Coming as Afghan rage over the burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers last month was beginning to taper off, the killings Sunday threatened to spark a new crisis in the strained relationship between the United States and Afghanistan. The two nations are in the midst of contentious negotiations over an agreement that could extend the presence of U.S. troops in the country beyond 2014.
The incident also provided fresh fodder to critics of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy who are trying to portray the 2009 troop surge as a failed attempt to secure a dignified exit.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the shootings an “assassination” and demanded an explanation from U.S. officials.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called Karzai on Sunday to discuss the incident. Obama expressed “shock and sadness” and vowed to “hold fully accountable anyone responsible” for the killings, the White House said in a statement.
“This incident is tragic and shocking and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan,” Obama said.
U.S. officials shed no light on the motive or state of mind of the alleged shooter. The Associated Press reported Sunday that the suspect was from Fort Lewis, in Washington state. He was taken into custody shortly after the shooting rampage.
“It appears he walked off post and later returned and turned himself in,” said Lt. Cmdr. James Williams, a military spokesman.
U.S. military officials stressed that the shooting was carried out by a lone, rogue soldier, differentiating it from past instances in which civilians were killed accidentally during military operations.
But the shooting left American soldiers on edge, bracing for retaliatory attacks.
“My fear is that those Afghans in the region that were indifferent to either side of this conflict will now, at least as a temporary emotional reaction, become active insurgents,” said a U.S. Army officer based in Kandahar, speaking on the condition of anonymity to express his fears candidly.
A statement released by Karzai’s office recounted a conversation the Afghan president had with a relative of one of the victims. “You have asked the Americans again and again to avoid civilian casualties, but again the Americans are killing innocent people,” the statement quoted the relative as having said.