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Afghan shooter: Chain-of-command failure

More information on the alleged killing of 16 civilians in Afghanistan by a U.S. soldier continues to surface, and the Morning Joe panel wonders how the Army Staff Sergeant was able to leave his base to conduct the shootings. Vanity Fair's Sebastian Junger and MSNBC's Col. Jack Jacobs join the conversation.

At the moment, we know only that a 38-year-old U.S. Army Staff Sergeant left his post and shot to death 16 civilians in Afghanistan, including nine children and three women, and surrendered soon after the incident. Others were wounded and may not survive. The sergeant's wife and children in the United States have been relocated and are under the protection of the American government. 

News of the attacks has spread slowly across the country, but thousands of people took to the streets in the eastern Afghanistan Tuesday to demonstrate against the killings, burning an effigy of President Barack Obama and chanting “Death to American.” 

There have been NATO casualties in the area in the wake of the incident, but most of the American activity is not daily active combat with the enemy, but instead public works projects and the training of Afghans. In this regard, it is telling that the sergeant was able to walk unaccompanied and unmolested to the sites where the civilians were killed.

Protests break out over Afghan shootings

He is in American custody and, pursuant to the agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, will be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This means that a General Officer, probably John Allen, who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will appoint an officer, almost certainly a military lawyer, to investigate the incident. The investigator will interview witnesses and
then make a recommendation to the commander about how to deal with the case.

This process, called an Article 32 Investigation, is the military equivalent of a grand jury, but unlike in a civilian procedure, the accused can be represented by counsel and cross-examine witnesses. The commander can follow the investigator's recommendation or not, as he sees fit, but in this case if the investigating officer recommends a trial by court-martial, you can bet the sergeant will be tried.

The U.S. Army staff sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, comes from a U.S. base with a troubled history. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

There has been much discussion about the fact that the non-commissioned officer was on his fourth trip to Southwest Asia, implying that the stress of repeated deployments may have been the proximate cause of a breakdown that resulted in this tragic violence. While we should not be sanguine about the huge demands we place on our undermanned and overtaxed forces, specious arguments justifying the outburst are easy but dangerous to construct.

Most murderers have not served in the armed forces, and there are many thousands of American troops who have murdered nobody, but have more deployments than this suspect. Coincidence is not causation.

NYT: An Afghan elder comes home to find a massacre

Breakdown in the chain-of-command
What seems most striking about the incident is the failure of this sergeant's chain-of-command. The camp is guarded all the time, and particular attention is always given to security at night, when this soldier departed. There is a sergeant of the relief, supervised by a sergeant of the guard, supervised by an officer of the guard, supervised by an officer of the day and a field officer of the day.

Furthermore, troops live together continuously, often in close quarters, and it is impossible to envision a situation in which nobody had any inkling of his propensity for violence. He worked for another sergeant who worked for a lieutenant or a captain, all of whom lived with him. The investigation will include interviews of his comrades, his leaders and his family. His snail mail, email and social sites will be scoured, and all of it is likely to reveal that his commander either did know, or should have known, that this violence was possible, or even probable, and that this man should have been removed from the unit.

If this sounds familiar, it is because the situation is similar to that of Maj. Nidal Hasan. His supervisors knew that he was unstable and did nothing about it, and in 2009 Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas.

For the moment, the National Command Authority has reiterated its commitment to the mission in Afghanistan, with some withdrawal of conventional troops slated to begin in 2014. But with an increasing number of influential people, including prominent Republicans, convinced that we should withdraw sooner rather than later, it's certain that there is already a plan for an accelerated pull-out beginning in 2013, soon after our national election.

Nevertheless, whether troops are in Afghanistan or the United States or anywhere else, the stringent and vital requirement of good leadership is the same. Being in the uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces is not just another job and indeed is like no other endeavor in the world.

Yes, we ask far too much of brave people who are willing to sacrifice for us, but when their leaders forget or ignore their awesome responsibilities, the result is often tragedy.

Read more from Col. Jack Jacobs

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