Sunday March 18, 2012
An Afghan enigma
Behind The Headlines
By Bunn Nagara
Beyond a scheduled ‘pullout’ by US forces, nobody knows what the country will become.
NO sooner had one scandal in the US occupation of Afghanistan seemed to settle than another has erupted.
Whether by design or default, the accumulating crises seem calculated to enrage Afghan communities across the board. Since that cannot be the aim, they must signal the steady unravelling of Afghan policy by the US-British axis, the cornerstone of the foreign military occupation.
Early last Sunday morning, one or more US army officers calmly walked into several homes in two villages and shot families in their beds, killing 16 people, mostly women and children. Thus began the latest nightmare for the US military occupation.
This now stands as the scandal of the month, unless outdone by a worse atrocity over the next two weeks. It came closely on the heels of the Quran-burning controversy just three weeks before.
Last year, occupation forces killed 24 Afghan soldiers and the year before, four US soldiers murdered three Afghan civilians “for fun”. In between, a series of military raids on Afghan villages killed more civilians.
The latest killings could not have come at a worse time and place for Washington. Just two days before, the occupation forces’ helicopters shot and killed four Afghan villagers as the Afghan and US governments were formalising two agreements.
One was for transferring control of Afghan jails from the occupying forces to Afghan authorities. However, the second agreement was, and remains, more significant and delicate.
That involved the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) concerning the long-term presence of US military forces after the formal “withdrawal” in 2014. Next year is supposed to see the start of disengagement by US and British troops, the largest foreign troop contingents, leading to an official pullout the following year.
However, as-yet undetermined numbers of US military “advisers” and Special Forces units will remain in Afghanistan. These are said to cater to post-2014 contingencies, while the supposed pullout would see to anti-war critics back home.
With uncertainties swirling around the occupation from the start, the SPA took time to be fully agreed to. So March 9 was only to ink its MoU.
Then last Sunday’s blatant murders happened. That put Washington on the defensive, while adding pressure on President Hamid Karzai’s government to tweak better terms in the SPA for Afghans.
Clamour on the streets and in the Afghan Parliament now want the SPA to be scrapped altogether. A revision of its terms is more likely.
That will involve more pain and time, over a period set to be punctuated by more horrors. Special Forces units, for example, often launch raids on civilian dwellings such as last Sunday’s, producing their share of controversies.
The latest killings had also happened in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of both the Taliban movement and its leader Mullah Omar. The Taliban have already pledged vengeance for the murder of the 16 “martyrs”.
Pride and honour are readily added to anger to exact a blood price, as is the custom. US commentators struck by the relatively muted response to the killings, as compared to the violent reactions to the Quran burning, can expect to be surprised anytime.
An added dimension of the latest scandal is the denial and apparent cover-up by US army sources. Controversy could grow as more is learned or leaked out about the killings and US forces’ handling of the incident.
When news first broke earlier last Sunday, US army spokesman Capt. Justin Brockhoff denied that anyone was killed. Hours later, this was revised to say that several people had in fact died.
An army staff sergeant who had surrendered at his camp near the two villages is said to have been the sole perpetrator of the killings. Some witnesses in the villages said at least two soldiers were involved.
Afghan officials who inspected the scenes doubted that the killings had been done by one soldier. US authorities said the sergeant walked from house to house and from village to village, between walking from and back to his camp all totalling some 3km, during which he methodically shot and burned his victims.
The suspect immediately claimed his rights and refused to cooperate with investigators. US army authorities could initially hold him for 48 hours.
Within that time US authorities announced he had suffered a head injury while on a recent tour of duty in Iraq. That suggested a plea of “diminished responsibility” could be used as a mitigating factor.
US military courts seldom if ever convict guilty soldiers to the extent of civilian courts. Despite the death penalty and many atrocities committed over more than 10 years, no guilty US soldier has been sentenced to death while in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Afghan society increasingly demanded the sergeant be tried in an open Afghan court. Then within another 48 hours, he was quietly whisked out of the country and taken to Kuwait.
US authorities had scored a new high in angering the Afghan ground. Now more than ever, the Afghan government, the Taliban, tribal militias and the general public including the middle classes are united in insisting that US forces quit the country forthwith.
Sunday’s killings have also come months before the US presidential election, with incumbent Barack Obama having identified himself closely with the Afghan war. The overwhelmingly negative repercussions are likely to rebound on him in his re-election campaign.
A recent opinion poll by the Washington Post and ABC News found that, for the first time, Republican supporters rejected pursuing the Afghan war. A majority of all Americans surveyed also wanted a pullout whether or not Afghan government forces were ready to take over.
In what Obama has called “a war of necessity,” now the longest war ever fought by the US, 60% of Americans do not want US forces to stay in Afghanistan.
Among the problems for Obama is a misperception among some of his colleagues that Karzai is a stumbling block to progress. Afghanistan’s strategic situation is shifting so steadily in favour of the Taliban’s return to Kabul that Karzai has virtually had to scramble to keep up.
In January, the Taliban announced plans to establish a diplomatic office in Qatar for talks with the US. On the eve of last Sunday’s killings, the Afghan foreign minister left Kabul for that office to negotiate with the Taliban, in hopes of not being left out by events.
The Taliban have become so confident of their return to power that they have demanded the release of all their comrades from Guantanamo Bay prison as a precondition for talks. If that issue is hardly discussed in Washington now, it would be because it could seriously upset Obama’s re-election chances.