The killing of 16 Afghan civilians on March 11 has provoked intense protests in Afghanistan, and not only further deteriorated relations between the United States and Afghanistan, but also jeopardised the US’ Afghan strategy.

The US army in Afghanistan likes to regard itself as a liberating force that freed the country from the Taliban regime and set it on the road to democracy. But that is not how Afghan civilians see the US army, which they regard as an occupying army.

The US soldiers are different from Afghan civilians in lifestyle, religion and cultural tradition, and the US soldiers are unwilling to take the initiative to try and understand and respect the Afghan civilians’ religious culture.

Meanwhile, although the US army rotates its troops, many soldiers have returned to Afghanistan several times, and as the war has dragged on the troops have become increasingly demoralised and many soldiers suffer from depression.

This has contributed to the series of recent incidents, such as insulting the bodies of Taliban soldiers, burning the Quran and other religious materials, and the latest incident involving the shooting of civilians.

Although President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all apologised for the killings and declared there will be a thorough investigation, so far it is only a lone soldier, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who has been accused of the killings. The Afghan government and civilians have demanded the US army hand over the soldier for a public trial. But the US army in Afghanistan enjoys extraterritoriality and is not governed by Afghan laws. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accused the Pentagon of failing to fully cooperate with an investigation into the killings.

The killing of the 16 civilians, which included women and children, has angered Afghan civilians as well as the Taliban. Demonstrators have demanded the Karzai administration refuse to sign the agreement that will permit US advisers and maybe special military forces stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

After the death of Osama bin Laden, Obama announced plans to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by 2014, as the US’ financial condition means it can’t afford to spend any more on its forces in Afghanistan. The army began the withdrawal on July 1.

The Obama administration realises that the US army cannot defeat the Taliban, never mind eliminate it, and has tried to win over some of the Taliban fighters by saying there is a difference between the Taliban soldiers that fight for belief and ordinary people that fight because of poverty.

But the shooting of the civilians has made it impossible for the US to contact and negotiate with the Taliban, which has vowed revenge on the US army.

The Taliban’s attitude is quite clear, they want to join the process of national reconciliation, but on condition that all the foreign armies withdraw from Afghanistan.

Obama called Karzai to reaffirm plans for Afghan forces to take a lead in combat operations next year and assume full responsibility for security across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But the big issue surrounding the withdrawal of US troops is whether the Afghan government will be able to maintain basic stability on its own.

At present Afghan security forces are unable to maintain nationwide public safety. But the longer the US army stays in Afghanistan, the more incidents there will be, which will further fuel anti-US sentiment among civilians. Clearly Obama’s Afghan strategy is in danger of hitting the rocks.

The author is a researcher with the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

– China Daily