Questions and answers: Why haven't there been protests, and why does Panjwai matter?
An American soldier accused of massacring 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children sleeping in their beds, has helped plunge the U.S. image in Afghanistan to its lowest point during the decadelong war, a UNO administrator and renowned Afghan expert said Monday.
The timing of the mass killing — just weeks after a Koran burning that sparked mass protests in Afghanistan — temporarily hampers the United States' ability to successfully wind down the war, said Tom Gouttierre, director of University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Afghanistan Studies.
It will also give American enemies such as the Taliban at least a short-term popularity boost, said Gouttierre and others interviewed Monday, especially if American leaders don't personally apologize to family members of the dead and quickly prosecute the soldier.
"I think the combination of these things has now put our reputation and our credibility in greater doubt than anything I can recall in the past decade," said Gouttierre, who stressed that he continues to support U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
"You remember how the Bush administration was faulted for not responding to Hurricane Katrina? Well, (the Obama administration and military leaders) need to avoid a similar situation in this man-made disaster."
Gouttierre and other Nebraskans with experience in Afghanistan say part of the tragedy is that cultural and historical disconnects will most likely cause Afghans to perceive the massacre much differently than Americans do.
In America, they say, the attack will probably be viewed with horror but also as the work of a lone gunman, based on early reports.
In Afghanistan, rumors are already swirling that the soldier didn't act alone but was part of a coordinated strike.
Word of mouth is a common way to get news in Afghanistan, especially in rural parts of the country, like the Panjwai district where the mass killing occurred.
And most adult Afghans have seen an untold number of coordinated killings during their lifetimes. In the past four decades, Afghan civilians have lost their lives during indiscriminate bombing campaigns by the Soviet Army, then indiscriminate shelling and extortion-driven violence during a brutal civil war, and then during a Taliban era marked by violent religious zealotry and attacks on ethnic minorities.
During the decadelong American and international campaign in Afghanistan, regular Afghans had come to trust the foreign troops more than they trusted Pakistan and Iran, their neighbors to the east and west, Gouttierre says.
But that trust has been repeatedly disrupted by high-profile incidents inside Afghanistan: at least three instances of Koran burning, a cultural and religious taboo. A video showing U.S. Marines allegedly urinating on dead Taliban fighters. And now the massacre in Panjwai, a rural district southwest of Kandahar.
Nebraska National Guard Capt. Zach Labrayere, who served as a troop commander when the Guard's 1-134th Cavalry Squadron was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, said members of his unit dealt with several negative incidents that forced them to work hard to keep the trust of the Afghan soldiers and police officers they were training.
Labrayere and his fellow Nebraska Guard members tried to be extremely respectful of the religious wishes of the Afghan soldiers and police, stopping work, for example, to allow the Afghans to pray at the proper time.
And they learned to take even seemingly positive actions — the distribution of school supplies in a village outside Kabul, for instance — to the village elders for approval, partly to avoid any accidental missteps that could turn the event sour.
Despite that doggedness, Labrayere found himself responding to negative events like violence in the area, even violence that had nothing to do with the Nebraska National Guard. When something bad happened, he would immediately pick up the phone.
"The first thing we would do is contact our (Afghan soldiers and police) and just talk. ... You just have to begin discussing it right away, to get out in front of that rumor mill. How can we help? Are you doing all right?" Labrayere said.
The Afghans tended to appreciate that concern and respond warmly the next time he saw them in person, he said.
"They'd say, 'Thank you,' " he said. "The communication was the key."
The massacre will do little to help with American or Afghan support for the continued war, which began in late 2001.
In results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted before the killings and released Sunday, 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the war in Afghanistan has been "not worth fighting."
President Barack Obama called the episode "absolutely tragic and heartbreaking," and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called it "inexplicable."
But she told reporters at the United Nations in New York, "This terrible incident does not change our steadfast dedication to protecting the Afghan people and to doing everything we can to build a strong and stable Afghanistan."
Many Republicans, whose party fought against a quick exodus from Iraq and criticized Obama's 2008 presidential campaign promise to end that war, are now reluctant to embrace a continued commitment in Afghanistan.
"We have to either make a decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out and probably get out sooner" than planned in 2014, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said Monday.
Said Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich: "I think that we're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may, frankly, not be doable."
Still, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney said, he "wouldn't jump to a new policy based upon some deranged, crazy person."
Under an agreement with the Afghan government, some U.S. and NATO forces are to stay in Afghanistan at least through the end of 2014.
Ironically and frustratingly, the massacre happened in Panjwai, a district best known as a birthplace of the Taliban. Mullah Omar, the Taliban's famed one-eyed leader, once served as a mujahedeen subcommander in the area.
In recent years, American special forces have routed Taliban militants out of their southern Afghan stronghold, bringing relative safety to a place long marred by warfare.
Safer until the mass killing.
"These families were caught by surprise," said Raheem Yaseer, the assistant director of UNO's center and an Afghan-American who fled to the United States during the Soviet occupation.
"Think about these families in the neighborhood. ... They looked at that (military) camp as a source of comfort and security. Then all of a sudden, they are hit from the same place that they thought protected them."
Why haven't there been widespread protests in Afghanistan since the weekend massacre, like the violent demonstrations in February when Afghans learned that American troops had burned several Korans?
After four decades of near-uninterrupted war, a regular Afghan might actually be more incensed by the burning of the Islamic holy book — a huge religious and cultural taboo — than the seemingly random killing of unarmed civilians. The former rarely, if ever, happens in Afghanistan. The latter happens regularly, says Raheem Yaseer, the assistant director of UNO's Center for Afghanistan Studies and a former professor at Kabul University.
The Taliban, for instance, have killed thousands of Afghans since 2001, he said. Some were killed because they were seen as American allies. Others died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time during a terrorist attack.
“It's not like Nebraska, where one incident (of violence) is a huge thing,” Yaseer said. “Afghanistan has suffered from many hands, from the Taliban, the mujahideen, the Soviets, Pakistan. ... They are somewhat used to these kind of things.”
Both Yaseer and Tom Gouttierre, director of UNO's Afghan center, also believe that violent protests could materialize later this week. News sometimes travels slowly in Afghanistan, and Friday is often the day when the largest protests occur.
Where is Panjwai, and why does it matter?
Panjwai, the site of the massacre, is a district — the equivalent of an American county — near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
It's an area dominated by various tribes of Pashtun ethnicity, and both its political and religious leaders tend to be extremely conservative and reactionary, Yaseer said. For example, UNO could not recruit female teachers from the area into its teacher training program; women are rarely seen or heard in the public spaces in Panjwai.
The area is commonly known as the birthplace of the Taliban. Mullah Omar, the Taliban's reclusive, one-eyed leader, once served as a military subcommander near here, Gouttierre said. In recent years, American forces have routed the Taliban in Panjwai, and the area has become relatively safe.
It's now unclear if that safety will continue. On Tuesday, motorcycle-riding militants attacked a memorial service for the 16 people slain during the massacre. At least one Afghan soldier died during the gunfire, which might have been aimed at two brothers of President Hamid Karzai who attended the memorial service.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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