- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Taliban militants threatened to behead Americans in Afghanistan, as gunmen opened fire Tuesday on a memorial service for civilians killed by a U.S. soldier and protests erupted over a series of U.S. actions that is spreading outrage throughout the country.

The threats and attack occurred as a NATO-Afghan investigation cleared U.S. troops of malicious intent in the accidental burning of Korans at a U.S. military base, one of several recent incidents that have sparked protests and emboldened the Taliban.

In Washington, President Obama called the weekend killings of 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, a case of “murder,” but vowed that the violent reaction to the shootings would not deter the U.S. mission there.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that the backlash from Sunday’s killing spree and earlier actions by U.S. troops plays into the hands of the Taliban as they fight to regain power in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are “emboldened” and the U.S.-led NATO mission is “in jeopardy,” he said.

The shootings in the southern Kandahar province in the early hours of Sunday followed two other incidents that sparked anger throughout Afghanistan.

In January, an Internet video showed four U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of three dead Taliban fighters, and in February, U.S. soldiers accidentally burned copies of the Koran. Six U.S. servicemen were killed in the backlash from the Koran burnings.

“The shooting incident in Kandahar province enhances the ability of Taliban leaders to play off popular anger against NATO and the United States,” said Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran and former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.

“The series of incidents that has angered Afghans has strengthened public support for the Taliban. Much of that support is now based on widespread opposition among ordinary Afghans to the Western military presence in their country,” he said.

The Taliban vowed to avenge the Kandahar killings and Tuesday threatened to behead U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In the eastern part of the country, about 400 university students chanted, “Death to America. Death to Obama.”

An Army staff sergeant, arrested after the shootings, is accused of walking off his base in Panjwai district in Kandahar early Sunday, shooting the civilians and setting some of the bodies on fire. Authorities have not released his name.

The Taliban insisted that the killings were not the work of a lone soldier but part of a “preplanned” action by a group backed by NATO air power. In a statement on their website, they attempted to tap into the public anger by comparing U.S. and NATO troops to Nazis.

The Taliban would “very much like to get advantage and justify their fighting,” said Shahmahmood Miakhel, who served as deputy interior minister in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s first administration.

Peace talks imperiled

The Kandahar killings could complicate the nascent peace process involving the United States, the Karzai government and some Taliban leaders.

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