Massacre in Afghanistan - updated 8/23/13
Posted Aug 23, 2013

Massacre in Afghanistan

by Sheila Musaji

This week we saw the latest incident of a U.S. soldier attacking civilians.  At this point little is known about the soldier, and various reports are conflicting.  Some are reporting that he acted alone, and some reporting that there was a group of “drunk” soldiers involved.

We do know that the soldier who massacred 16 people (including women and children) while they slept, and then burned many of the bodies was from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Seattle.  Four soldiers from this same base were convicted in the “kill team” “thrill killings” of Afghan civilians.

In our TAM article Where is the U.S. Government Getting It’s Information on Islam and Muslims? we document many instances of trainers and materials used by government agencies, the military, the FBI, CIA, and law enforcement organizations that are biased, and in our TAM article on the recent “urination video” scandal,  Does the most recent military scandal reflect a deeper problem? we discuss at length whether or not such biased training might influence military personnel to hold Muslims in contempt.

Is it possible that biased training might have contributed to dehumanizing Iraqis, Afghans, and all Muslims?  Are “towel heads”, “hajjis”, “sand niggers”, “camel jockeys” not really human beings after all, but simply “the enemy”, even if they are civilians?

Previously, we have seen many such “isolated incidents”.  There was the “Kill Team” War Crimes in Afghanistan.  Photos show U.S. troops posing for trophy pictures with bloody, naked murdered Afghan civilians.  They had hunted these civilians for sport and murdered them in cold blood.  12 soldiers were ultimately charged with war crimes.

There was the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal after photographs came out.

There was the torture, prisoner abuse and murders at Bagram prison in Afghanistan.

There was the rape scandal in which four U.S. soldiers in Iraq were charged with participation in the “rape and murder of a young Iraqi woman, and the murder of three members of her family to cover it up.  A fifth soldier was accused of dereliction of duty for failing to report the offenses

There was the Haditha massacre in 2005 in which 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women and children were killed by a group of U.S. Marines.  Eight marines were tried, but none received prison sentences.

There was the “Jesus rifles” scandal in which rifles with bible verses on their scopes were issued to troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There was the company called Silver Bullet Gun Oil (SBGO) which is marketing a gun oil that contains pig fat to American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was the 2009 incident when U.S. forces mistakenly broke into the home of Brigadier Artillery officer Awal Khan. Awal Khan was away from home. His family members ran to the rooftop, believing that robbers had entered the home. When they emerged on their rooftop, U.S. forces on the opposite roof opened fire, killing Awal Khan’s wife, his brother, his 17 year-old daughter Nadia, and his fifteen year-old son, Aimal and his infant son, born just a week earlier.

There was the incident of British soldiers who are on trial for filming their abuse of Afghan children, while US WikiLeaks files record 21 separate incidents of British troops shooting dead or bombing Afghan civilians.

There was the 2009 incident in Kunar Province when in a night raid, U.S. forces, claiming to attack a bomb-making factory, attacked a house where eight youth, aged 11-18, were sleeping. They pulled the youngsters out of their beds, handcuffed them, and executed them. Villagers said that seven of those killed were students and one was a neighboring shepherd.

There was the incident in 2011 when Polish NATO forces mistakenly fired on an Afghan wedding party killing 9 civilians.  Three of the soldiers have been acquitted and 4 will be retried in 2012.

There was the 2010 incident when U.S. aerial forces mistakenly attacked a three-car convoy traveling to a market in Kandehar. The convoy had planned on continuing to Kabul so that some of the passengers could get medical treatment. At least three dozen people were passengers in the three cars. The front car was an SUV type vehicle, and the last was a Land Cruiser. When the first car was hit by U.S. air fire, women in the second car jumped out and waved their scarves to indicate that they were civilians. U.S. helicopters continued to fire rockets and machine guns, killing 21 people and wounding 13.

There was the 2010 killing of 3 women and 2 men in Kabul by U.S. Special Operations forces.  Investigations showed that there may have been evidence tampering at the scene.  Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has tried hard, and with some success, to reduce civilian casualties through new rules that include restricting night raids and also bringing Special Operations forces under tighter control. But botched Special Operations attacks — which are blamed for a large proportion of the civilian deaths caused by NATO forces — continue to infuriate Afghans and create support for the Taliban.

There was the 2010 incident when International troops mistakenly opened fire on a bus in southern Afghanistan, killing four passengers and wounding 18

There was the video showing U.S. military personnel in uniform with Bibles in Pashto and Darri planning on evangelizing Muslims in Afghanistan.   The Al Jazeera report on this incident also shows a military preacher, Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Hensley, the chief of the US military chaplains in Afghanistan, urging army parishioners to “hunt people for Jesus.”   “The Special Forces guys, they hunt men. Basically, we do the same things as Christians. We hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down. Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the Kingdom. That’s what we do, that’s our business,” he says

There was the “freedom packages” scandal in which Bibles, proselytizing material in English and Arabic and the apocalyptic computer game “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” were to be included in packages put together by a fundamentalist Christian ministry called Operation Straight Up who had also planned a troop entertainment tour called “military crusade”.  The Pentagon cancelled this plan after its inappropriate nature was brought to their attention.

The BBC tracks civilian death tolls in Afghanistan and reports that civilian casualties have gone up each year since 2009.  Wikipedia also has a list of civilian casualties from 2001 to the present.  In most cases civilian deaths are considered “collateral damage”.  However, at least in some cases, civilians are being purposefully targeted.

In many of the incidents listed above (as well as others) there have been initial denials, and after investigations an acknowledgement, and then apologies to the victims families, and in some cases payments to the families.  This however is not likely to mean much to those who have lost their loved ones. 

Most people have reacted with dismay and disgust to this massacre in Afghanistan.  However, as Charles Johnson of Little Green Footbals reports, many right wing blogs are full of comments today praising the soldier and including statements like ‘A Dead Muslim Is a Good Muslim’ - Every M U S L I M that reads the Quran is an enemy combatant…at home or abroad.  Reading the comments he has collected is a frightening experience.  Islamophobia is alive and well in at least a segment of our population.  If we see this level of dehumanization of Muslims within our civilian population, it can’t be surprising to also find it among a segment of our military.

The rabid Islamophobia displayed by individuals like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer,  and many individuals who have made alarming statements about Islam and Muslims is filtering down through American society, and the results are seen, for example, in the objections made against the construction of the Cordoba House in NYC.  Many of the statements made have not been an example of a reasonable concern about who these particular Muslims are, but a display of hatred towards all Muslims and the entire religion of Islam.  They are also seen in blog posts with titles such as Islam is a disease pretending to be a religion. This is an outcome of the vicious what everyone “knows” demonization of Islam industry. 

This process of making hatred towards Islam and Muslims acceptable has been aided, sadly, by the fact that such statements have even been made by Jewish and Christian clergy people.  Islamophobic statements are also becoming the norm in the political arena, in political campaigns, and even among our elected government representatives, and military leaders.  The 2008 Presidential campaign was rife with Islamophobia.

I would like to know if these “soldiers” who have purposefully targeted civilians are an aberration or the norm.  I would hope that the Pentagon rather than trying to just sweep this under the rug would conduct a serious investigation of the mental state of our military serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of whether or not some biased “training” and unchallenged statements of anti-Muslim bigotry might contribute to this level of disgust towards other human beings.  Were these perfectly normal young men who became dehumanized by war, or are we not properly checking out individuals who volunteer for the military?

If the loss of our humanity is part of the cost of war, is it worth it?  And, if some relative or friend of one of those murdered so senselessly attempts revenge on American civilians - will we continue to insist that our foreign policies and wars have nothing to do with any such act of terrorism - it is just because they are “haji’s”, or “ragheads”, or Muslims?  We will we continue to insist that “they” hate “us” for our freedom?

Juan Cole has written about some of the important questions that this incident has raised:

The shooter was from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, the leadership of which has a long history of prioritizing deployments over making sure that soldiers with brain injuries and possible Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are properly treated. The base has been plagued by suicides, spousal abuse, and soldiers going berserk abroad.

...  It should be remembered that frequency and duration of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan were substantially increased by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. As a result of the Bush administration’s frenetic pursuit of multiple wars abroad, the small professional military of the US was put under enormous strain. Deployments were increased from a year to 18 months, and multiple deployments became common. Because of the prevalence of roadside bombs as an insurgent weapon of choice, brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan sky-rocketed. The murky military occupations of countries where young US troops had little local knowledge produced paranoia and widespread Islamophobia, sometimes reinforced by evangelical hatemongering among the troops. British officers who served with Americans in Iraq were shocked and appalled at the sheer racism they often encountered among their US colleagues, complaining that Americans viewed locals as Untermenschen, a lesser race as the Nazis would have put it. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome often went untreated.

There is no ideal way to fight wars of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. But JBLC’s leadership clearly is not doing right by our men and women in uniform, and is thereby endangering not only them but also the hope for a soft landing for the US and NATO in Afghanistan.

The rogue staff sergeant snapped and did a horrible thing. But it is too soon to conclude that he was acting alone or that there wasn’t a vendetta between US troops at his forward operating base near Qandahar and the villagers he attacked. And it is way too soon for Panetta to put it all on him, and to decline to reconsider how the US deals with the horrible toll that war takes on those Americans sent to fight it.

If President Obama really can arrange for, as he says, the “tides of war” to recede, he is still left with a big task, of seeing to it that the veterans and their families are better served in the treatment of the less visible wounds they carry. While the Veterans Administration has improved in the past decade on these issues, mental health and brain injury treatment are still inadequate, both for service people and Vets.

Americans in general should rethink our policy of perpetual war and constant foreign intervention, of war as a standing industry with lobbies and paid-for TV spokesmen, purveyed by all the US news networks to keep us hooked on foreign deployments. War should be rare and a last resort. One thing Panetta got right is that the UN Charter should govern it, so that we can finally put the crimes of the Axis behind us as we move into the 21st century. War should either be for self-defense after an attack, or it should be to preserve dire threats to international order as deemed by the UN Security Council. Otherwise, it is not just a problem of a rogue sergeant, or of a rogue base. It will increasingly be a problem of a rogue nation.

Nima Shirazi reports that

Just last month, on February 8, 2012, a NATO air strike killed several children in the eastern Kapinsa province of Afghanistan, with “young Afghans of varying ages” identified among the casualties.  Similar strikes were responsible for the murders of nearly 200 civilians last year alone.  Furthermore, in less than ten months from 2010 to early 2011, well over 1,500 Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. and NATO forces in night raids, a brutal occupation tactic that has been embraced - along with drone attacks- by Barack Obama.  According to a September 2011 study by the Open Society Foundation, “An estimated 12 to 20 night raids now occur per night, resulting in thousands of detentions per year, many of whom are non-combatants.” These raids produce heavy civilian casualties and often target the wrong people.

Consider sending an email to your representative asking that they co-sponsor Barbara Lee’s B.780, which limits funding for the Afghanistan war to providing for the safe and orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan of all members of the Armed Forces and Department of Defense contractor personnel who are in Afghanistan.


The name of the soldier has now been released Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and he has been brought back to the U.S.

And, yet another incident of what can only be considered prejudice towards Muslims generally on the part of at least some NATO troops in Afghanistan has been reported by Business Insider.  A “Pork eating Crusader” patch in English and the local language is said to be popular with the troops.

Also, much of the media discussion about this incident is about how the perpetrator was suffering from PTSD, financial troubles, etc.  All of that might be true, but it is glaringly different from how any attack by a Muslim is portrayed as some sort of proof that all Muslims are dangerous and without any concern for possible extenuating circumstances.  The media discussion also fails to represent the victims of this incident as real human beings.

Robert Fisk has written an excellent article about the media discussion titled Madness is not the reason for this massacre.  The article includes this I’m getting a bit tired of the “deranged” soldier story. It was predictable, of course. The 38-year-old staff sergeant who massacred 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, near Kandahar this week had no sooner returned to base than the defence experts and the think-tank boys and girls announced that he was “deranged”. Not an evil, wicked, mindless terrorist – which he would be, of course, if he had been an Afghan, especially a Taliban – but merely a guy who went crazy.  This was the same nonsense used to describe the murderous US soldiers who ran amok in the Iraqi town of Haditha. It was the same word used about Israeli soldier Baruch Goldstein who massacred 25 Palestinians in Hebron – something I pointed out in this paper only hours before the staff sergeant became suddenly “deranged” in Kandahar province.

Dean Obeidallah discusses this further in the article The Victims Of The Shooting In Afghanistan Are Not Just Statistics 

Omid Safi also discusses this in the article When Americans Kill vs. When Muslims Kill in which he discusses the very different media analysis of acts committed by Muslims, and those committed by non-Muslims.

UPDATE 8/23/2013

The trial of Robert Bales, who pled guilty, is now in the sentencing phase.  The Huffington Post reports Robert Bales, U.S. Soldier Who Pled Guilty To Afghanistan Massacre, Faces Victims At Court Sentencing.  This article like most others focuses on Bales troubled family life, financial difficulties, PTSD, etc.  Very different coverage than that of the Fort Hood massacre trial going on at the same time. 

Bales has apologized for the massacre.  According to an ABC report the words of the apology were:  ““I’m truly, truly sorry to those people whose families got taken away,” he said, according to The Associated Press.”  Radio Free Europe reported those same words, and additionally that Bales said “the slaughter was an “act of cowardice.” and “Bales offered no further explanation for the bloodshed, saying: “Nothing makes it right.” He added: “I don’t know why. Sorry just isn’t good enough. I’m sorry.”

Hopefully, he will have a long time in prison to reflect on why he carried out this act, and on the fact that those families were not just “taken away” by some nameless force, but by the hand of Robert Bales.


Afghanistan Shootings Suspect, Not Likely To Face Death Penalty

Atrocities Against Civilians in Afghanistan: A Troubling Timetable

Australian soldiers in Afghanistan post racist comments on Facebook

Do Bible Verses on Rifle Scopes Represent Christianity?, Sheila Musaji

DOD rails Rolling Stone for publishing pictures, Fred Childers

Does the most recent military scandal reflect a deeper problem?, Sheila Musaji

Evangelical Christian missionaries embedded with American combat troops in Afghanistan, Mikey Weinstein

Pamela Geller’s praise for the desecration of dead bodies is not “funny” , Sheila Musaji

How common are casualty photos like ones gathered by Stryker “kill team?”, Adam Ashton 

ISAF Data: Night Raids Killed Over 1,500 Afghan Civilians, Gareth Porter

The Kill Team, Mark Boal

The “Kill Team” Photographs, Seymour M. Hersh

“Kill Team” War Crimes in Afghanistan, Sheila Musaji

List of civilian casualties in the War in Afghanistan (2010)

Loner, Loser, Killer, Olivier Roy

Massacres are the Inevitable Result of Foreign Occupatio, Seumas Milne

MRFF Demands Marine Corps Investigate Use of Nazi SS Flag by Marines in Afghanistan

New video emerges of US troops cheering wildly as innocent Afghan civilians are blown up, Andrew Gregory

US admits lethal blunders: Village is wiped out as 2,000lb of Allied explosives miss Taliban target

U.S. Afghan atrocities reflect poorly on all, Tony Norman

US air strike wiped out Afghan wedding party, inquiry finds

U.S. Army Apologizes Over Graphic Afghan Photos

U.S. report: Marines Killed 40 Unarmed Civilians

U.S. Soldier pleads guilty to killing jailed Taliban commander

U.S. soldiers’ ‘kill team’ killed Afghanis, used body parts in poker games: report, Corky Siemaszko

Video on “kill teams” by John Whitehead, Rutherford Institute

Whether or not a ‘kill squad’ is to blame, civilian deaths often go unreported, Julius Cavendish

Why Do They Hate Us?, Sheila Musaji