Murderous rampage in Afghanistan threatening delicate U.S. mission

Mar 14, 2012 By The Baltimore Sun

The bloody mayhem allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan Sunday couldn't have come at a worse time. The killings, which left up to 16 Afghan civilians dead, are likely to inflame an already tense situation fueled by growing Afghan resentment over the presence of U.S. and NATO troops in their country. Recent weeks have seen an upsurge in anti-American protests erupting into violence against U.S. military and diplomatic personnel.

American officials need to find out the circumstances of the latest killings as quickly as possible and make the results public. They must also hold whoever is responsible fully to account. Anything less risks allowing a single, apparently isolated incident to undermine years of effort to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent it from again becoming a haven for terrorists.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly was in the midst of a conciliatory speech aimed at persuading his countrymen to accept a U.S.-Afghan security relationship after 2014 when word came that an American soldier had gone on a murderous rampage in southern Kandahar province. The dead included three women and nine children ranging in age from 6 to 9. All the victims had been shot in the head.

Army commanders insisted the killings were unconnected to any military activities in the area and said they had a suspect in custody. The shooter was identified only as a sergeant who recently arrived in Afghanistan after serving three tours in Iraq. Officials said the soldier apparently slipped away from a base during the night and attacked victims in nearby villages before returning and surrendering to authorities, but they offered no motive for the attack.

In the absence of more details about what happened, U.S. officials fear rumors of the incident will ignite more violent anti-American protests across the country and invite a new wave of retaliatory attacks against U.S. and NATO personnel inspired by Taliban propagandists. Reportedly, many Afghans already are skeptical that a rouge soldier acting alone could have carried out so many killings and believe the attacks must have been part of a coordinated U.S. military assault. Some witnesses claim to have seen several people dressed in military uniforms moving through the villages that were attacked.

Such doubts about precisely who and what was involved in the latest killings put new pressure on an already tense relationship between the U.S. and Afghan governments. Complaints among ordinary Afghans that Mr. Karzai isn't doing enough to prevent civilian deaths at the hands of foreign troops are sure to intensify, and the political balancing act the Afghan leader has to perform in response to such criticisms will undoubtedly complicate President Obama's strategy for winding down the war.

The president wants to end the American combat role in Afghanistan by December 2014 and turn responsibility for the country's security over to the Afghan national army and police. American troops remaining in the country after that would be limited to an advisory and training role. But the president's plan depends on getting the Afghan security forces fully up and running well before U.S. troops begin withdrawing. That strategy could be fatally undermined if continuing violent anti-American protests force U.S. troops to leave prematurely.

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