Afghan mission in crisis after soldier rampage

An Afghan child watches a US soldier on patrol © Getty Images

A US staff sergeant is in custody today after allegedly murdering as many as sixteen Afghan civilians on a shooting spree early yesterday morning. Nine children are among the dead.

Relations between Western troops in Afghanistan and the civilians they are supposed to protect have reached a new low after a horrifying outburst of violence in Kandahar province in the early hours of yesterday morning.

At approximately 3am local time, a US staff sergeant walked away from his base in southern Afghanistan, heading towards the nearby villages of Alkozai and Najeeban. There, it is reported, he embarked on a terrifying murder spree, breaking into at least three family compounds. Witnesses reported hearing bursts of automatic weapons fire, then silence, then more shooting as the massacre continued.

Finally, the soldier handed himself in to military authorities. He left a bloody trail of devastation. Sixteen people had been killed, including eleven in one house alone. Many more were wounded. Worst of all, nine young children were among the dead.

The incident could not have come at a worse time for Afghan-US relations. The two countries are deep in tense negotiations over the future of the long-running US-led military campaign. Western combat troops are beginning the long process of withdrawal after years of fighting against Taliban insurgents. They hope that after so much costly effort they can leave in an atmosphere of peace, at least, if not goodwill. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been spent in the attempt to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghan people.

But a series of scandals have undone much, if not all, the progress that has been so painfully made. Most recently, riots broke out across the country when it was revealed that US troops had incinerated copies of the Koran. Before that, video footage of marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters provoked a violent outcry.

Such incidents reinforce a popular perception among ordinary Afghans: that Western soldiers are there not to help the people of Afghanistan but to harm them. Many in the country believe, shockingly, that yesterday’s murders were all part of the wider American plan.

Going rogue

US officials are doing everything possible to dispel the atmosphere of bitterness and mistrust. ‘This incident is tragic and shocking,’ said President Barack Obama in a statement, ‘and does not represent the exceptional character of our military.’ The killer was a rogue operator, they say. The American mission in Afghanistan should not bear the blame for the actions of a single man.

The long and bloody military campaign was always likely to produce a tragedy of this sort, others reply. If you take thousands of young men to a foreign and hostile country, train them to kill, expose them to the daily threat of violence, make them fight on and on as they lose colleagues and friends to an invisible and merciless enemy, it is only a matter of time before one of them snaps.

You Decide

  1. Are the actions of the murderous soldier impossible to understand?
  2. Is the international mission in Afghanistan doomed?

Activities

  1. Imagine you were the President of the USA and write a letter of apology to a family member of one of the children killed yesterday. What would you say?
  2. Write a short briefing for President Barack Obama listing the pros and cons of pulling troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. What course would you advise?

Some People Say...

“Western soldiers should leave Afghanistan immediately.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t Afghanistan constantly in a state of chaos? What makes this incident so important?
First, outrage over this killing may hasten the departure of Western soldiers from the country. Already, many commentators are saying the military campaign is doomed and should be abandoned.
So soldiers might get to come home early. Isn’t that a good thing?
Maybe. But there are worries about what will happen in Afghanistan after Western soldiers have gone. The country could slide into civil war, or return to extremist rule. It could go back to being a training ground for terrorists who could strike international targets.

Word Watch

Kandahar
Kandahar, founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC, is the capital of Kandahar province and the spiritual home of the Taliban. US forces have been fighting Islamist militias in the province for years, with heavy casualties on both sides.
Compounds
People in rural Afghanistan tend to live in extended family groups in large semi-fortified compounds arranged around a walled courtyard.
Taliban
The Taliban is an Islamist and ethnic movement which has strong support among the tribal Pashtun people of southern Afghanistan. The Taliban ruled the country until US and international forces invaded in late 2001. Since then, Taliban fighters have waged an effective and increasingly bloody guerrilla campaign against occupying troops.
Hearts and minds
Taliban fighters rely on the support of civilians in order to stay hidden from US troops. To crush the Taliban movement, Western forces embarked on a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, making huge efforts to win the sympathy of local populations. These efforts have produced limited results.

Subjects

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