NATO's Afghan strategy tested as Taliban talks derail, Karzai demands troop pullback

Details are emerging about US soldier who killed Afghan civilians in a rampage that spurred Afghan President Karzai to demand that US troops leave village outposts.  

Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai speaks during a meeting with the family members of civilians killed by a US soldier in Kandahar last week at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mar. 16.

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NATO’s strategy for Afghanistan was upended yesterday by the derailment of talks with the Taliban and the almost simultaneous demand from Afghan President Hamid Karzai that coalition troops leave village outposts and concentrate their presence on major military bases. 

A senior Western diplomat told The Guardian, “I’m really shocked, these are two pieces of very bad news … It’s probably the bleakest day of my time here in Afghanistan.”

The two developments come after a couple of very difficult weeks for the coalition: First, there was severe fallout from the accidental burning of several Qurans on NATO airbase; and this week, there were several protests following the shooting of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier.

If NATO agrees to Mr. Karzai’s demand, “it would spell the end for the current coalition military approach, which aims to push out insurgents and win over the civilian population village by village,” the Guardian reports. But the Obama administration “rebuffed” Karzai’s demands, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said there were no plans to change the current strategy.

The Los Angeles Times painted the demands as political posturing that would not be acted on, although they are a worrying indicator about Afghan attitudes toward NATO.

In practical terms, both developments might prove largely symbolic. Karzai does not have the power to enforce specific demands as to where Western troops are deployed, and U.S. contacts with the Taliban were in the very early stages.

However, taken together, the moves point to a rapidly souring mood on the part of two major players in the conflict and to a growing sense of disarray in the American-led coalition's plans to find a way out of this decade-old war.

More on the rogue US soldier

Meanwhile, a sketch is emerging of the soldier who left his base in Kandahar and shot 16 civilians in their homes earlier this week. Although he was on his first tour in Afghanistan, it was his fourth military tour since 2001. He did three previous tours in Iraq and was injured twice. He did not want to go to Afghanistan, and his brigade was initially told it would not be redeployed after the third tour, his lawyer said yesterday, according to Associated Press.

While in Iraq, the soldier was in a car accident caused by a roadside bomb and was injured in a battle, requiring him to have part of his foot removed, lawyer John Henry Browne said. The soldier was apparently screened by health workers for a head injury from the car accident before redeploying in December. The day before the shooting, he saw a friend’s leg get blown off, the soldier’s family told Mr. Browne.

An unnamed senior US official told The New York Times that the soldier had been drinking alcohol and was under stress from his combat tour and marital problems the night of the shooting. “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol, and domestic issues – he just snapped,” the official said, who was briefed on the case but could not speak on record because the soldier hasn’t been charged.

Browne disputed allegations that the suspect, who is married and has two young children, was drinking at the time of the shooting and that stress and/or marital issues caused him to “snap,” according to AP. He has a “fabulous” marriage, Browne said. His family was “totally shocked. … He's never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He's in general very mild-mannered."

“The government is going to want to blame this on an individual rather than blame it on the war,” Browne said as he dismissed claims of stress and drinking, according to the Times. He  said the soldier had “been decorated many, many times” and was a “career military man.”

Browne’s previous clients include the serial killer Ted Bundy and Colton Harris-Moore, the “Barefoot Bandit,” according to AP.

The soldier is expected to be transferred today from Kuwait, where he is being held on a US base, to a base in the US after protest from the Kuwait government, which was not told in advance that the soldier was being brought to the country, The Telegraph reports.

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