Turning point

Print edition : April 20, 2012

Local people peer into a minibus carrying bodies of civilians killed by Robert Bales, a U.S. soldier, in a shooting spree in Panjwai district in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.-ALLAUDDIN KHAN/AP

The Kandahar massacre might hasten the end of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, but the Americans are still reluctant to leave.

It has been described as America's My Lai moment in Afghanistan. On the morning of March 11, a United States soldier, stationed at a military base in Kandahar province, went on a shooting spree in Belambai in Panjwai district, targeting Afghan families inside their homes. Seventeen Afghans, including nine children, many of them from a single family, perished in the rampage. The soldier, who was later identified as 37-year-old Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, was quickly moved out of the country before Afghan officials could interrogate him. He is now facing murder charges in a military court in the U.S. There was no official apology from President Barack Obama.

Many Afghans believe that there was more than one U.S. soldier involved in the killing. The latest assault was reportedly the work of a single soldier, but many Afghans won't believe or care that it was not another routine U.S. raid. The effects are the same, observed Ann Jones, an expert on American counter-insurgency tactics in the region. Afghan President Hamid Karzai compared the incident to the night raids that American troops have been conducting on unsuspecting households since last year, killing many Afghans. He blamed the U.S. for not cooperating with an Afghan fact-finding team and reiterated that the killing of civilians had been going on for too long. He also called on U.S. troops to move out of locations situated near villages and confine themselves to the U.S. military bases, which now pockmark the country.

The Obama administration is refusing to end the night raids by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). American officials claim that the raids have resulted in the capture and killing of thousands of Taliban fighters. Karzai has been demanding a halt to these raids for a long time. Eight shepherd boys, aged between six and 18, were incinerated in a night attack in February. After the Kandahar massacre, an emotional Karzai described the Americans as demons and said that it was not the first such incident. This has been going on for too long. It is by all means the end of the rope, he said. Last year, according to United Nations statistics, 3,021 civilian deaths were reported. The U.N. holds the occupation forces responsible for 410 deaths. The Taliban has been blamed for most of the other deaths. Senior Afghan officials have disputed these figures, saying that the deaths inflicted by the Western military forces are being grossly underestimated.

The My Lai massacre was a defining moment in America's war in Vietnam. In 1968, 26 U.S. soldiers killed 504 people in the village of My Lai. The international and domestic outrage that followed this was an important factor in the erosion of support for the Vietnam War. The U.S. eventually had to concede military defeat and withdraw completely from Vietnam. In Afghanistan too, a similar fate seems to be awaiting the U.S. An opinion poll conducted in March showed that more than 60 per cent of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan was not worth the blood and treasure the U.S. had invested in Afghanistan. Fifty-four per cent want the immediate recall of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, even before the Afghan army is trained to be self-sufficient. The poll was taken just before the Kandahar massacre. The latest killings could hasten the moves to end the war in Afghanistan, the longest war the U.S. has been involved in in recent history.

Afghan public opinion seems to have decisively turned against the U.S./NATO occupation. The killings in early March were preceded by a raging controversy over the burning of copies of the Quran in another military base. The incident, in the first week of March, triggered widespread violence in the country, which claimed the lives of many Afghans. President Obama had to come up with an apology for the accidental burnings of the Quran. Before that there were reports of documented cases of a U.S. kill team executing Afghans at random in Kandahar province, the stronghold of the Taliban, and then posing with their corpses as trophies. Video images of an American soldier urinating on corpses further angered the local populace.

Leon Panetta, U.S. Secretary of Defence, with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on March 15. Panetta arrived for an unannounced visit days after the rampage.-REUTERS

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan until last year, candidly admitted that his troops had killed a number of Afghans who had not proven to be a threat to the forces. Admiral Mike Mullen, who was the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff when Obama ordered his military surge, told Congress in December 2009 that the new U.S. strategy must and will improve security for the Afghan people and limit both future civilian and military casualties. Since then, more than 1,000 U.S. troops have been killed along with countless Afghan civilians.

Ross Caputi, a former U.S. soldier who served in Iraq and witnessed the war crimes in Falujah, wrote in The Guardian that the occupation of Afghanistan was an atrocity producing situation as was the occupation of Iraq. In modern warfare, 90 per cent of the casualties are civilian but this is a reality the West likes to ignore, he wrote. In the Iraqi town of Haditha, 24 men, women and children were murdered in cold blood by U.S. marines in 2005. In 2007, Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians in Baghdad. An U.S. Apache helicopter crew targeted unarmed civilians in the same year, killing 12 Iraqis.

The number of attacks on the U.S./NATO troops in Afghanistan has registered a significant increase in the past two months. Since early March, seven American soldiers have been killed by their colleagues in the Afghan security forces after the Quran-burning incident. When U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was in Afghanistan a few days after the massacre in Kandahar, a suicide bomber unsuccessfully tried to smash his truck into a U.S. military base when the plane carrying the Secretary was about to land. According to reports in the American media, the plane had to be diverted to another base nearby.

The Kandahar massacre took place only a few days after the U.S. and Afghan governments cleared the way for the signing of a long-term strategic agreement. The agreement, if it is implemented, will allow the U.S. to retain a substantial number of troops along with some of its military bases in Afghanistan after the planned military withdrawal in 2014. But with the public mood in Afghanistan inflamed and President Karzai now adopting an even more bellicose stance, prospects of a long-term American military presence in Afghanistan seem somewhat dimmed. Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the region working with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), wrote recently that it is now clear that withdrawal timetables will continue to accelerate, cutbacks will continue to grow, and popular attention will continue to shift away from Afghanistan.

Villagers pray over the grave of one of the victims. Mohammad Wazir (left) has trouble even drinking water now because it reminds him of the last time he saw his seven-year-old daughter Masooma. He had asked his wife for a drink, but his daughter insisted on fetching it. Now she is dead, killed along with 10 other members of his family.-ALLAUDDIN KHAN/AP

The killing of four French soldiers earlier in the year prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy to announce that all French troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013, a year ahead of the scheduled departure. There are currently 90,000 U.S. troops deployed in the country. Their numbers will go down to 68,000 by September this year. Interestingly, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was influenced to a great extent by the counter-insurgency policy adopted by the French in Algeria and Indo-China. The U.S. Army's field manual on counter-insurgency, which came out in 2006 under the supervision of Gen. David Petraeus, was based heavily on the book Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice written by David Galula, a French military officer who served in Algeria. The war there in the late 1950s resulted in the death of more than a million Algerians. The French ultimately had to leave their prized colony.

The Americans too may be left with no other option. The game is over in Afghanistan. An American presence can no longer serve any purpose. It can only extend and exacerbate the pathologies of this war. It is time to get out and more quickly than President Obama has been planning. The consequences of leaving may be grim but the consequences of staying are probably grimmer, wrote Fred Kaplan from the American think tank New America Foundation. The Americans may still have to be pushed out as they are loath to leave their military bases in the country, which are essential to ensure full spectrum dominance of the American military. The bases abutting Iran, China and Russia are considered crucial for the purposes of monitoring and destabilising current and emerging rivals competing for influence in the resource-rich region

The Taliban, which had started preliminary talks with the U.S. through the auspices of the Qatari government, used the Kandahar incident to announce that it was breaking off all contacts with Washington. It said in a statement that Washington had turned back on promises such as the release of Taliban prisoners incarcerated in the Guantanamo Bay prison. Top Taliban leaders could not participate in the preliminary talks held in Doha because of the international travel ban imposed on them and had to depute mid-level functionaries based in Pakistan. The Obama administration wanted the Taliban leadership to first agree to a dialogue with the Karzai government before any of its demands could be met. Sections of the Taliban leadership were against dialogue with the U.S. from the very outset. The Taliban remains vehemently opposed to the Karzai government and is in no mood to give legitimacy to it.

Now the Taliban is threatening vengeance for the Kandahar killings. Its latest statement said that more than one U.S. soldier was involved. This was a planned activity and we will certainly take revenge on all American forces in Afghanistan, a spokesman said in Afghanistan.

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