The slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians apparently at the hands of a U.S. Army sergeant Sunday was a shocking atrocity. The United States needs to thoroughly investigate the killings and share the findings quickly and openly. The shootings mark another setback after 11 years of fighting and a long, frustrating search for a satisfactory exit. The United States needs to be as realistic as altruistic as it looks ahead.
According to U.S. and Afghan officials, the soldier left his base early Sunday in the southern part of the country and walked a mile to several rural villages in the Panjwai district. He went house to house, breaking down doors and firing inside, and later set fire to some of his victims. Nine of the dead were children; three were women. Authorities say the soldier surrendered to a search party on his return to base.
President Barack Obama was right to express condolences and remind the world that the attack does not represent "the exceptional character of our military" or the regard Americans have for the Afghan people. That sentiment was doomed to reach deaf ears in many in that war-weary country. The killings come after the recent burning of Korans by American personnel and a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead militants. The Taliban already have launched reprisal attacks, including the attempted assassination Tuesday of two brothers of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Both sides should realize that any escalation will only lead to more loss of life and a public relations victory for the Taliban.
The American military needs to answer how the soldier could have left the base alone and if he should have even been there. Before being posted to Afghanistan, he reportedly served three tours in Iraq, where according to a story published in the Washington Post, he suffered a traumatic head injury. He later was declared fit for duty, though his home military base is under investigation after allegations that its medical unit had whitewashed the diagnoses of stress-related disorders for hundreds of soldiers. The investigation needs to show whether the suspect's case was involved and whether he was suited for his assignment.
The incident raises anew the question of what NATO hopes to achieve by staying through the end of 2014, when it intends to hand over military operations to Afghan security forces. Despite the souring of relations recently, the United States and Afghanistan agreed last week on a plan for Afghans to take over the main coalition military prison. The Obama administration was also looking at speeding up the withdrawal of American forces next year, in part over growing skepticism that a continued presence will have an effect over the long term.
Sunday's attack is no cause for the administration to abandon negotiations over having NATO maintain a security presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. But the Obama administration needs to be realistic about the fatigue Americans feel after 11 years in Afghanistan. America's appetite for containing Islamic militarism far beyond its shores is waning; a new Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted before Sunday's attack found that few Americans sensed that Afghans supported the U.S. effort. The threat to any long-term security relationship is not an isolated act of violence but the growing divide between the sacrifices Americans have made and Karzai's personal agenda. Obama should do everything possible to pragmatically reduce troop levels and bring the war to a reasonable conclusion.