The accidental burning of Korans resulted in the murders of several American servicemen and led to the withdrawal of advisers from ministries for an extended period. The murder of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier is certain to fuel Afghan popular resentment against Americans, and American opinion against the war.
The worst effect is the erosion in the bond of trust that comprises the linchpin of our military strategy. Our withdrawal plan is based upon replacing our battalions with Afghan battalions advised by small teams (about 20 soldiers) of Americans. The advisers are expected to go on daily combat patrols, where they will be the distinct minority. Without U.S. fire support, the Afghan soldiers will shirk from patrolling and concede the countryside, district by district. Once outside the wire, the Afghan soldiers and the advisers must trust each other as brothers.
In the U.S. Army and Marines, NCOs swiftly squelch rumors because they undermine unit morale and discipline. Afghan battalions, lacking that systemic discipline, are subject to the corrosive effect of vicious rumors where cell phones are ubiquitous among basically illiterate soldiers. It is disconcerting that President Karzai does not counsel restraint in his own public utterances that add to the popular fury. The opportunity abounds for subversives, radicals, and the discontented to call Afghan soldiers and insert falsehoods and doubts.
This puts in peril a strategy based on trust. If U.S. advisers are ordered to patrol only with sufficient manpower to defend each other against an unpredictable attack by an Afghan soldier, or if the Afghan soldiers resent rather embrace the presence of the advisers, both territory and population control will be gradually conceded.
— Bing West’s latest book is The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan.