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Originally published Monday, March 12, 2012 at 8:22 PM

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Massacre of Afghans latest blow to U.S. plans

Sunday's killing spree by an Army staff sergeant and other recent incidents are undermining U.S. efforts to reach an understanding with the Afghan government and to push the Taliban into peace talks.

McClatchy Newspapers

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WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials insisted Monday that the weekend's Afghanistan killing spree was an "isolated incident" and said a 38-year-old Joint Base Lewis-McChord Army staff sergeant soon would be charged in connection with the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, en route to Kyrgyzstan, said Monday night that the soldier could face execution.

"We seem to get tested almost every other day with challenges that test our leadership and our commitment to the mission that we're involved in," Panetta said. "War is hell."

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a premeditated-murder conviction could carry the death penalty.

Regardless of the charges, defense and security experts worried Monday that the fallout from Sunday's massacre in southern Kandahar province will be anything but isolated.

In the perception of Afghans, the experts said, the rampage merely adds to previous nightmares: the recent burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers, eight children killed in February by NATO bombs, a video of Marines urinating on corpses, and others. Each incident separately posed problems for the Obama administration's plans for an orderly end to the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, but the question now is whether, taken together, the incidents have made the U.S. presence there untenable.

"The cumulative effect of these events makes it harder to climb what was already a very steep hill," said John Nagl, an expert on military counterinsurgency strategy and a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The pillars of the Obama administration's plans to wind down the decadelong Afghan war seem increasingly shaky. As news of the killings sparked outrage in Afghanistan — prompting U.S. forces to beef up security precautions — it seemed increasingly unclear whether the United States could reach an agreement with the Afghan government for a long-term role for the American military, which U.S. officials are seeking to ensure that al-Qaida and Taliban extremists don't regain a safe haven there.

The incident also undermined U.S. efforts to push Taliban leaders into peace talks with the Afghan government, analysts said. As calls grow for U.S. forces to exit Afghanistan, a growing number of Afghans believe the Taliban are content to wait out the end of the U.S. presence.

"Our strategy is based on building trust and goodwill," Nagl said. "That trust takes a long time to build and can be destroyed by events like this very quickly."

In Afghanistan, the killings fed into a narrative, promoted by the Taliban, that the U.S.-led international coalition frequently kills civilians. Afghan lawmakers condemned the shooting spree, saying "Afghans have run out of patience with arbitrary acts of foreign forces," according to a statement by the lower house of Parliament, which canceled its session Monday in protest over the killings.

The Taliban wasted little time taking advantage of the situation, issuing a statement blasting the "sick-minded American savages."

President Obama told WFTV in Orlando, Fla., that the killings were "in no way ... representative of the enormous sacrifices that our men and women have made in Afghanistan." But he added, "It does signal the importance of us transitioning in accordance with my plans that Afghans are taking more of the initiative in security."

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the shootings would not impact the timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.

"We will continue to pursue our strategic objective in Afghanistan, which (is) about the U.S. national-security interest and the protection of the United States, our personnel and our allies," Carney said.

Carney did say NATO ministers would discuss the withdrawal timetable when they meet in May. But he stressed the rampage would not shift the course of those talks.

"I do not believe that this incident will change the timetable of a strategy that was designed and is being implemented in a way to allow for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, to allow for the transfer of lead security authority over to the Afghans, a process that will be completed no later than the end of 2014," Carney said.

Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the massacre points to the need for a new Afghanistan strategy. He criticized the Obama administration for sticking with a withdrawal plan that he says is failing and argued that it's time to accept that the mission has failed and bring U.S. troops home, or to construct "a real transition strategy based on credible goals, credible resources, and doing things the Afghan way."

"We need to face the fact that (the massacre) only highlights the growing problem the United States faces in creating any kind of strategy for Afghanistan that can survive engagement with reality," Cordesman said.

Steven Thomma of the McClatchy Washington bureau and special correspondent Ali Safi in Kabul contributed to this report.

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