Afghanistan: Another straw on the back

March 20, 2012 at 6:52 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is expected to be formally charged this week in connection with the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians.

The laying of charges and the legal proceedings that follow, however, won't be the beginning of putting the sad and horrendous incident to rest. Afghanistan's political leadership, which is being propped up by U.S. and NATO forces, is furious that Bale was flown out of the country and will face trial in the United States rather than in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai now demands U.S. and NATO troop withdraw from villages -- a move that if precipitously taken would undermine, if not destroy, allied counter-terrorism strategy and tactics by allowing the Taliban easy access to those it wants to intimidate and control.

Karzai, who says he is at the "end of the rope" over incidents involving coalition troops, said after the village killings this month he wants his national forces to take control of security in the country next year rather than at the end of 2014 as the administration of U.S. President Barak Obama had planned.

Karzai is a mercurial leader, trying to govern a country where government presence is scant, where regional warlords and chieftains have been the real powers for decades.

His public statements often bite the hands of those who feed him -- the United States, NATO, the international aid community -- and may have made the comments and demands merely to play to domestic sentiment.

Nonetheless, they and recent incidents in Afghanistan are heightening U.S. public attention on the war and whether it should continue.

Widely supported when it commenced to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaida camps and its Taliban government protectors, opinion in favor of continued U.S. and allied presence there is in negative territory. A USA Today/Gallup Poll of 1,006 adults taken March 13, indicate half of those asked want U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan speeded up; 24 percent say they want to stick to the 2014 timetable; and 21 percent to stay as long as necessary to bring stability to the country.

A Pew poll of March 7-11 reports that 57 percent of those questioned (1,503 adults) want U.S. troops removed as soon as possible as opposed to 35 percent who say they want troops to stay until stabilization.

In an ABC/Washington Post poll of 1,003 people taken March 7-10, 54 percent of respondents said they wanted troops withdrawn now. Sixty percent also said the war in Afghanistan isn't worth fighting.

As more incidents involving NATO troops and Afghan forces and civilians occur -- and war being war, they will -- it's not difficult to predict the direction of public opinion in months ahead.

Bale, 38, is reportedly a good soldier and stable family man, liked and respected by colleagues and neighbors alike. He was on his fourth combat deployment in 10 years when he allegedly committed murder -- going house to house, shooting people.

Speculation as to motivations -- if true -- are flying fast and furious; post-traumatic stress disorder; previous traumatic brain injury; family problems; seeing a fellow soldier lose his leg to a bomb just hours before.

Maybe it was one or two of the above. Maybe all -- added in with the callousness of war and the mind-numbing, spirit-killing daily life on a far-flung outpost, the daily maiming and death caused by improvised-explosive devices and snipers and the villagers the troops are protecting yet who, if not engaged in terrorism themselves, often keep quiet about those who do.

It will all come out in Bale's trial. In the meantime, anger is ramped up among Afghans, who are still seething over the accidental burning of Korans by U.S. troops. That incident sparked mass street protests and the killing of U.S. troops, including shootings by their Afghan counterparts. U.S. and NATO soldiers training Afghan forces were withdrawn for their own safety amid fears of further "green-on-blue" attacks.

The Taliban thrives in this kind of atmosphere. The vast majority of Afghans live in isolated, rural villages where a "foreigner" is a person from another district; where illiteracy is the rule and where "news," as well as fact, is word of mouth and easily manipulated and exploited.

Whatever the judgment on Bale and his punishment if found guilty of whatever charges are filed, a central question remains. Wither the U.S-NATO relationship with Afghanistan? And while mindful of the blood and treasure expended to first, rid the country of al-Qaida and topple the Taliban, and second, build a nation, is the Afghan adventure still worth it?

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