Relations between Afghanistan and the United States suffered another stunning setback Sunday when a rogue American soldier walked off his base in southern Afghanistan and went on a shooting spree that left 16 Afghan civilians dead, according to American and Afghan officials.
The attacks — in which nearly all of the victims were women and children killed while they were sleeping — come less than a month after American military personnel were found to have burned Korans at Bagram air base, and two months after a video surfaced showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters. Needless to say, they will further inflame anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan, deepen the mistrust between Afghan officials and coalition forces, strengthen the hand of the Taliban and complicate the delicate negotiations over the future of U.S.-Afghan relations after the planned withdrawal of American combat troops in 2014.
It’s a diplomatic disaster just as it is a heartbreaking human tragedy. But there’s not much the United States can do. American officials must continue to condemn the attacks in the strongest possible way. (It’s helpful that the soldier who allegedly committed this unfathomable atrocity was quickly taken into custody.) And the United States must work overtime to convince officials as well as citizens in Afghanistan that the soldier’s actions were not part of a conspiracy — despite suspicions to the contrary and a statement by
Afghan President Hamid Karzai calling them “intentional.” The U.S. must investigate thoroughly to find out not only why this happened but how it was allowed to happen.
Can relations be mended? Can the United States still leave Afghanistan on its own terms? Can the two countries salvage a long-range strategic partnership that extends past the military withdrawal? It’s hard to say. Two days before the atrocity, we were heartened by the fact that the two countries had managed to overcome a measure of mutual suspicion and advance the day when Afghanistan takes full responsibility for its own security.
On Friday, Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces, and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak signed an agreement under which the Afghan government will take control of the American-run detention facility in Parwan, the successor to the prison at Bagram air base, and its 3,000 inmates. That transfer will take six months, but the United States will provide “ongoing support and advice” to the Afghan commander of the prison for up to a year. More controversially, the Afghans agreed to “consider favorably” U.S. objections to the release of inmates who might engage in future terrorist activity.
The Afghans agreed to another significant condition as well: that they would cooperate with the United States “to ensure secure and humane administrative detention operations.” Even as it relinquishes day-to-day supervision of the facility, the U.S. should press Afghanistan to abide by the latter commitment.
Not that the U.S. can claim any kind of moral purity in this regard. After all, there were allegations of prisoner abuse at Bagram when it was under American control, leading to (so far unsuccessful) efforts to provide inmates with relief in American courts. The U.S. also took too long to establish procedures by which inmates could challenge their confinement with the assistance of an advocate and with the right to introduce “reasonably available evidence.” In offering support and advice, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. should press the Afghans to afford their countrymen similar due process. The Afghan government must treat prisoners with dignity and abide by international norms.
Though it is neither hypocritical nor intrusive for the United States to remind the Afghan government of that fact, the bigger question now is whether moral pronouncements from American officials will hold much sway. With each further crisis like that set off by the soldier’s actions Sunday, the U.S. loses standing in the eyes of its Afghan government “partners,” not to mention the increasingly skeptical population at large.
The American experience in Afghanistan has been a frustrating one. Not only are the Afghan people wearied by a decade of occupation and increasingly eager to see the end of the foreign presence, but a majority of Americans believes the war has gone on longer than expected and that it has not been a success, according to a CBS News poll released on the war’s 10th anniversary. American and coalition casualties are in the thousands, yet progress toward a working civil society is terribly slow, to put it mildly. Corruption and inefficiency continue to plague Afghanistan’s central government, and many American officials are not persuaded that the government will be ready to take over the country’s security when coalition troops pull out. Negotiations with the Taliban — the very organization the U.S. went to war to oust — now seem like one of the most promising ways to reach a political solution in the troubled country.
Some believe that atrocities such as the one that took place Sunday are inevitable when a military force has been at war too long, with too little hope of success and too many soldiers rotating repeatedly back into combat duty. If anything, it shows that the United States is right to be winding down its mission in Afghanistan, and that it should continue to do so as quickly as it responsibly and humanely can.