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US Soldier Held for Shooting Afghan Civilians

Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch as Afghans gather outside a U.S. base in Panjwai district Kandahar province, March 11, 2012.
Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch as Afghans gather outside a U.S. base in Panjwai district Kandahar province, March 11, 2012.
Brian Padden

In Afghanistan, a U.S. soldier has been detained after shooting Afghan civilians Sunday. Afghan officials report at least 16 dead.

Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, could offer only a few details about the shooting that took place in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar Province.

“What we know so far is that, in the very early morning hours of this morning, under the hours of darkness, a U.S. soldier left a forward operating base in the Panjwai area in the west of Kandahar. He went into the nearby village and shot innocent civilians under circumstances which still have to be investigated, then returned to the base and handed himself in, and he is in U.S. custody at the moment,” he said.

Jacobson could not confirm the number of casualties, nor the motivation behind the attack but said a full investigation would soon be underway.

Asadullah Khalid, the Afghan minister of border and tribal affairs, says the U.S. soldier went on an unprovoked killing spree in the nearby villages.

11 people killed in one home

An elderly Afghan man sits in a minivan next to the covered body of a person allegedly shot dead by a U.S. service member in Panjwai, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, March 11, 2012.
An elderly Afghan man sits in a minivan next to the covered body of a person allegedly shot dead by a U.S. service member in Panjwai, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, March 11, 2012.
He says a number of people were martyred in a few houses, in one house 11 people were martyred and in another house many people were wounded and one was martyred.

Both ISAF and Afghan officials have condemned the incident and expressed concern for the victims and their families.

The Panjwai district in Kandahar had been considered a Taliban stronghold in the recent past. In 2010 it was the scene of heavy fighting between U.S. forces and the Taliban. General Jacobson says the military is concerned that this incident could jeopardize progress made to stabilize the region.

“ISAF has made great progress in recent weeks and months in stabilizing an area that was once very much hardcore land of the Taliban," he said. "So we are looking at this incident also from the perspective, does it do any damage to what we are doing, to the work that is done there in the hand-over process of responsibility to Afghan national security forces.”

Concerns over anti-American sentiment

There is concern that this shooting could further increase anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan. Relations between the two countries have been tense since U.S. soldiers inadvertently burned Qurans at an American military base in February. That incident sparked a week of violent protests nationwide and a number of deadly attacks against U.S. soldiers. The U.S. military has temporarily recalled staff from Afghan ministries.

An official military inquiry into the Quran burnings is still pending and American soldiers involved in the incident could face disciplinary actions.

Andrew Wilder, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace says this attack against Afghan civilians will fuel more anger against the U.S. but it will probably not significantly alter the complicated relationship between the two countries.

"Afghans are very ambivalent about the presence of international forces in Afghanistan," said Wilder. "I think primarily because they are not perceived to have brought security that is probably the biggest cause of resentment. However, they also fear the rapid withdraw of international forces as they fear that would be very destabilizing. So even despite these kinds of incidents rightfully anger Afghans, I don't think that necessarily translates to the majority of Afghans wanting international forces rushing to the exits."

As late as Friday, relations seemed to be mending as the two countries agreed to transfer full control of an American detention facility to Afghanistan in six months. The agreement removed a major obstacle in developing a strategic partnership that will define a U.S. role in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws most of its 98,000 combat soldiers in 2014.

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