How many shooters were involved in the Afghan killing spree?

As you know by now, there was a killing spree in Afghanistan over the weekend in which sixteen Afghan civilians in several villages, including nine children, were murdered in cold blood by at least one U.S. soldier. We covered the story here and here; click for fast background.

Commenter Bubs now points out a discrepancy in reporting the number of shooters involved. Normally these discrepancies mean witnesses see different things (or think they do). This Reuters story, however, paints the situation in an entirely different light.

I call your attention to this (my emphasis and some reparagraphing):

There were conflicting reports of how many shooters were involved, with U.S. officials asserting that a lone soldier was responsible, in contrast to witnesses’ accounts that several U.S. soldiers were present.

Neighbors and relatives of the dead said they had seen a group of U.S. soldiers arrive at their village in Kandahar’s Panjwayi district at about 2 a.m., enter homes and open fire. An Afghan man who said his children were killed in the shooting spree accused soldiers of later burning the bodies. … Afghan officials also gave varying accounts of the number of shooters involved. Karzai’s office released a statement quoting a villager as saying “American soldiers woke my family up and shot them in the face.” …

They (Americans) poured chemicals over their dead bodies and burned them,” Samad told Reuters at the scene. Neighbors said they had awoken to crackling gunfire from American soldiers, who they described as laughing and drunk. “They were all drunk and shooting all over the place,” said neighbor Agha Lala, who visited one of the homes where killings took place. “Their (the victims’) bodies were riddled with bullets.”

American officials, on the other hand, “rejected witness accounts” and called them “flatly wrong.”

Clearly a he said–they said situation, and not to be judged rashly. Nevertheless, it’s telling that all of the eyewitnesses agree with each other, and that at least some Afghan officials agree with the eyewitnesses.

The lone defender of the “lone gunman” theory is the U.S. military, whose record in these matters is not encouraging — see the Pat Tillman cover-up and the Jessica Lynch controversy. The google has lots more where that came from.

Still, I’m not saying that the U.S. official position is wrong. I’m saying that it would be wrong to take them at their word without a full and impartial investigation.

Of special interest will be the soldier’s confession at trial, if indeed he faces the death penalty. If I were him, an offered Lt. Calley–style slap on the wrist might make me go all quiet on any others involved. But if I’m facing death, I’m not sure what the motivation for lying would be.

So watch this, especially if there’s a trial. Will he be given a good defense team? Will his statements be public and transparent, or limited and filtered? Will he be offered reasons to lie, such as lighter sentencing? And most importantly, will Afghan eyewitnesses be given a full opportunity to testify?

Until the evidence is conclusive, the question in the title of this post is open for discussion. How many shooters? We don’t know until someone reconciles these discrepancies.

UPDATE: Great discussion in the comments, including this by Bubs. Thanks, all.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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