In an army of 150,000 US and Nato soldiers in Afghanistan one rogue solider who massacres sixteen civilians, including nine children, does not necessarily mean that discipline and morale of the whole force is breaking down. However, when the spate of recent incidents are put together – US soldiers burning copies of the Koran, footage apparently showing US Marines urinating on bodies of dead Taliban fighters and a spate of accidental killings of civilians during US attacks on the Taliban – the situation looks far more grim. There can be no doubt that the western presence in Afghanistan faces a grave crisis of confidence across the Muslim world and in their home countries.
The Afghan people are exhausted by a war that has gone on in one form or other since 1979, when most American soldiers now in Afghanistan were not even born. Increasing numbers of Afghans would agree with what the Taliban have been arguing for almost a decade: that the western presence in Afghanistan is prolonging the war, causing misery and bloodshed.
After the spate of incidents this year, there should be no doubt in Washington that seeking a negotiated settlement to end the war with the Taliban as quickly as possible is the only way out. Mr Obama has to put his weight behind this strategy to ensure an orderly withdrawal and to give the Afghan people the chance of an end to this war. A power sharing formula with the Taliban, which now appears increasingly unavoidable, and an accord with neighbouring states, to limit their interference, will be key.