As many U.S. officials and their media boosters argue, NATO and Afghan forces have inflicted devastating numerical losses on the Taliban and dried up al-Qaeda's network in the country. However Washington and its allies still confront a bleak reality that jars with the White House and Pentagon's choreographed optimism; beyond al-Qaeda's severed hierarchy, fertile grounds in Yemen and Africa factor into the group's redeployment. Equally important, the Taliban will weather the apex of President Barack Obama's surge and remain operational long after 2014. Now, as the Pentagon hoped to transfer its gains to Afghan security forces, its own momentum is reversing beneath a muddled strategy and self-inflicted wounds.
A breakdown in the second half of U.S. policy - bombarding the American and NATO publics with "progress" - is following the same trajectory after a U.S. Sergeant murdered several families in the dead of night. Like the Quran burnings that proceeded this raw act of violence, Panjwai's gruesome scene cuts directly to the heart of Washington's politico-military strategy. Whereas the Quran burnings spawned an uptick in "green on blue" incidents, Sunday's massacre shed a dark light on the Special Forces programs tasked to build trust at the local level.
"This base told us to come back to our villages... we will not bother you," said one mother, referring to the base of the detained U.S. soldier. "This is your land, and this is your own village. But these dogs came and grabbed us."
While provincial-level protests have yet to materialize (Quran desecration supersedes civilian casualties), the graphic nature of Panjwai's killings could leave a far-reaching scar on the minds of southern Afghans. 11 children and 3 women were systematically executed as the U.S. soldier crept from house to house; several men were shot unarmed. One man lost 11 family members, including his wife, mother, sons and daughters, and many of the bodies were burned. Another mother recounted, "One guy came in and pulled a boy from his sleep and he shot him in this doorway. Then they came back inside the room and put a gun in the mouth of one child and stomped on another child."
Every villager could have a different, potentially false experience of the shootings, but each memory is indistinguishable from the truth.
The soldier's trial could further impair Washington's damage control as U.S. officials scramble to convince Afghans that such atrocities "won't happen again." Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Monday, "The soldier was never in the custody of Afghan forces and will not face punishment under the Afghan justice system. The U.S. military has strong means to address wrongdoing. There is an agreement in place with the government of Afghanistan, so that the investigation - and when appropriate, prosecution - will be done through U.S. military channels."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has since informed the media that the death penalty "could be a consideration," but many observers point out the grim sentiment that involved Afghans expect swift justice. Although U.S. officials plead for calm and patience during a "thorough" investigation, they are also certain that the shooting is an isolated incident that doesn't represent the thoughts of any other soldier. This is the same augment used to explain a variety of "isolated incidents" - and was applied to the sergeant in question only days before he murdered 16 civilians.
"Today, the Kandahar governor was trying to explain to the villagers that he was only one soldier, that he was not a sane person and that he was sick," said Abdul Rahim Ayubi, a Kandahar lawmaker who visited Balandi with Hamid Karzai's delegation. "But the people were just shouting and they were very angry. They didn't listen to the governor. They accused him of defending the Americans instead of defending the Kandahari people."
The flexible motto of "staying the course" underlines the Obama administration's rhetoric at every point. Nothing has changed between Saturday and Tuesday - Washington's strategy and public relations remain static. Panetta came closest to breaking formality when he told reporters that "war is hell," but beyond his frank admission, Afghanistan's information sphere is cluttered with rehashed lines from previous "challenges." In a Monday interview, White House media adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes insisted that “the trajectory we’ve set here is one of transition and Afghan sovereignty. We have a goal here of having the Afghans move into the lead and having us steadily pulling back.”
Meanwhile press secretary Jay Carney rephrased his defense against February's Quran burnings: "What the President did when he reviewed U.S. policy in Afghanistan was insist that we focus our attention on what our absolute goals in the country should be, and prioritize them. And he made clear that the number-one priority, the reason why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan in the first place, is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda. It was, after all, al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, that launched the attacks against the United States on September 11th, 2011. That is why the U.S. sent forces -- appropriately -- to Afghanistan."
Washington's information counteroffensive continues to define U.S. almost entirely by military benchmarks, rather than the non-military factors that make or break counterinsurgency. Speaking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer in anticipation of upcoming Congressional hearings, ranking General John Allen flatly declared, “The campaign is sound. It is solid. It does not contemplate, at this time, any form of an accelerated drawdown." Meeting him at the middle of their script, Panetta told reporters on his way to Kyrgyzstan, “We’re on the right path now… I do not believe there is any reason at this point to make any [strategic] changes.”
Again quizzed on waning popular support in America and Europe, Carney repeated the standard line that Obama's surge is making progress: "I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have had success in the implementation of this strategy and making life a lot harder for al Qaeda. And that has been a direct result of the President’s approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I really don’t think anybody could doubt that."
Yet at the deepest level of Washington's rhetoric, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is becoming increasingly unstable. The New York Times reported that the White House is entering a new tug of war with the Pentagon over an accelerated withdrawal, adding more friction to the decision-making process (White House officials downplayed the report on Tuesday). All options are unfavorable; speeding up the withdrawal allows the Taliban to gear up for 2014, residual U.S. forces interfere with a political resolution and the over-reliance on Special Forces commits a fatal error by abandoning contact with the local population.
And America's margin for error is razor thin.
Several contradictions jump out of the mass of information flowing from Washington's source. The notion that America can leave a residual force to kill Taliban and still negotiate a settlement with its diverse leadership will create inevitable problems in 2013 and 2014, opening the door to a new power vacuum. The second dilemma cannot be found in any White House statements; al-Qaeda was mentioned 16 times during Carney's Monday's briefing while the Taliban never make an appearance. Obama also speaks in terms of defeating al-Qaeda, concealing the reality that U.S. and NATO soldiers are fighting against and dying from the Taliban's nationalist/religious insurgency.
The overall strategy cannot be progressing that favorably when America's leadership feels uncomfortable admitting who its troops are fighting. Post-2014 Afghanistan is likely to trend between Iraq's political stalemate and the Taliban's recapture of southern Afghanistan.
In response to persistent questions over the widespread decline in public approval, Carney told reporters that "the President has made clear that his policy is designed to allow us to draw U.S. forces down as we accomplish our goals there. And it is a very specific plan." This plan is crafted around a loss of domestic support - a phased withdrawal that concedes no fundamental flaw or lack of support. The Goldilocks theory of 33,000 ultimately proved invalid; instead of appeasing Democrats and Republicans, a majority of Americans believe that Obama deployed too many or too few troops. He would straddle the fence again on Monday, saying, "It makes me more determined to make sure that we're getting our troops home. It's time. But what we don't want to do is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits. We've got to make sure that the Afghans can protect their borders and prevent Al-Qaeda from coming back, and so we're going to have to do it in a responsible way."
The administration's attempt to clarify his "clear" strategy is only complicating the explanation and execution.