The killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier last weekend may have dealt a huge blow to Nato’s strategy in the country but it is also turning the spotlight on to the war-weariness of the US military after more than a decade of operations in Afghanistan.
As popular pressure builds for a swift drawdown on US troops in Afghanistan, the soldier suspected of the killings has hired a lawyer who seems likely to argue that the stress of continued deployments contributed to his actions.
With the prospect of prosecutors seeking a death sentence, the lawyer, John Henry Browne, said the soldier had been told after three tours in Iraq that he would not return to combat, only to be sent to Afghanistan “almost overnight”.
The political pressures swirling around the case will come to a head next week when General John Allen, commander of the Nato forces in Afghanistan, testifies at hearings in the House of Representatives and the Senate, where he will be grilled by critics of the war about why US forces should stay.
The soldier, who was named last night as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, left his base in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar last week, walked to a nearby village and shot 16 residents, nine of them children, US officials said. The soldier was flown on Friday to a military base in the US where he will undergo a physical and psychological evaluation.
In a further indication of complications surrounding the case, Hamid Karzai, Afghan president, said the US had not co-operated fully with the investigation and raised the question of whether there was more than one soldier involved. After meeting family members and elders from the village, he said: “They believe it is not possible for one person to do that.”
In a bid to calm the situation, Barack Obama, the US president, phoned Mr Karzai on Friday morning, the White House said. He reaffirmed US plans to withdraw troops by 2014 from the country.
With disillusionment about the war in Afghanistan increasing in both main US political parties, the state of the military has gained focus this week. For some analysts, the perception of battle-weariness could also be a factor in the Pentagon’s scepticism about military action or intervention in Iran or Syria.
Leon Panetta, defence secretary, who went on a long-scheduled visit to Afghanistan this week, said the Pentagon was keen to find out if the suspect “was on the edge, what kind of group counselling he received, [and to] really try to understand the kind of stress our troops go through”.
Mr Browne said on Thursday that, according to the soldier’s family, the day before the massacre he had seen one of his colleague’s legs being blown off.
“He [the soldier] was told that he was not going to be redeployed, and the family was counting on him not being redeployed,” he said. “He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over and literally overnight that changed.”
While Mr Browne said he did not know whether two injuries the soldier had suffered in Iraq contributed to his state of mind, lawmakers in the US said this week they would raise questions about levels of post-traumatic stress in the military.
“I think we are looking at 10 years of war with some pretty war-weary people,” said Patty Murray, a Democratic senator. “There are some serious questions out there about whether or not we are taking seriously the issue of mental health.”
John McCain, a Republican senator, warned that it was not the right time to pull large numbers of soldiers from Afghanistan.
“If the strategy in Afghanistan fails, then we are going to see the return of the Taliban and the return of al-Qaeda,” the former Republican presidential candidate said. “We should never forget where the attacks on 9/11 began.”
The burdens on the military were heavy, he said but added that “this is what they signed up for”. Today’s situation was “not more difficult than for someone like my father who left for war in December 1941 and did not come back until 1945”.
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