The U.S. soldier who allegedly shot and killed at least 16 Afghan civilians has been flown out of the country, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
The staff sergeant was taken to a non-European country other than the U.S., the spokesman, Navy Captain John Kirby, said yesterday. While he declined to name the location, the Associated Press, citing an unnamed U.S. official, said the destination was Kuwait.
The soldier, whose name hasn’t been disclosed, was moved “because we don’t have the type of detention facility in Afghanistan to hold a U.S. service member for any length of time,” Kirby said in an interview. “The detention facilities in Afghanistan are intended for enemy combatants. Our own regulations and policies don’t allow us to keep a U.S. service member there.”
The Afghan civilians, including women and children, were killed March 11 in attacks on two villages that threaten to further erode already tense U.S.-Afghan relations, drain remaining U.S. and European support for the war and add pressure to speed troop withdrawals ahead of a security handover now set for 2014.
The suspect had been confined to a small outpost that lacks a detention facility since the shootings, Kirby said.
The Army Criminal Investigative Command is probing the killings and seeking a motive. The soldier hasn’t yet been charged, according to a U.S. official.
The suspect is 38 years old and is married with two children, according to a second U.S. official familiar with the case. He was deployed to Afghanistan in December after having previously served three tours of duty in Iraq, the official said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the attacks remain under investigation.
In Washington, President Barack Obama touched on the shootings yesterday, saying the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan will continue with plans to hand over security responsibility to Afghan forces and finish the mission NATO set out.
“The tragic events of recent days are a reminder that this continues to be a very difficult mission,” Obama said at a news conference with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who was in Washington for an official visit. “We’re going to complete this mission and we’re going to do it responsibly.”
Cameron said, “We will not give up on this mission, because Afghanistan must never again be a safe haven for al- Qaeda to launch attacks against us.”
Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, who leads day-to-day operations in Afghanistan, told reporters traveling with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today in Kabul that he has raised his assessment of Afghanistan’s security.
U.S. military officials previously have described the situation as fragile. “I don’t see it as fragile,” Scaparrotti said. The Afghan army and police “have stepped up” and governance has improved, allowing Afghans to see a degree of normalcy that’s “harder to reverse,” he said.
The Taliban’s ability to find sanctuary in Pakistan remains “the greatest threat to the campaign’s success,” said Scaparrotti, who previously served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 as commander of the eastern region, with its mountainous and porous border with Pakistan.
Visiting the U.S. Marine Corps’s Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan yesterday, Panetta also invoked the al- Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in response to a soldier who asked how he should explain his deployment to his wife and three children.
“The reason you’re here is to make damn sure that never happens again,” Panetta said. “Is there still a threat? You bet there’s still a threat.”
Today, Panetta met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is pressing the U.S. military to end its practice of nighttime raids on homes to capture militants. Karzai came into the meeting having just negotiated an agreement for the U.S. to hand over detention facilities to Afghan control, with the Americans holding veto power over releases for a limited time.
Panetta said he assured Karzai that the U.S. would bring the soldier suspected in the shootings to justice in a “transparent process” and that it was important not to allow frustrations to undermine the main goal of securing Afghanistan.
“If we do anything precipitous to back away from that, that in my mind could very well jeopardize our mission,” Panetta told reporters.
He said he’s confident the U.S. and Afghanistan will reach an agreement on the night raids and an overall pact for a long- term partnership after U.S. forces withdraw in 2014.
Most night raids already are led by Afghans and the practice is critical to ensuring security, Marine Major General Charles “Mark” Gurganus told reporters traveling with Panetta.
“I don’t know how much more accommodating we can be,” said Gurganus, NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force commander for the area that covers Helmand Province. Night raids probably will lessen over time as the Afghan police become more effective and military action is needed less, he said.
Obama has ordered the first 33,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of September, leaving 68,000 behind, and other nations are starting to exit as well. Obama said the next stage in the transition to Afghan control will be determined when North Atlantic Treaty Organization members meet in May in Chicago.
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