A United States soldier stationed in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan left his base on Sunday and allegedly started shooting Afghan civilians in three houses nearby, The New York Times reports. At least 16 Afghan civilians were killed during the shooting, and five others were wounded.
The soldier, a member of the NATO-led coalition stationed in the area, has since been detained. Capt. Justin Brockhoff, the coalition spokesman in Kabul, told The Times the coalition does not yet know why the shooting took place. Although official statements refer to one soldier, Reuters is reporting that the shooting may have been carried out by a group of soldiers.
The incident comes just weeks after the burning of Korans by NATO troops led to protests across Afghanistan in which dozens of people were killed, including six U.S. soldiers.
President Obama was briefed on the incident this morning by meeting senior national security staff, including National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough and Special Assistant to the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan Doug Lute, according to the White House. After the morning briefing, Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to express his condolences. In a statement released by the White House, Obama said he said he supports the military's plan to investigate the matter and hold people accountable.
"I am deeply saddened by the reported killing and wounding of Afghan civilians," Obama said in a statement. "I offer my condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives, and to the people of Afghanistan, who have endured too much violence and suffering. This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan."
The U.S. military has also issued a statement in connection with the Sunday incident, calling it "deeply regrettable," and concerns remain that the shooting could provoke a backlash.
The Deputy Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Lt. Gen. Adrian J. Bradshaw, offered his condolences to the families of those killed in the shooting, but gave no explanation for why the incident occurred. "I wish to convey my profound regrets and dismay at the actions apparently taken by one coalition member in Kandahar province," he wrote, adding that, "I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorized ISAF military activity. He indicated that an investigation was underway and that the person responsible would be "held accountable."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a statement as well on Sunday afternoon, expressing his condolences and reaffirming U.S. commitment to work with Afghanistan to achieve the U.S. mission. In his statement, Panetta said that a suspect was in custody and will be held "fully accountable under the law."
"I condemn such violence and am shocked and saddened that a U.S. service member is alleged to be involved, clearly acting outside his chain of command," he said in the statement. "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."
News of the shooting sent ripples through Washington, including the Sunday talks shows, where guests were sometimes asked to comment on the incident. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, speaking on CNN's State of the Union, said that the incident was "very, very sad."
"Our troops are under such tremendous pressure in Afghanistan; it is like no other war that we've ever been involved in," he said. "But no one can condone or make any suggestion that what he did was right, because it was absolutely wrong."
He said the U.S. in on track to withdraw from Afghanistan, and that "our timetable is pretty good."
Two Governors, one from each party, spoke on NBC's Meet the Press this morning about the shooting.
“It’s tragic,” said Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell. “We have so many brave men and women… They’ve done marvelous work in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Yet one incident like this in the minds of the civilian population, who we're trying to win their hearts and minds as well as the battle against terrorists in Afghanistan can change the equation.”
Democrat Martin O’Malley of Maryland said the incident was just more proof that “It's very important we bring our troops home as soon as possible.”
“I think this latest incident underscores how important it is for us to conclude our involvement in Afghanistan, as we have in Iraq,” he said.
But Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, speaking on Fox News Sunday, said that while his condolences go out to the victims, the U.S. should not completely withdraw from Afghanistan just yet.
"If Afghanistan dissolved into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over or a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an Al-Qaida base for attacks on the United States of America," he said.