Shocking Tragedy in Kandahar

March 12, 2012

This weekend 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, were killed, apparently by a U.S. soldier on a rampage. As the president noted, the incident is “tragic and shocking.” This does not represent the military or U.S. respect for Afghans; but it is another blow to trust between the two sides. The event requires two responses. First, U.S. officials should complete a thorough investigation, as promised, and hold the perpetrator accountable for any crimes. The second imperative is to continue on the path of responsible handover of Afghanistan to Afghans, and to do so as quickly as possible. Public opinion supports such moves.

Kandahar shooting incident is “tragic and shocking,” and does not represent the military or U.S. respect for Afghans – it does, however, erode trust between Afghans and Americans. As President Obama said in a statement yesterday, “This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.”

While these horrific incidents are outliers, they have strategic implications and erode trust between Americans and Afghans. As an American military official told the New York Times: “The fear is that all these incidents, taken together, play into the Taliban’s account of how we treat the Afghan religion and people. And while we all know that’s a false account — think how many the Taliban have killed, and never once taken responsibility — it’s a very hard perception to combat.” As Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., told Bloomberg, “This is a major setback… it undermines certainly U.S. trust of the Afghans because I’m sure there are going to be concerns about the local reaction.” [Barack Obama via Washington Times, 3/11/12. American military official via NY Times, 3/11/12. Seth Jones via Bloomberg News, 3/11/12]

The U.S. transition strategy – putting Afghans in the lead and sizing out commitment in Afghanistan to our counterterrorism interests there – should be executed as quickly and responsibly as possible. That transition is well under way. As the AP reports, “Panetta has already said he hopes Afghans will assume the lead combat role across the country by mid-2013, with U.S. and other NATO troops remaining in smaller numbers to perform numerous support missions. U.S. and Afghan officials have said they want a strategic partnership agreement signed by the time a NATO summit convenes in Chicago in May.”

Unfortunately, the strategy continues to be hampered by failures of the past. As the National Journal reports, “[T]he United States missed what might have been its only real window of opportunity to transform Afghanistan nearly ten years ago, just after the fast ouster of the Taliban in December of 2001. George W. Bush elected instead to shift U.S. military focus on Iraq and recklessly left Afghanistan to fend for itself in what Bush’s own envoy, Jim Dobbins, called ‘the most under-resourced nation-building effort in history.’” Spreading American military resources too thin has had a number of negative effects. As the NY Times reports, “While it may take weeks or months to determine the motives of the killer in this case, military officials have said in recent days that these are the kinds of episodes that happen when a military force has been at constant war, with many repeat rotations in battle zones.” [AP, 3/12/12. National Journal, 3/12/12. NY Times, 3/11/12]

A bipartisan majority of the public supports the transition strategy. While several GOP candidates – most prominently Mitt Romney – have opposed any timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, such a policy has broad bipartisan support. As Bloomberg News writes, “The latest survey found 54 percent of Americans want to pull out U.S. forces even if the Afghan army isn’t ready to pick up the fight. The poll was conducted March 7 to March 10, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points for the full results.” And as the Washington Post reports, “Overall, 60 percent of Americans believe the war has not been worth the loss in life and expense, according to the Post-ABC News poll, which was conducted Wednesday through Saturday, before Sunday’s attack in Kandahar province. There has been consistent majority opposition to the war for nearly two years.” [Bloomberg News, 3/11/12. Washington Post, 3/11/12]

What We’re Reading

Opposition activists reported that at least 45 women and children were stabbed and burned to death in the Syrian city of Homs after peace talks between UN special envoy Kofi Annan and the Syrian regime were unsuccessful in producing a cease-fire.

A recent series of killings targeting gay Iraqis and teenagers who wear Western-style clothing has provoked fear throughout Iraq’s secular community and raised questions regarding the government’s dedication to protecting its at-risk citizens.

Egypt and Hamas tried to restore calm as fighting between Israel and small Palestinian extremist groups in Gaza continued.

China’s central bank indicated it will allow the value of the yuan to be set by international markets to a greater degree than currently.

Japanese citizens filed a lawsuit in an attempt to prevent the restarting of a nuclear power facility.

Rifts regarding future protections for the European economy have emerged between the International Monetary Fund’s managing director Christine Legarde and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Anti-government protests in Morocco’s northern Rif mountains are spreading after a second village clashed with police resulting in serious injuries and 10 arrests.

Gunmen killed three Christians in the Nigerian city of Jos following an earlier suicide bombing at a church in the northern city of Kano.

El Salvador’s conservative opposition party is slated to win the country’s recent general election.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times editorial board sees a momentous opportunity for the Obama administration to redefine the role nuclear weapons play in U.S. national security strategy.

William Luers and Thomas Pickering outline how world powers can find an Iran solution without pinning all hope on the efficacy of coercion.

Paul Krugman puts Greece’s economic travails into context.

Gordon Chang chronicles China’s cooling economy.

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