February 27, 2012

Afghan Handover Plan Roiled

By Andrew M. Exum

Source: The Wall Street Journal

America's plan to hand over responsibility for securing Afghanistan faced unprecedented strains, as the U.S. and its allies withdrew hundreds of military and civilian advisers in Kabul following a string of deadly attacks by Afghan soldiers on American troops.

The U.S., Britain, Germany and France temporarily pulled out the advisers helping the Afghan government on Sunday amid a wave of unrest triggered by the burning of Qurans last week at the Bagram U.S. military base.

The broad adviser pullout not only deprives Afghan ministries of expertise in managing their affairs but also sends a pointed signal that the international community is losing faith in a government it has spent billions of dollars to rebuild after the 2001 U.S. invasion.

The attacks renewed a debate over how quickly America should withdraw its troops, with Republican defense hawks arguing for retaining a bigger force. The debate also spilled over into the U.S. presidential race, with GOP candidates on Sunday criticizing President Barack Obama's recent apology for the Quran incident.

The backlash over the Quran burning continued on Monday morning, when a car bomb exploded at the gates of Jalalabad airport in eastern Afghanistan, which serves both civilian and international military aircraft. The Taliban took responsibility for the blast, saying it was "revenge" for the Quran burning. Nine people were reported killed. NATO forces spokesman Capt. Justin Brockhoff said that no international forces were killed in the attack.

On Sunday, U.S. forces in northern Afghanistan were hit when a demonstrator threw a grenade at an American base, injuring six soldiers.

Ten of the 58 U.S.-led coalition soldiers who died this year have been killed by their Afghan comrades in arms. Four of those deaths—including the shooting of an American colonel and major inside the Afghan Ministry of Interior headquarters Saturday—occurred in the past week.

The shootings led U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of coalition forces, to withdraw hundreds of military advisers working in Afghan government ministries in and around Kabul on Saturday. His move was followed by similar steps by the diplomatic missions of the U.S., Britain, France and Germany.

While the U.S. military cast the move as a temporary measure, the decision is a reflection of widespread concern about the reliability of Afghan partners that is likely to have a lasting impact on critical decisions in the coming months.

The incident also prompted Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismullah Khan to cancel a trip to Washington this week, where they had been expected to argue against a U.S. proposal to reduce funding for Afghan security forces after most coalition troops withdraw in 2014.

"Americans understand, at some level, that Afghans would be upset by the burning of the Quran," said Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served two tours in Afghanistan and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a centrist Washington think tank. "But Americans do not understand why the United States should continue to send trainers and advisers to a country where those trainers and advisers are liable to be targeted by the very people they are training and advising."

The attacks on American forces continued Sunday during an anti-Quran-burning protest in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province. Six U.S. soldiers were injured when a demonstrator threw a hand grenade at a military base where U.S. Special Operations Forces were training members of the Afghan Local Police force, officials said.

Afghan authorities launched a nationwide manhunt Sunday for the suspected perpetrator of the Ministry of Interior attack—identified by them as Abdul Sabor Salangi, 25, a police officer.

Western officials said Mr. Salangi was a driver for an Afghan intelligence official at the ministry who may have had access to the restricted area where the U.S. advisers were shot in the head.

The Taliban said they dispatched the attacker to kill the Americans in retaliation for the Quran burning, but the claim was unconfirmed. One Afghan intelligence official said there were suspicions that Mr. Salangi had ties to insurgent groups who may now be hiding the attacker.

Local officials said Afghan forces raided Mr. Salangi's family home in northern Afghanistan, in an area traditionally seen as a stronghold of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, but came up empty-handed.

American and coalition officials have sought to cast many of the so-called green-on-blue shootings—meaning Afghan attacks on coalition troops—as the isolated work of Afghan malcontents with no political agenda.

That approach began to change after the gunning down of French troops by an Afghan soldier last month prompted Paris to accelerate its pullout.

On Sunday, military officials in Kabul said that they saw the green-on-blue attacks as a serious threat to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, even as they stressed that the common work will continue.

"We are not going to let this divide the coalition," said U.S. Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the military coalition in Afghanistan. "We are going to continue to move forward."

U.S. military officials said the withdrawn military advisers remain in contact with their Afghan counterparts.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker called the decision to pull advisers a realistic reflection of the troubles.

"Tensions are running very high here, and I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business," he said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

Mohammad Hanif Atmar, who led the Afghan Interior Ministry until being forced by Mr. Karzai to resign in 2010, said the latest attacks "create an environment of suspicion" that would make it more difficult for Afghan and coalition forces to work together.

Mr. Karzai didn't mention the U.S. deaths in his opening statement during a news conference Sunday. He expressed his condolences—but not an apology—only when asked about the shootings by a reporter.

While his Interior Ministry earlier Sunday identified Mr. Salangi as the chief suspect, Mr. Karzai also kept alive speculation—explicitly rejected by U.S. military officials—that the two Americans may have been killed by another Westerner.

"It is not yet clearly known as to who has committed this and where he was from, whether Afghan or foreigner or any other element involved," he said.

Mr. Karzai's response was "unfortunate," one senior American official said.

Mr. Karzai's remarks at the news conference focused instead on the investigation into how the Qurans were burned at Bagram, and on attempts to launch peace talks with the Taliban.

U.S. officials said the books were being destroyed because it had been discovered that Afghan detainees at the Parwan detention center were using them to share messages and extremist writing. Military officials said they are investigating the incident but have said it was a mistake to burn the Qurans.

The Afghan president also used the news conference to press his demands that the U.S. quickly cede control of the Parwan detention center at Bagram Airfield and end night raids.

Both issues are central sticking points in stalled negotiations over a deal that would allow the U.S. to retain a strategic military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 and guarantee long-term American support for the country.

"The Afghan leadership has been painfully slow to realize the gravity of these events and to understand how little patience Americans have for the war in Afghanistan," said Mr. Exum, the ex-Ranger who is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank. "President Karzai has to understand that patience for the continued commitment to Afghanistan is wearing very thin."

  • Andrew M. Exum