The Panjwai massacre may not affect the U.S. schedule for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has dealt a major blow to the Obama Administration's plan to slowly shift the military burden there from conventional units to Special Forces who rely on cooperation from the civilian population. And the setback occurred in an area that had become a key focus of the counterinsurgency effort.
"The relations between the U.S. forces and the Afghan people have been greatly affected by the massacre," the head of the quasi-governmental Panjwai District Development Assembly, Hajji Niak Mohammad, tells TIME. "It has caused a big gap to form between the U.S. military and the Afghans. [The Americans] had come to fight against the insurgency and to bring peace and stability. People did not expect such a wild action."
No matter how many times President Obama apologizes for the mass killing of civilians by an American soldier early Sunday morning, the damage has already been done. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, visiting Camp Leatherneck in the desert in southern Helmand province while on a previously scheduled visit to Afghanistan, told Marines Wednesday that "Each of these incidents is deeply troubling" and that "We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve." But, to the villagers in Panjwai district, in war-wracked Kandahar province, apologies are beside the point "individual incidents" are defining how Afghans see the U.S. presence, and fueling demands for it to end.
"At the beginning, when [the Americans] first came to Afghanistan, people were really optimistic," says Hajji Mohammad. "People believed in them. People thought they had come to rebuild Afghanistan, to bring peace and stability, to contribute people and economic support. But, slowly, slowly this belief has faded and been destroyed. The people don't trust the U.S. military anymore."
That erosion of trust underscores the flaw at the very heart of U.S. policy in in Afghanistan, regardless of Panetta telling the Marines at Camp Leatherneck that "our strategy is working". Effective counterinsurgency depends on winning the support of the civilian population, but that becomes impossible when the locals lose trust and respect not only because of egregious crimes like the murder of 16 civilians, but also through the small offenses and disappointments meted out daily by a poorly-informed military force from an alien culture that only spends six months to a year in an area before rotating home.
The Panjwai murders happened in villages adjacent to a U.S. Special Forces compound, where the accused perpetrator was part of a static security detail for the forces expected to take on more of the responsibility for waging the war. Special Forces are deemed better able to build strong relationships with villagers through their Village Stabilization Operations (VSOs) and their setting up and training of Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces.
Says Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation political analyst and sometime-adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, "U.S. and Afghan Special Operations Forces have played a growing role in pushing into rural parts of Kandahar (and other provinces) to help local communities improve their security, governance (mostly informal governance through jirgas) and development. Unlike efforts to train Afghan National Security Forces and improve the formal justice system, Village Stability Operations are inherently bottom-up programs."
Jones explains that Panjwai, along with several other districts outside of Kandahar City such as Shah Wali Kot, Maiwand, and Khakrez, have become a focus of U.S. and Afghan counterinsurgency efforts because of their strategic importance. "Over the past several years, Panjwai has not been pacified by either the Taliban or Afghan and NATO forces, but has repeatedly changed hands following intense and extremely violent fighting."