WASHINGTON — A 38-year-old Army staff sergeant could be charged as early as today in the killings of 16 Afghan civilians in southern Kandahar province, a U.S. military official said Monday.
The Army soldier, whose identity wasn't yet being released, is based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, officials said. He was in military custody and was expected to be charged in Kabul.
The staff sergeant had done three tours of duty in Iraq before deploying to Afghanistan, renewing the question of whether the multiple deployments — which have become the norm for U.S. service members over the past decade — contributed to emotional stress that set off the shooting spree, the worst of its kind in the decade-long U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials said that a U.S. soldier killed 16 civilians in the pre-dawn hours Sunday, including three women and nine children. Five more people also were wounded in the shooting at Belandi-Pul village of the Panjway district when the soldier entered homes and opened fire.
While the attack raised fears of a new surge of anti-American violence in Afghanistan, there were no reports Monday of widespread protests or violence. The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, said in a statement that a coalition service member died Monday as "a result of a non-battle related injury in southern Afghanistan," but the circumstances of that death weren't immediately clear.
The shooting spree has cast greater uncertainty on President Barack Obama's strategy to transition U.S. soldiers to a supporting role in the Afghan conflict, and threatens to further worsen relations between ISAF and Afghans, which were already badly strained by the recent burning of Korans and other religious material by U.S. military personnel. That incident, at the U.S.-run Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, sparked a series of demonstrations and attacks on bases belonging to the U.S. coalition that left at least 30 Afghans killed and 100 injured.
Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday to express his condolences and issued a statement saying he "was deeply saddened by the reported killing and wounding of Afghan civilians," calling the incident "tragic and shocking."