Afghanistan killings: The Post's Ernesto Londono discusses how civilians are responding

Mar 12, 2012

The Taliban vowed Monday to take revenge for the killing of at least 16 Afghan civilians by a rogue American soldier, and the nation's parliament said people "have run out of patience" with foreign forces.

Chat live with Washington Post foreign correspondent Ernesto Londoño about how Afghanistan civilians and government officials are reacting to the American soldier's actions, how this event might affect U.S.-Afghanistan relations and more.

- U.S. soldier held in shooting rampage that killed 16 Afghans, officials say
- Taliban vows revenge for killings by U.S. soldier

Hi folks. Greetings from Kabul, where the mood is somber today following the killing of 16 civilians on Sunday, allegedly by a U.S. solider. Many facts are not yet known, but I'm happy to answer your questions about how Afghans are reacting to this. 

Would you expect the results of the investigation of this incident to be spun in order not to further aggravate (if that's even possible) the hate Afghan people are feeling for the U.S.? By "spun," I mean the classification of aspects of the investigation so as not to endanger U.S. troops still in the field.

The U.S. military was quick to announced it had taken a soldier into custody and to call the acts deplorable. I think Afghans will be watching very closely over the next few days to see if the U.S. makes good on its promise to hold the culprit accountable. I think they also will want to know whether there were red flags that were disregarded. 

Post commenter Rogie wrote:

When did the Taliban become the representative for all of the Afghan people? For all we know, the villagers in this town loathe the Taliban.

Do you have a feel for civilian support for the Taliban in that area and/or overall in Afghanistan?

Historically there has been a considerable amount of support for the Taliban in this area. In fact , Panjwai district, where the shootings occurred, is the birthplace of the Taliban movement. I think many Afghans in the south are torn between whether they would be better off siding with the Taliban or a weak Afghan government many see as corrupt. I think these shootings boost to the Taliban narrative that the U.S. mission here is doomed and  that it is carried out by crusaders waging war on Islam. The international community and the Afghan government have had a tough time  pushing back successfully on that narrative. 

What is the general public understanding of the continued US presence and what are their expectations of what will occur with any substantial draw down of forces?

It varies considerably. Among educated, urban Afghans who have benefited from the development and societal changes of the past few years, there's deep concern about what effect the draw down will have on security and political stability. (Both have been in short supply, even with a large foreign troop footprint) Among Afghans in rural areas, where elders and religious leaders are more influential than the government, and where Afghans have not benefited much from the war economy, I think there are many people who would like to see foreign troops leave. Many think, I think, that if they did, the fighting would ease. 

Does the U.S. military even have a provision for allowing a soldier to be tried for war crimes by the country or people that were wronged?

No. U.S. soldiers here enjoy immunity from prosecution in the Afghan court system. They also did in Iraq. That ultimately doomed the U.S. goal of keeping a small troop footprint in Iraq after the end of last year, because Iraqi officials refused to grant them immunity. U.S. military personnel charged with crimes are prosecuted in the military justice system. 

My guess is that the Afghans are going to be disappointed by the U.S. military justice system's definition of accountability. The suspect will likely be tried in the U.S. before a military tribunal a year or more in the future. Any ideas on what the U.S. can do to show Afghans we're serious about accountability in this case, or similar cases?


That's a great point. I think a murder case of this nature could take a long time to prosecute. And I think Afghans will want to see him held accountable very soon. It will be a tricky balance for U.S. officials as they strike a balance between managing Afghan expectations and ensuring the solider gets a fair trial. 

Hi Ernesto, do you think the Afghanistan government will request the custody of the soldier to judge him under Afghan law?

Some members of parliament did today. I think the government understands that such a call, if it were made formally, would be merely symbolic because no one expects the U.S. to waive the soldier's immunity. 

Hi Ernesto, The US has a pretty weak record for coming clean in these investigations into itself - even the Pat Tilman investigation was initially more a coverup than an investigation. We are already saying "acted alone" - will anyone really care what this investigation shows?

In this case, the U.S. was pretty quick to admit the severity of what had happened. It will be interesting to see how full an account they present and whether it is convincing to Afghans who suspect more than one gunman carried out the killings. But if you compare this to prior incidents in which U.S. soldiers willfully killed civilians -- Haditha is perhaps the best example -- there is little evidence so far of a coverup. I think the military has learned it fares better when it comes clean early on incidents like these. 

@carlnard: What are the service men and women saying about this? Not higher ups, just fellow soldiers. #WPchat

Some I have spoken to have expressed concern that this could turn a large segment of the population against them and into the arms of the Taliban. There also are fears of retaliatory attacks, which would not come as a surprise. 

How certain are US commanders that only one soldier is involved in this incident? It seems likely that at least a few others must have helped him leave the base alone. Do we know if this soldier previously asked for help, or was being treated, for mental illness?

U.S. military officials say they believe he acted alone. Some Afghans have disputed that. The reason for that might be that U.S. soldiers swarmed the village after the shootings to evacuate the wounded and investigate what had happened. He seems to have walked out of the base. This is highly unusual, but certainly not impossible. 

I wonder what was the general security situation in those villages prior to this incident? Hasn't Panjwayi District been part of the Taliban stronghold area in Kandahar Province for many years? What were the recent security incidents in that area?

Yes, Panjwai has been a Taliban stronghold for years. The 2010 troop surge succeeded in restoring a semblance of government control in these areas. But many people worry that these gains could erode quickly as U.S. troops begin to pull out. 

Do any of our troops in the area in question speak the local language?

A few do. Most rely on interpreters. 

Ernesto, Don't most Afghans hold us in such low regard that this only confirms what they think of us rather than being the first time they will say to themselves "wow, the Americans killed some civilians"?

I think this incident was jarring even to Afghans who have a dim view of Americans. It was unlike anything they've ever seen foreign troops here do. 

Hey Ernesto, These killing are surely much harder to cover up than Haditha so that has to be part of it. NO "fog of war" or any of the other standard explanations here.

True. Word got out here pretty quickly. 

Ernesto, Do you think that the Afghans are able to distinguish between a one-off act by one trooper and the intentions of the US in Afghanistan? Do they appreciate the angst Americans have when it comes their country and its role as the platform for the 9/11 attacks or has time disassociated the reason why we went into Afghanistan in 2001 from the reason we are there now?

I think it will depend to a large extent in this case on how well the U.S. is able to present this as an aberration and how successful the Taliban and other critics of foreign troops are in pushing the view that it is a symptom of a failed mission. It's too soon to tell. 

From Post commenter scubanut:

The majority of Afghan citizens want the US soldiers out of their country. The majority of US citizens want our soldiers out of Afghanistan. Why does our government turn a deaf ear to both?

Do you think this incident will change the timetable for an exit from Afghanistan? 

I think it's certainly possible. These seems to be little appetite or political capital to double down. The fact that this is all playing out in an election year could have an impact on that.  

Folks, I need to get back to writing a story about how Afghans are reacting to this. Thanks for your smart questions and for turning to us for answers. 

In This Chat
Ernesto Londoño
Ernesto Londoño is a roving foreign correspondent who works mainly in the Middle East. Londoño?s first overseas assignment was in Baghdad, where he worked from April 2008 to April 2010. He has since split his time between Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq. Before working on the foreign desk, Londoño covered criminal justice in suburban Maryland for the Post. Prior to joining the paper, Londoño worked at the Dallas Morning News, where he covered immigration. Londoño was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia.
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