STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
One analyst calls last weekend's massacre in Afghanistan an enormous gift to the Taliban. It is the latest of several incidents that amount to lost battles in a political war.
INSKEEP: We're going to talk about the fallout and the future of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan with three experts who bring very different backgrounds to this conversation. Vali Nasr is a former State Department advisor and author of books on the Muslim world.
Welcome to the program, Vali.
VALI NASR: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: And we've also reached retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno, who's now at the Center for a New American Security. And welcome, General Barno.
GENERAL DAVID BARNO: Glad to be here.
INSKEEP: One more voice as well. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a Washington Post correspondent and author of a forthcoming book about the war in Afghanistan. He's also in our studios.
Welcome to you.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: And let me put this to you, Rajiv, to begin these questions. How badly could this particularly awful incident damage the whole U.S. mission?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, pretty significantly. You know, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan has been, you know, predicated on this argument, if you will, to the Afghan people that American troops are there to help protect the good people of Afghanistan, to help rebuild their country, to help secure their future. And this just plays into the worst fears of Afghans and plays into the hand of Taliban propagandas. And so it couldn't have been a worse development at a worse time for the United States.
INSKEEP: General Barno, a friend of mine was reminding me yesterday of the notion of the strategic corporal. The idea that any soldier in a war like this can create catastrophic consequences and even affect strategy. In this case, we have a sergeant. But it sounds like that might actually be the case.
BARNO: Well, I think that's true here unfortunately. And those events of Sunday have made a tough mission even tougher for the troops that are serving over there. In this case, you've got a fairly junior enlisted soldier, a staff sergeant supposedly, from a joint base Lewis-McChord here in the U.S. who is alleged to have committed these heinous crimes which are going to have a significant impact on the mission potentially.
INSKEEP: Vali Nasr, what is that impact?
NASR: I think the greatest impact is probably in the political arena. Namely, the Taliban are poised to start reconciliation talks with the United States and the Karzai government. One major impact of this event is that Karzai's going to feel far less room in order to engage in this process. And also...
INSKEEP: President Hamid Karzai was giving some speech about conciliation as this news broke, wasn't he?
NASR: He was. And also the problem is that he will now feel compelled to ask the United States to actually shrink its footprint, to leave and to assume a much more of a distant position from the United States going into these talks.
On the other hand, the Taliban, within the Taliban, there's some disagreement as to whether or not they should engage in the reconciliation. The commanders on the ground are not happy. The base is not necessarily happy with this. First, you had the Quran burning episode. Now you have these killings.
And there's now increasing pressure on the Taliban commanders, how could you be sitting down with the United States, negotiating peace after what they have done. And I think that is where you're going to see probably the most impact between now and May when the administration was hoping to be able to announce program on the reconciliation talks.
MONTAGNE: You know, I'm wondering - and this I'd like to put to General Barno - I'm wondering if there's any mitigation here. I mean, this is an unusual - it's not - doesn't sound like a fog of war incident. It sounds very particularly like a crime has been committed, recognizably a crime. Is there any way in which the U.S. can somehow, you know, make it clear that there will be some sort of punishment? That this won't just pass unpunished.
BARNO: Well, I think that's already happening. I think the reactions of the United States and the Afghans both have been very quick after this incident occurred. We've had Secretary Panetta coming out on a trip to the region, talking about the likelihood that there's going to be, you know, should clearly bring justice to this case. And that, you know, the perpetrator will be prosecuted within the full extent of U.S. law.
But he also had to say that it won't affect the U.S. mission there. So I think that's the prevailing viewpoint on the United States' side right now. Remains to be seen how the Afghan government is going to react to that, as Vali noted.
INSKEEP: Rajiv, you were noticing that the response to this in Afghanistan has been a little bit less than with the Quran burnings, say, in which no one was killed.
CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes. At least in the first few days, the level of protests have been far lower over there than there have been in the immediate wake of that. And it poses an interesting question. Obviously, over at home here in the United States I think people's sense of revulsion at this act, the shooting, has been far greater.
And you're wondering why aren't we seeing that same sort of reaction in the streets of Kabul, for instance. And I think, you know, there're a number of reactions to this on the part of Afghans. But I think on one level they've become desensitized to 30 years of violence. This fits into a narrative for them of continued night raids. Even though this wasn't an authorized mission by any sense of the imagination, I think for many of them, they've become accustomed to news of Afghan civilians dying at the hands of American forces in the middle of the night. And I think what we often don't get back here is that respect for religion and honor, in some cases in a country that's been scarred by 30 years of war actually hits much closer to the heart than unfortunately killings.
INSKEEP: Human life is already cheap, is what you're saying and religion is something that's a little more intense. I think that the question has to be asked though. There have been a number of these incidents, politically damaging incidents in a row. Are people asking seriously if the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has begun to reach a point of diminishing returns?
CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think certainly at high levels of the Obama administration there is that very debate taking place, and whether the troop footprint is still too big, and whether the presence there is actually causing more trouble in certain places than it is helping.
But, you know, what this incident, you know, speaks to and a big worry from this, as well as with the Quran burnings, is that what the Obama administration wants to do is move the U.S. to a smaller posture that involves more training and advisory efforts. And, you know, it's just small, little Special Forces and conventional forces bases like this in Panjwai District that they're hoping is a model for more of that assistance. It's training efforts up in Kabul that were suspended in the wake of the Quran burning. And so, this speaks to those real challenges.
MONTAGNE: It might be worth just a moment devoted to explaining what this base was supposed to do. The sergeant was not necessarily part of what a Green Beret contingent. But it was supposed to be reaching out and effectively making friends with the local people.
BARNO: If I could jump in there. As I understand it, it's part of the Village Stability Operations program which is largely run by U.S. Army Special Forces or Green Berets, designed to raise local police forces to help secure communities there against the Taliban. And this sergeant, although not a Green Beret himself, was part of a security detachment, as I understand it that was part of this contingent that was doing this localized police training. This is a kind of a grassroots, bottom-up security force that's somewhat different from the Afghan National Police.
MONTAGNE: But the idea of this is the future or would be the future of the mission - these sorts of...
BARNO: Well, potentially these smaller missions absolutely are. And so, that's one of the more serious concerns as we look at this incident is can we continue to move forward? And I think we can, frankly, but that's going to a subject up for debate there with these smaller Special Forces-oriented mission. I think that is the future of the mission in Afghanistan.
INSKEEP: Vali Nasr, you get the last word here.
NASR: There's also larger issue here. That is that after 10 years of fighting, the United States is trying to wrap this thing up and the entire region is looking at the legacy of this war and how it's going to end. And we're reaching a point where there is bad news after bad news. And ultimately these events like this are going to be epitaph of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and that's leaving a very bad taste in the region's mouth about this war.
INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. Vali Nasr who's author of "The Rise of Islamic Capitalism," thanks to you. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is author the forthcoming book "Little America," about the Afghan War, thanks to you. And General David Barno, thank you for joining us, as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.