Soldiers caught under the pressures of war sometimes engage in acts of stunning brutality against enemy soldiers and civilians. As anyone with a cursory knowledge of the history of war knows, some soldiers commit crimes against the very civilians they are fighting for.
However, these killings must also be understood for their psychological and political impact. The psychological pressure on every side of the Afghanistan conflict has become enormous. The war has gone on for more than 10 years, and while the Taliban have always opposed U.S. and NATO troops, supporters of the regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai now distrust them as well. The United States is looking for a way out, and Karzai supporters understand what this might mean to them personally.
The United States and its allies now face both the Taliban and the growing dissatisfaction of other Afghans. This marks an important inflection point, given that a key effort of the American-led "surge" was to win Afghan "hearts and minds." While winning the trust of a local population is an enduring objective of counterinsurgencies throughout history, cultural incompatibilities between locals and an occupying power make it a challenging task. When the effort starts to lag, it becomes difficult to negotiate with parties whose attitudes run from hostile to sullen. The task of nation building becomes vastly more complicated.
Meanwhile, there is substantial pressure on foreign troops, who are at once drawing down and attempting to craft the perception of strength to force a negotiated settlement. We know little about the Afghan who reportedly killed two Americans in Kabul and about the American soldier in custody for the shootings of Afghan civilians, but we do know that the pressure on all sides is growing.
Politically, the killings have serious consequences. As we have argued, the ability of U.S. and allied forces to coordinate with indigenous forces is central to the overarching strategy of “Vietnamization” and increases in importance as the drawdown of Western forces accelerates. But the Vietnamization strategy entails a number of risks related to infiltration and to the surfacing of cultural animosity. The recent burning of Korans and Islamic materials from a detention facility in Bagram Air Field, and this weekend's rampage, reflect deep cultural incompatibilities and tensions.
But the incidents also create a political opening for the Taliban, who can exploit the killings as proof of the Americans' unreliability and hostility and spread unfounded rumors that the killings were the result of a planned operation, not the action of an unbalanced soldier. True or not, this message will resonate with people who need little additional motivation to be terrified of the American troops seeking their trust, especially as the inevitable drawdown of Western troops leaves locals vulnerable to whatever forces remain in their location.
Peace talks may also be affected. There is a clear division within the Taliban: Some are ready to reach a settlement that leaves a coalition government while the Americans withdraw, while others feel that extending the fight will allow them to achieve their goals without compromise. The second faction will use the the Koran burnings, the killings of Afghan civilians and other recent controversies to try to delegitimize the talks with the Americans.
The two recent sets of killings are politically significant because they strike at the heart of two claims central to the U.S. and NATO war effort. First, the idea that there is close coordination between Western and Afghan forces is undermined by the killings in a secure area of the Afghan Interior Ministry. Second, recent controversies undermine Western efforts to win the trust of local Afghan populations. In fact, neither proposition ought to be disproven by what happened, especially if the acts were committed by a single murderer in Kabul and a single soldier on a rampage in a village. But in this war, we are well past proofs. The conflict's inherent contradictions are being laid increasingly bare, and what might have passed with little notice five years ago will now be taken as justification, by those opposed to a settlement, for sowing further distrust.