Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

The Army sergeant who killed 16 Afghan men, women and children on Saturday might have been wearing a U.S. uniform, but he might just as well have been fighting for the Taliban.

His horrific act has enraged a population still roiled by the burning of Korans at Bagram air base last month. It has undermined the safety of U.S. troops across Afghanistan and the Muslim world. And it has the potential to turn an orderly disengagement of coalition forces from Afghanistan into a dangerous rush for the exits.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan -- something that we have urged take place before President Barack Obama’s 2014 deadline -- was always going to be fraught with heightened peril. Enemies of the coalition and Afghan government will be emboldened. Even disciplined troops on their way out will inevitably be less willing to risk their lives, and more susceptible to fear, aggression, and real or delusional score-settling. As John Kerry infamously said of another war in another place, nobody wants to be “the last man to die for a mistake.”

The invasion of Afghanistan was not a mistake, but the dynamic is similar to the waning stretch of the Vietnam conflict. Given the impact the killings are sure to have on the already low levels of trust between coalition and Afghan forces, the U.S. and its allies should reconsider their “train and advise” strategy. If putting small groups of seasoned soldiers with Afghan units is the only way to ensure an effective handover, Obama should make that case and prepare the U.S. public for higher casualties. U.S. troops in the field will also need more headquarters support, whether senior officers to supervise operations, intelligence officers to report and advise on local conditions, or medical officers who can identify soldiers who are near their breaking point.

The breach between the Afghan people and the coalition at this point may be beyond repair. But for the sake of justice, the U.S. military should hold the trial for Saturday’s massacre in Afghanistan, not in the U.S, as was the case with defendants in the Abu Ghraib prison tortures and the massacre of 24 civilians at Haditha, Iraq. This would be quicker and allow easier access to witnesses. The U.S. military should also allow Afghan civilians access to the proceedings.

However painful that trial may be, we should not let it cast a pall over the life-giving achievements of the last decade, or allow it to obscure the real enemies of peace: the Taliban, who in 2011 were responsible for nearly four-fifths of all civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The best way to counter their narrative is to make the course of justice as transparent as possible.

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