Interviews with survivors, relatives of the civilians massacred in Panjwai on March 11, and with other local residents add new evidence suggesting that the massacre was linked to the response by the US Special Operations Forces (SOF) unit to a roadside bomb that had blown up a US troop carrier three days earlier.
Sgt. Robert Bales, who has been accused of the massacre, was in charge of security for the SOF base at Camp Belambay, and evidence now suggests he may have decided on the killing after learning of an operation in Najiban the night of March 11 aimed at killing a man suspected of being connected with a roadside bomb explosion on March 8.
The brother of one of those killed along with ten other relatives from a single house in the village of Najiban said in an interview with Truthout that the victim had been warned by a US soldier at a checkpoint near the Special Forces camp that the Americans knew his vineyard was very close to where the improvised explosive device (IED) exploded.
That warning suggests that the Green Beret unit at Camp Belambay had checked on the identity of those who owned and worked on land near the site of explosion.
Immediately after the IED exploded, a US military officer threatened to take revenge against civilians, including women and children in the vicinity, if the local population failed to inform troops about another IED explosion, Afghans present at the meeting told Truthout in separate interviews.
Published eyewitness accounts by survivors of the killing of a single individual in another house in Najiban village the night of the massacre indicate that the killer in that instance was accompanied by other US troops at the compound where the murder took place.
Further suggesting a connection between the indiscriminate killing attributed to Bales and an SOF operation that night in the same village is evidence from Afghan guards at the Special Forces camp that a patrol had been sent out that night and that the camp commander had put out a false story on what was known about the movements of Bales.
Bales was assigned to help provide security for the Green Berets, who represented the majority of the few dozen troops at Camp Belambay, and would have been aware of efforts by the SOF unit to determine who was involved in planting the IED on March 8 as well as of who else was aware of those efforts.
Muhammad Wazir, who lost all of his family except for a four-year old son in the March 11 massacre in Najiban village, told Truthout in an interview that his brother, Akhter Muhammad, had been working with him in the vineyard that the two brothers had leased from the owner in the village of Mokhoyan near where the roadside bomb had gone off March 8.
Wazir was away from the village in the days following the IED blast and thus escaped the massacre that took the life of his brother, his brother’s family and the rest of his own family except for his four-year-old son who was with him. But he said that another villager had told him that the day after the IED exploded, Akhter Muhammad had shown his identification card to a US soldier at a checkpoint near Camp Belambay and had been had told by the soldiers that the Americans knew the IED had been planted near his vineyard, according to the account Wazir got from another resident of Najiban.
Other residents of Najiban told him that the warning had frightened his brother, Wazir said.
Two days after that incident, Bales is accused of having gone into the compound where both Wazir and Muhammad lived, along with Wazir’s mother and children and Akhter’s new wife, and methodically murdered Akhter and everyone else in the house.
Wazir’s account of the warning to his brother does not appear to have any political motive. Unlike some other residents, he does not accuse the Americans of killing his brother, as well as his mother, his wife and his six children out of revenge. “I really don’t know if his killing and my family killing was the result of the bomb blast or something else,” Wazir said in the interview.
Pentagon and US military officials have sought to keep any mention of an IED explosion out of media coverage of the Panjwai massacre. On March 21, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby claimed there was “no evidence” of any IED attack in the days prior to the massacre.
However, several residents of the village of Mokhoyan told Truthout in interviews that a bomb definitely exploded under a US armored vehicle in that village near Camp Belambay late in the afternoon of March 8. Some residents said they had seen the crater in the road caused by the bomb.
An Afghan soldier showed an Associated Press reporter the place in the road where the bomb had created a deep crater. Bates himself later told his lawyer, John Henry Browne, that he had been angry because an IED had blown off the leg of a “buddy” two days before his rampage. He was apparently referring to the IED that exploded three days before.
Five eyewitnesses said in separate interviews with Truthout that a US commander had blamed the local population for failing to report the IED, and threatened retaliation against civilians, including women and children, if it happened again.
Within as little as an hour or two after the IED exploded, according to the five eyewitnesses, ten to 15 villagers in Mokhoyan were summoned by US and Afghan troops to a meeting with a US soldier, who was described to Truthout by two eyewitnesses as “a commander.” The men said they were summoned to the meeting from the mosque in the village, where they had been offering evening prayers.
All of the dozen men interviewed for this story were very reluctant to give their names, because of fears concerning all parties – the Taliban, US forces and the government – and especially because of the tense situation after the mass killings of March 11. Most of them insisted that their names not be used.
One villager summoned to the center of the village, who would give only his first name, Eshaqzai, told Truthout he was in his garden irrigating his crop when the bomb went off.
Eshaqzai said he went to the mosque with ten or 15 other residents of the village and, as they finished their prayer, “US soldiers came to take us out of the mosque to where the commander was waiting for us.”
He said he and the other men had to sit on the ground and listen to a US officer, whom he described as a “commander,” speak to them through an Afghan translator for an hour.
“The commander told us that Taliban are in your village and are being supported by you,” said Eshaqzai. “He also mentioned the IED that exploded and asked us why we hadn’t reported the planting of IEDs, because the Taliban let the villagers know whenever they plant the roadside bombs.”
Finally, the commander warned the men that the next time such an event took place, they would face “dire consequences,” Eshaqzai recalled.
One resident, who refused to give his name, said, “The American commander threatened to kill the women and children in retaliation if it happened again.” He said the US officer blamed the residents for providing shelter and food for Taliban. “He told us that he knew Taliban are telling us where they are planting IEDs, so why don’t you support us?” he told Truthout.
The men who were present at the meeting could not identify the rank of the officer they believed was a commander, but one of the men said in an interview that he believed him to be “a commander” because he was accompanied by an Afghan interpreter.
In the case of Camp Belambay, the commander would have been a Special Forces officer at the rank of major or above, according to retired Army intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, who worked with Special Forces units in Afghanistan on covert operations. But a Special Forces detachment with a few dozen soldiers would probably be divided into at least three squads, with each squad leader having his own interpreter, Shaffer told Truthout.
Accounts by survivors of the killing of another Afghan civilian, Mohammad Dawood, in a second home in Najiban in the early morning of March 11 suggest that it was a military operation involving as many as 15 to 20 US troops.
Globalpost’s Bette Dam reported March 23 that Dawood’s wife, Massouma, said she heard helicopters flying overhead when a uniformed soldier entered her home and flashed what she described as a “big, white light,” and yelled, “Taliban! Taliban! Taliban!”
She recalled the solider had a walkie-talkie and was shouting “walkie-talkie, walkie-talkie” into it just before killing her husband. That was an apparent effort to justify killing him, based on rules of engagement that permit shooting an Afghan holding a walkie-talkie as a potential Taliban spotter in certain areas with heavy insurgent presence.
Unlike Bales’ killing spree elsewhere in Najiban, however, the soldier spared the woman and her sons.
After the soldier had killed her husband, Massouma said she had looked through the curtains and saw “at least 20 Americans, with heavy weapons, in the larger family compound, including her bathroom.”
Globalpost reported that an Afghan journalist had spoken with one of her sons, aged seven, who had confirmed having seen a number of US soldiers through the curtains.
The behavior of the killer as well as the reported presence of a larger group of soldiers, appear to rule out Bales as the killer in that incident.
The investigative web site Emptywheel reported March 28 that Department of Defense spokesperson Bill Speaks had checked with the International Security Assistance Force and confirmed that “there were no military operations in those villages the night of the killings.” But in response to a query from Truthout, Brig. Gen. Lewis M. Boone, the director of public affairs for US Forces Afghanistan, qualified that response. “[A]ll operational reports received in the initial aftermath of the incident indicate that the subject acted alone,” Boone wrote. “Furthermore, his actions were not associated with any other operation in the area.”
In a further email, Boone explained that any additional information beyond those initial reports related to the questions of whether Bales acted alone and whether there was a US military operation that night “falls under the purview of the investigation.”
Further indicating a link between the massacre and an SOF operation that night in Najiban are indications of a cover-up of what the camp command knew about Bales’ whereabouts during those early morning hours as well as the location of an SOF patrol from the camp.
A report by Michael Evans of The Times in London, published only two days after the massacre in Panjwai District, claimed that everyone in the camp was ordered out of their beds at 3:05 AM after a camp guard had said there was a man missing. After Bales’ absence was confirmed, a small patrol was sent out to find him, according to that account attributed to an unnamed US military source.
The patrol failed to find him and, instead, Bales returned to the base on his own, according to that initial account.
But Yalda Hakim, an Australian journalist of Afghan descent, interviewed the Afghan guard on duty at Camp Belambay when Bales first arrived back at the base. The guard said it was 1:30 AM when Bales returned, and that he had immediately called the duty officer and told him the American had just entered the base and to notify the foreign forces.
The guard’s testimony suggests that the camp command already knew that Bales had been outside the camp early in the morning, but had done nothing about it. That fact in turn suggests that Bales, who was responsible for camp security, was understood by the camp commander to have some degree of involvement in the military operation planned for that night.
Another guard, who was on duty later that night, told Hakim as well as Afghan investigators that he saw Bales leave the base again at 2:30 AM and, this time, the guard said he called a “patrol,” rather than the duty officer and that the patrol had then called the base commander.
The second guard’s testimony indicates that the “patrol” was already outside the base at the time when the camp commander supposedly demanded a bed check to confirm Bales’ absence. The official account given to The Times less than two days after the massacre that a bed check was ordered just after 3 AM thus appears to represent an effort to cover up the operation under way at that moment.
Those troops may have been headed to Najiban to carry out an operation targeting Mohammad Dawood, perhaps because he was believed to have been linked in some way to the IED explosion.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.