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Battlefield Stress Could Have Triggered Afghan Massacre

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Mamoon Durrani/AFP/Getty Images

An Afghan villager points to a spot where a family was allegedly shot in their residence by a rogue U.S. soldier in Alkozai village of Panjwayi district, Kandahar province, on Sunday

The homeland of the Taliban, where Sunday’s apparent civilian massacre took place, is a “pressure cooker” for U.S. troops assigned there. Their nearly daily contact with bloodshed could push an unstable soldier to lash out by killing innocent Afghans, says an Army psychiatrist just back from an assignment near where the killings took place. The Army psychiatrist, who declined to be named, spoke of the 38-year old U.S. Army staff sergeant from Washington state’s Fort Lewis who allegedly left his base and killed 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, early Sunday outside Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

“There’s a lot of death,” says the Army psychiatrist, “and all the Americans there are under a lot of stress. The whole region – it’s the birthplace of the Taliban – is a very dangerous area,” he adds. “If the soldier was going out on patrol, he probably was attacked pretty much every day. If he stayed on the FOB [Forward Operating Base], he was probably being shelled regularly.” The increased killing of U.S. troops by their purported Afghan allies in recent months – and the recent spike in such killings after U.S. troops allegedly mistakenly burned Korans – had already blurred one line of war: you don’t kill your comrades in arms. Sunday’s horrific attack obliterated another: innocent civilians are not war trophies.

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Almost by definition, the Army doctor says, any American who left the confines of his post in the region in the middle of the night by himself was “crazy.”

Getting off post alone isn’t that difficult, Army officers say. “You can talk yourself past U.S. troops manning the inner perimeter,” one says, “and the outer perimeter is done by the Afghans, and you can get by them by telling them what you’re doing is part of your mission.”

“No one would leave their post unaccompanied at night in that part of Afghanistan, and to do so indicates instability,” the psychiatrist says. “It suggests someone is highly irrational.”

The Army’s former top psychiatrist agrees. “That the soldier purportedly left the base alone in the early morning hours in a lethal combat zone, killed unarmed women and children, burned the bodies, and then returned to the base, suggests to me a psychotic process,” says Elspeth “Cam” Ritchie, now a Battleland contributor. “This is crazy — no one in their right mind would do this.”

(MORE: U.S. Afghan Mission Imperiled as Soldier Accused of Killing 16 Civilians)

But the Afghans aren’t buying. “When the Americans are killing civilians intentionally, this is called terror and it is an unforgivable act,” President Hamid Karzai said in language that U.S. officials fear is a green light for revenge. Hoping to stem the retribution, President Obama called Karzai to express his “shock and sadness” and to declare Washington’s goal to “hold fully accountable anyone responsible.”

Top U.S. officers in Afghanistan respect the Afghan people, the Army psychiatrist recently in Afghanistan says, but he says that dwindles as you go down the ranks. “The pressure cooker that’s there can push someone with an underlying mental issue into psychosis” – a loss of reality, the Army doctor says. “He could have figured he was protecting his family by doing what he did.”

Early signs suggest that the repeated killings of U.S. troops had become too much for one of their own, who apparently tried to exact his own perverse revenge, Pentagon officials theorize.

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Does it represent a turning point? It surely bruises, if not breaks, the trust necessary for the U.S. to continue its mission of training enough Afghan security forces to let the U.S. leave by 2015.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the slaughter would not deter the U.S. from achieving its goal in Afghanistan. “This tragic incident does not reflect the commitment of the U.S. military to protect the Afghan people and help build a strong and stable Afghanistan,” he said in a statement. “As we mourn today with the Afghan people, we are steadfast in our resolve to work hand in hand with our Afghan partners to accomplish the missions and goals on which we have been working together for so long.”

But others disagree. “This is a fatal hammer blow on the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan,” says David Cortright, a Vietnam-era Army veteran and director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “Whatever sliver of trust and credibility we might have had following the burnings of the Koran is now gone.”

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