Afghan rage over Kandahar massacre sentence

Victims’ families furious that US soldier guilty of murdering 16 villagers did not receive the death penalty.

Handout photo of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales at Fort Irwin
The sentence handed to Staff Sgt Robert Bales (left) was not what was hoped for by his victims' families [Reuters]

Kabul, Afghanistan – For more than a year, the people of Panjwai have been waiting for the answer they were promised.

The pledges – money, trips to Mecca and new houses – came pouring in immediately following the March 11, 2012, killings of 16 villagers, including nine children, by a then-unknown US soldier.

Few of the promised favours, however, ever materialised in the village.

Above all else, what the people of this western district in Kandahar province wanted was justice.

“The people wanted him to be put to death, so maybe their pain and suffering could be eased, if even a little,” Mohammad Amin, a Kandahar resident said of Robert Bales, the US staff sergeant who admitted to committing the worst case of civilian killings by a US soldier since the Vietnam War.

As the months-long military trial progressed, however, it became increasingly clear that the punishment district elders said was promised them by Kabul and Washington would not come.

That US officials did not want Bales to be given the death sentence was a betrayal of everything Haji Mahmoud said he had been told since the days immediately following the attack – which has since come to be known as “the Kandahar Massacre”.

‘Broken promises’

As the head of the local shura in Panjwai, Mahmoud was among the leaders present when a joint Afghan-US delegation arrived to investigate the killings in Alkozai and Najiban villages.

At first, Mahmoud, like many others, was angry at the outcome of a disagreement he had witnessed between the Afghan and US representatives. The people of Panjwai were given assurances after Leon Panetta, then-US defence secretary, decided Robert Bales would be tried in the United States.

The Americans have shown how easily they can get away with the atrocities they commit in Afghanistan.

by Hedaitullah, Kandahar resident

“The Americans emphasised that he would be tried in the US, but they also said that he would be given the death penalty,” Mahmoud said. He believes it remains an unfulfilled promise.

Ghulam Rassoul, a Panjwai tribal elder, was among the delegation that travelled to Kabul four days after the massacre. He told Al Jazeera that he too was given assurances that Bales would receive the harshest punishment.

“The Afghan government and the US investigative team gave us promises that the criminal will be given the death penalty,” Rassoul said.

In their initial co-operation with the international investigation, the victims’ families were confident that “the international community would stand on their promises and give this criminal the death penalty”, Mahmoud told Al Jazeera.

But by June 2013, those confidences were shaken when Bales pled guilty to 16 counts of premeditated murder.

“There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did,” Bales said.

The admission, part of a plea deal, meant the prosecution would not seek the death penalty. John Henry Browne, one of Bales’ attorneys, cited that moment as when the defence “won the case”.

For the people of Panjwai, however, it became “evident that the foreigners have not come to rebuild Afghanistan, but to kill Afghans and destroy the nation”, said Haji Obaidullah, a tribal elder.

Though the military trial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord came to an end, the August 23 sentence of life without parole did not bring closure to the people of Kandahar.

“The Americans have shown how easily they can get away with the atrocities they commit in Afghanistan,” said Hedaitullah, a Kandahar resident.

Left in the dark

“Even with a long trial, the people remain in the dark. We want to know how he could wander off the base not once, but twice,” Mohammad Amin said in reference to Bales returning to Camp Belambay at 1:30am to reload ammunition after killing four people in Alkozai village.

A Kandahari translator who has worked with US and Canadian forces in the southern province for five years told Al Jazeera he was in disbelief after hearing of the two Afghan guards who reported seeing a soldier return to base at 1:30am and head out again at 2:30am.

“Even the Afghan-Americans whose homes were in Kandahar could not get permission to leave the base,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Haji Obaidullah said that the combined series of events – Bales’ violation of military code by drinking alcohol with two other soldiers the night of the killings; telling a fellow soldier upon his initial return to the joint Afghan-US base that he had killed people; and later uttering a three-word confession: “I did it” – meant Bales was not the only culprit.

“The entire American battalion based in the area is involved. They have committed this killing jointly,” Obaidullah told Al Jazeera.

But how Bales could leave the base with a 9mm pistol, an M4 rifle and a grenade launcher is not the only unanswered question for the people of Panjwai.

Alleged cover-up

At a March 16, 2012, meeting with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, almost all of the elders from the families of the 16 dead insisted that there was more than one shooter.

Many people in Kandahar were waiting for an honest verdict, now America should wait to see our verdict.

by Haji Ghulam Rassoul, Kandahar resident

A parliamentary investigation a day prior found that up to 20 US soldiers, possibly transported in two helicopters, could have been involved in the killings.

Locals had reported walkie-talkie communication between several soldiers.

Pointing to the ashes of 11 burned bodies, including that of at least one child, in a Najiban home, Mohammad Amin said: “Even if others didn’t pull the trigger, they could have aided him [in other ways].”

Haji Obaidullah agreed. “These people who claim to be defenders of human rights, in order to hide their crimes, have purposely blamed Robert Bales for the crime they all had a part in,” he said.

Before the six-person jury deliberated whether he should be granted the possibility of parole, Bales said the killings were “an act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bullsh*t and bravado”.

The 39-year-old father of two also issued his first apology to the victims’ families.

“I’m truly, truly sorry to those people whose families got taken away,” Bales said in the Seattle courtroom.

In Kandahar, however, his words come too late.

Though Mohammad Amin said Washington was now beholden to contribute to the reconstruction and development of this district of 77,000 residents, others believe the US must be made to suffer as they have.

With “no-one to cry to”, for the 22 people shot and 16 killed by Robert Bales, Haji Mahmoud said the people of Panjwai were left with few options.

“We will do something that will show the world that we, too, can get revenge,” Mahmoud told Al Jazeera.

Ghulam Rassoul, who said the military trial was merely “part of a continuing political game”, said the people of Panjwai would never forget the “brutality” of US troops.

“Many people in Kandahar were waiting for an honest verdict,” he said. “Now America should wait to see our verdict.”

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Source: Al Jazeera