The Army staff sergeant held in the killing of 16 Afghan civilians initially told other soldiers that he had shot several Afghan men outside a U.S. combat outpost in southern Afghanistan on March 11, but did not mention that a dozen women and children were among the dead, according to a senior U.S. official briefed on the case.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales had “indicated to his buddies that he had taken out some military-aged males,” the senior official told The Times. Soldiers frequently use that term to denote insurgents.
But Bales’ account, suggesting he had a legitimate military purpose for an unauthorized foray off base in the middle of the night, apparently unraveled when base commanders began learning the grisly details of the massacre of the Afghan civilians in their homes.
At that point, the 38-year-old Army veteran was taken into custody. Bales refused to talk further and soon asked to speak to a lawyer, two officials said.
This new description of events contradicts widely published reports suggesting that Bales had confessed to the shooting rampage after he returned to base.
The officials stopped short of calling Bales’ initial statement a confession, and it has not been revealed whether he later gave officers at Combat Outpost Belamby, a small special forces base in the Panjwayi district, a fuller account of his actions that night.
The soldiers were operating in a region riddled with mistrust because American attempts to dislodge the Taliban have created a climate of hostility, many residents say.
A U.S. official said the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command is “looking closely at his story that he had killed some people” in an effort to determine whether Bales made incriminating statements, even if he did not confess.
Bales’ comments could prove critical for Army prosecutors if they can show in court that he was aware of his actions, and thus could be held legally responsible for them.
Bales’ defense lawyer, John Henry Browne, has told CBS News that he will not mount an insanity defense but will argue that his client suffered from “diminished capacity,” such as an emotional breakdown.
Pentagon officials may be seeking to undermine Browne’s contention that Bales remembered little of what happened after he slipped out of the combat post about 3 a.m.
Browne said Bales “has an early memory of that evening and he has a later memory of that, but he doesn’t have memory of the evening in between.”
According to U.S. officials, Bales had been drinking before he allegedly went to two nearby villages and moved house to house, shooting the families inside.
The previous week apparently had been difficult for Bales. A bomb hidden near the base had blown off the leg of a soldier whom Bales knew, Browne said.
Afghans living in the area, meanwhile, described relations between residents and American troops as tense and often hostile.
An Afghan elder who lives in Zangawat, a village near the base, said U.S. soldiers threatened residents with retaliation after an American vehicle hit a buried bomb three days before the shootings. That apparently was the same bombing cited by Bales’ attorney.
U.S. soldiers “took people out of their houses and threatened them,” Sayed Mohammad Azim Agha, the tribal elder, said in an interview.
“They said, ‘If there are IEDs, you will bear the consequences,’” he said, using the acronym for “improvised explosive device.”
It could not be determined whether Bales was a member of the team that responded to the bombing. Browne said Bales did not witness the explosion but saw the aftermath.
Bales is being held in solitary confinement in an Army prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. The Army is expected to bring formal charges against him this week.
Charges have not yet been filed because the Army is trying to make its case as complete as possible to avoid criticism about the thoroughness of the investigation, said officials who asked not to be identified as discussing an ongoing criminal investigation.
Bales and a squad of other soldiers were providing security for a special forces unit at the base near Kandahar. The so-called village security operation sought to recruit local Afghans to guard their villages. The Americans also helped build roads and other small-scale projects aimed at turning villagers against the Taliban.
Haji Mohammad Noor, head of the Panjwayi district council, said Western troops had built a gravel road and a medical clinic for civilians close to the outpost.
“The Americans did regular patrols around all the villages in the Panjwayi district, and about once or twice a month they would come talk to villagers and ask about their problems,” he said in an interview.
But some Afghans were afraid of the troops.
“As we understand it, the special forces have the power to do whatever they want, such as conducting operations and arresting people,” Noor said.
Other Afghans were angry about what they described as destruction of houses and farm fields, apparently meant to deprive Taliban fighters of cover. “They bulldozed orchards, and that made people angry,” Noor said.
And although many insurgents were driven away over the last two years, the Taliban still maintains a presence.
“They place roadside bombs to target the Americans,” Noor said. “The Taliban leave the villages at night in case of a night raid, but they come back in the daytime and hang around. People don’t want the Americans in the villages; they want Afghan forces instead.”
Azim, the tribal elder from Zangawat, said U.S. troops aggressively hunted the insurgents.
“They often came into the villages in search of the Taliban,” he said. “They would do house raids, and they destroyed infrastructure: bridges, culverts, irrigation channels.”
Even so, he said, the Americans did not stop the Taliban from moving freely in parts of the district.
“The Taliban are there all the time,” Azim said. “They do operations; they are out in remote areas on their motorbikes. Our people have been facing lots of trouble from them and from the soldiers.”
Cloud reported from Washington and King from Kabul.