WASHINGTON — As military officials investigate the killing of 17 Afghan villagers, they are closely examining the command climate and other potential contributing factors, not just the actions of the Army staff sergeant who has been charged with the crime, the top commander in Afghanistan said Monday.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is charged with 17 counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder and six counts of assault.
Marine Gen. John Allen stressed that though a handful of recent high-profile incidents — including Quran burnings and apparent desecration of Afghan corpses — were all “the result of a leadership failure of some form,” he believes the majority of noncommissioned officers, staff NCOs and young officers are “extraordinarily well-trained.”
“Repeated tours in Afghanistan, and prior to that, in Iraq, don’t inherently reduce the effectiveness of the force or reduce the effectiveness of small-unit leadership,” Allen said. “I’m confident the institution is solid.”
While declining to offer specifics, Allen said investigators in the Bales case will look at factors that may have contributed to the massacre.
“We’re investigating this very thoroughly,” he said.
Allen also addressed the recent surge in “green-on-blue” violence against U.S. and coalition troops, including an incident Monday in which an Afghan soldier killed two British troops in the southern Helmand province. He said the attacks are primarily carried out by rebellious Afghan security forces, not disguised Taliban.
So far this year, 15 foreign troops have been killed by Afghan partners, nearly one-fourth of total combat deaths.
Such violence has historically proven to be common during counterinsurgencies, Allen said, adding that “we should expect that this is going to occur.”
Following up on his congressional testimony last week, Allen said he had no preconceptions about the pace of the drawdown that will follow the withdrawal of over 20,000 U.S. surge forces, scheduled for completion in September.
Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that fighting in 2013 would require “significant combat power” and called 68,000 troops — the number of U.S. troops that will be in the country once surge forces are gone — a “good going-in number.”
But whether he actually recommends keeping the 68,000 troops in the country or continuing the drawdown would depend on factors including the state of the insurgency and the capability of Afghan forces. He said he would deliver recommendations on the remaining force size after an analysis late this year.
“I said I believed that power would need to be significant, but I did not say that it will need to rest at any certain level throughout this year or 2013,” he said. “The truth is there is no way I can know that right now.”