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Afghan killings underscore need for a clear plan for withdrawal

THE US Army staff sergeant who allegedly left his special-operations base in Kandahar province on Sunday and went house to house, killing innocent Afghan villagers as they slept, is either a vicious murderer or a mentally ill victim of combat pressure. Either way, his astonishing crime illuminates nagging questions about the Afghan war effort: Does the continued presence of so many US boots on the ground really increase the prospects of lasting peace in the region? If not, what will happen to Afghanistan, where Americans have invested so much blood and money, after a NATO withdrawal?

Sunday’s killings of the Afghan villagers are already spurring demands for an accelerated withdrawal. But the best response at this moment is to stick with the current timetable of removing troops by the end of 2014 and make every effort to broker a peace deal in the meantime. If the Taliban and the Afghan government are not able to reach an agreement by 2014, the United States needs a well-considered Plan B that would keep a much smaller number of US forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014. They could work to prevent the country from sinking back into civil war, and to maintain the capacity for the United States to launch drone attacks against Al Qaeda targets.

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In the short term, however, Sunday’s killings, coming after the murders last month of two US advisers by an Afghan colleague in the Interior Ministry, have raised questions about whether US and Afghan officials can continue working side by side. The furious reactions of Afghans after the mistaken Koran burnings by the US military last month highlight mounting civilian anger at foreign soldiers who have been fighting there for a decade. Such frustration suggests that the American investment in Afghanistan may have reached a point of diminishing returns. Lingering mistrust between the Karzai government and its Western allies indicates that that this once-fruitful partnership might never reach its full potential.

Americans who once strongly backed Karzai as the figure most likely to unify Afghanistan’s many tribal and religious factions have watched him grow into a corrupt dealmaker, dedicated mainly to staying in power. US efforts to promote a more responsive government by working with local leaders are often undermined by Karzai’s officials.

The deteriorating status quo has made it even more crucial that an upcoming NATO summit in Chicago in May chart a realistic path forward. NATO should take all possible steps to ensure that Afghanistan can provide for its own security by 2014. Although the international community should not abandon Afghanistan like it did in the 1980s, ten years of war have reminded the world that only Afghans themselves will ultimately be able to create a brighter future for their country.

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