Last week, a U.S. staff sergeant sta­tioned at a mil­i­tary out­post near Kan­dahar, Afghanistan, allegedly opened fire in Afghan vil­lages and killed 16 civil­ians. The Tal­iban vowed vengeance for the civilian deaths, and the inci­dent prompted demands by many for an imme­diate with­drawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai accused the U.S. of blocking the Afghan probe into the inci­dent and requested that Amer­ican troops be con­fined to major mil­i­tary bases in the country by next year. We asked Kim­berly Jones, a fac­ulty asso­ciate in North­eastern University’s Middle East Center for Peace, Cul­ture and Devel­op­ment, to ana­lyze the pos­sible impli­ca­tions of this devel­oping situation. 

How will this inci­dent — par­tic­u­larly in light of Karzai’s reac­tion — affect the U.S. plan to with­draw troops from Afghanistan?

For a range of rea­sons, the United States needs to wrap up the bulk of its mil­i­tary engage­ment in Afghanistan; this has to do with domestic (U.S.) con­cerns as well as the sit­u­a­tion on the ground there. In terms of the impact of recent events on this plan, I think we need to take care not be too reac­tive. We cannot afford to change the timetable too hastily. Although critics of U.S. policy might argue that we should have with­drawn ages ago, our engage­ment — and mil­i­tary dis­en­gage­ment — with Afghanistan is com­plex. Afghanistan has known con­flict for decades. Our actions, such as troop draw­downs, are con­trol­lable and cause reac­tions on the ground there.  We need to be able to antic­i­pate those reac­tions and plan for them so that the best pos­sible out­come for the Afghans is possible.

How will the attack affect U.S.-Afghanistan relations?

A range of rela­tion­ships are affected, but the two most dis­cussed in con­nec­tion with this hor­rific attack are state-​​to-​​state inter­ac­tions as well as engage­ment between Afghans and U.S. forces on the ground. State-​​to-​​state rela­tions have already become a bit more com­pli­cated and will con­tinue that way, espe­cially if domestic pres­sure on Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai increases appre­ciably and is main­tained over time. We have seen some of this play out with the requested pull-​​back of troops.

The more local­ized envi­ron­ment could change sig­nif­i­cantly. The inci­dent adds to the Taliban’s list of griev­ances, for example, which res­onates with seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion, increasing their sup­port. It could also fuel more “reprisal” attacks. More­over, these acts serve to under­mine some of the pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships that have been built up over time, between U.S. forces and the Afghan population.

Two points are missing from a lot of the con­ver­sa­tion about this attack. First is the impact on Afghans, par­tic­u­larly those who were trau­ma­tized by the killings or who lost family or friends. Second, we too often see Afghanistan as an issue, par­tic­u­larly a mil­i­tary one. This then blinds or impairs our vision of the broader con­flict con­text that includes gov­er­nance, devel­op­ment and human rights. All of these are inter­con­nected to each other as well as to the cre­ation of a sus­tain­able, secure state.

What is the cumu­la­tive effect on the global per­cep­tion of Amer­i­cans fol­lowing this inci­dent and others, including the acci­dental Koran burn­ings by U.S. sol­diers?

There are still many ques­tions to be asked and answered about this event, but these look to be indi­vidual acts — iso­lated deci­sions and choices, hor­ren­dous as they may be. Impor­tantly, many U.S. troops in Afghanistan con­duct them­selves hon­or­ably and with courage in very dif­fi­cult circumstances.

The one way I would say they are “con­nected” is in terms of their con­se­quences.  They obvi­ously impact the Afghan pop­u­la­tion and can rein­force neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of U.S. forces. In addi­tion, these three inci­dents are part of a larger set of issues that many Afghans have with United States’ poli­cies and actions — ranging from drone strikes to deten­tions at Bagram.  Fur­ther com­pli­cating mat­ters are the varying per­spec­tives on U.S. dis­en­gage­ment and what comes next.

This can all seem over­whelming and in some ways it is. Our chal­lenge, how­ever, should not be to solve or fix Afghanistan, but rather to find ways to empower Afghans across the country to meet the chal­lenges they face. This trio of inci­dents make this more dif­fi­cult, but not impossible.