The outrage from the back-to-back episodes of Quran burning and the killing on Sunday of at least 16 Afghan civilians imperils what the Obama administration once saw as an orderly plan for 2012: to speed the training of Afghan forces so that they can take the lead in combat missions, all while drawing the Taliban into negotiations to end more than a decade of constant war.
President Obama and his aides had once hoped that by now they would have cemented the narrative that the Taliban were a spent force being pounded into peace negotiations and recognising that they could never retake control of the nation.
But in conversations on Sunday, both in Washington and Kabul, some American military and civilian officials acknowledged that the events would embolden the hardliners within the Taliban.
“The fear,” one American military official said, “is that all these incidents, taken together, play into the Taliban’s account of how we treat the Afghan religion and people. And while we all know that’s a false account — think how many the Taliban have killed, and never once taken responsibility — it’s a very hard perception to combat.”
As recently as last week, testifying before the Senate, admiral James G Stavridis, the overall commander of Nato forces, declared, “I believe we will have an enduring partnership between Nato and the Republic of Afghanistan” beyond 2014.
The speed with which Washington reacted to the news of the killings on Sunday — an attack that was said to be carried out by a single American soldier — underscored the depth of the concern that such an agreement could become harder and harder to sell to Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president. Karzai has for long been accused of being a lapdog of the US.
Both Obama and defence secretary Leon E Panetta called Karzai, promising a full investigation and offering deep regrets and an assurance that anyone involved in the killings would be held to account.
There are two major concerns that grow out of these episodes. The first has to do with the training mission. After the Quran burning, there were fears in the military that it would become harder for American or Nato military trainers to move freely among an Afghan Army force of 3,50,000 troops, most of whom are poorly trained.
The second concern is even harder to assess: that the Taliban will conclude that events like this will, in the end, only increase the pressure on the US to get out quickly.
Taliban vows revenge
The Taliban has vowed revenge against the US after the incident in which 16 Afghans were killed. US troops in Afghanistan have been placed on high alert. The Taliban said in a statement on their website Monday that “American savages” committed the “blood-soaked and inhumane crime”. Agencies