When Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly went on a murderous rampage in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan on March 11, the world reacted with shock and outrage.& That is completely understandable. But should we be surprised?
I've been saying it privately for some time - the stress level our troops are facing in Afghanistan is at an all-time high. Pressure from the American public to bring the war to a speedy conclusion, more than a decade of back-to-back deployments, an increasingly risk-averse chain of command, and constant meddling from our leaders in Washington all serve to make the pressure in theater thicker than it's ever been.
All this is compounded by the media's excitement every time American troops make a mistake, and an increasing number of "incidents" - Afghan soldiers and police turning on their U.S. mentors...and it would seem the war in the shadows of the Hindu Kush is all but lost.
The war may well end badly. There is still much to do. But when you hear about the latest outrage on the evening news, please keep in mind that U.S. and Afghan troops are working side-by-side in ever increasing numbers as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) prepares to hand the country over - bit by bit - to its own people.
Afghan soldiers and policemen are being trained in the tens of thousands. For every time an Afghan attacks his American trainers, there are literally hundreds of times when Afghan troops put themselves at risk in combat alongside our men and women.
When I last visited the country in the summer of 2011, we met a young Afghan policeman who had been gravely injured fighting off a suicide bomber intent on blowing himself up in a meeting of village elders and American leaders. The Afghan policeman thwarted the attack on the district center in Marjeh, saving the lives of many Ameircans. When he needed a blood transfusion, many American troops and even contractors answered the call.
An American soldier murdering innocent Afghan villagers definitely damages the trust these American trainers have labored to build. It damages the relationship between soldiers of both nations who have covered each other on the field of battle. But let's be careful not to spend too much time focusing on the "one step back" when we are also taking many steps forward.