Negotiation 'only way out' in Afghanistan
Washington - The Taliban are set on vengeance after a US soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians, but the only viable exit from America's longest war is through negotiation, experts said on Monday.
The attack ignited fresh public anger at the US presence, plunging US-Afghan relations to their lowest point since the 2001 invasion after Americans burnt Qur'ans last month and an earlier video showing US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban militants.
Washington has insisted the mounting difficulties are simply "isolated incidents".
And the White House and Pentagon, while deploring the latest "tragic" event, are vowing to stick to the roadmap defined by the Nato transatlantic military alliance.
"You can't necessarily take an isolated incident or two or three and draw a trendline on progress in Afghanistan and whether or not there's a shift in our goals," said Pentagon spokesperson George Little.
But the Taliban wasted no time in trying to capitalise on the atrocity, which saw a US Army sergeant open fire on sleeping villagers outside a US base in the southern province of Kandahar. Most of his victims were women and children.
The militants, whose government was toppled by US forces over a decade ago, threatened to take revenge against "sick-minded American savages". They sent fighters to mosques in Kandahar's Panjwayi district as the funerals of the victims of the shootings took place, urging villagers to rise up.
Nato's strategy aims to have Afghan security forces take control of security by the end of 2014 so that coalition troops can pull out their 130 000 soldiers. Until then, the United States hopes progress against the Taliban will convince the militants to come to the negotiating table.
Yet growing Afghan outrage at the repeated missteps could spell trouble for the coalition's strategy, warned Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace.
"If this continues, I don't see how one can hold on to the strategy, which is in large part dependent on having the goodwill of the average Afghan," he said.
"The military strategy has dominated this where the political strategy should have dominated. The political hand has always been weak and that's the problem."
Sunday's massacre poses a difficult test for the US-Afghan alliance, as the two countries pursue complex negotiations on a strategic pact to govern their long-term security relationship once foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
Stalemate on the ground
Any deal would address the legal status of any US soldiers who stay behind to help prevent the country falling back into the hands of the Taliban, who were toppled in 2001 for sheltering al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Yusuf stressed that Afghan reconciliation and continued negotiations with the Americans - as appear to be taking place in Qatar, where the Taliban have opened an office - are the only way out.
Despite the stalemate on the ground, he called reconciliation "the only available option right now".
The Taliban may be vowing vengeance but they have an interest in the talks as well by gaining political legitimacy, Yusuf said.
"The shooting doesn't change the war's strategic calculus," agreed Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
He said ensuring a proper security transition by late 2014 "is no longer viable" because the Taliban is still mounting significant attacks.
"What we will be handing off will be a stalemate at best," said Biddle, a US national security and defence policy expert.
"At best, the Afghan National Security Forces will be able to hold what we've taken."
As for reconciliation, it is not at the heart of the strategy, according to Biddle.
He said the Taliban, targeted by continued military operations and eager to see foreign troops leave Afghanistan, are "still willing to discuss", meaning there may yet be an exit out of Afghanistan.
But that can only happen once "real negotiation" takes place, "where both sides make concessions and they will wait it out", Biddle added.