In Afghan killings case, questions over alcohol

By Heidi Vogt

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 16 2012 11:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sunday, March 11, 2012 file photo, Anar Gul gestures to the body of her grandchild, who was allegedly killed by a U.S. service member in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan. U.S. investigators have determined that the suspect had been drinking alcohol prior to leaving the base the night of the attack, a senior U.S. defense official said Friday. How much of a role alcohol played in the attack is still under investigation, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because charges have not yet been filed.

Allauddin Khan, File, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military bans alcohol for its troops in Afghanistan, but that doesn't stop some soldiers from having a bottle or two stowed away in their gear — a fact highlighted by investigators probe into whether alcohol played a role when a U.S. sergeant allegedly carried out a killing spree that left 16 Afghans dead.

U.S. investigators have determined that the suspect had been drinking alcohol prior to leaving the base the night of the attack, a senior U.S. defense official said Friday. How much of a role alcohol played in the attack is still under investigation, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because charges have not yet been filed.

Like many rules in a war zone, the U.S. military's General Order No. 1 forbidding alcohol in both Afghanistan and Iraq is not always followed to the letter. Even in these strictly Muslim countries, there are ways to access liquor. Amid the tight-knit camaraderie of a stressful battlefield, officers sometimes turn a blind eye — or even partake themselves.

In Iraq, booze was easy to come by in Baghdad's Green Zone and on some bases. In Afghanistan, soldiers from many other NATO countries are allowed to imbibe. That means there's some "alcohol spillover" to American troops on large multinational bases. In both countries, foreign contractors dealing with the U.S. military — most of whom were not covered by the order — bring in their own supplies and are a source that soldiers can turn to.

German troops stationed in northern Afghanistan are allowed two beers a day at their main base in northern Afghanistan, but not at smaller camps. In Kabul, one military base that mainly houses European troops boasts two liquor stores.

On Kandahar Air Field, the main international base in southern Afghanistan, Canadian forces used to have regular beer nights before they pulled their forces out this past summer. Each person was limited to two beers and half a bottle of wine.

At these large installations, U.S. soldiers also sometimes manage to get alcohol in packages sent by family and friends, often hidden in other types of bottles.

Finding alcohol is more difficult in more remote areas of the country or on smaller bases, like the one from which the soldier allegedly slipped out to start his shooting spree.

Some rural Afghans make homemade wine out of raisins but in general few Afghans drink — so alcohol would have to be brought in by soldiers or brewed using local ingredients.

A senior U.S. defense official told The Associated Press earlier this week that investigators had found alcohol at the soldier's base, Camp Belambai in Panjwai district. The official spoke anonymously to discuss an ongoing investigation.

The suspect, a 38-year-old staff sergeant whose name has not been released, is said by military officials to have left the base at 3 a.m. on Sunday, walking to two nearby villages where they say he barged into homes and opened fire, killing 16 people, including nine children.

The sergeant's lawyer, Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, disputed reports that a combination of alcohol, stress and domestic issues caused the suspect to snap. He said the family said they were unaware of any drinking problem. He said that a day before the rampage, the soldier — who was on his fourth tour after three tours in Iraq — saw a comrade's leg blown off.

The U.S. military's General Order No. 1 forbids "possessing, consuming, introducing, purchasing, selling, transferring, or manufacturing any alcoholic beverage" in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers found violating the order can face discharge or criminal charges.

War zone deployments have not always been so ascetic, of course. During the Vietnam era, drinking was allowed and both drinking and drug use were common among soldiers. At that time, raucous, alcohol-fueled nights out on the town in Saigon were routine.

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