Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taleban Backlash Feared After Shooting Rampage

Kandahar shootings only worsen negative views of foreign troop presence.
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  • US military helicopter over Kandahar countryside. NATO’s efforts on the ground, including hearts-and-minds work, have been furth
    US military helicopter over Kandahar countryside. NATO’s efforts on the ground, including hearts-and-minds work, have been furth

Afghans have expressed fury at the shooting of 16 civilians by a United States soldier in Kandahar province, and warned that the killings could strengthen support for the Taleban and prompt violent reprisals.

According to international news agency reports, a 38-year-old US staff sergeant left his base in southern Kandahar province in the early hours of March 11, then went from house to house shooting dead 16 civilians, including nine children, before turning himself in.

The killings prompted demonstrations in Kandahar on March 11 and in the south-eastern province of Nangarhar on March 12, and the Afghan parliament also closed in protest that day.

With relations between Afghanistan and America already at a low point following February’s apparently accidental burning of Korans at the Bagram air base and the subsequent anti-US protests, many are concerned that this latest incident will lead to bloody reprisals.

The Taleban have already vowed to take revenge for the “savage murders”.

Kabul resident Hilaluddin expressed concern that Afghans working for foreign employers could may be targeted.

“These incidents have endangered our lives, too,” he told IWPR. “Afghans in rural areas cannot kill Americans in revenge, but they will not spare anyone who works for foreign aid organisations, for the military or for embassies.”

A student at the American University of Afghanistan said that to him, the killings showed there was virtually no difference between western forces and the Taleban.

“The only difference is that the Taleban kill us but don’t apologise, but [foreign forces] kill us and apologise,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is rubbish.”

The student said he had spent years persuading a relative not to take up arms against the foreign troops.

“But how many more people should I convince after incidents like this one?” he said. “There is no need for [foreign troops] to be here. They must leave now.”

Others were less angry, and Basir, a student at the American University of Afghanistan, speculated that the shooting spree might have been triggered by the suspect’s own traumatic experiences, perhaps as revenge for friends or relatives killed in Afghanistan.

He insisted that despite everything, the presence of western troops had brought clear benefits to Afghanistan.

“I have a very good job now and I can afford to study at a prestigious university. This wasn’t an option prior to the current regime, and it has become a reality thanks to the support of these forces and the countries behind them,” he said.

Another student, Emal, suggested that US troops could dampen popular protests by paying compensation to the victims’ families as quickly as possible, and also “build something in the area where the incident took place, to compensate for what has happened and calm people down”.

Without swift action, he warned, “Afghanistan’s enemies in the region” could seek to exploit public anger for their own ends.

Student Hedayatullah Niazi said the suspect should stand trial in either Afghanistan or the US, but with oversight from the United Nations and the Afghan government kept in the loop at every stage.

Senior ISAF officials expressed deep regret and pledged that whoever was responsible would be brought to justice.

“An investigation is already under way and every effort will be made to establish the facts,” ISAF Deputy Commander Lieutenant General Adrian Bradshaw said in a statement.

“[O]ur thoughts and prayers are with those caught in this tragedy,” he said, while ISAF Commander General John Allen also offered “profound regret and deepest condolences” to the victims and families.

“I am absolutely dedicated to making sure that anyone who is found to have committed wrong-doing is held fully accountable,” he said.

Niazi predicted that the killings would undermine NATO’s mission, place international troops in greater danger, further strengthen the Taleban’s ranks, and eventually lead to a nationwide uprising against the foreign troop presence.

But fellow-student Emal warned of the consequences of pushing for an early troop withdrawal.

“We should not act in a way that would cause an immediate withdrawal of US and other foreign troops, or of their aid, because we are very much dependent on them,” he said.

Noorrahman Rahmani is IWPR’s country director for Afghanistan, Khan Mohammad Danishju also contributed reporting for this article.