Disaster in the making
A rogue US soldier has been arrested near Kandahar for shooting dead 16 innocent Afghan civilians, including nine children and three women. Initial reports spoke of a group of drunken US soldiers being responsible, but later reports only spoke of one soldier being detained. As though things were not difficult enough after the Quran burning incident, which led to shootings of US and NATO troops, this episode, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai called an “assassination”, is going to make things a whole lot worse. There are demands from Afghans for a public trial of the rogue soldier. That demand may run up against longstanding US policy of requiring its troops to be accorded immunity from prosecution on any account. A similar demand in the Iraq war finally sabotaged the US desire for a residual military presence in the country after US troops withdrew. The strategic partnership with Afghanistan that Washington desires post-withdrawal in 2014 looks even more difficult to achieve now, given that it is precisely the immunity demand and Karzai’s oft repeated anger and demands for night raids and other similar operations by US/NATO forces to be stopped since collateral civilian deaths fuel anger amongst the Afghan people that have remained a roadblock in the path of an agreement.
It is not possible to say at this point whether the US soldier acted as a ‘lone wolf’ or was accompanied by other soldiers as initially reported. Nor is it possible to speculate on the motives of this soldier running amok. One possibility is that he was reacting to the shootings of US/NATO soldiers in the aftermath of the Quran burning incident. Whatever the motivation or number of the perpetrators, it goes without saying that such acts deserve the severest condemnation, both on principle as well as because of the impact they are likely to have on an already difficult and fraught situation. The incident cannot be treated in isolation from the tendency for military discipline to break down in the field when conventional armies confront guerrilla and asymmetrical warfare. The inherent frustrations of soldiers chasing an elusive enemy employing ‘hit and run’ tactics is well documented in all counter-insurgency, colonial and imperialist wars. Further anger is likely to be fuelled amongst Afghans because of this massacre, with the US Embassy in Kabul warning that more anti-US reprisals are possible.
The effect on the US/NATO withdrawal plans could be devastating. The hopes for an orderly withdrawal, leaving security incrementally in the hands of the Afghan military and police raised by the US and its allies over the last 11 years must now appear highly uncertain. The killings are a gift for the Taliban, who can and probably will even more firmly don the mantle of Afghan patriots resisting the foreign occupiers (a sentiment highly effective and deadly in all of Afghanistan’s wars throughout its history against foreign occupation). And to sprinkle salt on the wounds, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has labelled Afghanistan an “undoable” mission that unnecessarily puts US troops’ lives at risk. This may be partisan politicking in an election year in the US, but it is likely to find resonance in a wider swathe of public opinion in the US, whose people are weary of foreign wars in the middle of recessionary woes. The combination of increasing difficulties on the ground in Afghanistan, not the least of which are increasingly strained relations between the Afghan and foreign allies, and war-weariness back home in the US, may resurrect memories of how the US lost another war, Vietnam.