Kandahar - The massacre of 16 villagers by a United States soldier has triggered angry calls for an immediate American exit from Afghanistan as Washington tries to negotiate a long-term presence to keep the country from sliding into chaos again.
Just days before Sunday's attack, Kabul and Washington had made significant progress in negotiations on a Strategic Partnership Agreement that would allow American advisers and special forces to stay in Afghanistan after foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
But securing a full deal may be far more difficult now after the shooting spree in villages in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban heartland, which killed mostly women and children.
“This could delay the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement,” an Afghan government official told Reuters.
The attack was the latest incident to ignite anger at the United States in Afghanistan.
It involved an Army staff sergeant, now in US custody in Kandahar, walked off the Belambai base in the middle of the night and began shooting Afghan villagers in two nearby villages, a congressional source said on condition of anonymity.
In addition to those killed, five Afghans were wounded.
The soldier, who has not been identified, was part of the 2-3 Infantry, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, from the Lewis-McChord base in Washington state. After serving three tours in Iraq, the sergeant arrived in Afghanistan in December and has been at the Belambai base since February 1.
Afghanistan's parliament condemned the killings, saying Afghans had run out of patience with the actions of foreign forces and the lack of oversight.
Fury over the killing spree, which brought demands that the United States withdraw earlier than scheduled, could be exploited by the Taliban to gain new recruits.
“We have benefited little from the foreign troops here but lost everything - our lives, dignity and our country to them,” said Haji Najiq,” a Kandahar shop owner.
“The explanation or apologies will not bring back the dead. It is better for them to leave us alone and let us live in peace.”
Anti-Americanism, which boiled over after copies of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, were inadvertently burned at a Nato base last month is likely to deepen after the Kandahar carnage.
“The Americans said they will leave in 2014. They should leave now so we can live in peace,” said Mohammad Fahim, 19, a university student. “Even if the Taliban return to power our elders can work things out with them. The Americans are disrespectful.”
The civilian deaths may also force Afghan President Hamid Karzai to harden his stand in the partnership talks to appease a public already critical of his government's performance.
The partnership agreement, which Washington and Kabul have been discussing for more than a year, will be the framework for US involvement in Afghanistan after foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
Without a pact that keeps US advisers or special forces here, there is a danger that civil war could erupt again in Afghanistan because ill-trained Afghan forces would be unable to keep insurgents at bay.
The Kandahar violence came just days after the United States and Afghanistan signed a deal on the gradual transfer of a major US-run detention centre to Afghan authorities, overcoming one of the main sticking points in the partnership negotiations.
“The Americans are not here to assist us they are here to kill us,” said Najibullah, 33, a house painter in Kabul.
“I hate the Americans and I hate anyone who loves them, so I hope there is no long-term partnership between our countries.”
Afghanistan wants a timeline to take over detention centres and for the United States and Nato to agree to end night raids on Afghan homes as preconditions for signing the pact.
Civilian deaths are one of the main sources of tension between Kabul and Washington.
US officials warned of possible reprisal attacks after the villagers were killed in the likely “rogue” shooting.
Washington has rushed to distance the shootings from the efforts of the 90 000-strong US force but faces growing criticism at home and abroad about its conduct of the war.
George Little, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, said that Nato's course would continue as it had before the attacks.
“The reality is that our fundamental strategy is not changing. There has been a series of troubling incidents recently, but no one should think that we are steering away from our partnership with the Afghan people, our partnership with Afghan National Security Forces, and our commitment to prosecute the war effort,” he told reporters. - Reuters