The prompt apologies expressed by the United States government over the recent killing of 16 Afghan civilians, including several children, by an American soldier may have damped down protests, but they will not subdue the anger and bitterness millions of Afghans feel over the war's rising civilian death toll, which the United Nations put at over 3,000 in 2011 alone. There is simmering resentment over repeated episodes of other kinds in which the conduct of Nato forces has been grossly offensive. The March 11 killings are only the latest in a long series, and Washington's claim that these are isolated incidents is not credible. U.S. troops have killed civilians for sport, cutting off body parts as trophies; their aircraft have killed children and teenagers in night air raids on remote rural areas, their units have filmed themselves urinating on the bodies of Afghans they have killed, and more. British troops have engaged in their own barbarities, some of which have been filmed. Furthermore, the film of U.S. troops burning copies of the Koran shows the contempt a number of its soldiers have for both Afghanistan and Islam. Equally offensive is the fact that the soldier responsible for the Panjwai killings has been flown out for trial in an American military court; the clear message is that Nato troops are above Afghan law, that the Afghan judicial process is not good enough to try them. This makes a nonsense of U.S. claims of respect for Afghan sovereignty.
It could well be that the U.S.-led forces have learnt nothing during their decade-long war, which has already cost the Nato allies over $500 billion, but the fact which few in the western political establishment can admit is that this war has long lost whatever little meaning it might once have had. The Taliban hold sway across a broad swathe of the southern provinces, the Karzai government is all but confined to Kabul, the drug trade continues unchecked, and the prospects of anything like democracy and its concomitant rights for women are as remote as ever. Even Washington's misguided dialogue with the Taliban appears to have run aground before it took off. As the self-imposed deadline of 2014 for the withdrawal of U.S. troops approaches, it is essential that Afghan sovereignty be strengthened and respected in word and deed. This means ensuring a greater role for the Afghan National Security Forces, particularly in combat operations, and zero tolerance towards acts by western troops which are an affront to Afghanistan's identity and sense of self-respect.