The news that a U.S. soldier this past weekend left his base in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province and went on a rampage, killing 16 civilians, including nine children, is causing many in the United States and Afghanistan to justify their predetermined policy positions—either “get out now” or “stay the course.” But policymakers in the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill should first recognize the tragic nature of this horrible act and then assess the next steps to navigate an already tenuous transition process in Afghanistan.
These crimes are an unexpected tragedy for those people killed, their friends, and their families in Afghanistan. And they are a tragedy for the Afghan people as a whole because it will make it much more difficult for the United States and its NATO allies to leave behind a stable Afghanistan and preserve those gains that have been made. And while it appears that this U.S. sergeant acted alone, the incident nonetheless detracts from the members of the U.S. military who have served professionally and courageously in Afghanistan at considerable sacrifice.
Swift prosecution and justice for the many families who have suffered from this incident is a necessary first step toward some form of justice. Alas, though, this shooting follows a series of debilitating missteps by the United States and NATO forces—missteps that have already eroded trust between the United States and the Afghan people, including the accidental Koran burnings that ignited week-long protests, a video of U.S. military personnel urinating on dead Taliban insurgents, and a series of incidents in which NATO-led forces accidentally killed civilians in battle.
The murders of U.S. military personnel by rogue members of the Afghan military and police have also created deep unease among U.S. and NATO forces about whether they can trust those Afghans they are supposed to train and mentor—a key element of the Obama administration’s transition strategy to Afghan lead.
The United States and its NATO partners should continue reducing their military and financial investments in Afghanistan. Troops have already begun to withdraw, with significant reductions anticipated through the summer and beyond. Also moving the foreign troops into a less visible role more quickly—away from combat operations, off the streets, and out of the villages—is the right approach, as indicated by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in February as he traveled to NATO consultations in Brussels.
But the United States and its allies have objectives that involve more than just getting out of Afghanistan. American and NATO forces are working to leave behind a country that is relatively stable and does not implode into civil war, with unpredictable and destabilizing political, security, and humanitarian consequences for the region. Most likely, the threats to the United States of such an outcome would be indirect, but the coalition should still work to avoid them given the lives at stake, the investments made, and the potential spillover effects into Pakistan, India, and Central Asia.
Preventing further destabilization in Afghanistan lies largely outside the control of the U.S. military. Clearing more territory from insurgents and building more militias and Afghan National Security Forces will not create a lasting peace. Instead it requires supporting Afghanistan’s political transition in 2014, when President Hamid Karzai hands power over to another democratically elected Afghan leader, as required by the Afghan constitution. It requires the facilitation of dialogue among insurgents and other groups and factions of Afghan society. And if agreement can be reached on the terms under which U.S. forces will operate in the country, it may even involve a strategic partnership agreement to create a long-term relationship between the Afghans and Americans.
All of these efforts have become more challenging because of this incident. It will be more difficult for President Karzai to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the United States given the narrowing political space. It will be more difficult for Taliban leaders to convince mid- and low-level insurgents to lay down their arms in a negotiation process. And it will be more difficult for U.S. civilians to support strengthening the Afghan government and long-term development.
But the United States still has work to do.
Even as it moves into a less visible role and a reduced military posture, and even as it recognizes the huge obstacles for success, the United States should continue to pursue political and diplomatic efforts. The efforts by the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Marc Grossman, to open negotiations with Taliban representatives should be supported and the dialogue should be expanded to other groups beyond Afghan insurgents. American diplomats should continue to urge President Karzai to prepare for his political transition, and to support nascent political parties. And the United States should continue to support development assistance, especially through local partners. Strategic partnership negotiations should also continue to attempt to create an enduring relationship between the United States and Afghanistan.
The ability of the United States to fully control the outcomes of all these efforts is limited. But the rampage of one clearly unstable American soldier should not be allowed to derail all efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.