The chilling massacre of 16 Afghan civilians reportedly killed by a lone U.S. Army sergeant in the Panjwayi district early on Sunday morning has the Obama administration reeling. They should be. Every imperial war and occupation has an “atrocity crisis,”which galvanizes opposition to the occupying forces in-theater, and opposition in the homeland to end the conflict. It remains to be seen if the Panjwayi Massacre will be that crisis moment; but one thing is clear, President Obama is moving with serious dispatch to contain the collateral damage on both fronts.
The explosive nature of the massacre was underscored by Defense Secretary Panetta, who, less than 36 hours into the investigation, all but pronounced the un-named Army sergeant, guilty. Aboard a U.S. Air Force jet to Kyrgyzstan, told reporters that, “He went out in the morning, early morning, and fired on these families and then at some point after that came back to the forward operations base and basically turned himself in.” After saying that the suspect would be brought to justice under the U.S. military legal code, which allows for the death penalty, Panetta speculated that “My understanding is in these instances that could be a consideration.”
If anyone at this juncture is familiar with the facts, it’s DOD Secretary Panetta. And he is bringing the hammer down early and hard to mitigate, if possible, revolts across the country and a Taliban propaganda coup. The Panjwayi Massacre comes on the heel of the “accidental Koran burning” that resulted in the death of two American soldiers in riots across Afghanistan in February, and videos of U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters in January. Allowing the accused suspect to “lawyer-up” and do “soft time” on an insanity plea will only pour more fuel on the fire. Indeed, Panetta’s comments seemed designed to pre-empt reports driveling out in the press that the Army sergeant may be suffering from a “brain disorder” after doing three tours in Iraq. That may be true, but it also may not matter. Bigger things are at stake, than sparing the life of one deranged sergeant.
According to U.S. and Afghan authorities and local witnesses,the suspect leftthe forward base in Kandahar province early Sunday morning, and went to two villages a few hundred yards away. He entered three homes, killing eleven people in one home including women and children, and gunned down five others inside their homes or attempting to escape. He laid blankets over some of the bodies, and set on them fire. Villagers who photographed the charred remains also told reporters the soldier dragged one woman by her hair, and banged her head against a wall before killing her. He also shot a dog that rushed toward one of the homes.
Worse still for the Obama administration, the massacre occurred in Kandahar Province, the ideological and military stronghold of the Taliban. The province has been the main theater of intense fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban since the Obama surge of 2009. Ironically, Panjwayi District, located 22 miles west of Kandahar City is also regarded by many as the birthplace of the Taliban. Not surprisingly, the Taliban reacted quickly, vowing to avenge the killings. On the website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesman said, “The so called American peace keepers have once again quenched their thirst with the blood of innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar province.” After spending hours on the telephone urging Afghanistan’s tribal leaders to resist violent retribution, embattled President Hamid Karzai called the attack, “an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians that cannot be forgiven.”
Clearly unsettled by the barbarous killing, President Obama told local CBS station KDKA on Monday that the shooting was “absolutely heartbreaking and tragic.” When asked if the incident would speed his troop withdrawal plan he said: “It makes me more determined to make sure we’re getting our troops home.”
Over the coming days the press and the Republican Party, will undoubtedly focus on the larger questions the Panjwara raises about Obama’s policy on Afghanistan. The numbers and the 2014 timetable for troop withdrawals will be debated around Washington, D.C., as the 2012 Presidential election gallops into high gear. There will plenty of time for that debate.
However, if President Obama has learned the lessons of history, he must focus on the sharp turn of events that has engulfed Afghanistan over the past three months, and the Panjwara Massacre in particular. The unnamed Army sergeant, must be brought to justice quickly, and if found guilty, executed. That won’t solve the myriad of challenges in Afghanistan, but the danger of diminishing this heinous crime, could be the spark that torches Obama in Afghanistan. Lest we forget, the Arab Spring risings started when a street vendor burned himself alive after being slapped by a policewoman in Tunis.