Cruelty and War in Afghanistan: US Soldier Goes on Trial for 'Kandahar Massacre'

By Guido Mingels

Part 3: A Victim of War?

Photo Gallery: The Killings of Kandahar Photos
AFP

One of the ironies of this case is that the accused -- the alleged perpetrator of a massacre that epitomizes the brutality of war -- is being defended by an avowed opponent of the war, and that the defense strategy is to transform the killer into a victim of war.

For Browne, this trial is the continuation of a different battle. As a young man, Browne was part of the American anti-war movement. He was exempted from the draft because of his height: Men taller than 6 feet 6 inches (198 centimeters) weren't enlisted. "I was too tall to go shoot little people," as Browne puts it. He doesn't see himself as a pacifist, but he opposes the American military involvement in Afghanistan, "as do 70 percent of my fellow Americans at this point," he says. The American public's war weariness is increasing, partly because of events such as the murders in Kandahar.

Not until fairly late in the proceedings did the prosecution add to its list of charges an offense unusual for a murder case: possession and consumption of Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid used by athletes and bodybuilders. The murderer, it appears, may have been on steroids.

"How did my client obtain this substance?" Browne asks. "Is there a medicine cabinet somewhere on the base, where the soldiers can just help themselves?"

If the case goes to trial, Browne wants to make the army's handling of performance-enhancing substances a focus. For years, there have been accusations that US soldiers are drugged up when they go into battle. A 2008 US Department of Defense study found that 2.5 percent of all Army members used illegal steroids. And this year the Los Angeles Times reported that more than 110,000 active soldiers take medications such as anti-depressants, sedatives and amphetamines, prescribed by military doctors.

Emergency Aid

Browne plans to place such findings into the context of the Army's rising suicide rate and the increasing number of cases of soldiers loss of control. He intends to paint a picture of a military force on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Mohammed Wazir lights a cigarette. The brand name is Pine, a Korean product, yet the package reads "American Taste." Just two weeks after the attack, the surviving family members in Kandahar received $50,000 (€39,000) per person killed and $10,000 per person injured, in cash. The money was designated as rapid emergency aid, not as compensation. Wazir received half a million dollars for the 10 blood relatives he lost. An Afghan employee of the BBC was on location and American authorities confirm that the payment was made, but Wazir refuses to admit it in the conversation in Kabul, saying he never received money from the Americans. Anyone who accepts money from the enemy becomes a target for the Taliban.

Tomorrow he will fly to Mecca with three other men, a journey a farmer from Najiban can't normally afford. Because of the pilgrimage, Wazir will likely miss the hearing in Kandahar, but he believes it won't be possible to start without him. Among the men accompanying Wazir to Mecca is his new father-in-law. Two months after Ghamgina Wraz, the sad day, Wazir took a new wife. No music was played at the wedding, he says, and they invited only 100 guests.

March 11, 2012, 3:30 a.m. Just a few meters on after setting out from Camp Belambay, the US Army's search team saw a figure approaching. Security cameras recorded how the man, Bales, wearing an Afghan scarf over his uniform, sank to his knees, lay down his weapons and raised his arms in the air. Five days later he was flown out to Fort Leavenworth.

It will take a long time to bring this case to a conclusion, and some of the reasons are political. The US plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in 2014, but diplomats are negotiating with President Hamid Karzai's government over conditions concerning certain contingents that will remain beyond this date. One important topic under discussion is military jurisprudence. Afghanistan wants the right to prosecute war criminals such as the Kandahar murderer, while the US is unwilling to turn its soldiers over to Afghan courts. A speedy decision from an American military tribunal sentencing Robert Bales to anything less than the death penalty would be received in Kabul as a scandal, and jeopardize the negotiations.

Into the Night

Najiban, 3 a.m. on March 11, 2012, the 21st day of the 12th month of the year 1390. The murderer was finished at Mohammed Wazir's house and no one was left alive. He even shot the dog, and the songbird that Mohammed's wife Zarah kept in a cage died in the smoke from the burning bodies. But the killer's rage wasn't spent. He pounded and kicked at other doors in the village at random, and the door to Mohammed Dawood's house happened to open.

Ten-year-old Hikmatullah, who watched as his father was shot, tells what happened here in the last minutes of the soldier's rampage.

Shouting the word "Taliban" over and over, the killer trampled over the sleeping children, waking Mohammed Dawood and his wife, their two daughters and four sons. The youngest, Hasratullah, less than a year old, lay in a crib. The mother screamed, everyone screamed, the father pled for mercy. The intruder dispatched him with a shot to the head.

The murderer could have continued, shooting more children, more women. He approached the crib and placed the muzzle of his gun in the infant's mouth.

The last time Robert Bales saw his son Bobby before leaving for Afghanistan for the endless war, the boy was about the age of this child.

The killer stopped and disappeared back into the night.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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