KABUL/KANDAHAR (Reuters) - In an old mud fort among pomegranate trees and grapevines in the birthplace of the Taliban, Belandai special forces base was meant to be a model for Afghanistan's future, winning the trust of villagers ahead of a NATO exodus just over two years away.
Instead, the compound, with its crumbling walls now bolstered by modern reinforcement, is in lockdown after a lone U.S. soldier wandered from its gates in darkness on Sunday and slaughtered 16 of the people it was meant to watch over.
Known to people in the area as Belandai Base after the nearest village, about one kilometre away, the massacre threatens to undermine one of the centrepieces of NATO strategy after the 2014 pullout of most foreign combat soldiers.
The compound was part of a so-called village stability operations (VSO) programme, which places small numbers of mostly U.S. special forces with elite Afghan troops in selected villages across the country to build ties.
From there they sometimes train locally raised police units, provide security advice and link villagers to the Afghan government, while also backing up Afghan and NATO security forces with operations and intelligence when needed.
In this way they underpin not only the Western strategy to shift security to Afghan forces over the next few years, but point also to how a longer-term presence of U.S. special forces and advisers in the country after 2014 could look.
The programme is the foundation for a so-called bottom up approach to counter-insurgency operations, while also countering the historic weakness of Afghan central governments in remote rural and mountain areas.
But people in Belandai said the VSO base there had a history of upsetting villagers even before the accused soldier, who NATO officials say was attached to the base as part of conventional forces, embarked on his slaughter.
"People in this district mostly survive by crop cultivation and farming, mainly wheat, corn and fruit," Said Wazir Mohammad, 40, who lost 11 members of his family in the shooting massacre.
"But these soldiers had made short cuts for their patrols through fields and fruit gardens, destroying irrigation ditches and gardens to make their own operation and patrols easier," Mohammad said through his grief.
As in many other Afghan communities, Mohammad said the Belandai troops had also infuriated people by carrying out night raids, which President Hamid Karzai has insisted must stop as part of negotiations on an agreement for some U.S. troops to stay in the country after 2014.
People in the area, Mohammad said, had asked many times for the base to be moved from the district, despite many villagers being employed there in support roles, providing income in a country where 10.5 million people - 42 percent of the population - live below the poverty line of earning $1 a day or less.
Mohammad said he wanted to see anyone involved in the massacre of his family prosecuted in Afghanistan under Afghan law, rather than a near-inevitable trial under U.S. law.
"They have to be prosecuted here. They have done two crimes against my family. One they killed them, and secondly, they then burned them," he said.
Ghulam Jelani Zwak, the director of the Afghan Analytical and Advisory Center think-tank, said the events at Balandai had undermined confidence in the VSO programme in villages across the country.
"It won't only impact on relations between the bases and locals, but it brings our entire relations with the U.S. under question," Zwak said.
"We are going to sign a strategic pact with the U.S. and the central issue both governments are discussing is how to avoid actions like this and civilian deaths."
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Robert Birsel