NAJIBAN, Afghanistan — One month after Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly went on a killing spree here in southern Afghanistan, the saying that "the first casualty of war is truth" continues to hold true in the deaths of eight adults and nine children in the villages of Najiban and Alkozai.
In the days following the attack, in the Panjway district of Kandahar province, confusion reigned as villagers, local officials and officials from the U.S.-led coalition sorted through the grim details of the killings. The conflicting accounts of what happened in the early hours of March 11 are still being pieced together as Bales — whom U.S. officials have called the sole suspect — sits in a U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., awaiting his first court appearance.
What's clear, however, is that the narrative in Afghanistan of the most devastating civilian massacre of the decade-long U.S.-led war was shaped by several Afghan leaders who tried to exploit the massacre for political purposes. It's also clear that a severe trust deficit mars the presence of U.S. forces in an area that American officials not long ago described as under control, and which they view as crucial to Afghanistan's long-term stability.
Many local and international journalists faced challenges in their search for the truth behind the killings. In the fog of information — and with Afghan leaders including President Hamid Karzai under public pressure to respond to the tragedy — there was not only confusion but spin, disinformation and outright lies.
For reporters in Kandahar, news about the killings started trickling in shortly after sunrise that day. "Come quickly," they were told. "There's been a massacre." They grabbed their notebooks and cameras, scrambled for their cars, and headed for Panjway.
Near the district center, a convoy carrying two senior Afghan officials — Haji Agha Lalai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council, and Asadullah Khalid, Afghanistan's minister of tribal and border affairs and formerly governor of Kandahar province — linked up with reporters. Their vehicles roared along a paved road that winds its way past fields and farms, flanked in places by hills and mountains. Soldiers and policemen stood to attention outside the many checkpoints and bases that punctuate the landscape.
Turning onto a dusty road, they came to the small but heavily fortified joint U.S.-Afghan base known as Camp Belambay. A crowd of local villagers sat nearby while Afghan soldiers stood guard at the main gate, nervously cradling their assault rifles.
The officials were ushered inside along with Afghan journalists who'd reached the scene. The dead, who had been shot and in some cases stabbed, lay shrouded in blankets just outside the base.
Khalid and Agha Lalai were shown the bodies. "They were really angry," said one Afghan journalist, who asked not to be identified to protect his job. "They were very upset because the bodies were burnt, the children were burnt. It was a horrible scene."
Khalid called President Karzai to report the news. "Are the media there?" Karzai asked him, according to two Afghan journalists who witnessed the phone call. "Make sure the media know. Make sure they see everything."
A few journalists were taken the short distance to a nearby house at Najiban, where at least 11 of the victims were shot and stabbed. The mood inside was tense. On the way they passed a massive hole in the road. Villagers and Afghan officials have told reporters that this was the site of a homemade bomb blast that struck a U.S. armored vehicle a day or two prior to the slaughter.
They have also said that, prior to the killings, U.S. military personnel had threatened Najiban residents with retaliation for the bomb attack. U.S. officials later said they had no record of either incident.
"We don't have any indication that ... the attack that's being described occurred, and certainly no evidence that there were any threats of retaliation by U.S. soldiers," said a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby.
The discrepancy between the villagers' claim and the response of the U.S. military is just one of many examples of confusion and disagreement that surround the killings.
According to the Afghan journalist, who works for an international news agency, Kandahar's governor, Tooryalai Wesa, originally told local journalists that there were no casualties. Just as inaccurate was a Taliban spokesman's claim that 50 villagers had been killed.
Meanwhile, Afghan government officials in Kandahar warned local journalists against reporting a high number of casualties.
"Sometimes (Afghan) officials downplay incidents," the journalist said, "but we still report the truth."
By the morning of Day Two, the numbers had settled at 16 killed and five wounded — U.S. officials would later charge Bales with 17 murders — but the motive behind the attack was far from clear.
"Why did this happen?" an elder from Panjway asked Agha Lalai in a meeting with villagers at his sprawling Kandahar compound. Agha Lalai couldn't furnish a compelling answer.
"He was drunk," an Afghan army colonel said of the killer. Few looked convinced.
As elders took turns to speak that morning there were varying accounts of the shooting spree. Some said they'd been told only one attacker was involved. Others said they'd heard that there were multiple attackers. One suggested that the shooter was a Republican trying to damage President Barack Obama's re-election chances.
There was silence.
Earlier that day, Shah Wali Karzai — one of President Karzai's brothers and a prominent local figure — seemed distressed but philosophical about the attack.
"You know, there are extremists in every country," Shah Wali, a soft-spoken man who once lived in the U.S., told McClatchy at his home. "There are also Afghans who are killing foreign troops in Afghanistan."
He added: "We have to look at the bigger picture — fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. It would be a tragedy if the foreign forces left."
On Day Three, it was obvious not everyone agreed with this sentiment. In Najiban, Shah Wali Karzai, his brother Qayum, Agha Lalai and Khalid led an official delegation to a memorial service for the victims. After prayers for the deceased, the delegation members rose one by one to speak in the courtyard of a mosque. Villagers who had gathered interrupted them frequently and vociferously.
"We don't want these Americans here," said one local, as U.S. helicopters thundered nearby and jets roared overhead. "We don't want this base."
Moments later, as the dignitaries left the mosque, gunfire and explosions erupted. "Taliban?" asked one reporter, as villagers and security men scrambled for cover. "Yes," said a soldier. "Taliban."
Some of the villagers have insisted that no Taliban are present in the area, and in January Maj. Gen. James Terry, then the commander of coalition forces in the area, told reporters that after intense operations against the Taliban, "we now control the decisive terrain that the insurgents have owned up until this point," including Panjway.
But those claims seemed to evaporate in the lengthy firefight that ensued after the memorial ceremony. One Afghan soldier was killed and four others wounded.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the massacre was the claims by some villagers that a large number of U.S. soldiers took part in the killings. Some have claimed — without evidence — that more than 15 servicemen were involved.
Dutch journalist Bette Dam, who spent a week in Kandahar investigating the killings, told McClatchy that "most of these accounts were coming from people who weren't actually there or from people who were in the area but didn't actually see the attack."
One of the people Dam spoke to who said he'd witnessed the attack admitted his mind was "confused." Another, a woman from Najiban who said her husband was murdered in front of her by a single U.S. soldier, claimed also to have seen a group of Americans outside the house in the dark.
Dam said she did not believe the people she spoke to were intentionally misleading her or had been pressured to give false accounts. Instead, she thinks the locals genuinely believe that there were multiple attackers because they're so accustomed to night raids on their homes by groups of soldiers.
"One villager told me that every house in that area has been searched (by groups of soldiers) more than once," said Dam.
Such is the antagonism and distrust toward U.S. forces that an Afghan soldier based at Belambay who reportedly told investigators he'd seen only one U.S. soldier leave the base that night was described as "brainwashed" by some local members of Parliament who backed the theory of multiple attackers.
A high-ranking Afghan army officer told McClatchy that Afghan investigators have seen a U.S. surveillance video that shows a single soldier leaving and returning to the base alone on the night of the killings. But skeptical Afghans have claimed the video could have been faked.
Given that level of distrust, perhaps no amount of evidence could have convinced skeptics that there was only one attacker.
Some Afghan officials appeared to be guided by political considerations in allowing the "multiple attacker" theory to gain traction. Meeting in the presidential palace with relatives of the victims five days after the killings, Karzai openly questioned the U.S. account of a lone gunman. Pointing to one relative, he said: "In his family, in four rooms people were killed — children and women were killed — and then they were all brought together in one room and then set on fire. That, one man cannot do."
Yet the testimony Karzai relied on was from the same Panjway residents whom McClatchy and others had interviewed — people who had lost relatives but not witnessed the killings firsthand.
An even more incendiary allegation came from a delegation of Afghan parliamentarians who conducted their own inquiry. They said they had found that not only 15 to 20 U.S. soldiers had been involved, but that some of the deceased women had been sexually assaulted.
A group of relatives of the dead issued a press statement vehemently denying the claim and accusing the lawmakers of making it up for political advantage. The lawmakers subsequently appeared to drop the claim.
Last week, Karzai's chief investigator, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Afghan army chief — who had previously told an Australian TV news program that he believed the killer had one or two accomplices — told McClatchy that he had heard testimony from survivors that only one man was involved. Karimi said that this testimony was clear and consistent, and he conceded that a highly trained soldier could have committed the murders alone.
The people of Najiban and Alkozai may never accept this. They've told politicians and reporters that they have years of negative experiences with the U.S. military. They say that repeated night raids in particular have left them alienated, angry and afraid.
Karimi said that even if Bales is convicted as the lone attacker when he faces a court-martial in the U.S., the relatives of the Panjway victims might still suspect a cover-up.
"And even if he's executed, people will say, 'No, the U.S. is lying, they're cheating us. He should be tried here (in Afghanistan).' So, you cannot please (these) people."
(Stephenson, a McClatchy special correspondent, was the first Western journalist to reach the scene of the massacre at Najiban, Afghanistan.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2012