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New Trial for Afghanistan Mission

Author: Christopher Alessi
March 12, 2012

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A U.S. Army sergeant allegedly killed at least sixteen Afghan civilians (NYT) deliberately in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province on Sunday, prompting Afghan outrage and threats of retaliation by the Taliban. The attack is likely to compound already strained U.S.-Afghan relations, which were pushed to the brink after NATO soldiers inadvertently burned Qurans at a U.S.-run air base last month. That incident prompted nationwide riots and the murder of six U.S. soldiers by their Afghan counterparts. Both the U.S. and Afghan governments condemned Sunday's attack, while Western personnel in Afghanistan braced for a potentially violent backlash.

What's at Stake

The killings are expected to further inflame distrust between the United States and Afghanistan, complicating the Obama administration's efforts to wind down the decade-long U.S. war by 2014. They could set back already heated strategic partnership talks between U.S. and Afghan officials to define the U.S. presence and role in the country after the withdrawal of combat troops; one sticking point that remains is U.S. night raids on Afghan houses. The attack may also embolden the Taliban (DailyBeast) by alienating regular Afghans from President Hamid Karzai's government, and derail U.S. efforts to draw them into peace talks.

The Debate

Some military officials and analysts say the incident is the result of the mental stresses (TIME) that soldiers experience while being perpetually exposed to the traumas of the battlefield.

Others see the attack as indicative of a larger U.S. strategic failure in Afghanistan. Sunday's killings underscore the fact that U.S. and NATO troops have "outlived their welcome in Afghanistan," writes the New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson. He adds that the Taliban "has not only gained ground but appears likely to regain power when the final exit is made."

Yet others, like CFR's Max Boot, argue that the incident should not lead to a condemnation of the broader counterinsurgency effort or the program, the Village Stability Platform, of which the suspected sergeant was a part. Boot says that program has made real progress in building an auxiliary security force known as the Afghan Local Police in various locations around Afghanistan, creating problems for the Taliban.

Policy Options

The United States should "find a political exit and withdraw sooner rather than later," writes al-Jazeera's Marwan Bishara. "This is best achieved by involving all the regional players with a stake in Afghan security and stability," he adds.

But the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel, who says the Taliban is determined to pursue negotiations (Daily Beast), writes: "The best outcome in Afghanistan--a carefully developed political process that brings some or all of the Taliban to a cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement supported by the neighbors--needs time and patience."

Background Materials

The fallout from the attacks on civilians and the recent Quran burnings imperil President Obama's plan to hand over control to the Afghans while drawing the Taliban into negotiations, writes David E. Sanger of the New York Times.

Though toppled from power in Kabul in 2001, the Taliban has become a resilient force active on two fronts--in Afghanistan and Pakistan, explains this CFR Backgrounder.

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