After the Slaughter: Soldiers Mull the Future in Afghanistan
Since the March 11 massacre in Kandahar, in which Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly killed sixteen civilians, there’s been a distinct increase in tension in Afghanistan. Rocket attacks on NATO bases in the south are on the rise, according to multiple U.S. service members currently deployed there. On March 14 an Afghan employee of Camp Bastion deliberately drove a truck into a group of soldiers as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s plane was landing there. That same day 200 or so U.S. Marines were told to disarm before going into a Camp Leatherneck tent to hear Panetta speak. And the Taliban have walked away from negotiations, a process American and NATO diplomats have been cultivating for months.
At a March 14 press conference, President Obama and British Prime Minster David Cameron stressed that the shooting would change nothing, though they are accelerating the changeover of NATO forces from a combat to a support role in anticipation of a full exit in 2014. There are currently about 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan—down from 101,000 last summer, with plans to draw down to 68,000 by September.
At least some veterans and soldiers agree that the incident needn’t be a turning point. “This only has strategic ramifications if we decide it does,” Andrew Slater, a former Green Beret officer with multiple deployments to southern Afghanistan, told me. “Right now it sounds like it’s just one guy losing his mind, and it would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions from this, in terms of what’s happening across the country.” He also suggested that the accidental Koran burnings last month will resonate far longer with the Afghan people than what happened in the Panjwai district of Kandahar—the complete inverse of the reaction stateside.
On the tactical and operational levels, too, the murders might have little impact. Commenting anonymously in order to speak more candidly, a U.S. Army company commander currently in Afghanistan wrote in an email, “I don’t see this changing too much, day-to-day. We’re already being asked to do the impossible, this just adds to it.”
The notion that the shooting will generate a renewal of hostilities is far-fetched because it’s difficult to restart something that’s never stopped. “[Panjwai has] always been one of the most violent parts of Kandahar,” Slater said, “in ‘04 and ‘05, we were doing big clearing campaigns in that valley.” After a pause, he added, “That was seven years ago.”
‘We’re already being asked to do the impossible,’ said one company commander, ‘this just adds to it.’