Afghanistan’s Big Victim: Trust

The killing at the weekend of 16 civilians by a lone U.S. soldier will have further undermined public trust.

The Obama administration’s strategy for Afghanistan is heavily reliant on trust. U.S. and NATO soldiers, working hand-in-hand with their Afghan colleagues, clearly need to trust each other throughout each and every mission, whether the operation involves a daring nighttime raid or a daily patrol in a Kandahar village. For the coalition, this helps underpin the popular support vital if there’s to be any hope of denting the insurgency before all foreign combat forces leave in 2014.

Unfortunately, such trust has sometimes been lacking, particularly over the past year and a half. U.S. forces and their NATO partners have fought the enemy bravely, and have generally conducted themselves well. Yet the progress made over the past decade is sadly overshadowed when something goes wrong – whether by design or otherwise. The killing of Afghan civilians, intentional or not, has the effect of poisoning the well of trust, and this has been no clearer than it has been in the killing of 16 Afghan civilians, in their homes, by a lone American soldier at the weekend.

The incident occurred Saturday night local time, and couldn’t have been designed better as a piece of anti-coalition propaganda fodder: in the small Afghan village of Panjwai, just outside of the southern city of Kandahar, a U.S. soldier allegedly left his base with his weapon, traveled down to the village, and shot Afghan civilians dead, including children. An entire family of 11 people was wiped out.  When the soldier was done, he reportedly returned to his base, confessed to what he’d done, and turned himself in.

The response from the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen, was both immediate and apologetic. While vowing to hold the soldier accountable for his crimes, Allen expressed his regret over an action that goes against the very fabric of what the U.S. armed forces are supposed to stand for.

It would be a stretch to assume that the incident will jeopardize the entire NATO mission in Afghanistan, but the response from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who described it as an “unforgiveable crime,” likely reflects the growing frustration of the Afghan public over the presence of foreign troops. Karzai certainly hasn’t shied away from condemning the deaths of Afghan civilians, and typically doesn’t differentiate between deliberate acts of criminality and tragic accidents.

In the short-term, the killings are a gift to the Taliban insurgency, and may well lead to a spike in attacks on coalition forces. More broadly, the attack is making it increasingly difficult for the U.S. and others to claim the deaths or accidents or the result of a few bad apples. Sadly, in the process, the generally good work that the U.S. military has undertaken – under the most stressful and challenging of conditions – risks being undone.

Daniel R. DePetris is the senior associate editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Security Analysis. The views expressed are those of the author alone.