When the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, called for an investigation to determine whether a US soldier who massacred nine Afghan children and seven other civilians had acted alone, he was voicing a question on the lips of most Afghans.
The 38-year-old staff sergeant Robert Bales has been depicted as a mentally strained, “rogue” killer by US and Nato military officials, who have shown Afghan officials surveillance video of his solitary return to base among other evidence that he acted alone.
Among Afghans however there is a widespread belief that the soldier had companions, and perhaps official sanction, on his shooting rampage.
The implication that the US is lying about perhaps the worst military killings in Afghanistan reflects how far a decade of spiralling war has eroded trust between the Nato-led coalition and Afghans.
“In four rooms people were killed, children and women were killed, and then they were all brought together in one room and then put on fire; that one man cannot do,” Karzai told journalists, after hearing from a relative of the worst-affected family who survived because he was away that evening.
The scale of the massacre shocked the West, because although there have been far larger death tolls from air strikes, they have been accepted in foreign troops’ home countries as tragic mistakes.
But for many in Afghanistan, the shooting spree is just the latest in a string of tragic and unnecessary killings by soldiers who have lots of firepower and little accountability, and who usually move in groups.
“This is not like past civilian casualty incidents. This wasn’t a mistake in the heat of battle, the result of poor intelligence, or an indiscriminate reaction. But in Afghan eyes it looks pretty much the same,” said Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer working on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Open Society Institute.
The foreign military’s poor handling of other civilian deaths has made Afghans more likely to believe that there could be some kind of cover-up involved in the account of a lone, rogue gunman, she added.
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