Outrage over a murderous rampage by a rogue American soldier who killed 16 villagers gripped Afghanistan Monday as parliament called for a public trial and Taliban insurgents vowed revenge.
The United States embassy issued fresh warnings to its citizens of possibly violent protests, while the latest setback in America’s longest war threatened negotiations with the Afghan government on its exit strategy.
The American walked off his base in southern Kandahar province and broke into three village homes before dawn Sunday, killing 16 people including women and children -- an event described by Afghan President Hamid Karzai as “unforgivable.”
“We seriously demand and expect that the government of the United States punish the culprits and try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan,” parliament said in statement before closing for the day in protest.
Condemning the killings as “brutal and inhuman”, parliament declared that “people are running out of patience over the ignorance of foreign forces”.
Threats of revenge
It is the latest in a series of actions by troops that has provoked outrage in Afghanistan, and comes just weeks after the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base sparked riots that killed 40 people and plunged ties to an all-time low.
The Taliban, leading a 10-year insurgency against U.S.-led foreign troops and the government in Kabul, threatened to take revenge against “sick-minded American savages” for those that died.
Braced for the worst, the U.S. embassy urged its citizens in Afghanistan to take extra precautions, warning against “a risk of anti-American feelings and protests in coming days especially in eastern and southern provinces”.
But there were no reports of protests by evening Monday, and community leaders in Kandahar appeared to be trying to prevent any outbreak of violence.
“The people have told us ‘we won’t resort to violence, we won’t demonstrate, but we want our government to deliver justice and bring the person responsible to justice’,” a prominent tribal elder and member of Kandahar Provincial Council told AFP.
“We have promised them, the government has promised them that they will pursue this at high levels,” said Haji Agha Lalai, who hosted a large gathering of tribal elders from Panjwayi district in his Kandahar home.
U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to promise a speedy investigation into the “shocking” killings, and an American soldier is in military detention over the shootings.
Strategic pact at risk
Sunday’s massacre poses an acute test of the U.S.-Afghan alliance, as the two countries pursue difficult talks on securing a strategic pact to govern their partnership once foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
The civilian deaths may force Karzai to harden his stand in the partnership talks to appease a public already critical of his government’s performance.
Without a pact that keeps U.S. advisors or special forces in Afghanistan, there is a danger that civil war could erupt again in because ill-trained Afghan forces would be unable to keep insurgents at bay.
“The killings in Kandahar cast a long shadow over negotiations on a strategic partnership deal and certainly give greater leverage to Karzai,” Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group told AFP.
“The question of immunity for U.S. troops remaining in the country after the end of combat operations in 2014 will come to the forefront.”
Karzai spoke by telephone with the families of those killed, including Rafihullah, a 15-year-old boy wounded in the leg who told the president the soldier had torn the dresses of the women in the house and insulted them.
“He came to my uncle’s home, he was running after women, he was tearing their dresses, insulting them,” Rafihullah said on an audiotape of the conversation heard by AFP.
“He killed my uncle and killed our servant and killed my grandma, he shot dead my uncle’s son, his daughter,” the boy said.
The Taliban wasted no time in trying to capitalize on the killings, sending fighters to mosques in Kandahar’s Panjwayi district as the funerals of the victims of the shootings took place, urging villagers to rise up.
“They were telling the people: ‘The invading infidel Americans come to your homes, insult your women and kill your children, what are you waiting for? You should come out and demonstrate’,” local resident Abdul Khaliq told AFP.
Kandahar is a stronghold of the Taliban fighting to oust Karzai’s government, which is supported by some 130,000 U.S.-led NATO troops.
Afghan resentment of U.S. forces was also provoked in January by a video posted online showing U.S. Marines urinating on the bloodied corpses of slain Afghan insurgents -- an incident condemned by the Pentagon.
In November, the ringleader of a rogue American “kill team” charged with murder for shooting civilians for sport was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison by a military panel.
But the vast majority of civilian deaths in the Afghan war are attributed to the Taliban. A total of 3,021 civilians died in the war last year, according to a U.N. report, which blamed 77 percent of the deaths on the militia.