By the time May sunshine brightens up the Windy City, President Barack Obama’s fortunes in Afghanistan could bounce back on the announcement of new troop withdrawals.
The majority of Americans won’t be fully satisfied with what they hear - the latest Rasmussen poll estimates that 67% favor an end to combat operations by 2013 - but Obama must deliver a substantial cut to keep his base satisfied. He must also keep pace with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who launched NATO’s accelerated-transition, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s ambiguous “hope” to “transition from a combat role to a training advise-and-assist role.” With these factors weighing on a depleted tolerance for Afghanistan, Obama needs to speed up his withdrawals after pulling their exit into another summer. Chicago should provide the venue to reset NATO’s mission and pour another layer of varnish onto the coalition’s war strategy.
Until then, though, the Obama administration is veering away from the surge’s “progress” and wandering down a bumpy, mine-ridden road.
“You look at this as clearly and objectively as you can, what you see is that we’re in a weaker position than we were maybe two or three or four weeks ago,” one anonymous official told The New York Times. “I’m not sure anyone knows the clear way forward. It’s gotten more and more complicated. It’s fraught.”
Five day of demonstrations against the instantly-infamous Quran burning at Bagram Air Field have provided a litmus test for current attitudes in Afghanistan and America. At least 27 people lay dead from the outbreak, some of them shot by Afghan soldiers and UN guards. Chants of “Death of America” can be heard in provinces ranging from Kandahar to Logar to Kunduz. Kabul and the U.S. Embassy are only quiet due to widespread police and military deployments. A deterministic reaction to Afghanistan's unstable and unresolved political fundamentals, these protests/riots backlight the social gaps between Washington’s military-centric surge.
In contrast to the political components of Iraq’s surge (some more intentional than others), Afghanistan’s surge has lacked political guidance from the beginning. Taliban reintegration programs failed to generate significant results, Kabul’s reconciliation process is dragging along under private U.S.-Taliban negotiations (leaving out Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups) and the most high-profile, non-military thrust remains semi-military: training Afghanistan's police and military. Even this task has been complicated by the over-recruitment of Tajiks into Pashtun territory. Meanwhile U.S.-Pakistani relations have only drifted further apart since Obama assumed the presidency, taking both countries’ popular sentiments with them.
U.S. officials continue to emphasis body counts and rate of attack in Afghanistan - metrics that failed to tell the whole picture in Vietnam or Iraq.
The latest Quran episode appears particularly destabilizing even when compared to past “mistakes.” Although U.S. and Afghan officials have downplayed any ramifications over the transition process, various reports indicate that NATO officials are assuaging their Afghan counterparts with plans to accelerate the security transition. Conversely, Washington’s response is already beginning to veer from overly apologetic to agitated. Another anonymous official told The National Journal, “Frankly our position is this was a careless act, but we’ve already apologized for it and we want to move on.”
Neither President Hamid Karzai nor Afghans want to forgive and forget last Monday night at Bagram, and telling them to do so equates to counterproductive propaganda. For starters, Karzai would repeat an unpopular request to U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter: “The sooner you do the transfer of the prison, the less you will have problems and unfortunate incidents.”
U.S. officials have tried to push the correct rhetoric down the chain of command, from Obama to Panetta to Allen, but their apologies lost their meaning many “careless acts” ago. Apologies also become offensive when viewed as insincere, adding insult to injury. Equally disturbing, U.S. statements are beginning to fray after four days of damage control. Allen initially appealed for calm within his own ranks after an Afghan soldier lethally turned his weapon on two U.S. soldiers, saying “now is how we show the Afghan people that as bad as that act was in Bagram, it was unintentional and American and ISAF soldiers do not stand for this.”
After a second incident at Kabul’s fortified Interior Ministry left two U.S. officers dead, Allen condemned the attack and called the perpetrator a “coward.” Panetta would also label the attack as “unacceptable,” as if the Afghan government was somehow involved. The Taliban claimed responsibility for infiltrating a floor “that only people who know a numerical combination can get into,” citing an accomplice within the government. The administration is already positioned to lose this propaganda battle and downplaying another infiltration as “cowardly” could stick onto night-raiding, Quran-burning U.S. troops instead.
An ominous report from The Washington Post also managed to find numerous Afghan police who sympathized with protesters and expressed anti-American sentiments on record.
However no explosion is complete without a corresponding political reaction inside the occupying power. Last week’s events are adding new weight to America and Europe’s anti-war opinion, driving up the demand for Sarkozy’s accelerated transition. This possibility, in turn, will create new fodder for GOP presidential candidates and representatives, who generally oppose a rapid withdrawal and strictly reject French leadership in the war. Obama’s apology came under immediate attack from Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, sparking a divergent controversy and hindering a response to the crisis. A scripted apology for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers was also delayed at Islamabad's request, but one U.S. official admitted that the administration didn’t want to “hand fresh ammunition to Republican presidential candidates.”
Given that a coverup spells disaster, the Obama administration chose wisely by facing up to Bagram’s incident. The right tone of apology might have neutralized some of the street’s anger as well, except too many apologies and investigations create the opposite effect - America is spinning to its way out of another abuse. Ultimately the administration never possessed control of its message, which is progressively destabilizing amid a secondary reaction to the Taliban’s infiltration tactics. Consumed by U.S. economics only to be shocked into South Asia, Obama himself is drifting far outside his comfort zone while the White House allows November to obscure February. GOP candidates are equally guilty of sacrificing the war’s strategy for political gains, thus gift-wrapping Washington’s logjam for the Taliban and culminating Afghanistan’s COIN breakdown.
The White House and Pentagon’s urgent problem is that apologies don’t go far enough. They must treat Bagram’s latest incident as a sign of wider discontent, rather than emphasize its isolated nature, and craft their response to Afghanistan’s major grievances. An innovative policy would address and reduce the number of unpopular night-raids, but this decision would come under attack by GOP and Pentagon officials alike (who intend to keep Special Forces in the country past 2014). Now the administration must risk waiting until May to formally accelerate NATO’s withdrawal, or move now and endure new GOP fire.
Whatever the administration decides, playing politics at home is the time-tested recipe for unsuccessful COIN.