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U.S.-Afghan divide seen in perceptions of village massacre

Americans view the killing of 16 villagers as an aberration and a betrayal of U.S. values. For Afghans, the incident is similar to many others, accidental or otherwise, that cause civilian deaths.

March 17, 2012|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Relatives of people killed in the rampage in a Kandahar province village pray during a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has expressed exasperation with civilian casualties.
Relatives of people killed in the rampage in a Kandahar province village… (S. Sabawoon / European Pressphoto…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — There are days here, in these war-haunted times, when it seems that death might come in any guise, and from any direction. From a bomb buried in the earth. From the sky. From a rusted motorbike haphazardly parked in a busy marketplace, with no one paying it and its deadly package any notice.

Or from a soldier who breaks down doors in the dead of night, with murder in mind.

Despite a shared sorrow and bewilderment, a jarring disparity has emerged in the way Americans and Afghans view the killings of 16 villagers in rural Kandahar province, allegedly at the hands of a lone U.S. Army staff sergeant named Robert Bales.

Those fundamentally differing perceptions reflect deep divisions over the manner in which this decade-old conflict has been fought, and in how it may finally end.

From the American standpoint, the narrative of a U.S. military man leaving his isolated outpost and slaughtering defenseless men, women and children — some too tiny to register what was happening, others waking in terror, only to be methodically stalked room to room — represents a profound aberration from accepted norms, a betrayal of every value U.S. forces are sworn to uphold.

From the Afghan side, though, March 11 was a day not so different from many others in the course of years of war.

The Kandahar killings made headlines around the world, but in the days just before and afterward, more than a dozen other Afghan noncombatants were killed or wounded in war-related circumstances. Most of these fatalities and maimings caused little public outcry; the grief that sprang from them was, by fate and by necessity, an almost entirely private affair.

"Our lives are not valued," said Mohammad Sabir, who said he lost four family members in a U.S.-led raid in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province in 2010. "If an Afghan dies, no one cares about it."

In a kind of perverse symmetry, a roadside bomb in Oruzgan province, presumably planted by Taliban insurgents, killed 13 people four days after the Kandahar shootings, including nine children, the same number killed in the horrific earlier attack.

Afghan civilians were killed in war-related incidents at a rate of more than eight per day last year: 3,021 in all, according to the United Nations. Insurgents were blamed for nearly four in five of those deaths.

U.S. military officials constantly rail against negligence or deadly intent when the Taliban and other assailants stage suicide attacks or set off roadside bombs, which are primarily meant for Western troops but may just as easily kill anyone passing by.

Bombs intended for members of the Afghan security forces are often planted in places where civilians are likely to be hurt or killed by them as well. On Wednesday, three days after the Kandahar killings, a bomb strapped to a motorbike in Kandahar city killed an intelligence officer, but also wounded a civilian who was passing by.

And accidents, in their most genuine sense, do happen. On Friday, death rained down from the sky on an Afghan family on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul. A Western military helicopter, for as yet undetermined reasons, crashed, killing 12 Turkish military service members. Four Afghans died in their home, including two women and a boy, according to Kabul police.

To the NATO force, it is a source of epic and enduring frustration that most Afghans tend to make little distinction between civilian deaths caused by the Taliban and affiliated militant groups, and those attributed to foreign forces. And many people here see virtually no difference between a coldly calculated rampage such as the one said to have occurred in Kandahar's Panjwayi district and the inadvertent civilian casualties caused by airstrikes or night raids or other Western military operations.

In American minds, the moral distinction between the accidental and the deliberate, between the carefully judged risk and the deranged act, is incalculable. But for Afghans, the result — the shrouded bodies, the wailing relatives, the bite of shovels into dusty ground — speaks to the numbing sameness of unexpected and violent death.

Victims of wartime suffering here draw differing conclusions as to whether the losses they have borne should lead to a speedier pullout of U.S. and other foreign troops, and whether the banning of Western troops in rural areas, as President Hamid Karzai appeared to be advocating last week, would make things better. Maybe, they say, a precipitous pullback of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces would make everything worse.

Abdul Hadi, 55, who lost two sons and a grandson in 2010 to what he believed was Western gunfire after a suicide bombing in Kandahar, says not a day passes that he does not think of that day's events.

"Americans are wearing a friend's mask and killing us," he said.

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