Within a short period of time, US soldiers in Afghanistan have burned copies of the Koran, urinated on dead Afghan militants and massacred 16 civilians.The US government is now doing its utmost in damage control.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visibly shaken when she appeared before the press at the United Nations on Monday. Clinton said she was "shocked and saddened" that a US soldier had reportedly killed 16 innocent Afghans, mainly women and children. She expressed her deepest sympathy to the families of the victims and to all Afghan people.
"This is not who we are, and the United States is committed to seeing that those responsible are held accountable," Clinton said following a UN Security Council meeting.
The alleged attacker turned himself in and is now in custody of the US military in Kandahar. According to media reports, the soldier is a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant and married with two children. He served three tours of duty in Iraq and was deployed to Afghanistan for the first time, General John Allen, who commands US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, told CNN.
Putting the pieces together
The media reports allege that the soldier - trained as a sniper - was possibly mentally unstable. A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that during a recent tour of duty in Iraq, the suspect was involved in a vehicle accident and suffered a head injury. He had however been treated.
Allen said the suspect's medical history would be part of the investigation, but did not comment further. However, he did answer queries as to how an armed soldier could escape from his base in the middle of the night undetected. Allen said an Afghan soldier at the outpost where he was stationed spotted the suspect going out around 3 in the morning on Sunday and notified American commanders.
"A search party was being put together immediately," Allen said. "There was a head count done among the American soldiers, recognized that he was missing, unaccounted for. We put together a search party right away and it was as that search party was forming that we began to have indications of the outcome of his departure."
Allen stressed that the attacker was acting on his own. In Afghanistan, however, witnesses have come forward claiming to have seen several soldiers.
More pressure on strained ties
The death of 16 Afghan civilians comes at a time when relations between the US and Afghanistan are at an all-time low. Just a few weeks ago, violent clashes erupted in Afghanistan after US troops burned several copies of the Koran - an error, as the US military stressed. Several US soldiers were killed in apparent retaliation.
"We've had a difficult and complex few weeks in Afghanistan," Clinton said. "That is obvious to everyone." The situation in Afghanistan is tense, but Clinton said the US would not be misled.
"This terrible incident does not change our steadfast dedication to protecting the Afghan people and to doing everything we can to help build a strong and stable Afghanistan," she said.
The danger, however, exists that this shooting rampage and the Koran burnings become ammunition for Taliban propaganda, said Rainer Arnold, defense policy spokesman for Germany's opposition Social Democrats.
"Militant groups are going to use such situations to their benefit and that is why the international community has to do everything in its power to ensure that these things do not occur - even if they are acting on their own," Arnold told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk on Tuesday.
President Barack Obama has reaffirmed the US commitment in Afghanistan despite the killing spree in southern Afghanistan. The US currently has close to 90,000 troops stationed there. Some 22,000 are due to return home by September, with a complete withdrawal aimed for 2014. But support for US involvement in Afghanistan is diminishing. Surveys show that almost 60 percent of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth it. Over half of Americans - 54 percent - said the US should pull out immediately. The candidates vying for the Republican candidacy are also calling for a speedier end to the Afghanistan deployment.
Author: Anna Engelke, Washington / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge