Army sergeant suspected in Afghan massacre did 'multiple tours' in Iraq

The Army sergeant alleged to have killed 16 Afghanistan civilians on Sunday acted alone, Pentagon officials continue to say. They are treating it as an isolated incident, not as a sign of mounting frustration within US ranks about the Afghanistan war.

Allauddin Khan/AP
Afghan and US soldiers are seen as a crowd gathers outside a military base in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday.

A portrait is gradually emerging of the US military soldier who is believed to have walked off base and methodically gunned down 16 civilians – including children – in southern Afghanistan on Sunday.

He is an Army sergeant. He had served “multiple tours” in Iraq. He is not a member of Special Operations Forces, as had been suggested. He appears to have turned himself in, and at no time was he in the custody of Afghan security forces.

Though publicly known details about the alleged assailant and the incident itself remain sparse, senior defense officials have been careful to insist that this Army staff sergeant was a lone shooter.

“We believe this was a lone shooter who was involved in this deeply tragic set of shootings,” says George Little, Pentagon press secretary. In preliminary investigations, “every indication we have at this point” does not indicate that the shooter coordinated with any other US military service members in allegedly conducting the murderous rampage.

The Pentagon says it will not release his name because the US military has not yet filed charges against him, and officials would not say how long that might take. 

Pentagon officials insist, too, that the suspect's actions are not part of a broader trend of US service members airing their frustrations about the war in Afghanistan or seeking revenge for the deaths of fellow US troops at the hands of the Afghan security forces they are training.

“You can’t necessarily take an isolated incident, or two, or three, and draw a broader trend line,” Mr. Little said Monday at a briefing.

Nor has the terrible incident resulted in the US miltiary “changing our fundamental strategy” in Afghanistan, he added.

The shooting rampage Sunday, however, comes on the heels of widespread Afghan outrage about the burning of Qurans – whether inadvertent or not – that several US troops are alleged to have taken part in earlier this month.

The Marines also came under widespread fire for a YouTube video in which a squad leader and troops under his command were shown urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters.

“Can the latest shooting be overcome? Yes, but it is certainly a setback,” says Richard “Ozzie” Nelson, a retired US Navy officer who served on Joint Special Operations Command, the US military’s secret special operations forces division that includes SEAL Team 6

“It’s a tragedy of incredibly significant proportions, so it’s not going to be helpful from a strategic perspective for anything we’re trying to accomplish with our Afghan partners,” adds Mr. Nelson, who also served on the National Counterterrorism Center’s Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning, and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Pentagon officials on Monday reiterated, however, that the shooting incident will in no way impact the relationship between the United States and its Afghan partners.

“There is no shift in our goals. There is no shift in our strategy,” Little said. The incident will have “no demonstrable impact on relations with our Afghan partners,” he added.

Public perception among ordinary Afghans may be another matter, however, analysts note.

But this, too, will have no impact on the US way forward on the ground, Little said. “We’re not coordinating this war effort by the polls,” he said. “We’re conducting this war effort by the policy.” 

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