WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier's shooting of more than a dozen Afghan civilians deepened questions on Sunday about what the United States can accomplish in Afghanistan before it withdraws, as Washington rushed to contain the damage from the startling rogue attack.
President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by telephone and offered condolences for the attack, in which a U.S. soldier left his base in southern Afghanistan and began a middle-of-the-night shooting spree that local officials said killed 16 civilians, including nine children and three women.
"This incident is tragic and shocking," Obama said in a statement.
Reports of the attack remain confused. U.S. officials say only one soldier was involved, while villagers and other Afghans said it was a group of soldiers. But the Obama administration vowed a rapid investigation and promised to hold whoever was behind the violence fully responsible.
While U.S. officials rushed to draw a line between the rogue shooting and the ongoing efforts of a U.S. force of around 90,000, the incident is sure to infuriate Afghans already suspicious of a Western military presence now over a decade old.
It may also provide ammunition to those in Washington advocating for an accelerated exit from a long, costly and inconclusive war.
Last month, the burning of copies of the Koran on a NATO military base triggered violent protests across the country and a spate of insider attacks against Western soldiers.
Sunday's attack may also harden a growing consensus in Washington that, despite a troop surge, a war bill exceeding $500 billion and nearly 2,000 U.S. lives lost, prospects are dimming for what the United States can accomplish in Afghanistan before it pulls most troops out by the end of 2014.
Obama's surge of 33,000 troops has beaten the Taliban back from some areas of Afghanistan's south, but serious doubts remain about whether an inexperienced local military and wobbly central government can keep a resilient insurgency at bay.
"These killings only serve to reinforce the mindset that the whole war is broken and that there's little we can do about it beyond trying to cut our losses and leave," said Joshua Foust, a security expert with the American Security Project.
If the incident triggers retaliatory violence against Western troops, it may well help shape ongoing deliberations within the Obama administration about how quickly U.S. soldiers should be withdrawn, possibly strengthening the case of those surrounding the president who back a more decisive drawdown.
Obama and other NATO leaders are expected to define their plans for gradually trimming Western forces and putting Afghan troops in charge of security when they meet at a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
Most Western combat troops are expected to be gone by the end of 2014, but some U.S. soldiers could remain beyond then, likely focusing on targeted strikes on militants and supporting local forces, who will need outside help for years to come.
"This is terrible timing for people who either want to stay through 2014 or even extend the U.S. presence there," Foust said. "Though the overall number of (similar) incidents remains pretty low, there is a broad and growing perception that now both sides are dysfunctional and committing murder, or the house of cards is falling."
In a post on Twitter, Pentagon spokesman George Little said the incident would not change the U.S. mission. "The recent tragedy in Afghanistan will not deter us from pursuing our fundamental strategy. We've come too far with our Afghan partners."
COMPLICATING BILATERAL TALKS, CAMPAIGN NARRATIVE?
As Karzai demands an explanation for what he called 'intentional murders,' Sunday's shooting may dispel the good will created by an agreement reached on Friday on control over military prisons in Afghanistan, which had been one of the remaining stumbling blocks to reaching a deal governing future U.S.-Afghan ties.
Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Army Ranger, said the shootings come at a sensitive time in negotiations on that deal, which the White House wanted to unveil by the May summit.
"One wonders whether or not internal political pressures in Afghanistan will constrain the options of Afghan negotiators on subjects ranging from U.S. basing rights to night raids," Exum said.
The shootings may complicate things for Obama ahead of November's presidential election.
While jobs and the economy will likely remain the focus of the presidential race, the White House has hoped to point to a series of foreign policy successes, such as the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, to shore up Obama's support.
The recent tumult in Afghanistan may increase the pressure Obama faces in coming months from fellow Democrats who favor a more rapid drawdown.
While many Republicans have warned against pulling out too quickly, conservative presidential candidate Newt Gingrich voiced a very different view.
"There's something profoundly wrong with the way we're approaching the whole region and I think it's going to get substantially worse, not better. And I think that we're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable," Gingrich said on "Fox News Sunday."
He said Washington should consider pulling out of Afghanistan and reconsider its role in the entire region.
"I understand the anger and the sorrow," said John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who like many other Republicans has warned a hasty withdrawal will undermine U.S. security in the long run.
"I also understand that we should not forget that the attacks on the United States of America on 9/11 originated in Afghanistan, and if Afghanistan dissolved into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over, or a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an al Qaeda base for attacks," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
In the meantime, U.S. officials in Washington and on the ground appeared to be bracing themselves for a backlash.
The U.S. Embassy, on its Twitter feed, said the movement of U.S. personnel in southern Afghanistan would be restricted and warned that 'anti-American feelings and protests' may be ahead.
Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, said the quick, conciliatory statements from senior American officials were wise, but that nothing may be capable of staunching Afghan fury that may be unleashed by the killings.
"I don't know that a lot can be done," he said.