The fatal shootings of 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly by an American soldier, add to a series of incendiary incidents that threaten to drain remaining U.S. and European support for the decade-long mission.
In Afghanistan, the deadly attack also may reinforce Afghan suspicions that foreigners are seeking to conquer their Islamic country. They may conclude the U.S.-led coalition will end up leaving in defeat just as have outsiders from Alexander the Great to the British to the Soviet Union.
“This is a major setback,” said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Virginia, who worked for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan last year. Beyond influencing Afghan attitudes, he said yesterday in an interview, “it undermines certainly U.S. trust of the Afghans because I’m sure there are going to be concerns about the local reaction.”
Any violent backlash by Afghans to the shootings in the southern province of Kandahar may add to domestic pressure on President Barack Obama to speed troop withdrawals, ahead of the security handover now set for 2014. Asked yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” if it’s time to withdraw U.S. forces, Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich said, “I think it is.”
In offering condolences to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed resolve to continue to “work hand in hand with our Afghan partners,” according to a statement from his office.
U.S. and U.K. officials said the killings won’t alter the coalition strategy in Afghanistan or the timetable for withdrawal.
“As tragic as these events are, the strategy is focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda, stabilizing Afghanistan so that Afghan security forces can take responsibility for the security of their own country, which would allow us to continue to draw down our forces,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters today. “And that is the strategy and the policy that the president is implementing.”
Peter Westmacott, the U.K.’s ambassador in Washington, said that while the shooting is “very distressing” and a setback for the coalition in Afghanistan, “I don’t see the strategy being dramatically changed” in the aftermath.
Westmacott briefed reporters before the arrival of Prime Minister David Cameron in Washington for an official visit, at which the Afghanistan campaign will be a major topic of discussion.
Two U.S. officials said the killings may prove to be the fatal hit to the administration’s hopes for maintaining a large international military and civilian presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. That plan is intended to improve the performance of the Afghan government, degrade the Taliban and strengthen Afghan security forces.
Whether that’s the case will depend on how Afghan civilians, government officials and security forces respond to the killings, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. This incident follows the burning of Korans in a trash dump at a U.S. base last month and a video in January showing at least four U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban corpses.
If Afghan anger, frustration, and resentment of foreigners turns violent as it did after the Koran burning, whatever political and public support remains in America and Europe for the NATO mission in Afghanistan will almost certainly dissipate, both officials said.
Already, Vice President Joe Biden and some White House officials have been pressing for a faster exit from Afghanistan, according to the officials. CIA Director David Petraeus, a former NATO commander there, and some U.S. military officials have been arguing that there’s been progress and that a hasty exit would open the door to the Taliban’s return and perhaps to a new civil war, the officials said.
The U.S. soldier allegedly shot to death 16 Afghan civilians in their homes before returning to his base and being taken into custody, Afghan and NATO officials said. The soldier, whose name was withheld by U.S. authorities, is from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington, said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment publicly.
Statements of condolences yesterday from Obama and a reassuring message from the acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan posted on YouTube clashed with photos linked on Twitter of the victims, who included women and children.
‘Fatal Hammer Blow’
Whatever trust and credibility remained between the U.S. and the Afghans after last month’s burning of Korans at the main American base in Afghanistan probably is gone after this latest attack, said David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
“This is a fatal hammer blow on the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan,” Cortright, author of “Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said in an e-mailed statement. “This may have been the act of a lone deranged soldier, but the people of Afghanistan will see it for what it was -- a wanton massacre of innocent civilians.”
The shooting spree yesterday compounds the difficulty of sticking to the U.S. military’s strategy of gradually reducing its troop levels while strengthening the Afghan army, police and government ministries to take over fully at the end of 2014.
U.S. Public Opinion.
White House and Pentagon officials are confronting decisions on how many forces and what types to leave in place after the last of 33,000 personnel that were added in 2010 leave in September. The American public has made clear it has little stomach left for the battle, according to results of a Washington Post/ABC News poll that shows a majority consistently opposing the war for almost two years.
The latest survey found 54 percent of Americans want to pull out U.S. forces even if the Afghan army isn’t ready to pick up the fight. The poll was conducted March 7 to March 10, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points for the full results.
Obama convened a meeting of his senior White House national security staff yesterday to discuss the incident before calling Karzai with condolences and a pledge to investigate thoroughly.
‘Headline to Headline’
Right now “you have a policy that is lurching from headline to headline,” Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview. “We forgot the lessons learned from Vietnam about how long this takes.”
“Our being in the middle in a country like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive,” Gingrich said on CBS. “We are risking the lives of men and women for a mission frankly that is not worth doing,” he said earlier on “Fox News Sunday.”
Dozens of U.S. military advisers had returned to Afghan ministries with extra security since being withdrawn after two were killed in one of the offices in the violence set off by the Koran-burning incident. Hundreds remain under orders to stay in secure NATO coalition compounds.
“One incident like this can change the equation,” Virginia’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday when asked about the killing of Afghan civilians. “It’s tragic because we have so many brave” soldiers serving in Afghanistan, he said.
Such incidents exacerbate a sense of instability even as U.S. defense officials and military officers say violence is declining.
A National Intelligence Estimate given to Obama in January concluded that the Taliban remain resilient and determined to re-impose their brand of strict Islamic rule on the country, and that Afghan forces and the civilian government are still plagued by corruption and ineffectiveness. The estimate, the consensus view of the intelligence community, was described by two U.S. officials on condition of anonymity because it isn’t public.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said such continuing instability is all the more reason for the U.S. to continue fighting.
“I understand the frustration and I understand the anger and the sorrow,” McCain said on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday. “I also understand, and we should not forget, the attacks on the United States of America in 9/11 originated in Afghanistan. And if Afghanistan dissolved into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over or a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an al-Qaeda base for attacks on the United States.”
The U.S. military justice system’s handling of the case, in what is likely to be a lengthy process, also may affect the perception among Afghans.
The country’s Defense Ministry issued a statement yesterday saying it “strongly condemns this inhuman and devastating incident.” The statement said officials asked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led coalition to “capture the perpetrators of the merciless action as soon as possible and punish them for their despicable crime.”
In the phone call to Karzai, Obama expressed “his administration’s commitment to establish the facts as quickly as possible and to hold fully accountable anyone responsible,” according to a White House statement.
The shooting “would only be an incident without this larger chronology we’ve seen in recent weeks,” said Cordesman, the military analyst. “It’s a much broader problem than people understand,” he said.
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