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.
The shooting spree and the other mishaps could embolden those Taliban fighters who oppose peace talks because they believe they have the upper hand in the conflict.
“On the Taliban side, [the Kandahar shooting] comes at an opportune moment for those who want to sustain the fighting,” said Michael Semple of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
It is also likely to weaken opposition to the militants.
“The events of the past couple of days reduces the willingness of those who oppose the Taliban to do anything about it, particularly in the Pashtun areas, and increases the ability of those in the Taliban orbit to go out there and fight,” Mr. Semple said.
The Taliban are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns.
However, Philip Mudd, a veteran CIA and FBI officer, said the Kandahar shooting spree would be a minor bump in the road to reconciliation with the Taliban because all sides are tired of the 10-year-old conflict.
“You either talk to [the Taliban] or risk leaving more chaos as the drawdown [of U.S. troops] continues,” he said.
“It is going to be difficult to explain to the American people why you want to talk to an organization which says it wants to behead your soldiers,” he added.
“But the reality is that these folks own a lot of turf on the ground and, if we don’t figure out a way to deal with them before we leave, the situation is going to be a lot worse.”
Mr. Obama withdrew 10,000 troops last year and is scheduled to bring home another 23,000 by the end of this summer. The United States is scheduled to withdraw all of its troops by the end of 2014.
On Tuesday, Taliban gunmen killed an Afghan soldier in an attack on a memorial service for the villagers killed Sunday. Three of the terrorists were killed in a gunfight with Afghan authorities.
Two of the Afghan president’s brothers, Qayum and Shah Wali Karzai, escaped from the service in their cars.
Abdul Rahim Ayoubi, who represents Kandahar in the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly and attended the service, said villagers do not support the Taliban.
“The Taliban are killers,” he said in a phone interview from Kandahar.
The string of incidents has exacerbated distrust between the U.S. and Afghan governments and likely will complicate efforts to sew up a strategic partnership between the two countries, according to Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
U.S. and Afghan officials cleared one hurdle last week when they reached a deal on the handover of military prisons to Afghan control.
However, the Kandahar shootings have increased pressure on the Karzai government to stick to its demands that NATO forces end night raids on civilians’ homes and that U.S. soldiers accused of committing a crime in Afghanistan be tried in local courts.
U.S. military officials say the night raids have been useful in disrupting Taliban networks. Afghans describe the raids as intrusive and demeaning.
United States ‘heartbroken’
Speaking in Washington, Mr. Obama said that he takes the shootings of the villagers “as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered.”
“We’re heartbroken over the loss of innocent life. The killing of innocent civilians is outrageous and is unacceptable. It’s not who we are as a country,” he said.
Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama’s repeated talk of withdrawing troops is undermining the mission.
“The president keeps talking about withdrawals and scheduling withdrawals that in the military view entails much greater risk. Of course, it’s in jeopardy,” he said.
The senator said “the Taliban are emboldened, so the military situation, after significant gains, is very much doing what they did in Iraq, and that is, win the war and lose the peace.”
• David Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.