By Rob Crilly World
There is never a good time for an American serviceman to go on a shooting spree in Kandahar, methodically murdering 16 Afghan men, women and children – some in their beds. But coming soon after a wave of anger engulfed Afghanistan at the burning of Korans, and as American officials negotiate the departure of troops in 2014, it is difficult to imagine a worse time.
So much for an exit strategy based on building trust between Afghan security forces and their mentors.
Hamid Karzai has condemned the attack. And the Taliban has promised revenge against “American savages”, showing rather more concern for the civilians killed by American weapons than by their own indiscriminate explosive devices.
For its part, the Afghan parliament has demanded that the unnamed soldier face local justice.
“We seriously demand and expect that the government of the United States punish the culprits and try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan,” the lower house of parliament said in statement.
In Iraq it was exactly this issue that led to the end of American forces there. Washington wanted to keep at least 3000 troops in the country, but President Barack Obama was dealt a humiliating diplomatic blow by Nouri al-Maliki, who refused to grant them legal immunity.
That lesson will not be lost on US officials, who have spent more than a year negotiating a deal with Afghanistan. Already there are fears that the long-term presence of American advisers and special forces could be one of the most significant casualties of the latest crisis. AFP reports:
“The killings in Kandahar cast a long shadow over negotiations on a strategic partnership deal and certainly give greater leverage to Karzai,” Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group told AFP.
“The question of immunity for US troops remaining in the country after the end of combat operations in 2014 will come to the forefront.”
The doomsday scenario – already being discussed among diplomats in Kabul – is that President Hamid Karzai refuses to allow the advisers to stay on. Without their support, ill-trained and poorly motivated Afghan forces would struggle to maintain even a limited amount of security.
After more than a decade of British, American and international casualties, Afghanistan would be plunged right back into civil war.
So far, though, that remains the worst-case scenario. Karzai is a weak president who knows how much he needs American support to keep him in power – and alive. He is unlikely to push for a hasty exit. And so far there has been thankfully little anger on the streets, just like previous crises when public fury failed to live up to the hype of media commentators.
This is not the make or break moment in Afghanistan. The danger is that it will be turned into one by American politicians wondering whether it is time to speed up the withdrawal.