GUY RAZ, HOST:
Let's now turn to news overseas and a story we've been following today out of Afghanistan. An American soldier is in custody after allegedly walking out of a military base in southern Afghanistan and opening fire on nearby houses. At least 16 people, including several children, were shot. Now, just a few hours ago, the acting American ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, spoke about the incident.
JAMES CUNNINGHAM: We're saddened by this violent act against our Afghan friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and their entire community. U.S. forces are providing the highest level of care for those injured. We are still attempting to ascertain the facts. The incident is under investigation, and a United States service member has been detained.
RAZ: Here with more details on this still-breaking news story is NPR's Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence. And, Quil, what more are you learning about what happened?
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: I feel like we almost know less for sure now than we did earlier. As you said, the original U.S. statement implied that there was one soldier who walked off a base late at night, carried out what appears to be a massacre of unarmed Afghan civilians, and then returned to that base and turned himself in. Now we've had witness reports saying that it was a group of soldiers, that it may have happened in more than one village.
A NATO spokesman here told me they have one suspect in custody, but he just said they're investigating when I asked him if there could be more. So that seems to be an open question, whether there could have been more American soldiers involved. He did say there was no operation going on, so it does seem to be some sort of rogue action by this one soldier or possibly other soldiers.
RAZ: Quil, tell us about the area where this happened.
LAWRENCE: Panjwaii, southwest of Kandahar, was a Taliban stronghold. It was a no-go zone for Afghan government officials until this fall. I was actually able to drive out there this fall on a different story. It was still very tense, but just being able to drive that road was a sign that the American troop surge had secured that area to some extent. That means that there were pitched battles between insurgents and American and Afghan forces for the last two years.
RAZ: Quil, how are Afghans reacting to this news as it's starting to unfold?
LAWRENCE: It's still trickling out. In Afghanistan, there's a sort of a slower news cycle here. There is some reaction. The photos have just been getting out, and we're wondering how that's going to affect people's reaction. Senior officials have appealed for calm. Civilian casualties here, as you know, have been an inflammatory issue for years, even when it's pretty clear that it was an accident, an accidental bombing or a stray bullet.
There have been very few incidents of this kind where there were intentional murder of civilians and certainly nothing on this scale. So we're really bracing ourselves for the mourning.
RAZ: And, of course, in recent weeks, there's been tension because of the accidental burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base. That led to a lot of violence, including attacks on U.S. military advisers in the interior ministry just a few weeks ago. It seems like in recent days, relations were on the mend. Where does this incident today leave all of that?
LAWRENCE: That's what some Afghans are already asking. They're saying that there were promises on the American side of no more mistakes, that there were promises that Americans knew the margin for error was slim, and then only weeks after one of the worst incidents in 10 years, you have another which seems like it could be one of the worst incidents between U.S. soldiers and Afghan civilians.
The same really goes for the American side. There have been many of these cases where Afghan soldiers killed American soldiers, and they seem to be still on the rise. There seems to be a growing lack of trust between the two militaries.
RAZ: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Quil, thanks so much.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Guy.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.