As we remain besotted by events taking place in our own backyard, a storm has started brewing in the neighbourhood. On the face of it, the mindless killing of some 16 Afghan civilians, some of them women and children, by reportedly a lone American soldier gone amuck, is not something that can break policy — the Obama administration’s schedule to have all combat troops out of Afghanistan by December 31, 2014, being a key feature of it. But this action, not factored into the scheme of things, could well lead to a chain reaction that the people of Afghanistan, the Hamid Karzai administration and Washington can ill afford: the return of the Taliban not tempered through negotiations but sharpened and fuelled by reactionary zeal.
The daily presence of American troops in the country has been hard enough for Afghans. But incidents such as the burning of copies of the Koran by some US troops and the latest slaughter by a member of an ‘occupying force’ throw any grin-and-bear-it attitude out of the window. The US wants the perpetrator to be tried at home in the US. Such reactions have put President Hamid Karzai, seen by many Afghans, even those not sympathetic to the Taliban, to be far too close to Washington for comfort, in an even more difficult spot than he has already been in.
Now, the Taliban is armed with a firmer handle to beat Mr Karzai’s government with.Of late, the Taliban has been increasingly active in areas outside Kabul. The very fact that militants attacked a government delegation visiting the sites where the US soldier slayed villagers shows how local sensibilities have been affected. Two of Mr Karzai’s brothers were part of this team. The US policy in Afghanistan has been inconsistent. It has not done enough on the ground when it comes to winning over people. And quite clearly, it has not done much in explaining itself when incidents such as the latest one take place. Afghans are getting fed up of the lack of sensitivity shown to them by American forces — even though such displays may emanate from only small groups within an otherwise made-to-behave army. It is all very fine for the US to ‘dismiss’ the latest incident as a horrible anomaly. But this has made the December 2014 deadline of US troop pull-out suddenly face serious queries.
The latest incident may have been a random act of mindless violence, but an act that can be repeated, throwing up the whole question of whether America can afford to scamper out of a country that it may leave in a bigger mess than when it started its campaign in 2001. The killings will have to be factored in when Mr Obama and Mr Karzai talk again about US troops withdrawal. In election mode, the US may be less interested in Afghanistan now. But the incident should be a wake-up call regarding the need to not turn its back to Afghanistan and help it turn again into a full-blown breeding ground of violent fundamentalism as it had been after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 with consequences in 2001. And with India now closer to the US than a decade before, there can be consequences in having two unfriendly difficult western neighbours rather than the current one.