March 1, 2012

Afghanistan Damage Control 101

After an intense chain reaction claimed the lives of 30 Afghans and four American soldiers, demonstrations against the improper discarding of several Korans have subsided until further provocation presents itself. Some analysts predicted that Afghans would burn themselves out before last weekend, but protests only de-escalated after Sunday’s melee in Kunduz province. Three investigations, including a formal U.S. inquiry and a joint investigation with Afghan officials, are working to relive the night of February 20th. For now Afghanistan’s political environment rests in a tenuous state of “normality,” as requested/demanded by U.S. officials throughout the event.

Yet the Obama administration's standard blueprint for damage control is likely to leave more scars on its strategy than U.S. officials are willing to admit.

"Moving on"

Washington’s initial response to Bagram’s bonfire is littered with the half-believed promises of American political and military officials. Veering away from the usual statements of qualified regret, commanding General John Allen issued multiple apologies in his attempt to convince Afghans of America’s sincerity. President Barack Obama’s letter of apology to Hamid Karzai culminated the first stage of a three-part reaction to low-intensity street protests. Having completed this formality, the administration's narrative then switched to “calming” the situation, “moving on,” and avoiding the Taliban’s exploitation.

This advice, though sound, also rubs off as callous, disconnected and “tired” of Bagram’s controversy; since Karzai and his officials cooperated with Washington, U.S. rhetoric is primarily directed at protesting Afghans and mullahs. In a Sunday interview with CNN, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the administration's plan was to "let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere and then get on with business." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called the situation “deeply regrettable, but now it is out of hand and it needs to stop.”

Coordinating their statements across department lines, Pentagon spokesman George Little assured reporters on Monday, “There have been many mistakes made by international forces in Afghanistan during the past decade that have angered the public and led to protests, especially following air attacks and night raids that resulted in civilian casualties. On each occasion, after the initial outpouring of anger, and in some cases violent protests, the situation died down, and I suspect the same will happen following the recent Koran-burning incident.”

Crocker would later add his weight to those arguing that last week’s protests were minor in the grand scheme, and not necessarily anti-American. He told CBS News on Wednesday, “The pace of protest has slowed dramatically. A decade's worth of relationships doesn't go away in a single week, so we'll move forward.”

While this thinking is true in one sense - protests in the hundreds of thousands would pose a completely different crisis - small demonstrations are still symptomatic of larger problems. Many people indirectly support a cause instead of directly participating (Occupy Wall Street, for example), and Afghanistan’s hotspots erupted from a dry politico-economic environment. U.S. officials ignored this possibility, taking the opposite stance that last week’s demonstrations (like the Koran burnings) are an anomaly. Sensing that his officials finally turned a corner and regained control of Afghanistan's narrative, Obama emerged today to counter Republican statements and take credit for deescalating the crisis.

"It calmed things down,” he said of his apologetic letter to Karzai. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Afghans wouldn’t stop protesting until four days later, with many demonstrators perceiving U.S. apologies as superficial. “Normal,” in other words.

“Stay the course”

A week of protests and multiple incidents of “green on blue” - Afghan personnel attacking their American counterparts - triggered the latest crush of U.S. and NATO opposition to Afghanistan’s war. Like many Afghans living in the south and east, a politically significant number of Americans and Europeans have exhausted their tolerance after 10 years of fighting. The Koran episode added fuel to the accelerated withdrawal proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a plan that attracted ambiguous support from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. However the administration pulled back on Panetta’s remarks soon after he made them, and U.S. officials are now inflating their chests as popular pressure mounts for a rapid withdrawal.

“We know that the spirit of American, coalition and Afghan forces will be tested throughout the campaign in Afghanistan,” Little told reporters on Monday. “Anyone who believes they can weaken our resolve through these cowardly attacks is severely mistaken.”

In the absence of notable political progress, the administration continues to fall back on security gains in the face of overwhelming non-military issues. Little insisted that “the fundamentals of the strategy remain sound,” concluding, "There is absolutely no reason to change course when we're making the kind of progress we're making.” The change he’s speaking of would accelerate the security transition in 2012, end NATO’s combat mission by 2013 and withdraw U.S. troops sooner than 2014’s time-line currently allocates. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland added that NATO’s upcoming summit in Chicago will address “how fast we can move to Afghan lead... But there’s no change on our timelines.”

The same message was delivered repeatedly by Jay Carney, the White House’s press secretary, as a defense against the war’s stagnant approval. Asked “How do you explain why it's working?” Carney replies with a scripted answer developed over a long weekend.

“The mission, under the previous administration, in Afghanistan had become muddled and unclear, and lacked the proper resources to achieve its objectives. The President has changed that, and we have made significant progress in the last several years in achieving the goals set out by the President, primarily the disruption, dismantlement and, ultimately, the defeat of al Qaeda. And that includes eliminating Osama bin Laden.

In support of that goal, we have as an objective the stabilization of the Afghan government to allow Afghanistan and its government the space and time to take over security of its own country. And that process is well underway, as you know. The President has made clear that we are drawing down our forces in Afghanistan. We have been drawing down from the surge-force level already and will continue that process. And he has made clear that we will turn over full lead -- security lead to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. He will continue to have discussions with our NATO allies in this effort, and our ISAF allies, at the NATO summit in Chicago in May.”

Like the rest of Obama’s officials, Carney refused to bite on any questions related to U.S. approval, a key factor in counterinsurgency. COIN’s extended time-lines and resource commitments generally require a sustainable level of domestic approval, otherwise the mission cannot be completed. One senior U.S. general told The Los Angeles Times, "Too many people are asking, 'Why are we still doing this if the guys you're supposed to be helping keep murdering your soldiers?' The White House correspondent tries again: “you just sort of recounted the case there of how the President redefined the mission... But I’m wondering what you do about the attitudes of the American people...”

Carney refuses to budge, forcing the reporter to take one “last swipe at this.”

“I think the President made clear when he was a candidate for this office,” Carney answers, “and has made clear since he took this office that, unfortunately, prior to his taking office, because of the focus on Iraq and the U.S. efforts there, that the original war, if you will, in Afghanistan had been neglected, that the strategy there was unclear and that it was not properly resourced. He was very clear about what he would do as President when he was a candidate and has been clear in executing his vision since he became President. It's a clear policy with very clear goals. And it is a policy that is very clear-eyed about what our objectives are and what can be achieved in Afghanistan overall versus what our national security interests very specifically are.”

The ultimate product of Washington’s rhetorical counteroffensive is an increasingly disoriented war strategy. Obama’s spokesman spent upwards of 10 minutes reiterating how America must disrupt the Taliban in order to defeat al-Qaeda. Afghanistan’s training program remains on course in spite of rare “green on blue” incidents. Relations with Karzai and Islamabad are also held up proof of “progress,” when few actors in Afghanistan are more reviled in America. U.S. officials then ignore the elephant in Washington - “do you worry that American public support will continue to erode in an election year?” - or deny that domestic politics factor into the White House’s decision-making.

Even when taking Afghanistan’s chronic apathy and ignorance into consideration, a majority of Americans (and NATO populaces) presumably understand Obama’s strategy. They simply doubt that Afghanistan can be stabilized to the degree predicted by U.S. officials. al-Qaeda has been uprooted from Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the Taliban cannot be militarily defeated. Carney would acknowledge the necessity of a political solution before demarcating “very clear conditions”: “lay down arms, support the Afghan constitution, the rights of women and minorities, and renounce any affiliation or support for al Qaeda.” Sensible as these demands are through Western and man Afghan eyes, the Taliban will not submit to red-lines without holding Washington to an equal standard. The Pentagon continues to pursue support bases, a robust training force and a residual Special Forces unit to police the country after 2014.

The Taliban object to all of these conditions, increasing the odds of an ad hoc exit by coalition forces. Nor will many Americans believe the claim that Obama’s policy isn’t dictated by domestic politics; his attempt to maintain Democratic approval (by capping a second surge at 33,000 instead of 40,000+) is partly responsible for the current stalemate. When combined with rampant perceptions of weak, untrustworthy partners in Kabul and Islamabad, these battlefield conditions generate the inevitable perception of an “endless war.”

Afghanistan's no-win situation is gradually squeezing the maneuvering room available for every side except the Taliban. NATO has run out of time and political support to reach a sustainable end, but withdrawal cannot be accelerated without military consequences that further impair the war’s conclusion. The next two years will assume the appearance of the previous two, leaving a fragmented country to fight for its political and social stability. Obama fearlessly predicted, “I feel confident that we can stay on a path that by the end of 2014, our troops will be out and will not be in a combat role and Afghans will have capacity, just as Iraqis, to secure their own country.”

By the end of 2014, America and its allies will leave behind a weaker government to face a stronger insurgency. Maybe he should find another analogy to sell America's "good war.”

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