Rampage in Afghanistan puts long-term US presence in peril

Yesterday's shooting spree by a US soldier has sharpened Afghan desires for foreign troops to be subject to Afghan courts. The issue is complicating a deal on keeping US bases here beyond 2014.

Allauddin Khan/AP
Afghan soldiers, left, walk past a U.S. Army soldier outside of a military base in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, March 11.
Allauddin Khan/AP
An Afghan youth mourns for relatives, who were allegedly killed by a U.S. service member in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, March. 11. A U.S. service member walked out of a base in southern Afghanistan before dawn Sunday and started shooting Afghan civilians, according to villagers and Afghan and NATO officials.

In the wake of a shooting reportedly carried out by a rogue American sergeant, calls are growing louder among Afghans for international military members to be held accountable in Afghan courts when they stand accused of committing a crime. If the demand continues to gain traction, it has the potential to seriously strain or even undo a long-term strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the US.

The shooting occurred on Sunday when an American soldier walked off his base at around 3:00 a.m. At a village nearly a mile away, he then allegedly stalked from house to house murdering at least 16 people, mostly women and children, before returning to his base where he turned himself in.

In an instance such as this one, just who handles the court hearing and doles out the punishment has long proven a controversial point in Afghanistan and one that ultimately ended the US military presence in Iraq.

“I’m sure that the government will start talking to the foreigners about the prosecution of the foreign soldiers in Afghanistan after this incident. The Afghan government looks serious about it now,” says Rohullah Qarizada, head of Afghanistan’s Bar Association. “In the past, foreign soldiers committed crimes and the Afghan government could not prosecute them. Now I believe the Afghan government learned from the past and it will talk to the Americans about it.”

In Afghanistan, US troops fall under the Military Technical Agreement, which ensures that any US service member accused of wrongdoing will be held accountable by US military law and proceedings.

US forces are scheduled to end their combat mission at the end of 2013 and withdraw their forces by 2014. However, Afghan and American officials have been negotiating a strategic agreement that could keep US troops stationed here for at least 10 years after the 2014 deadline.

When local Afghan leaders met to discuss such an agreement in November, they endorsed a lingering US presence beyond 2014 provided, among other conditions, that American troops accused of breaking the law are tried in Afghan courts.

So far, the US military has proven unwilling to hand over its own to local courts for criminal proceedings. In Iraq, US and Iraqi officials reached an impasse on the issue last fall. Iraqi lawmakers wanted US soldiers held accountable by local courts. American officials refused this condition and withdrew their forces rather than make them subject to the Iraqi court system.

Afghanistan may prove more complicated, however. While many, if not most Afghans, have grown tired and frustrated with the presence of international troops, many want US bases to remain in the country as a deterrent to potential regional interference.

The handling of Sunday’s shooting may shape Afghans’ views on the issue going forward.

Debate in Parliament

On Monday, the Afghan parliament postponed discussion of its regularly scheduled agenda to address the shooting. The legislators issued a statement condemning the incident and calling for the shooter’s punishment to take place in Afghanistan.

“For us, the important thing is the freedom of a single Afghan, his security, and his respect. Our priority is to assure that every single Afghan has these rights, rather than the presence of these foreign troops here,” says Qazi Abdul Rahim, a member of parliament from Badghis and a former judge.

Still, there remains an understanding among many Afghans that their justice system may lack the capability to handle such cases.

“If we look at our courts, we have lots of problems. We don’t have professional people, and there is bribery and corruption. Since our own justice system cannot provide the proper services to the Afghans, how can they do it for the foreigners?” says Kamal Safai, a member of parliament.

Still he contends that it would be an important step forward to see the shooter tried in Afghanistan. The ideal scenario, he says, would include a judicial hearing made up of a joint Afghan and American panel.

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