Timing and Location of an Afghan Massacre Threatens U.S. Strategy
By John Wendle / Kabul
Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2012
The Panjwai massacre may not affect the U.S. schedule for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has dealt a major blow to the Obama Administration’s plan to slowly shift the military burden there from conventional units to Special Forces who rely on cooperation from the civilian population. And the setback occurred in an area that had become a key focus of the counterinsurgency effort.
“The relations between the U.S. forces and the Afghan people have been greatly affected by the massacre,” the head of the quasi-governmental Panjwai District Development Assembly, Hajji Niak Mohammad, tells TIME. “It has caused a big gap to form between the U.S. military and the Afghans. [The Americans] had come to fight against the insurgency and to bring peace and stability. People did not expect such a wild action.”
No matter how many times President Obama apologizes for the mass killing of civilians by an American soldier early Sunday morning, the damage has already been done. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, visiting Camp Leatherneck in the desert in southern Helmand province while on a previously scheduled visit to Afghanistan, told Marines Wednesday that “Each of these incidents is deeply troubling” and that “We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve.” But, to the villagers in Panjwai district, in war-wracked Kandahar province, apologies are beside the point — “individual incidents” are defining how Afghans see the U.S. presence, and fueling demands for it to end.
“At the beginning, when [the Americans] first came to Afghanistan, people were really optimistic,” says Hajji Mohammad. “People believed in them. People thought they had come to rebuild Afghanistan, to bring peace and stability, to contribute people and economic support. But, slowly, slowly this belief has faded and been destroyed. The people don’t trust the U.S. military anymore.”
That erosion of trust underscores the flaw at the very heart of U.S. policy in in Afghanistan, regardless of Panetta telling the Marines at Camp Leatherneck that “our strategy is working”. Effective counterinsurgency depends on winning the support of the civilian population, but that becomes impossible when the locals lose trust and respect — not only because of egregious crimes like the murder of 16 civilians, but also through the small offenses and disappointments meted out daily by a poorly-informed military force from an alien culture that only spends six months to a year in an area before rotating home.
The Panjwai murders happened in villages adjacent to a U.S. Special Forces compound, where the accused perpetrator was part of a static security detail for the forces expected to take on more of the responsibility for waging the war. Special Forces are deemed better able to build strong relationships with villagers through their Village Stabilization Operations (VSOs) and their setting up and training of Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces.
Says Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation political analyst and sometime-adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, “U.S. and Afghan Special Operations Forces have played a growing role in pushing into rural parts of Kandahar (and other provinces) to help local communities improve their security, governance (mostly informal governance through jirgas) and development. Unlike efforts to train Afghan National Security Forces and improve the formal justice system, Village Stability Operations are inherently bottom-up programs.”
Jones explains that Panjwai, along with several other districts outside of Kandahar City such as Shah Wali Kot, Maiwand, and Khakrez, have become a focus of U.S. and Afghan counterinsurgency efforts because of their strategic importance. “Over the past several years, Panjwai has not been pacified by either the Taliban or Afghan and NATO forces, but has repeatedly changed hands following intense and extremely violent fighting.”
In order to tip the balance, Special Forces groups called Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) units began setting up VSOs and ALP units and carrying out night raids to round up Taliban suspects. The massacre poses a challenge to their work. The impact of the Panjwai killings “could be devastating or could be minimal and quickly resolved through skillful diplomacy on the part of the team — it really depends on if these were villages which were cooperating with the ODA or if they were not,” says a foreign observer with extensive counterinsurgency experience in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If this is a worst-case scenario and the villages in question were active VSO villages with a good level of cooperation, [and if] those killed were truly indiscriminately targeted and they were respected people in the villages, then I think the ODAs will have a hard time recovering from this.”
Adds Adrian Melendez, a development worker who spent nine months working on agricultural stabilization projects in Marjah district in Helmand, the local culture is not conducive to easily resolving the issue. “For the Pashtuns, forgiveness is not a value — on the contrary, revenge is valued, and for hard Pashtuns it is an obligation,” he says. “So I’m guessing that the people affected will try to get revenge as an act of justice.”
Indeed, justice has been the rallying cry for many Afghans — both in Panjwai and across the country and the internet where images of the murdered children have proliferated and sparked angry and impassioned statements by young, urban Afghans who are more typically apolitical or supportive of the Western military mission — even as General John Allen, commander of all NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said the gunman will be punished according to the law. “They should bring the murderer, or murderers, to justice,” says Hajji Mohammad. “People should see with their own eyes that the perpetrators are punished — in Afghanistan, according to Afghan law. This is the only way to deal with the anger of the Afghans, to bring calmness to their anger.” But U.S. soldiers are exempt from Afghan law and it is most likely the killer will be tried back on home soil, under U.S. law — despite calls from the Afghan parliament for the accused to be tried in public in Afghanistan.
Justice being seen to be done is the key to restoring trust in Panjwai, warns Jones: “A lot will depend on how swiftly and transparently the Americans move on punishing the soldier responsible, as well as local sentiments toward the Taliban in the area.”
Regardless of how deftly — or otherwise — U.S. forces deal with the challenges raised by the massacre, they will face an escalation of hostilities in the coming weeks and months, as spring heralds a new fighting season. “I anticipate that there will be a big, big fight not only in Panjwai, but in most parts of Afghanistan in the spring and summer when the weather becomes warmer,” warns Hajji Mohammad. “These killings could increase anti-Americanism and more people will join the Taliban and other radical groups. On the other hand, the Taliban have already sworn they will double their attacks against the U.S. military and they will get revenge for this massacre. People are also sad and angry, so I anticipate that there will be more attacks against the US military and their allies in Panjwai.” One sign of what to expect will come within days, when many urban Afghans gather at mosques for Friday prayers for the first time since the massacre — many local and foreign observers are bracing for trouble.
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