A tragic jolt to U.S.-Afghan ties

By Walt Braun

It’s easy, against the backdrop of the actions of a U.S. Army sergeant Sunday, to wonder how much stress the U.S.-Afghan relationship can take. It’s easy to wonder how much more difficult the U.S. mission there is now.  And it’s difficult to remember how much the American presence there has accomplished.

The relationship could well collapse in the wake of the murders of 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children, by a soldier who went door-to-door on a horrific execution spree.

Al-Qaida and the Taliban vow revenge, and, sadly, won’t have to work hard to stir up outrage. This incident comes weeks after U.S. personnel inadvertently burned Korans. That followed an incident in which several Marines were videotaped urinating on insurgents’ corpses.

That the soldier was on his fourth deployment — his first in Afghanistan after three in Iraq — is pertinent, but it hardly excuses the action. Operating in a country where justice is both harsh and swift, U.S. officials surely recognize the importance of convincing Afghans that justice will be done.

Recent actions by U.S. personnel aren’t all that undermines trust in the relationship. Afghan soldiers being trained by Americans have turned on and killed American trainers and other U.S. soldiers — including six since the Koran burnings. Whether those incidents stemmed from Taliban plants or from Afghans angry because of U.S. missteps, Americans training the Afghan army have ample reason to wonder if they, too, are targets of their students. As it is, too many Americans have been killed or wounded in combat in Afghanistan.

Sunday’s latest atrocity also erodes trust at higher levels. It comes as the United States awaits Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s signature on a security agreement on the number and placement of remaining U.S. forces after most NATO troops have departed in 2014. Whether recent events sideline that deal and lead, as some observers speculate, to an accelerated U.S. withdrawal isn’t known yet. There still are 90,000 U. S. troops in Afghanistan, about one-fourth of whom are slated to leave by autumn.

An overly quick withdrawal could spark chaos in Afghanistan. The focus on recent mistakes and tragedies, while understandable, nevertheless obscures the considerable progress U.S. and Afghan forces have made.

Our mission has been to establish a stable government and security apparatus, prevent the Taliban from regaining control and keep Afghanistan from again becoming a comfortable base for terrorists. Trained Afghan forces now number about 300,000, and increasingly take the lead in military operations. What’s more, individual U.S. units have developed good relationships in many parts of the country.

Unfortunately, continued progress depends on the collaboration and good will of the Afghan people, a great deal of which has been squandered in recent weeks.

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