fighting and reiterated calls to leave by the end of 2014 as promised, if not sooner.

"It's just not a good situation," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Our troops are under such tremendous pressure in Afghanistan. It's a war like no other war we've been involved in. ... We're moving out, as the president said. I think it's the right thing to do."

Likewise, many Republicans —who as a party fought against a quick exodus in Iraq and criticized Obama's 2008 presidential campaign promise to end the war — are now reluctant to embrace a continued commitment in Afghanistan.

"There's something profoundly wrong with the way we're approaching the whole region, and I think it's going to get substantially worse, not better," said GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. "I think that we're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may, frankly, not be doable."

American voters appear frustrated as well. In results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday, 55 percent of respondents said they think most Afghans oppose what the United States is trying to do there. And 60 percent said the war in Afghanistan has been "not worth fighting."

Shooting details

The latest incident in Afghanistan was disturbing: At 3 a.m. Sunday, an American staff sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., allegedly wandered 500 yards from a special operations base in the southern Kandahar province and began shooting villagers as they slept.

One eyewitness described the body of a young boy, apparently wearing red pajamas, lying lifeless in the back of a minibus. That and other searing images, including an AP photographer's confirmation of burned bodies at the scene, easily eclipsed Friday's upbeat announcement that the U.S. and Afghanistan had agreed on the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan control.

Obama and top U.S. officials quickly condemned the attack and offered their condolences to families of the victims. Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Afghan President Hamid Karzai, both vowing to hold any perpetrators accountable.

Fear of backlash

Their statements stopped short of a full apology but appeared to want to ward off any retaliatory attacks, like those seen recently after U.S. officials acknowledged the burning of Muslim holy books at an air base in Afghanistan. Six U.S. service members were killed in attacks immediately following that revelation, including two American officers who were assassinated while working inside a heavily protected Afghan ministry.

"This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of (U.S. and coalition troops) or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people," Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said Sunday. "Nor does it impugn or diminish the spirit of cooperation and partnership we have worked so hard to foster with the Afghan National Security Forces."

But the damage is probably inevitable. Pulling no punches, Karzai called the shooting an "assassination" and "an intentional killing of innocent civilians" that could not be forgiven.

For their part, U.S. officials pointedly noted that the suspect would be tried under U.S. law, a fine point perhaps made to head off any demands by Karzai that Afghanistan be given custody of the soldier.

'Weakness in Afghanistan is Karzai'

The tension could be enough to raise a key question among Obama's top advisers as they stare down this fall's bid for re-election: Should Obama press NATO to speed up its scheduled transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government at the end of 2014?

Panetta has already said he hopes Afghans will assume the lead combat role across the country by mid-2013, with U.S. and other NATO troops remaining in smaller numbers to perform numerous support missions. U.S. and Afghan officials have said they want a strategic partnership agreement signed by the time a NATO summit convenes in Chicago in May.

Further complicating the matter is the limited patience many of Obama's top supporters have for Karzai.

"The great weakness in Afghanistan is Karzai," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "Nobody seems to trust him or like him. And the idea of turning it over to the Afghan forces is the right way to go, but that's a major question mark: Karzai."

'We can win this thing'

Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pleaded for public patience on the war.

"I understand the frustration, and I understand the anger and the sorrow," McCain said. "I also understand and we should not forget that the attacks on the United States of America on 9/11 originated in Afghanistan. And if Afghanistan dissolves into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an al-Qaida base for attacks on the United States of America."

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said a primary problem is leaving the country vulnerable and signaling to Iran that the U.S. wasn't committed to the region.

"We can win this thing. We can get it right," Graham said.

Reid spoke on CNN's "State of the Union." Graham and Schumer spoke on ABC News "This Week." McCain spoke on "Fox News Sunday."

By Associated Press, ANNE FLAHERTY and LOLITA C. BALDOR; Associated Press Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier and AP writers Michele Salcedo and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.