- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The U.S. soldier convicted of massacring 16 Afghan civilians in March 2012 had been on a mix of alcohol, steroids, and sleeping pills while leading troops at a small patrol base in Kandahar, according to a long-awaited military investigative report.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, now serving a life sentence for the murders, also punched and kneed an Afghan truck driver just weeks before his rampage. After that incident, a soldier told investigators the that he “grew concerned” about Bales’s “erratic behavior due to steroid use on a mission,” the report states.
The massacre, one of the bloodiest war crimes to have occurred in either Iraq or Afghanistan, sparked widespread outrage throughout the country and led many Afghans to conclude that more than one U.S. attacker was involved. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the attack was “an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians, and cannot be forgiven,” while Taliban leaders promised revenge and used the attack for propaganda purposes. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the U.S. halted all military operations in the country for several days.
The heavily redacted 560-page report — posted Tuesday on the U.S. Central Command website — offers new evidence that the small combat outpost where Bales and his soldiers were stationed had a lax command climate which tolerated drug and alcohol use. The base, Village Stability Platform Belambai, was run by a team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers. One Special Forces soldier has since been discharged from the Army for providing steroids to Bales, while another received a reprimand for drinking alcohol on the deployment. The soldiers in charge of the outpost were spared any discipline, however.
Bales, who shot 22 people in all, including 17 women and children, was already a veteran of three tours in Iraq by the time his unit was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. Bales had been abusing steroids, sleeping pills, and alcohol during his time at the outpost. In a particularly damning critique of the base’s commanders, the report found that at least some of the steroids had been supplied by the Special Forces team his platoon was deployed with.
The report also includes details of the concerns that Bales’s fellow soldiers from the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, had about his behavior. On a patrol early in the deployment, Bales told his soldiers to “shoot through” an Afghan soldier because “he is not a person,” according to an unnamed soldier quoted in the report. He also told other soldiers that he was not a racist “unless you count Afghanis [sic] and Iraqis,” the report says, quoting another soldier whose name was redacted.
Later, in letters to his family and Army prosecutors, Bales would say that his multiple combat tours had so warped his thinking that he no longer considered Iraqis or Afghans human beings.
In August 2013, a jury at Joint Base Lewis-McChord sentenced Bales to life in prison without parole. In March, the Army rejected a clemency request from Bales.
The command structure that Bales’s unit was working with was somewhat confused, since his brigade had been broken up into small teams and spread out among various Special Forces outposts throughout southern Afghanistan, with Bales’s team landing with a group from the 7th Special Forces Group.
The special operators come under intense criticism in the report, which was authored by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Ricky Waddell. The probe had been ordered just days after the massacre by Marine Gen. John Allen, now retired, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan at the time.
Waddell reported that while he thought most witnesses interviewed for this report were “credible,” he concluded that “certain witnesses” from the Special Forces were “generally uncooperative with the investigation and not forthcoming with their answers.… They hedged on questions that might place the conduct of themselves or their team members in a negative light.”
Photo credit: Mamoon Durrani/AFP/Getty Images