A string of nightmarish mistakes by the U.S. military has put not just the future relationship between the United States and Afghanistan at risk, but the broader U.S. regional strategy as well. The overriding question is not whether the Obama administration can convince increasingly skeptical publics both here and there to stay the course, but what happens after the last conventional combat unit departs, whether in 2014 or sooner.
The issue is less whether Afghanistan has become another Vietnam, more whether it will become another Iraq, where the United States left without knowing whether its mission was accomplished.
If one was trying to deliberately sabotage the administration’s long-term strategy for South Asia, it would be hard to top the destructive regional cycle of the past five months—the November border mission that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead and the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in tatters and now under formal review; the emergence of a YouTube video in January showing Marines urinating on dead insurgents just as there appeared to be a breakthrough in peace negotiations with the Taliban; the unfortunate burning of the Quran in February that sufficiently inflamed Afghan public opinion that Afghan security personnel killed six U.S. soldiers in retaliation; and now the deaths of 16 people, mostly children, in Panjwaii, allegedly at the hands of a rogue sergeant.
Publicly, the Obama administration has been saying and doing all it can to contain the damage from these incidents. In the 48 hours since the rampage near Kandahar, from the president on down, there have been expressions of regret (but not another apology); reassurances that this is not who we are; pledges to hold those responsible fully accountable; and renewed commitments to the existing strategy and timetable. In other words, this was an isolated incident and nothing needs to change.
Privately, the administration recognizes that all elements of the strategy are up in the air: the gradual and orderly turnover of security responsibility to Afghanistan; the hoped-for negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban; and a new status-of-forces agreement with Afghanistan that allows a contingent of special-operations forces to remain for the purpose of Afghan training, to root out extremist safe havens in Pakistan, and to put pressure on all sides not to restart the conflict.
The war will formally end and combat forces will be withdrawn within the next three years. If there is doubt, it is only whether that will come in 2014—or sooner.
Americans are asking why we are still there. The president’s response is carefully hedged, rejecting a “rush to the exits” while being “more determined” to bring the troops home. This leaves room for some acceleration of the pace of withdrawals, an option the White House is reported to be considering.
An accelerated withdrawal might help President Karzai with his politics, showing that Afghanistan is assuming greater responsibility for its own affairs sooner and reducing the American and foreign footprint in the country and the political irritants that go along with that.
Afghans will be watching the prosecution of those responsible for the shooting. If the result is not credible, a new agreement may not be possible based on terms that both countries can accept.
But an adjustment in the existing timeline potentially undercuts a political agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government. Disasters are never timed well, but the incidents this year have been particularly problematic. The Taliban had shown a willingness to come to the negotiating table in Qatar, but the process has stalled in recent weeks. It’s possible the Taliban does not feel the need to compromise, given recent events. It is certainly feeling less pressure than it did six months ago.
Next door, the Pakistanis have their own concerns, foremost being whether the Americans will lose interest in the region like we did after the Soviet Union departed Afghanistan. While the relationship is under formal parliamentary review, the Pakistanis are hedging their bets and are not convinced that the U.S. will remain significantly engaged in the region after combat forces leave in 2014.
All of this points to the importance of a new status of forces (SOFA) agreement as the linchpin of the administration’s regional strategy, and how these setbacks have suddenly made the existing negotiations much more complicated.
Despite the Quran burning, progress was being made prior to the recent shooting. However, contentious issues remain to be resolved. One is the question of nighttime raids that the military feels are essential to dealing with insurgents. The shooting plays right into Karzai’s existing concerns about the impact of ongoing operations on civilians.
Karzai has little room to compromise. The United States, having yielded on control of Afghan prisons, may have to give something more to get a long-term agreement. Some adjustments over the short term might help.
Another issue is the sense of impunity that has built up through the years regarding civilian casualties. Afghans will be watching the prosecution of those responsible for the Panjwaii shooting. If the result is not credible—Iraqi public opinion never recovered after the perceived lack of justice following the 2007 shootings by Blackwater contractors in Nisour Square—a new agreement may not be possible based on terms that both countries can accept. A long-term strategic partnership between Iraq and the United States, and the military presence that goes with it, remains in limbo.
Absent a political agreement between Afghanistan and the Taliban, and a counterterrorism mission that continues to degrade the residual threat and precludes the reemergence of another extremist safe haven, it will be difficult for the president to bring the Afghan war to a close in 2014 and claim “Mission Accomplished.”