The actions of a U.S. army staff sergeant who went door-to-door in a village in the district of Panjwai outside Kandahar, killing nine children and seven adults, are heinous, horrific, and inexplicable–as many expressions of pure evil often are. If the facts are as reported, he will no doubt be dealt with by the efficient U.S. military justice system; he will be lucky to avoid the death penalty. It is hard to say anything else about this terrible event with any certainty. It is likely to impair the U.S. mission in Afghanistan–and will certainly make it harder to win the trust of the villagers whose friends and neighbors were just massacred–but how much damage it will do remains unclear. So far, the expression of outrage in Afghanistan has been muted–more so than after the Koran burnings. It should count for something that the sergeant’s actions were in no way sanctioned by the high command; in fact it was a U.S. unit that captured him and American prosecutors and judges who will bring him to justice. Even Seymour Hersh will have a hard time depicting these abhorrent acts as expressions of official American policy.
It would be a tragedy if some of the collateral damage from this rampage were to fall on the Village Stability Platform of which the sergeant was a part. This is a program run by the Special Forces, with help from some conventional soldiers (such as the sergeant), to stand up an auxiliary security force known as the Afghan Local Police in various locations around Afghanistan where there is not a major presence of U.S. troops. I have visited a couple of these sites duringthe past couple of years and have found them making real progress though also facing real challenges, primarily having to do with the need to understand local dynamics and not inadvertently empower the wrong actors when security forces are set up.
But done right, the Village Stability Platform and the associated Afghan Local Police program have the potential to be major “force multipliers” by creating a lot of problems for the Taliban for relatively little expenditure of U.S. resources. Indeed, this is potentially a model program as U.S. conventional units draw down–although, in dangerous and unstable areas, there is no substitute for the presence of substantial ground-combat forces.
One of the characteristics that makes this program so effective is that it puts small groups of U.S. soldiers in close proximity to Afghan civilians. That allows them to build bonds of trust–bonds which, in at least one place, have just been done grave damage by the actions of an apparent psychotic in uniform. His crimes should not, however, lead to a condemnation of the large program or of the broader counterinsurgency effort. It is only by taking risks–including the risk which no one had considered: of unleashing an American psychopath on innocent villagers–that U.S. troops can drive the Taliban out of their strongholds.