Afghan Village Massacre Will Compound US Problem
By Amin Saikal for The Sydney Morning Herald
US forces are stumbling from one disaster to another in Afghanistan. The latest is the killing of at least 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier in Kandahar province, the spiritual seat of the Taliban.
It comes shortly after the American burning of copies of the Koran that set off a week of riots across Afghanistan in which some 30 Afghans were killed. This latest incident is set to heighten anti-American sentiment in the country, with serious repercussions for the international forces and their Afghan partners.
President Barack Obama and the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, General John Allen, have profusely apologised and promised an immediate investigation. The perpetrator is described as a rogue soldier, who recently had a nervous breakdown. This is unlikely to placate many Afghans, especially in the ethnic Pashtun-dominated areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban-led insurgency is at its peak. Nor will it deter the Taliban from capitalising on the incident to once again castigate the US and its allies as infidel occupiers, and the Karzai government as their stooge.
It is also bound to add to the complexity of the new strategic partnership that Washington and Kabul are currently negotiating to establish the parameters for US military-security involvement in Afghanistan after the US and its allies have withdrawn most of their troops from Afghanistan by 2014. While Karzai will find it expedient to become more demanding in the negotiations to show that he is not an American lackey, the Obama administration may need to make more concessions to Karzai, despite the fact that he has proved to be an incompetent and untrustworthy partner, who has continued to preside over a corrupt and dysfunctional government for more than a decade.
Rogue actions in conflicts are not unusual. There were many during the Vietnam War and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The present US-led military involvement in Afghanistan has not been free of them either. An American soldier has just been convicted of premeditated murder of three Afghans two years ago.
American and ISAF troops have also been killed by rogue Afghan soldiers for one reason or another. However, what makes the latest incident alarming is that it has been enacted by a soldier who had a nervous breakdown, and yet was still on duty. He committed a massacre in a zone of insurgency where the Taliban had not been active for six months. Inhabitants across the region now will become more receptive to the Taliban than ever before.
All this does not augur well for a smooth withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and the current efforts by Washington, and, for that matter, the Karzai government, to reach a political settlement with the Taliban as part of the US-led NATO exit strategy. As the anti-US and anti-Karzai government feelings escalate, the more they will play into the hands of the Taliban and their supporters, most importantly Pakistan’s notorious military intelligence, ISI, to drive a hard bargain. The Taliban and ISI have never found the situation more conducive to their belief that the final victory is ultimately theirs. All they now need to do is await the substantial drawdown of foreign troops and further ineffectiveness and humiliation of the Karzai government. As one Taliban commander joked: ”We have the time and the Americans have the watch.”
It is most unfortunate that after some $450 billion in military expenditure, more than $60 billion in reconstruction costs, and 3000 foreign troops, mostly American, killed, and thousands of Afghans sacrificed, stability, security and good governance still elude most Afghans. The biggest question that will confront the US and its allies by 2014 is: what was that all about?
If it was for the purpose of destroying al-Qaeda and its harbourers, the Taliban, this objective has not been achieved. Osama bin Laden is dead, as are many of his ranking operatives, but the network remains operative, especially in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. As for the Taliban, the US now wants to negotiate a political deal with the militia.
If it was for rebuilding and securing Afghanistan, this goal is nowhere near fruition. The country continues to teeter on the verge of the return of the Taliban to power and civil war, with the prospects of Afghanistan’s neighbours intensifying their scramble for influence.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University and the author of Modern Afghanistan.