Leon Panetta's big task in Afghanistan is trust-building. Impossible?

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in Afghanistan to try to repair relations after the Quran-burning incident and a mass shooting of civilians. The fact that the US has spirited away the accused shooter complicates his mission.

Mohammad Ismail/AP
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, meets with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on March 15. Afghan lawmakers expressed anger over the US move to fly an American soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians out of the country to Kuwait, saying Kabul shouldn't sign a strategic partnership agreement with Washington unless the suspect faces justice in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Afghanistan this week highlights a looming and much-discussed casualty in the decade-long war: trust between US forces and their Afghan counterparts. 

Mr. Panetta’s goal in meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai Thursday is to try to mend these fissures before they become irreparable (if, critics say, they haven’t already). To do that, though, he must tackle some persistent sticking points in the relationship between the US military and Afghan officials. Chief among these: Special Operations night raids, which are widely reviled among Afghans, and accountability for US soldiers – in Afghan courts – for crimes against civilians, made all the more pressing after Sunday's massacre of 16 Afghans allegedly at the hands of a US soldier.

Well aware of these points, some US commanders on the ground have been launching their own trust-building efforts, of sorts, to reach out to Afghan security forces.

One such attempt was in evidence as Mr. Panetta touched down at the Marines’ Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday. An American commander ordered US troops to leave their weapons at the door before entering a hangar where Panetta was to address a crowd of 200.

The move was widely criticized – US troops should not be forced to give up their weapons in a war zone, some American television analysts raged. Marine Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus said he was simply trying to smooth relations with Afghan forces.

“Somebody had said we were going to have the Afghans leave their weapons outside,” Gurganus told Bloomberg News. “I wanted the Marines to look just like our Afghan partners.” 

The issue of equity is at the heart of Afghan demands that the rogue US soldier who allegedly went on a shooting rampage Sunday be held accountable in Afghan courts. The US has been unwilling to hand over its military personnel to foreign courts: In the case of Iraq, the Pentagon’s insistence on immunity for US troops accused of crimes against civilians ultimately led to the full military exodus from that country, as Iraqi officials refused to compromise on this point. 

Mr. Karzai, for his part, may be more willing to make a deal to keep US forces in Afghanistan past 2014, when combat troops are slated to leave. This is at least in part because he has little choice, analysts point out: The Karzai government would be in danger of collapse if US forces abruptly pulled up stakes. 

Still, “the Karzai question is actually quite interesting. He’s a very savvy guy. It’s very easy for us sitting over here to say, ‘Oh, he’s having a tantrum,’ but if you look carefully at the way he chooses his words and what he actually says, it’s more telling,” says Paraag Shukla, a former defense intelligence analyst.

Often, Karzai practices “classic brinksmanship,” adds Mr. Shukla, now a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “He digs his heels in like he’s not going to compromise at all, but he’ll make concessions when it’s politically viable.”

Will Karzai ultimately agree to a post-2014 deal in which US troops are immune from prosecution in Afghan courts? In part, he'll answer that by assessing public opinion. So far, street protests in the aftermath of the soldier rampage have been less hostile than those that followed revelations that US military forces had mistakenly burned Qurans at a prison in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month.

To some extent, that is because Afghans have come to expect violence from US troops, says Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and a former civilian cultural adviser to the US Army.

The families of those killed in the murderous attacks on Sunday reportedly did not react at first because they thought they had been targeted by US special operations forces in one of the many night raids.

The night raids have become contentious. Afghans resent “being roughed up by Americans” in their homes at night, but they are used to it, Mr. Foust says. Still, they erode the trust between the US military and Afghan civilians and create "this expectation of violence from American personnel.”

The Pentagon is unwilling to give up these raids, despite those implications. “There’s this entrenched viewpoint within the military and special operations community that night raids are so effective that they couldn’t possibly relent, because it’s the only piece of real leverage they have against the insurgency,” Foust adds.

Retired Gen. David Barno, commander of US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, says night raids not only are effective, but they they are also generally nonviolent in the conventional sense. “The vast majority of night raids haven’t produced any casualties, and very often are being done without firing a shot.”

Panetta and Karzai will likely opt to delink the issue of night raids from the next security agreement and table it for now, in order to move forward on broader discussions, Shukla says.

In the meantime, US mentoring of Afghan security forces must be stepped up, even in the midst of a crisis of trust, American officials warn.

“I’m not going to say that the US military isn’t willing to give up [night raids]," says Barno. “But they are going to need to make sure there are very well-trained Afghans who can take up this role.”

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