Killing spree reignites U.S. debate on Afghan exit strategy

U.S. soldiers keep watch at the entrance of a U.S. base in Panjwai district Kandahar province, March 11, 2012. The U.S. embassy in Kabul warned on Sunday that anti-American reprisals are possible after Western forces went on a rampage in southern Kandahar province. (Reuters)

A killing spree by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan that left 16 civilians dead reignited debate on Sunday over the U.S. exit strategy from a decade old war amid growing frustration and resentment in both countries.

The U.S. commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan, General John Allen, promised a swift and thorough investigation of the incident and said it would not diminish the spirit of cooperation with Afghan security forces.

But the shooting spree, which erupted early Sunday when a U.S. soldier walked out of his base in southern Kandahar province and opened fire on men, women and children in a shocking rampage, drew sharp questions here about the long-term viability of the U.S. mission.

“There’s something profoundly wrong with how we’re approaching the whole region and I think it’s going to get substantially worse, not better,” said Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.

“I think it’s very likely that we have lost, tragically lost, the lives and suffered injuries of a considerable number of young Americans on a mission that we’re going to discover is not doable,” he said on Fox News Sunday.

President Barack Obama has set a 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of the 130,000-member U.S.-led NATO force from Afghanistan, even as Washington juggles the training of Afghan security forces to take their place and possible negotiations with the Taliban.

But U.S. relations with its Afghan partners have plunged to an all-time low in the meantime, putting immense strains on a military mission that is now over a decade old and only getting messier with time.

Deadly riots sparked by the accidental burning of Korans by U.S. troops, the murders of U.S. troops by Afghan, and a video showing marines urinating on the corpses of slain insurgents are only the latest signs of a deepening estrangement between the NATO force and their Afghan allies.

In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned Sunday’s killings as “unforgivable,” opening a new round of recriminations with Washington where at least one prominent member of Congress singled out Karzai as “a major question mark” over the U.S. exit strategy.

“The great weakness in Afghanistan is Karzai. Nobody seems to trust him or like him,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York on ABC’s “This Week.”

The tensions seem certain to complicate Washington’s efforts to negotiate a long-term strategic partnership with Kabul that would set the basis for a continuing security relationship after U.S. troops.

Washington has an interest in insuring that Afghanistan is not used once again as a base for attacks against the United States and the West, as hawkish Republicans pointed out on the Sunday talk shows.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on ABC’s “This Week” he hoped a strategic partnership “will stop the narrative we’re leaving, that there will be a follow-on force post-2014 with air bases and special forces units to make sure the Taliban never come back and that NATO will stay past 2014.”

Senator John McCain, another influential Republican, reminded CNN viewers that the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States originated in Afghanistan.

“And if Afghanistan dissolved into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an al-Qaeda base for attacks on the United States of America,” he said.

But pressure also appears to be growing for a speedier pullout.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters last month he hopes the U.S. forces in Afghanistan can make the transition from combat to training and advising the Afghan forces by mid-2013.

“I think that we’re on the right track to get out of Afghanistan just as soon as we can,” Senator Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, said on CNN Sunday.

“I think some of the things that are going on we didn’t expect would happen this quickly. There’s peace talks starting in Qatar. Taliban have set up offices there. There’s conversations going on,” he said.

“I think we’re going to find out that hopefully we can get out of there as scheduled and things will be stabilized when we do that,” he said.

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