Killing of Afghan Civilians Deepens U.S.-Afghan Tensions

Andrew Wilder

USIP’s Andrew Wilder assesses how the killing of 16 civilians allegedly by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar province will impact U.S. policy on Afghanistan and the prospects for talks with the Taliban.

March 13, 2012

USIP’s Andrew Wilder assesses how the killing of 16 civilians allegedly by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar province will impact U.S. policy on Afghanistan and the prospects for talks with the Taliban. 

Coming on the heels of the outrage over the Koran burning, how do events like the tragic ones of this past weekend affect security, politics and U.S.-Afghan relations? 
This extremely tragic event will have negative repercussions in Afghanistan, but also in the U.S. The senseless killing of innocent civilians, especially the targeted killing of so many women and children asleep in their homes at night, will rightly outrage many Afghans and non-Afghans alike. 
Coming so soon after the Koran burning by U.S. military personnel, which also outraged so many Afghans and Muslims throughout the world, this incident will further erode trust and support for the presence of international forces in Afghanistan, and provides a very easy propaganda victory for the Taliban. 
It will also complicate the already very difficult and contentious negotiations with President Karzai and his government for a Strategic Partnership Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan regarding the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014. 
The negative impact will not just be in Afghanistan, but also in the U.S., where more bad news from Afghanistan is strengthening the perception among policymakers and the public alike that the U.S. should exit from Afghanistan as soon as possible. 
But it would be a mistake to abruptly change the current U.S. policy and rush to exit based on these kinds of incidents, as there have been terrible incidents in the past, and there will nearly inevitably be more terrible incidents in the future. The current policy is to withdraw most international forces by the end of 2014, and a much hastier exit would be very destabilizing and could plunge Afghanistan back into civil war. This would have tragic humanitarian consequences for Afghans, and also seriously undermine the U.S.’s strategic interest in having a relatively stable Afghanistan that doesn’t once again become a safe haven for transnational terrorist organizations. 
While many Afghans no longer have positive feelings toward international forces, exacerbated by events such as the killings in Kandahar, they more fear international forces leaving than staying because of their concern that Afghanistan will once again descend back into civil war and anarchy. Achieving stability and preventing civil war in Afghanistan will be a difficult challenge in the best of circumstances, but a hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces would make it a near impossible objective.
Are the Taliban using this to their advantage, and could this make talks with the Taliban more difficult?
This incident, as well as the Koran burning incident, have handed the Taliban a propaganda coup on a silver platter. Despite the evidence that the Taliban have been responsible for many more civilian casualties than NATO/ISAF forces, a horrific incident like the killings in Kandahar reinforces the Taliban narrative of U.S. and international forces as an occupation force that kills innocent civilians, is disrespectful of Islam and Afghan culture, and props up a corrupt regime. As illustrated by some of the suicide attacks and targeted killings of U.S. military personnel in the aftermath of the Koran burning incident, the Taliban are adept at manipulating the anger and outrage to incite violence. 
In terms of the impact this will have on negotiations with the Taliban to end the conflict peacefully, it’s probably too early to tell. Clearly it weakens the hand of U.S. negotiators in the short term, but I doubt it will fundamentally alter the political calculus that led the Taliban to agree to talks with the U.S. and reverse their long-held position of not negotiating while there were still foreign troops in Afghanistan. It’s also important to remember that the Taliban are not a monolithic group, and that this incident may reinforce the position of some hardline elements, but not necessarily those that are more predisposed to engage in a process of political negotiations.
What is the U.S. doing to try to ‘right the ship’ – with this incident and the Koran burning?
There are no ‘quick fixes’ to recover from these horrible incidents. Unfortunately, there have been far too many of them, but as a result I think the civilian and military leadership are now much better at responding quickly to mitigate the negative consequences and calm the waters as quickly as possible. The apologies by President Obama and General Allen following the Koran burning incident were the right thing to do, as was the quick announcements that there would be thorough investigations. Afghans need to be reassured that these investigations will be comprehensive, that justice will be served, and that concerted efforts will be made to minimize the risks of more such events. 
It’s too early to say what caused the U.S. soldier to go on a killing spree, but hopefully following an investigation there will be more information to guide decision-making about what could be done to prevent this from happening again. Among other things, the Koran burning incident clearly highlights the need for more comprehensive cultural sensitivity training for civilian and military personnel being deployed to places like Afghanistan. There is clearly a problem if, after 10 years of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, personnel are still not aware that burning a Koran will outrage Muslims and nearly undoubtedly provoke a violent response.
(Photo: Sgt. 1st Class Lawree Washington)

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March 13, 2012