The Panjwai shooting spree (or Kandahar massacre) occurred in the early morning of Sunday, 11 March 2012, when sixteen civilians (nine children, four men, and three women) were murdered and five wounded in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Some corpses were partially burned. The dead included eleven members of one family.

Robert Bales, a United States Army sergeant[2] was taken into custody by U.S. military authorities as the primary suspect. Although this was suspected crime against Afghan law, on 14 March the soldier was moved to Kuwait,[3] and on 16 March he was transferred to the detention facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas[4] and identified as 38-year-old Staff Sergeant Robert Bales from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.[5][6]

The United States authorities say the killings were the act of a single soldier, while some eyewitnesses reported seeing multiple soldiers. On 15 March, an Afghan parliamentary probe team made up of several members of the National Assembly of Afghanistan announced that up to 20 American soldiers were involved in the killings.[1] The team had spent two days in the province on site, interviewing the survivors and collecting evidence.[1]

Afghan authorities have strongly condemned the act, describing it as intentional murder. The American and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) authorities have apologized and promised a thorough and quick investigation. The National Assembly of Afghanistan passed a resolution demanding a public trial which was widely supported by Afghan demonstrations. On 13 March 2012, the U.S. Secretary of Defensesaid the soldier will be tried under U.S. military law. Media reports speculated that the event would harm Afghanistan–United States relations.

Panjwai is the birthplace of the Taliban movement and has traditionally been a stronghold of theirs.[7] It has been an area of heavy fighting and was the focus of a military surge in 2010,[8] which brought a more than two-fold increase in airstrikes, predator drone strikes, insurgent casualties, and a six-fold increase in special forces operations throughout Afghanistan.[9][10][11][12] Fighting in Panjwai and adjacent ZhariArghandab and Kandahar districts was particularly intense, and conflicts between the civilian population and U.S. forces were exacerbated[13] by the wholesale destruction of some villages by American forces,[14][15] mass arrests,[16][17] murder of civilians by rogue units,[18][19] and high casualties from IEDs.[20]

One of the families targeted in the shootings had returned to the area in 2011 after previous being displaced by the surge. Fearing the Taliban but encouraged by the U.S. government, the Army, and the Afghan government, they settled near the American military base because they thought it would to be a safe place to live.[13][21]

Approximately three weeks before the incidents, U.S.–Afghan relations were strained by an incident where copies of the Quran were burnt at the Bagram Air Base.

Allegations of issues at Fort Lewis

The alleged shooter was based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). The medical center at the base is under investigation for downgrading diagnoses of soldiers with PTSD to lesser ailments. Military support groups around the base have alleged that base commanders did not give returning troops sufficient time to recover before sending them on further deployments, and that the base’s medical staff is understaffed and overwhelmed by the numbers of returning veterans with deployment-related medical and psychological trauma.[22][23][24]

Soldiers from the base have been linked to other atrocities and crimes. The 2010 Maywand District murders involved JBLM-based soldiers.[25] Also in 2010, a recently discharged AWOL soldier from JBLM shot a police officer in Salt Lake City.[26] In April 2011, a JBLM soldier killed his wife and 5-year-old son before killing himself.[23] In January 2012, a JBLM soldier murdered a Mount Rainier National Park ranger.[25] In two separate incidents, two otherwise unrelated JBLM soldiers have been charged with waterboarding their children.[23] Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of a veterans resource center near Fort Lewis, said that Kandahar’s killings offer more proof that the base is dysfunctional: “This was not a rogue soldier. JBLM is a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem”, he said in a statement.[27] Base officials responded, saying that the crimes committed by its soldiers were isolated events which don’t “reflect on the work and dedication of all service members.”[28]Robert H. Scales opined that conditions at JBLM were not necessarily an underlying factor in the shootings, instead suggesting that it was the 10 years of constant warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and the repeated deployments required of the US’s overtasked military.[29]


According to official reports, a heavily armed American soldier left combat outpost Camp Belamby at 3:00 a.m. local time wearing night vision goggles.[30][31] The soldier climbed the base’s fence wearing traditional Afghan clothing over his ISAF fatigues.[32][33] The soldier walked one mile, then proceeded to attack three civilian homes in the villages of Balandi[34] and Alkozai, according to an eyewitness.[35][36] Eleven members of the same family were killed in a house in the first village, then their bodies were partially burned.[37][13] Then one more civilian was killed in another house in the same village. Later four members of another family were killed in Alkozai.[37][38] According to a 16-year-old boy who was shot in the leg, the soldier woke up his family members before shooting them.[39]

In total, sixteen people were killed, including nine children, four men, and three women. Five others were injured.[36] Four of the murdered children were sisters between the ages of 2 and 6 and four others were brothers aged between 8 and 12.[13] According to a witness, “he dragged the boys by their hair and shot them in the mouth”.[40] At least three of the child victims were killed by a single shot to the head of each.[37]

The perpetrator burned some of the victims’ bodies, an act that would be considered desecration under Islamic law.[41] Witnesses said that the corpses were shot in the head, stabbed, then the attacker gathered the eleven of those he killed in this home, including four girls younger than 6,[8] into one room and set the bodies on fire.[36][13][42] A pile of ashes lay on the floor of a room in one of the victims’ houses and photographs show at least one child’s body partially charred.[43][44] A reporter for The New York Times inspected the bodies that had been taken to the nearby American military base and confirmed seeing burns on some of the children’s legs and heads.[8]

Surrender and confession

Following the events at Alkozai and Najeeban a U.S. soldier handed himself over into ISAF custody.[37] Afghan forces spotted him leaving his outpost before the massacre and U.S. commanders on base assembled their troops for a head count when it was discovered that the soldier was missing. A patrol was dispatched to find the missing soldier; it did not find him until the soldier turned himself in at the base after the massacre. He was reportedly taken into custody without incident. There were no military operations being conducted in the area at the time.[45]

The surveillance video from the base reportedly shows “the soldier walking up to his base covered in a traditional Afghan shawl. The soldier removes the shawl and lays his weapon on the ground, then raises his arms in surrender.” [33] The video has not been released to the public.

According to U.S. defense officials, upon his return to the base the soldier said three words: “I did it.”[46] Then, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the soldier “told individuals what happened”.[46] Later the shooter retained a lawyer and refused to speak with investigators.[46] The United States flew the alleged shooter out of Afghanistan to Kuwait on 14 March 2012,[3][47] then to the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas on 16 March.[4] A Pentagon spokesman said this was done because of a “legal recommendation”.[48]

The number of assailants

According to the U.S. authorities the attack was conducted by a single individual, U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.[8] The U.S. military showed to Afghan authorities the footage from the surveillance video at the base as proof that there was only one perpetrator of the shootings.[33] The video shows the return of the alleged shooter to the base.[33]

However, John Hudson of the National Journal noted that the U.S. embassy in Kabul seemed to open the possibility that additional accomplices could be involved, issuing a statement saying that “the individual or individuals responsible for this act will be identified and brought to justice.”[30]

According to Reuters, some neighbors and relatives of the dead saw a group of U.S. soldiers arrive at their village at about 2 a.m., enter homes and open fire.[49] “They were all drunk and shooting all over the place,” said neighbor Agha Lala.[49] Some witnesses said that drunk American soldiers were laughing, while shooting.[50] According to The New York Times, one of the survivors from the attacks, Abdul Hadi, and “at least five other villagers” described seeing a number of soldiers, while some other Afghan residents described seeing only one gunman.[8]

On 15 March 2012, an Afghan parliamentary probe team made up of several members of the National Assembly of Afghanistan announced that up to 20 American soldiers were involved in the killings.[1]They had spent two days in the province on site, interviewing the survivors and collecting evidence. One of the members of the probe team, Hamizai Lali, told the following: “We closely examined the site of the incident, talked to the families who lost their beloved ones, the injured people and tribal elders… The villages are one and a half kilometre from the American military base. We are convinced that one soldier cannot kill so many people in two villages within one hour at the same time, and the 16 civilians, most of them children and women, have been killed by the two groups.”[1] Lali asked the Afghan government, the United Nations and the international community to ensure the perpetrators were punished in Afghanistan.

While visiting one of the affected villages, Afgan President Hamid Karzai pointed to one of the villagers and 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.”[51]

Alleged perpetrator

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales at the Fort Irwin National Training Center in August 2011.

The Army alleges that Robert Bales, a 38-year-old United States Army Staff Sergeant stationed at Camp Belambay, was the only person responsible for the shootings.[3] He is married to Ms. Karilyn Bales and has two children, a four year old daughter and a three year old son.[52][53] He was born and grew up inOhio, but then he and most of his family members moved to Lake TappsWashington.[54] He has served in the Army for 11 years[8] and completed three tours to the Iraq War. He was on his first tour in Afghanistan, having arrived there in December 2011. It is unclear if he had any accomplices and there were no reports that he knew any of the victims.[55][56] Bales was assigned to 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2d Infantry Division from Fort Lewis.[57] Bales was a trained sniper serving in a support unit for local special forces units, either U.S. Army Special Forces or U.S. Navy SEALs.[27] The special forces were engaged in a village stability operation.[27] He was assigned to Camp Belambay on 1 February,[7] six weeks before the shooting.[57] Bales was responsible for providing base security.[7] Robert Bales’s lawyer, John Henry Browne, stressed to US media that his client had been upset by seeing a friend’s leg blown off the day before the massacre,[58] but held no animosity toward Muslims.[59] This incident has not been confirmed by the US Army.[60]

According to officials, immediately after being captured, Bales acknowledged the killings, but then, within minutes, asked for an attorney and is refusing to speak with investigators about what motivated his actions.[61][62] According to officials, Bales had been having marital problems since returning from deployment in Iraq in 2010, and before he was sent to Afghanistan.[46] His wife Karilyn Bales wrote on her blog about her disappointment after he was passed over for a promotion to Sergeant First Class (E-7), “after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends.”[53] But Ms. Bales expressed her hopes that the Army might allow the family to choose its next location, and listed her top choices as Germany, Italy, Hawaii, Kentucky, or Georgia, preferring the first two as presenting the most opportunity for “adventures”.[53] Her husband, however, was sent to Aghanistan. The investigation is looking into possibilities that an e-mail about marriage problems might have provoked Bales.[62] The senior American official also said that the sergeant had been drinking alcohol with two other soldiers on the night of the shootings, which was a violation of military rules in combat zones, with the other two soldiers facing disciplinary action.[54] This account was later confirmed by a senior official at the Pentagon.[54] A high-ranking U.S. official told The New York Times: ‘When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues – he just snapped’.[54]

Bales had no history of behavioral problems.[57] In 2010 he suffered a concussion in a car accident.[57][63][54] He went through the advanced TBI treatment at Fort Lewis and was deemed to be fine.[63]He also underwent mental health screening necessary to become a sniper and passed in 2008.[63] He had routine behavioral health screening after that and was cleared, the official said.[63] According to his attorney, Bales lost part of a foot during one of his tours in Iraq.[64] Investigators examining his medical history described his 10-year Army career as “unremarkable” and found no evidence of serious traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress.[62]

Noted Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, who represented serial killer Ted Bundy, will defend Bales, alongside the military lawyers.[52][62] Browne, who was retained by the sergeant’s family members,[54] described the shooter as a “mild-mannered” man and told reporters: “I think the message for the public in general is that he’s one of our boys and they need to treat him fairly.”[52] The lawyer denied that the deadly rampage was caused by alcohol intoxication or marriage problems of his client and said that he was “reluctant to serve”.[52] According to Browne, Bales “did not want to return to frontline” and he “was not under the conditions to serve in Afghanistan.”[65][66] “The government is going to want to blame this on an individual rather than blame it on the war,” he said.[54]Browne said that the sergeant’s wife has “a very good job,” noting that he was being paid, not working on this case pro bono.[54] Bales’ wife and children have been moved from their home at Fort Lewis for their protection in anticipation of the release of the sergeant’s name, the American official said.[54]

According to Gary Solis, an expert on war crimes and the military justice system, an insanity defense is likely: “It’s hard to say whether the case will even go to trial because in war crimes like this it’s very possible that there will be … an insanity defense, that he is unable to recognize the wrongfulness of his act because of a severe mental disease or injury”.[67]

Under the U.S. military legal code, the death penalty is possible but requires personal presidential sign-off.[67][68] Six military members are currently on death row, but none has been executed sincePrivate First Class John A. Bennett was hanged in 1961.[67]

On 16 March, Bales was flown from Kuwait to the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, which is described by the Army officials as a state-of-the-art, medium/minimum custody facility.[3] Bales is being held in special housing in his own cell and is able to go outside the cell “for hygiene and recreational purposes”, according to Army Col. James Hutton, chief of media relations.[3] He will be allowed religious support if he asks for it.[3] As of 16 March 2012, the US military has not formally charged Bales.[52]

The sudden transfer from Kuwait was reportedly caused by a diplomatic uproar with Kuwaiti government, which learned of the sergeant’s move to an American base on Kuwaiti territory only from news reports and not from the U.S. government: “When they learned about it, the Kuwaitis blew a gasket and wanted him out of there,” an unnamed official said.[54]


United States President Barack Obama speaks by phone to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai following the killings.

Reaction from family members and Afghan society

A woman who lost four family members in the incident said, “We don’t know why this foreign soldier came and killed our innocent family members. Either he was drunk or he enjoyed killing civilians.”[69] Abdul Samad, a 60-year old farmer who lost 11 family members, including eight children, spoke about the incident: “I don’t know why they killed them. Our government told us to come back to the village, and then they let the Americans kill us.”[13] One grieving mother, holding a dead baby in her arms, said, “They killed a child, was this child the Taliban? Believe me, I haven’t seen a 2-year-old member of the Taliban yet.”[70]

“I don’t want any compensation. I don’t want money, I don’t want a trip to Mecca, I don’t want a house. I want nothing. But what I absolutely want is the punishment of the Americans. This is my demand, my demand, my demand and my demand,” said one villager, whose brother was killed in the nighttime slaughter.[71]

More than 300 Panjwai locals gathered around the military base to protest the killings. Some brought burned blankets to represent those killed.[8] In one house, an elderly woman screamed: “May God kill the only son of Karzai, so he feels what we feel.”[39] On 13 March, hundreds of university students protested in Afghanistan’s eastern city of Jalalabad,[72] shouting “Death to America – Death to Obama” and burning effigies of the US president and a Christian cross.[72][73] On 15 March about 2,000 people took part in another protest, in the southern province of Zabul.[52]

Reaction from Afghan authorities

The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, called the incident “intentional murder” and stated “this [was] an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven.”[37][38] He told the US that it must pull back its troops from village areas and allow Afghan security forces to take the lead in an effort to reduce civilian deaths.[52] On 16 March Afghan President said the US was not fully co-operating with a probe into the killings.[60] He also said the problem of civilian casualties at the hands of Nato forces “has been going on for too long … It is by all means the end of the rope here”.[71][60] “This form of activity, this behaviour cannot be tolerated. It’s past, past, past the time,” said President Karzai.[60]

A spokesperson for the Afghan Interior Ministry condemned the act “in the strongest possible terms.”[38]

Some elected officials said that they believed the attack was planned, saying one soldier could not have carried out such an act without help.[8][30][74] Other Afghan authorities called for calm, saying the killings were an act of an individual acting alone, not the U.S. Army.[8]

The National Assembly of Afghanistan insisted that the U.S. soldier be put on public trial in Afghanistan: “We seriously demand and expect that the government of the United States punish the culprits and try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan.”[75] It also condemned the killings as “brutal and inhuman” and declared that “people are running out of patience over the ignorance of foreign forces.”[75]

Reaction from U.S. and NATO

U.S. president Barack Obama called the incident “absolutely tragic and heartbreaking” but noted that he was “proud generally” of what US troops accomplished in Afghanistan.[76] Obama said this incident does not represent the “exceptional character” of the American military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.[8] On 13 March, he said, “the United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered. We’re heartbroken over the loss of innocent life. The killing of innocent civilians is outrageous and it’s unacceptable.”[77]

In response to a reporter asking whether the killing of 16 Afghan villagers on Sunday could be likened to the 1968 My Lai massacre of civilians by U.S. forces in South Vietnam, Obama replied, “It’s not comparable. It appeared you had a lone gunman who acted on his own.”[78]

General John R. Allen, commander of the ISAF, issued an apology as well.[55] Adrian Bradshaw, the deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, apologized “I wish to convey my profound regrets and dismay… I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorised ISAF military activity.”[36] A “rapid and thorough” inquiry was promised.[37]

Leon Panetta, the U.S. Secretary of Defense told reporters that the shooting suspect would be brought to justice under the U.S. military legal code.[79] U.S. officials said the killings would not affect their strategies in the area.[45]

Reaction from the Taliban

The Taliban said it would take revenge for the deaths, in an emailed statement to media.[49] The Taliban also accused Afghan security officials of being complicit in the attack.[37] The Taliban called off peace talks in the wake of the deadly rampage.[52] On 13 March, the Taliban launched an attack on an Afghan government delegation which was visiting the site of the massacre, killing one government soldier and injuring three.[80]

Reaction from neighboring countries

Iran denounced the massacre in Afghanistan. Foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters that “crimes” were committed “against innocent women and children” by United States and other NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan.[81] He said the allied forces should leave the region “as soon as possible, in order not to further boost the hate of the region’s people against them.





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