U.S.-Afghan relations suffer after rogue soldier accused of killing 16 civilians

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Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch as Afghans gather outside a U.S. base in Panjwai district Kandahar province, March 11, 2012. A U.S. soldier is accused of killing 16 civilians in a shooting spree nearby. (Photo by Ahmad Nadeem/Reuters.)

A United States Army staff sergeant is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers, nine of whom were children, in Kandahar Sunday morning.

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Witnesses claimed the yet-to-be-named soldier went door to door, eventually breaking into three houses and shooting the residents. He's accused of trying to burn the bodies of the victims. President Barack Obama and other officials have denounced the actions of the alleged perpetrator.

"We deplore any attack by a member of the U.S. armed forces against innocent civilians and denounce all violence against civilians," said James Cunningham, the acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. "We assure the people of Afghanistan that the individual or individuals responsible for this terrible act will be identified and brought to justice."

The attack occurred shortly after protests against February's Koran burnings at a NATO base. The Afghan Taliban has already issued a statement and vowed revenge. The attacks may force an earlier withdrawal than the planned 2014 date of NATO and the United States from Afghanistan. Though Monday afternoon the White House insisted there would be no changes.

David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, believes members of the Obama administration are primarily concerned with losing influence in Afghanistan to the Taliban.

"The first and most immediate (problem) is that any signs of further retaliation against Americans, like you saw after the Koran burning incident, could undercut the ability of the U.S. to make the argument that it has got the upper hand over the Taliban," Sanger said. "The more practical effect, though, may be that the Taliban will take a look at these efforts to start up peace talks in Qatar and say, 'You know, we can just wait this out.' That the Americans have become their own worst enemy inside Afghanistan."

The Taliban claimed responsibility for several violent actions in response to last month's Koran burnings. It is unclear if and how they will react to Sunday morning's massacre.

The unnamed staff sergeant, who is in U.S. military custody, is said to be a married father of two who has served multiple tours of duty in Iraq. His motivations are currently unknown.

The Afghan Parliament has condemned the killings and called for the soldier and alleged killer to be brought to an Afghan court.