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Afghan Civilian Killings Give Taliban ‘Valuable Propaganda,’ Analyst Says

March 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
At the U.N. Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the killing of 16 Afghan civilians near Kandahar, calling the alleged attack by a U.S. soldier "inexplicable." Gwen Ifill, RAND Corporation's Seth Jones and New America Foundation's Steve Clemons discuss the additional strain on already tense U.S.-Afghan relations.

GWEN IFILL: Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, told CNN the shooting was a regrettable, isolated incident that will not derail a resilient U.S.-Afghan relationship.

Not everyone agrees.

We turn now to Seth Jones, who worked for the commander of U.S. special forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, and is now a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and Steve Clemons, editor at large at The Atlantic and director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

First, we had the desecration of the corpses. Then we had the burning of the Quran. Is this strike three?

STEVEN CLEMONS, New America Foundation: Well, I think it’s strike three.

I know that there’s a difference of opinion out there, but it’s hard to imagine an incident that could become more viral, and not only in what — the tragedy of what just unfolded, but of being something that the Taliban can exploit over time, because there’s such an immediate call now for justice against or from the person who allegedly committed these crimes.

And our U.S. military system of justice is going to run right against the Afghan expectation of how their justice system should work. So this incident will remain ripe and alive for a long period of time and I think be very substantial in souring a relationship and changing the dynamics of how President Karzai makes his choices in the future and how he positions himself vis-a-vis the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Seth Jones, can this single incident or the accumulation of incidents sour that relationship?

SETH JONES, RAND Corporation: I think it will be unhelpful, but I don’t think it will ultimately be a third strike.

And I think when you look at the situation in context, I would say a couple of things stand out. One is that the Taliban still is killing, as the previous interview indicated, the vast majority of civilians in Afghanistan.

So, from an Afghan population sense, again, I would say they have dealt with three decades now of civilian casualties. So this is not as out of the norm as it’s appearing now in the American media.

The second thing I would say that’s important is there has to be an effort from the American commander to go on the ground and talk to the families and the local tribal elders and express his condolences.

GWEN IFILL: But, you know, we saw the president, we saw the secretary of state, we saw the NATO and U.S. forces commander all come out today and go — bend over backwards to say that they were sorry about this. Doesn’t that reflect that it’s more than just the media reacting?

SETH JONES: No, I — well, I think, in context of the recent Quran burnings, this is a strategic issue.

But I still think, in the broader context, we have got a — Afghanistan has suffered three decades of war. It will probably continue to suffer several decades more of war. So I do think the issue the president is probably having to deal with more than anything else is a domestic one. He now has his party, which doesn’t support the war in Afghanistan, and a growing number now of some of the Republican candidates don’t either.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about domestic — the domestic effect, not only here, but also in Afghanistan. We heard Heidi Vogt just now talk about the effect on negotiations with the Taliban.

Do you think this has direct — there’s a direct connection?

STEVE CLEMONS: Well, I think this has given the Taliban an edge and a piece of very valuable propaganda.

I think that whatever may be going on behind the scenes in trying to negotiate some deal with the Taliban, with the Afghan government’s inclusion and the Pakistan government allowing it to happen, that the correlation of forces, if you will, just shifted a bit more towards the Taliban, that whatever edge we thought we might have had gave way somewhat with this incident.

And I think that, to a certain degree — and I agree with Seth that this has been, you know, such a cauldron of horror for so long for so many people that part of the issue internally is, the Taliban have done awful things. But the United States was the trusted player. Many Afghans look at the fact that inside their country, they see Iran, they see China, they see India, they see others meddling inside their domestic operation.

And the U.S. was supposed to be the trusted ally. And this makes it easier. . .

GWEN IFILL: It didn’t sound like that coming from Hamid Karzai.

STEVE CLEMONS: No, no. And I don’t think he can position himself to be that close to the United States while there is so much anger about this incident.

And I think that really does damage the ability to talk, because what most Afghans are beginning to realize — and they have acquiesced to — is the U.S. is on its way out. And they see two or three more decades of turmoil and civil war as being the life they’re likely to have. And this makes the punctuation point of a departure point with the United States easier. And that’s really tragic.

GWEN IFILL: Part of what was supposed to make this go more smoothly was the creation of programs like this village stabilization program, where U.S. forces were inserted into the countryside and help to smooth things out and create some sort of stability.

This is where this came from. This is where this fellow allegedly came from. Does that end this program?

SETH JONES: Actually, no.

I think, when you look at the village stability operations and the Afghan local police program across both the east and the south, that actually has contributed to a decline of Taliban-controlled territory more than almost any other program. So, in fact, it’s been quite successful.

And the concerns that most people had is that this was building Afghan militia, and it was these militia forces that were going to turn predatory. Actually, ironically, it was an American soldier operating out in rural areas that committed the most recent abuse, rather than the Afghans themselves.

GWEN IFILL: How about the timetable? There is a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. Does this sort of thing speed it up? Does it slow it down? Does it make people here or there more nervous about. . .

STEVE CLEMONS: Well, Seth and I may disagree about this. And we’re — I’m to some degree speculating, but we had a bit of tug of war between Gen. John Allen and the White House about what the timeline would be.

John Allen wanted to keep those forces in place as long as he could, up until the departure date. The White House and particularly Vice President Biden made it very clear that there would be a paced drawdown, meaning segments by segment, that we would not draw down the full balance of forces all at the end of 2014.

My sense is that, with Leon Panetta’s comments recently that combat operations would stop in 2013, that you’re beginning to see something that’s a combination of strategy and looking at an increasingly toxic environment that I think will make that drawdown faster and more robust on the front end. I could be wrong.

But it’s also tied to what the Taliban want and what these negotiations come out. There’s a set of negotiations that we don’t see happening in which both sides are trying to position in how they deal with each other. And to some degree, I think Panetta’s comments were in part signaling to the Taliban what a possible — not a concession, but what is possible.

And I suspect that the pressure to bring our troops home more quickly will increase.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that?

SETH JONES: Well, I think what’s unclear right now — and the administration has been very careful on what it said — is that it’s unclear what happens in 2013, 2014 and beyond.

Will that mean zero U.S. forces? I have never heard anybody privately say that means zero. The talk now is 15,000 to 20,000 or 25,000, somewhere in that category. I think the subject of discussion now is, will this be mostly a move away from a conventional counterinsurgency model to more special operations and CIA units, much like the U.S. was involved in the Philippines or Colombia or El Salvador?

That’s a very different model than what the U.S. has been involved in over the last several years.

GWEN IFILL: A final thought, and it’s something that Steve Clemons referred to early on in our conversation, which is that there might not be a lot of patience for the American version of justice in this sort of thing, that here we have an alleged shooter whose name we still don’t know. They want to charge him first. They want to take him through the U.S. justice system. And there may not be any stomach for that.

STEVE CLEMONS: I think it’s really one of the things that I worry about most.

This is not a drone attack. This is not some accident or something where you’ve got a machine, a mechanism or something that is nameless behind it. There is going to be a person’s name attached to this crime. And there’s going to be an appetite in Afghanistan for immediate and severe and quick and, they would say, appropriate justice.

And I don’t think our system can generate that. And every day that this person remains outside of what the Afghans would consider to be appropriate justice, the Taliban have something to wave a flag around and to continue to rile emotions and to destabilize what was already a very, very bad situation inside Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: And, yet, no protests today yet.

SETH JONES: No protests. Again, I would say Afghans, for better or worse — definitely for worse — are used to being killed.

The issue here of Quran burnings and an insult to Islam is what led to the broader demonstrations.

GWEN IFILL: They’re used to being killed on purpose in a targeted way with children and women involved?

SETH JONES: Well, again, when you sit down, as I have, with many local Afghan villagers, they will count over the last three decades multiple instances of their children, their fathers, their uncles who have been killed in a range of horrific ways.

GWEN IFILL: Seth Jones, Steve Clemons, thank you both very much.

STEVE CLEMONS: Thank you, Gwen.

SETH JONES: Thank you, Gwen.