March 16, 2012

Afghan-US Relationship Strained by Recent Events

For 10 years the U.S. and its NATO allies have worked to establish good will as it battled insurgents in a country that has long been ravaged by war and seen foreign troops on its soil.  But analysts say that good will is being eroded by a succession of incidents.

In recent weeks and months, copies of the sacred Islamic holy book the Koran were inadvertently burned by U.S. forces.  A video surfaced showing American soldiers urinating on the bodies of slain Taliban fighters.  And most recently, an American soldier was accused of going on a shooting rampage, killing 16 Afghan villagers. Meanwhile, incidents of Afghan security forces turning their guns on NATO soldiers and advisors have also increased, and anti-American demonstrations have sprung up.

Professor Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says the U.S.-Afghan relationship is now under severe strain.

"It seems to me that the relationship has increasingly grown sort of frayed and tattered on the edges," Goodson said.  "The foreign involvement in Afghanistan has now been a decade, and Afghans have never been terribly comfortable with such a long presence of foreigners in their country. And of course the insurgencies have grown stronger.  I'm going to call them multiple insurgencies because there are different groups and different activities going on."

Frustration is growing both among the NATO allies and in the Afghan government, which analysts say could affect the timetable to turn over security responsibilities to Afghan forces.

In an interview, retired Lieutenant General David Barno, former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said the incidents have fueled growing unease not only in Afghanistan, but in the United States as well.

"Well, it's hard to really explain this at all," General Barno said.  "I mean, this is kind of a series of unending, unfortunate events over the last six or eight weeks in Afghanistan that I think that have - certainly back here in the United States - put a lot of pressure on the administration and on lawmakers to think about what we're doing and where we're going in. And I think that actually in some ways it's actually caused more concern back here in the U.S. than I'm seeing in Afghanistan right now."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for U.S. and NATO troops to withdraw from the outlying areas and pull back to their bases, leaving security responsibilities to Afghan forces.  General Barno says that what the Afghan leader is asking for is not really all that different from what the U.S. has already planned.

"That effort has already been underway," Barno added.  "And realistically as we look ahead to the reduction of U.S. troops from about 91,000 to about 68,000 by October this year, there's going to be a pullback in a lot of areas across the country. That's a matter of math," said the former commander. "You're just going to have to see bases closed up and areas turned over to the Afghans. So I think that he may be calling for something that's already going to take place as this troop drawdown begins in earnest this summer."

But Larry Goodson says a premature pullback may undermine the effort to train Afghan forces out in the countryside and to provide them with logistical help, like medical assistance and resupply.

"There's a bit of a risk in that kind of a situation in terms of a risk to your strategy because how can you have these forces you are training and assisting out in the field without the trainers and the other capabilities - the logistical support and so forth - that's supposed to be out there helping them," Goodson said.

The U.S. has planned to pull out most combat forces and turn over security responsibilities to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.  General Barno believes the timetable may slip a bit even as the Karzai and Obama administrations try to mend the damage done by the recent incidents.

"I'm not convinced the timetable is going to change dramatically," Baron said. "I do think that as I look at what's happening here in the U.S. and I look a bit at what's happening in Europe among the NATO countries there seems to be a growing consensus to looking at 2013, next year, as the year to transfer to an Afghan lead for security - different from the original plan, which really looked to have that happen more toward the end of 2014. So I think there may be a possibility that we see some movement in that direction."

The issue is expected to be high on the agenda of a NATO summit in Chicago in May.