The recent massacre of 16 unarmed Afghan citizens, allegedly by Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, is a horrible tragedy.
Bales, 38, now being held in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and awaiting trial, appears to have left his base in Khandahar Province in southern Afghanistan during the night; walked into a neighboring village; and coldly executed nine children, four men and three women while they were sleeping in their homes.
He had served three tours in Iraq and, though he was suffering numerous personal and financial troubles at home, had not behaved in a manner that would have caused his superiors to question his discipline or ability to follow orders.
We don't know why Bales — if he is indeed the perpetrator — did what he did. Was it revenge for the serious leg injury that a buddy received?
Was it a result of his deep unhappiness at a fourth deployment? Or was it a consequence of his own repeated injuries, fear and PTSD?
What it wasn't was a generalizable reflection of American troop behavior. With roughly 1.6 million soldiers now having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the discipline, restraint and honor that they have demonstrated during impossible conflicts are extraordinary.
Nonetheless, the massacre rightly has focused needed attention on how and when the United States will leave Afghanistan.
The demands by President Karzai for NATO troops to restrict their activities to their bases make virtually impossible the task of counterinsurgency and assisting the populace. And the ambivalence of many Afghans toward working with the soldiers makes progress slow and tenuous.
Although U.S. and NATO troops and advisers have worked with residents to make major improvements in the country — re-establishing schools, health services, roads, sanitation, water supplies, governmental infrastructure and a constitution — it will take years more for citizens there to create a safe, civilized, pluralistic, functioning nation.
Currently, the Afghan government is largely corrupt, and of still-limited competence and influence, and that may be the single biggest obstacle to the ability of a near-term (next two to four years) American effort to assist its people in reaching for something better than the Taliban or their local village warlord to provide leadership.
Additionally, the Afghan army is still struggling to gain competence, and it is years away from being able to defeat the Taliban on its own.
Realistically, the U.S. simply cannot be responsible for bringing democracy to Afghanistan.
The process would cost us too much money, and it may require many years beyond 2014 to evolve.
NATO's mission now should be to seek and accept an incremental, sustainable cease-fire that would allow the country's factions to sort out allegiances, territory and governing structures. Continued talks with the Taliban are necessary to achieve this.
Initially and for some years, the Taliban may have to be ceded control of the Pashtun areas of the south and east. The rest of the country can be kept free of them.
Eventually, their widely reviled ideology and brutal extremism could be marginalized by a stronger Afghanistan and the slow march of liberalism and modernity.
In the meantime, the U.S. should continue to assist Afghanistan with reconstruction and development aid, and continue to cultivate our relationship with Pakistan. With the Taliban openly administering Pashtun areas, we would be able to monitor — and destroy with drones if necessary — any significant al-Qaida or terrorist presence.
We don't have now — and never did — nearly enough soldiers in Afghanistan to secure the entire country. We cannot get that job done.
But we must leave that region reasonably at peace with itself. It'll be a victory not to leave a civil war.
It would be excruciating to leave any Afghans in the hands of the Taliban.
As Ahmed Rashid, the respected Pakistani journalist, has written, sharing part of the country with the fanatic group is indeed a risk. But circumstances may dictate it, he says, and ending the war may make moderation and compromise among Afghans more possible.
Sometimes there is a place for war. Sometimes we cannot just retreat behind our walls and think we'll be safe from the ugly realities and unspeakable atrocities in other parts of the world. But for now, in Afghanistan, we have to be tough enough to admit that we've reached the limits of what military intervention can achieve and what we can afford.
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Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.