American officials are reeling after the shooting rampage by a U.S. soldier that left 16 Afghans dead, including several children, with many wondering whether the fallout will affect the timeline of international troop withdrawal in the region. The massacre occurred early Sunday in southern Afghanistan.
The latest shocking spout of violence threatened to further erode the already shaky confidence in the troubled peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, just as international forces hoped morale in the wake of the recent burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Force base was starting to pick up. The Quran debacle sparked weeks of protests and retribution killings by Afghan soldiers against foreign troops.
Defense analysts said that the horrific incident is certain to prompt consideration of accelerating the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan, currently slated to be completed by the end of 2014.
"It seems fairly clear that the U.S. is re-looking at the withdrawal timetable in light of several events," Nick Dowling, president of IDS International, a firm that advises U.S. agencies on Afghanistan, told Yahoo News by email Monday. "These incidents will likely lead to a faster but less dignified end to U.S. and ISAF operations in Afghanistan."
Britain's envoy called the incident "ghastly" and very distressing for all countries contributing troops in Afghanistan, but said he did not think it would fundamentally change the international coalition's strategy for Afghanistan.
"It's a terrible incident, women and children killed by a single gunman behaving in an inexplicable, irrational way," British Ambassador to the United States Peter Westmacott told journalists at a press briefing in Washington Monday. "It is terrible for the coalition when things like this happen. We have had too many of these."
"Does it alter the strategy?" Westmacott continued. "I don't believe it does. I think we remain determined to finish the job and leave Afghanistan in as good order as we can."
Westmacott spoke ahead of the arrival in Washington Tuesday of British Prime Minister David Cameron for a three-day U.S. visit. The United Kingdom contributes the second largest number of troops to the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, after the United States. Six British soldiers were killed last week in Afghanistan.
The suspect was in custody after he reportedly walked house to house in Kandahar province, shooting men, women and children through the head and then burning the bodies, before returning to his base and turning himself in. He is described as an Army sergeant, 38, a married father of two, on his first tour of Afghanistan. He had served three previous tours in Iraq. The Associated Press reported that he was a conventional soldier assigned since December "to support a special operations unit of either Green Berets of Navy SEALS engaged in a village stability operation."
American and allied officials deplored the shocking violence, but maintained publicly that it would not alter the strategy.
"I condemn such violence and am shocked and saddened that a U.S. service member is alleged to be involved, clearly acting outside his chain of command," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement Sunday, vowing a full investigation and to hold those found responsible accountable.
"It's the most vile thing I have seen," Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, told Yahoo News in an interview Monday, referring to the shooting rampage. "But the question is, is this the thing that slows things down to the point that we can no longer succeed?"
The mission can probably weather the short term fallout over the incident, Jacobson, now with the German Marshall Fund, suggested. Beyond the new cycle of protests and possible revenge violence it could cause in Afghanistan, it also seems likely to further "increase war-weariness in western capitals," he said.
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