Public Panjwai Massacre Facts

Map made possible by the invaluable on-the-ground Zangabad research of Afghan reporter Mamoon Durrani. Superimposed graphic design by Lela Ahmadzai of 2470Media

Rare map made possible by Afghan reporter Mamoon Durrani‘s invaluable on-site Zangabad research. Superimposed graphic design by Lela Ahmadzai of 2470Media. Click for larger version. *The identities of the victims listed on the still-redacted June 1, 2012 Army Charge Sheet are only known because of a January 17, 2013 Associated Press report that named them.

December 31, 2015

Media requests have forced into public view, since the post below was written, a significant amount of U.S. Army evidence about the Panjwai massacre – albeit in heavily-redacted form, particularly with regard to names. Working with multimedia journalist Lela Ahmadzai, I’ve deciphered and compiled those newly-public documents and photographs into an Army-sourced, 96-page Panjwai Massacre Timeline (PDF), an accompanying 26-page Addendum, and an illustrated online summary.

The Army evidence, when organized for clarity and comprehension – and with key names and identities, where known, replacing redactions – underscores the concerns expressed in the post below. At minimum, the new information finally reveals to the public, far later than need be, concrete details and facts about the night of March 10-11, 2012, which expose contradictions, and failures to investigate, in the work of both the Afghan national police (seemingly the sole source of most casualty information) and the U.S. Army – contradictions and failures that responsible authorities, in the U.S. military, the U.S. Congress, and the centralized government of Afghanistan, would feel, and be, obliged to explain and review.

January 19, 2014

The suspect U.S. Army narrative that dominated media coverage tells us that a single American soldier murdered 16 Afghan citizens – ages 2 to at least 60 (8 children, 4 men, 3 wives, and 1 widow) – in five homes in the Zangabad area of Panjwai district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, between about 12:30 AM and 4:30 AM local time on Sunday, March 11, 2012.

Despite disturbing indications to the contrary (including in sworn testimony), the highest levels of the Army and Pentagon at least imply, and the media’s reporting assumes, that the sixteen murders and six attempted murders charged to that lone soldier – former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant (SSG) Robert Bales – account for every Afghan killed or wounded the night of the Panjwai Massacre.

Without regard for those or other damning discrepancies in the Army’s narrative of the Panjwai Massacre – discrepancies raised, in many cases, by the work of Afghan reporters and photographers, who were the only members of the press at the scene that day – American media outlets apparently continue to simply trust that the Army’s telling the whole truth, even when their own reporting indicates otherwise. The media’s credulous, unquestioning adoption of Pentagon claims is particularly unjustified here in light of the fact that for over two months – from March 23rd through May 31st, 2012 – the Army’s counts against the lone soldier charged indisputably included, though the names of the dead and wounded were concealed, the murders of 17 Afghans; 17 deaths, moreover, that the United Nations claims to have “documented.”

As I hope some new Storify posts – which this page accompanies and is intended to introduce – will help to document, a careful accounting of the seen and unseen evidence in the U.S. Army’s possession seems likely to reveal at least as much conflict in the government’s Panjwai Massacre narrative, as corroboration, when it comes to the Army’s portrayal of Robert Bales as a solitary actor.

Since mid-2012, I’ve highlighted the still-unexplained accounts of ‘ghost’ Panjwai Massacre victims – dead and wounded Afghans described by the media, who we now know were not charged to SSG Bales. One of those ‘ghost’ victims – a wounded man, apparently from “just south” of Camp Belamby, whose “26-year-old” son “Mohammad Zahir” saw him being shot “in the thigh” – is described twice, in almost identical terms, by different Afghan reporters working for two separate media outlets (the Associated Press and the Guardian). Even publicly available visual evidence of one such victim apparently exists: this photograph by an Afghan AFP photographer, published by the Guardian on March 13, 2012, shows an unidentified massacre victim, who may thus be numbered among the thirteen uncharged Panjwai Massacre murders that English-language media reports collectively describe – beyond the 16 now-named dead the Army has acknowledged. (For descriptions of the 13 victims, see the media reports excerpted below the gray casualty box in my July, 2012 post.) I’d like to think that the Army continues to investigate this horrific war crime, given eyebrow-raising stipulated facts like these – part of the limited evidence made public by media reports from two Bales court-martial evidence hearings – but the carefully controlled, high-level Army spin about this massacre seems designed instead to quickly suppress uncomfortable questions.

In early November, 2012, the first semi-public massacre testimony – no audio; no video; limited courtroom seating; live-tweeting allowed from a media overflow room, but not from the courtroom itself; no public transcripts of the proceedings – was delivered at a so-called Article 32 pre-trial hearing in the case against SSG Bales, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) near Seattle, Washington. [Article 32 hearings (reformed with little public debate late in 2013 by Congress; an important 2014 critique here {Added 3/2015}) are a mandatory part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) process governing military courts-martial – which are conducted within the Executive Branch of government, beyond the purview of our independent federal Judicial Branch courts until the latter stages of appeal.] The November 5-13 Bales Article 32 hearing – presided over by Army Reserve Colonel (and federal prosecutor) Investigating Officer William “Lee” Deneke – included four days of testimony by American witnesses, followed by three late nights of remote testimony by Afghans (over video link from a U.S. military base in Kandahar city, Afghanistan), and then a day of closing arguments.

In this June, 2013 post, I compiled all pertinent newspaper reporting I could find about the sworn evidence given (before and after midnight, Pacific Time) by the eleven Afghan family members (9 prosecution witnesses; 2 young defense witnesses) who testified by video link from Afghanistan at November’s Article 32 hearing; also included, in a Timeline, are pertinent reports of sworn Article 32 testimony about that night given by American and Afghan soldiers.

In mid-December, 2012, based on the recommendation of Article 32 Investigating Officer Lee Deneke in his unreleased (non-public) report of investigation (encompassing facts gathered through the hearing process), the Army “Convening Authority” commander (Colonel Kenneth Kamper? Lieutenant General Curtis M. Scaparrotti?) referred the June 1, 2012 charges against Robert Bales for trial by general court-martial. SSG Bales was then formally arraigned (1, 2, 3) on Thursday, January 17, 2013 (just over a year ago) before Army Judge Colonel Jeffery R. Nance.

In mid-2013, with his court-martial trial then tentatively scheduled to begin (over the protests of the defense) on September 3rd (a year and a half after the massacre), SSG Bales received an unexpected offer from Army prosecutors (“We never thought we’d get there,” said his attorney): In exchange for Bales admitting – for the first time – his participation in the Panjwai, Kandahar Massacre, the U.S. Army agreed to drop its long-planned effort to sentence Bales, if convicted, to death. Bales accepted that offer, and, in a JBLM military courtroom on June 5, 2013, Bales pleaded guilty, without apology or explanation, to all but one of the charges listed on his June 1, 2012 Charge Sheet – a guilty plea that resulted in a mandatory life-sentence in prison.

The Army thus avoided a court-martial trial – which would have provided the first serious test of its Panjwai Massacre evidence (the identities of the victims and the circumstances of the massacre effectively ceased being investigated by the media almost immediately after SSG Bales was first charged in late March, 2012, 12 days after the massacre) – and instead held a sentencing hearing, presided over by Judge Colonel Jeffery Nance, in late August, 2013, so that a military jury could decide whether Bales would ever be eligible for parole.

[Update, 2/21/14: On July 3rd, 2012 – after the second (June 1, 2012) Bales Charge Sheet was issued – I (First) Corps Commanding General LTG Curtis “Mike” Scaparrotti was replaced by LTG Robert B. Brown. LTG Brown was thus the court-martial convening authority during the Bales Article 32 hearing, plea bargain, and sentencing hearing. However, as I learned from some important February, 2014 reporting, Brown did not take “final action” to accept or finalize the Bales sentence before he relinquished his 20-month I Corps command to LTG Stephen R. Lanza on February 6, 2014. As the Tacoma News Tribune and Seattle public radio station KUOW report, the Army said in February that the military jury’s August, 2013 Bales sentence, supporting evidence from the 2,800-page Army investigation, and any appeals for clemency, may continue to be reviewed by the Bales court-martial convening authority into April, 2014.]

Separated by hearing phase, in seven Storify posts – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (still-valid archived links added 6/2019: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7); see recommended slideshow-formatted links below (likewise changed to archived links in June, 2019, a year after ceased operating) – I’ve now compiled the live tweets of reporters who attended that August 20-23, 2013 SSG Bales sentencing hearing. As with the Article 32 hearing in November, 2012, the only public record of the evidence presented at the 4-day Bales sentencing hearing (and earlier preparatory hearings) is the reporting of journalists who watched the hearing from the JBLM courtroom (no tweeting), or media overflow room (tweeting allowed).

[Update, 2/21/14: To its great credit, the Tacoma News Tribune submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Army for its 2,800-page Panjwai Massacre investigation, Adam Ashton reported in February. Two other laudable FOIA requests – submitted after the August, 2013 Bales sentencing by the Tacoma News Tribune and Seattle public radio station KUOW – requested the command climate investigation that General John Allen ordered within weeks of the March, 2012 massacre. Those command climate FOIA requests were both denied in early February, 2014, during the same week in which command of the Army corps that convened the Bales court-martial changed hands. To their further credit, both The News Tribune and KUOW report that they are appealing the denial of their FOIA request(s) by U.S. Central Command chief of staff Major General Michael Garrett.

Further Update, 2/28/2015: A redacted version of the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) investigation of the March, 2012 murders was released by an Army agency to The Tacoma News Tribune (TNT) in June, 2014, ten months after being requested under the FOIAct (three other Army agencies had declined to release it). So far there’s been no public release of the CID investigation document(s) – said to consist of 1,5003,000 pages – by TNT, but on July 5, 2014 TNT reporter Adam Ashton summarized the contents of the released material in four articles (1, 2, 3, 4). Also published that day by TNT were 23 significant photographs from the CID investigation – including photos of a bearded Bales, immediately after the massacre, his helmet, green t-shirt, gloves, rifle, pistol, grenade launcher, AN/PVS-14 night-vision scope, and five views from Camp Belamby, aka Village Stability Platform (VSP) Belambay. A few rare photographs of the rooms where the murders occurred (at least south of Belamby) were also included, and can now be found linked in proper context elsewhere in related posts. (Separately, on July 14, 2014, the Army Medical Command denied a TNT request under the FOIAct for the medical records of Robert Bales. Ironically, that turned out to be the same day that the Washington Post published a story about the Panjwai district that included some photographs taken during the first visit – in June, 2014, two years after the fact – by any of its reporters to the scene(s) of the Panjwai Massacre, or to the former Camp Belamby. Though evidently having found, photographed, and spoken to a previously unknown male neighbor living “a few yards” from one of the targeted homes – “Aktar Mohammad,” apparently a next-door neighbor of the murdered Mohammad Wazir family – no mention is made by reporter Kevin Sieff of what that neighbor saw or heard, if anything, the night of the massacre.) With regard to the “command climate” report that both The News Tribune and radio station KUOW had requested under the Freedom of Information Act, there have apparently been no further public developments about its release – or about the status of Convening Authority LTG Stephen Lanza’s delayed review of the Bales life sentence – since Adam Ashton’s June 1, 2014 overview of its delay and his September 2, 2014 update.]

The evidence presented to the military jury at August’s sentencing hearing was evidently delivered in a compressed manner, particularly by Army prosecutors led by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph “Jay” Morse, preventing reporters from writing thorough accounts of each phase of evidence as it was rapidly presented. [Update, 3/30/14: LTC Morse was reportedly suspended in February, 2014, pending investigation of an unrelated allegation. Further Update, 2/28/2015: After some controversy, in late June, 2014, Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan, commander of the Military District of Washington, reportedly issued a formal letter of reprimand to LTC Jay Morse for unspecified misconduct. Morse was then relieved of his duties as supervisor of the Army’s special-victim prosecutors, and temporarily assigned to the Pentagon pending his planned retirement from the Army.] For example, a pivotal 32-page stipulation of facts about the massacre – facts undisputed by both the defense and the prosecution – was presented for the first time and read aloud (for an hour and a half) on the first day of the hearing, as soon as a jury was seated. Immediately following that reading, the prosecution (alone) quickly questioned seven of the nine Afghan witnesses the Army brought to JBLM to testify (this time in person; all but one of the nine Afghans had also testified, at greater length, by video link at the Article 32 hearing). Thus the live tweets – compiled by hearing phase in the new Storify posts – I think manage to capture more of the detail of the dramatic, unrecorded proceedings, than do the same-day newspaper and television summaries of the compressed testimony, as recapped by reporters from memory or hasty notes after a long day or week.

Interspersed with the live tweets of reporters in the Storify posts linked below, I’ve included explanatory details to add context, highlight conflicts in the evidence, and to try to bring to the fore the suppressed Afghan account of the Panjwai Massacre. I believe it’s clear that sworn Panjwai Massacre testimony that the Army itself has elicited, from both American and Afghan witnesses, in its two semi-public UCMJ evidence hearings in the Bales case, raises grave, credible questions – unanswered by the Bales guilty plea – about the Army’s media-relayed narrative of what happened in the vicinity of FOB Zangabad that night. (FOB Zangabad is a forward fire, or operating, base that was “carved out of an empty field” by the Canadian military, apparently in 2010, turned over to U.S. forces June 19, 2011, and formally transferred to the Afghan National Army on November 23, 2013.)

As noted above, those questions begin, but don’t end, with the inexcusably unreported and unexplained mystery of who, exactly, murdered the other 13 Panjwai Massacre victims the media itself described at the time. Thirteen Afghan victims whose family-described murders – as has been quite clear since January, 2013, when all the names on the redacted June 1, 2012 Bales Charge Sheet were first revealed by the Associated Pressdo not match the 16 (previously 17) Panjwai Massacre murders publicly acknowledged by the U.S. Army.


Archived Storify Slideshow Links

Kandahar Mass Murder Plea Bargain Sentencing Hearing, As Tweeted:
Pre-Hearing Arguments & Jury Selection

Kandahar Mass Murder Plea Bargain Sentencing Hearing, As Tweeted:
Stipulated Panjwai Massacre Facts

Kandahar Mass Murder Plea Bargain Sentencing Hearing, As Tweeted:
The Prosecution

Kandahar Mass Murder Plea Bargain Sentencing Hearing, As Tweeted:
The Defense

Kandahar Mass Murder Plea Bargain Sentencing Hearing, As Tweeted:
Closing Arguments

Kandahar Mass Murder Plea Bargain Sentencing Hearing, As Tweeted:
Military Jury Sentences Robert Bales

Kandahar Mass Murder Plea Bargain Sentencing Hearing, As Tweeted:
Afghans Speak To Media At JBLM


As the map above, and many of the details here and elsewhere indicate, I am deeply indebted to Afghan reporter Mamoon Durrani of Kandahar for his invaluable assistance in clarifying facts about the massacre, and for asking its survivors follow-up questions. Mamoon’s kindness and generosity – and great skill as a photographer – have been a gift to all. I’ve learned other important massacre details thanks to the justice-focused work of Afghanistan-born multimedia journalist Lela Ahmadzai of Germany, who worked overtime to obtain important interviews in Kabul with several male massacre survivors – using her trilingual skills to successfully bridge the wide gap between rural Afghan culture and modern German media on a very difficult subject. Lela’s newly honored, aptly named “Silent Night” video documentary about the massacre is not to be missed. Finally, I would likely never have written my first post about the massacre, if not for the groundbreaking early coverage of the Panjwai Massacre by Australia’s Afghanistan-born Yalda Hakim.

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