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Stress could be to blame for Afghan massacre

The mental state of a US soldier accused of last week's massacre of 16 Afghan villagers is likely to form a crucial part of a case that has severely dented US-Afghanistan relations.

Staff sergeant Robert Bales is the man accused of killing 16 civilians in an attack on Afghan villagers five days ago.
Staff sergeant Robert Bales is the man accused of killing 16 civilians in an attack on Afghan villagers five days ago.

WASHINGTON // The mental state of a US soldier accused of last week's massacre of 16 Afghan villagers is likely to form a crucial part of a case that has severely dented US-Afghanistan relations.

Military prosecutors have begun to prepare the charge sheet against the suspect, who was flown back to the US on Friday. It could take weeks to draft charges and longer to determine whether the case should be referred for a court martial.

The military on Friday identified the suspect as Robert Bales, an army staff sergeant.

Fragile US-Afghanistan relations have been further strained with the killings following US soldiers burning Qurans and a video of soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who is unpopular and in a weak political position, lashed out on Friday at what he said was a lack of US coordination in the investigation.

Mr Karzai and many Afghan leaders want Sgt Bales tried in Afghanistan under Afghan law, not US military procedures. Mr Karzai has described relations as at the "end of the rope".

"The army chief has just reported that the Afghan investigation team did not receive the cooperation that they expected from the United States.

"Therefore these are all questions that we'll be raising and raising very loudly, and raising very clearly," Mr Karzai said, after meeting village elders and relatives of victims of the massacre.

The Afghan president is under domestic pressure to seek the extradition of Sgt Bales.

On Thursday, Afghan lawmakers said Afghanistan should not sign a strategic partnership agreement with the US to govern relations after a planned withdrawal of international troops at the end 2014, unless the soldier is held accountable in Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai had been trying to convince Afghan leaders the country need a continued US military presence after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal of all foreign troops

The US military has not ruled out a trial in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon has so far insisted that the soldier be tried under US military law.

Under a Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) between the US and Afghanistan, the US is under no obligation to hand over the 38-year-old sniper. Sofas are negotiated whenever any foreign troops are deployed to another country.

Sgt Bales's identity had been kept secret for six days out of concern, military officials said, for the safety of his family.

Much had already been learnt about the married father of two, however.

Sgt Bales had served three tours of duty in Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan.

He injured his head when his vehicle turned over in Iraq in 2010 and possibly suffered a concussion. Another injury required the surgical removal of part of a foot, according to his lawyer, John Henry Browne.

Mr Browne described his client as "an exemplary soldier" who joined the military right after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

On the day before the shootings, Mr Browne said, Sgt Bales had seen a fellow soldier lose a leg when a buried mine exploded. He suggested Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) might be a defence.

The symptoms of PTSD can vary from mild depressions, nightmares and insomnia to more severe symptoms like flashbacks, hallucinations, mood swings and increased aggression.

Bridget Cantrell, a mental health expert with the Hearts Towards Home, a non-profit organisation that specialises in helping returning service members deal with PTSD, said that "traumatic brain injuries, [personal] relational aspects and the stress of combat can cause a person to go over the edge".

But it is rarely a successful defence in military court, where defence lawyers struggle to convince judges that a traumatic brain injury or PTSD can make soldiers legally insane at the time of a crime.

Sgt Bales is alleged to have walked more than 1.5 kilometres to shoot 16 people, mostly women and children, some of them as they slept.

He is also understood to have tried to burn 11 of the bodies, before returning to his base where he "basically turned himself in", according to Leon Panetta, the US secretary of defence.

Mr Panetta last week suggested that the death penalty could be sought.

Such a sentence is rare, however. The last execution in a US military case was in 1961 when John A Bennet was hanged for rape and attempted murder.

Charges brought against Nidal Hasan, a US army major who is accused of killing 13 and injuring 32 others during a 2009 shooting spree at an army base in Texas included a recommendation for the death penalty.

 

okarmi@thenational.ae