Analysis: Searching for truth in Afghan massacre

An Afghan delegation walk swith locals after a gathering for a memorial ceremony at Mohammad mosque in Alokozai village of Pajwai district in Kandahar province on March 13, 2012. Gunmen on Tuesday attacked an Afghan memorial service for 16 villagers killed by a US soldier, shooting dead a member of the Afghan military and wounding a policeman in a hail of gunfire. It was the first deadly violence linked to the aftermath of Sunday's killings that the Taliban had vowed to avenge and US officials had warned could lead to a surge in anti-American violence in the war-torn country. AFP PHOTO/ JANGIR (Photo credit should read JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images)

Analysis by CBS News Afghanistan consultant Jere van Dyk

(CBS News) The shooting apparently took place in Panjawaii (as it is spelled on my Afghan map), 15 miles southwest of Kandahar. The city itself (once a quiet, romantic oasis of canals, palm trees and fruit stands piled high, but no longer), is small. But the whole area for miles around is a vast warren of baked, single-story mud homes, and higher houses with holes in the sides, where they dry grapes. In between there are small plots of land, some with trenches where they grow grapes, and there are groves of pomegranate trees, and villages filled with cousins, large clans and tribal loyalty.

A former soldier, Graeme Woods, who has worked in this region, wrote a rather condescending article in The New York Times on Friday explaining how primitive these homes are - in part, it seems, to help explain why the shooter might have felt like he was on another planet, going through his "umpteenth spacewalk," in this "Potemkin village."

While the U.S. has characterized last weekend's massacre as an assault by a lone person, villagers said - and Karzai at least publicly seemed to agree - that they believed more than one shooter took part in the massacre. Karzai said the U.S. Army was impeding the Afghans' investigation.

Now this gets interesting. The West will not believe the Afghans, only the Americans. But be careful.

In 2006, I went up into the mountains where Pat Tillman was killed. I took a video and still cameras, the U.S. Army report (which Tillman's father gave me), and Afghan guides. I went over the terrain twice, in two trips, and read the report carefully. I interviewed every Afghan I could find who was there that day, separately, at different locations, never telling one that I was interviewing the other. Their stories, and the video, were different from the Army's report, especially if one includes what the U.S. soldiers who were with Tillman said.

As Mary Tillman's book "Boots on the Ground by Dusk" and Jon Krakauer's book "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman" have shown, the U.S. Army, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, did not tell the truth, to put it mildly.

Bales probably acted alone, but there may be more to this.

One of the houses has four rooms, a big house. Adults sleep separately from the children, if possible. They, like any couple, want privacy. The father was away. The dirt floors are generally swept clean and can even shine. The families would have slept on narrow wood cots with crossed rope bottoms and thin mattresses, or they slept on thin cushions, on the ground, or on kilims or capets.

The shooter must have dragged them or carried them from their cots, if they slept on them, and put them all together in one room. Karzai said it wasn't possible. I don't know, but how could the soldier do this without worrying about other villagers coming? But then, maybe he didn't care. Would other villagers have cowered in their homes, afraid, or would some have come out?

Yes, Afghans lie, definitely, beautifully, extravagantly. But in my experience they also more often than not tell the truth. We will see.

In my view this case offers two possibilities regarding the villagers: (1) They do not like American soldiers, for so many of them to say that other soldiers were present, meaning that as a rule they are afraid of them; or (2) that they were ashamed over not responding as Afghan men, and thereby let one person massacre their neighbors.

An Afghan delegation walks with locals after a memorial ceremony in Kandahar province, March 13, 2012.
JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images

In traditional Pashtun culture, in war one must protect women and children. It would have taken time, I would think, to move all the bodies, cover them and set them on fire.

In Islam, in Afghanistan, a body must be washed and cleaned when the person enters Paradise. Mohammad Atta washed himself before beginning his mission on 9/11. The bodies were burned, and thus desecrated. The assailant's act, to an Afghan, was thus beyond cruelty. Will those children now never be able to enter Paradise?

I have been told that the Taliban cut off heads (which they learned from al Qaeda) in part so that the victim cannot go to Paradise. The body is not whole. We shall see how the mullahs react.