KABUL, Afghanistan – The massacre of 16 Afghan civilians was a dagger to the U.S.-led coalition's hearts and minds campaign, which was already in decline after 10 years of war.
Coalition forces will still help bolster the Afghan government and security forces in coming years, but Afghans increasingly believe America's only mission is to leave as soon as it can.
Even President Hamid Karzai, the long-standing U.S. partner in Afghanistan, has turned toxic. He told the U.S. to pull its troops out of Afghan villages and said it's fine with him if international forces wrap up their combat mission early.
Afghans already were worried about what will happen when international troops hand over the lead combat role to Afghan forces next year. Then, a rapid-fire succession of events shattered their trust in America, hastening an end to the effort to win over the Afghan population.
In January, a video purportedly showing American Marines laughing and urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters surfaced on the Web. In February, Muslim holy books were burned at a U.S. base north of Kabul in what President Barack Obama said was a terrible mistake. A week ago, a U.S. soldier allegedly went on a shooting rampage in two villages in Kandahar province, killing nine children, four men and three women and burning some of their bodies.
After the shooting spree, Karzai expressed exasperation, saying he was at the "end of the rope" over rising civilian deaths, even though the Taliban are responsible for more.
"Continuously, I have told the Americans to leave our villages. You are not needed in our villages. There is no terrorism there," Karzai said during an emotional meeting at the palace on Friday with the shooting victims' families from Panjwai district of Kandahar province.
"If these incidents continue, then the foreign mission will fail."
The recent events have further complicated efforts to negotiate a U.S.-Afghanistan partnership document that will outline America's presence in the country after 2014.
"They do not respect women, children, the clerics. They don't respect the culture of the Afghans," said Nasurullah Sadiqizada, an Afghan lawmaker from Day Kundi province in central Afghanistan. "Is it good for Afghanistan to sign a strategic partnership with these kinds of things happening to our people?"
Nick Whitney, former head of the European Union's European Defense Agency, said that incidents such as the shootings and the burning the Qurans undermine any pretense that NATO is in Afghanistan because it wants to help the population.
"These incidents just underline the fact that the game is up for NATO," said Whitney, a senior policy fellow at the Paris-based European Council on Foreign Relations. "It's been a lost cause for a number of years. In their heart of hearts, elites across Europe have know this for a long time."
Faith in the U.S. has broken down so much, that residents -- especially in the south -- have started believing that American troops are looking for excuses to leave before the end of 2014.
"Living during the NATO war against the Taliban has already been hard," said Abdul Qayum Khan, who runs a store that sells refrigerators and home electronics in Kandahar. "Now, knowing that Americans are finding ways to make their run and leave us in chaos, it is worse.
"Government officials are already shifting their families abroad and settling there, which shows that they already know what's about to come. It's getting dangerous out here and we can sense it too."
Abdul Manan Zamaryal is considering closing his photo shop in Kandahar, packing up his family and moving to Quetta, Pakistan.
"We know that even if the NATO forces achieve enough success to leave, this only means that we should be ready for the civil war to began," between the Taliban fighters, who are mostly from the majority Pashtun ethnic group, and minorities persecuted during Taliban rule, who back the international forces.
"That will come with more dangerous results. The guarantee of our living and surviving that is like below zero. We are planing to leave Afghanistan before Americans do for our own good and we believe shifting to Quetta is the best option now."
More Afghans fled the country and sought asylum abroad in 2011 than in any other year since the start of the decade-long war, suggesting that many are looking for their own exit strategy as international troops prepare to withdraw.
From January to November, more than 30,000 Afghans applied for political asylum worldwide, a 25 percent increase over the same period the previous year and more than triple the level of just four years ago, according to U.N. statistics.Thousands of refugees also return each year, but their numbers have been dwindling as the asylum applications rise.
Both trends highlight worries among Afghans about what could happen after 2014.
"NATO leaving is the last thing we wanted to happen," said Mohammad Saleem, a university student in Kandahar. "Neither the Afghan police nor army are in a condition to take over responsibility. They are like children in their first stages of learning. If NATO does leave, then I do not think even half of us will be able to survive the civil war."
Two years ago, Gen. David Petraeus, the former top commander in Afghanistan, told his troops that the overarching goal of foreign forces in Afghanistan is to "secure and serve the population."
"Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and the coalition prevail," Petraeus, the author of the counterinsurgency manual used by the army and Marine Corps, wrote in guidance to his forces.
Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN, has two pillars. One is to kill and capture militants in counterterror operations. The other is focused on clearing the enemy out of certain territory, then trying to hold and develop it to woo the loyalties of the local Afghan population away from the Taliban.
The plan has always been to gradually shift away from clear-hold-build aspect of the strategy toward more limited kill-and-capture missions between now and 2014. Still, foreign forces still work and live alongside rural populations. The Afghan insurgency is largely a rural insurgency and if foreign forces are required to leave villages, it would likely undermine the effort to work face-to-face with Afghans in an effort to keep them from sympathizing with insurgents.
Critics of the U.S. and NATO military plan, however, have long said that a large military footprint, especially in conservative rural districts, encourages violence and bolsters the Taliban argument that they are fighting a foreign occupier.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says that despite the shootings and other incidents, the United States' long-term objectives in Afghanistan remain the same.
Asked about whether the recent events were eroding efforts to win over the Afghan population, Panetta noted that Karzai was still working with the Americans and that the Afghan government recently sealed an agreement on the gradual transfer of control of the main U.S. prison in the country.
Speaking with reporters during a trip that included a stop in Afghanistan last week, Panetta said that the Afghan army had responded well in maintaining order during a week of violent protests over the Quran burnings and that the events had not spawned large-scale desertions from the service.
"It indicates that what we've been able to accomplish up to this point is beginning to pay off," Panetta said.