Analysis by CBS News Afghanistan consultant Jere van Dyk
(CBS News) Every Afghan village, no matter how isolated, has a radio. And by now every Afghan in the country (and in Pakistan) will know that a U.S. soldier committed mass murder against innocent, unarmed Afghan Pashtun civilians, including women and children.
How could an American soldier carrying his weapon leave his squad, exit his a fire base alone, with guards all around, and walk into an Afghan village without someone saying something?
Where were his squad members? Where was his sergeant?
No American soldier, in my observation, has ever gone anywhere alone in Afghanistan. Always they go with other soldiers on patrol or to a meeting, and at the very least with an interpreter.
Many Pashtuns, even those high up in the Afghan government, feel that the U.S. is at war with the Pashtuns. The Taliban are Pashtuns. Even today, over a hundred years after the British left, Afghan mothers tell their children to be good or the British will get them. Will they say the same about the U.S.? Is this our legacy?
There have been many incidents, some of them perhaps accidental - helicopters shooting boys when they are gathering firewood. But to my memory, except for Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of the Stryker Brigade out of Ft. Lewis, not one U.S. soldier to date has ever been punished for killing innocent Afghans.
Gibbs was convicted last November of murdering and mutilating three Afghans, and given life imprisonment, but he will be eligible for parole in ten years.
The Afghans will want justice (just as relatives of victims in the U.S. do), and they will watch this closely. If the perpetrator gets off easily, this will do irreparable damage to the U.S. effort in Kandahar - capital of the Pashtun nation and home to the Taliban movement.
Graham Fuller, a former high CIA official, said recently that in his view the Taliban are motivated primarily by nationalism, not religion. Based upon my experiences, I agree. They will use this to maximum effect to rally villagers to oppose, in every form, the U.S. presence.
I have been told, but cannot prove (although it seems logical) that many members of the Taliban are those whose family members were killed by U.S. bombs or by other means.
Unless the U.S. does something quickly to appease the relatives of those killed, every male member of the extended families will want revenge.
President Hamid Karzai has been adamant that U.S. night raids on villages have to stop. The U.S. has said that they are necessary. This will hurt the U.S. position.
This tragedy may further exacerbate tensions in the U.S.
Although the mood toward Afghanistan in America is much different from what the nation's mood was toward Vietnam - and the mood of the American public toward the U.S. Army is completely different from what it was during that war - this incident is similar to 1968, when Green Beret Lt. William Calley and his men murdered and mutilated between 300 and 500 Vietnamese villagers.
The U.S. Army tried to cover this up, but reporter Seymour Hirsch uncovered it. It divided pro-war and anti-war backers in the U.S. and further polarized an already-divided country. Many felt that Calley, and the soldiers involved, should not be punished, and President Carter proceeded carefully. Calley was eventually placed under house arrest for three years, nothing more, and the other soldiers were let off. U.S. politicians denounced those soldiers in Calley's unit who had complained about what Calley and their fellow soldiers had done.
It may be difficult for President Obama to apologize for this incident because the GOP candidates were angry that he apologized for U.S. soldiers burning the Quran. Many people in America will take the side of the soldier. The Afghans will be watching. It will not be pretty.