March 13, 2012

Soldier's killing spree: Is end of Afghanistan war near?

Pentagon officials have been adamant that the vicious shooting spree of a US soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians this week – mostly women and children – will not affect the US military’s way forward in Afghanistan.

“War is hell. These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place. They’ve taken place in any war,”Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday. “But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy or the mission that we’re involved in.”

But will the Pentagon have a choice? The intensity of the public reaction to the killings – either in Afghanistan or America – could determine whether the US military will be forced to make a change in strategy, says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who was commander of US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

“A lot is going to depend on the Afghan perceptions of this event – and secondly, the US and international perceptions of this event,” says General Barno.

The White House is mulling the possibility of stepping up its timeline for withdrawal. The shooting Sunday “makes me more determined to make sure we’re getting our troops home,” President Obama told a CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh. “It’s time. It’s been a decade and, frankly, now that we’ve gotten [Osama] bin Laden, now that we’ve weakened Al Qaeda, we’re in a stronger position to transition than we would have been two or three years ago.”

Obama administration officials face a balancing act in the months to come. While they will want to emphasize achievements on the ground, they will also be eager to transition security control to Afghan forces in pursuit of a graceful exit.

Yet US military officials remain reluctant to drawdown forces. One White House proposal reportedly on the table would have 10,000 US troops leaving by year’s end, and another 10,000 by mid-2013. The mid-2013 date, however, concerns commanders on the ground, who have made it clear that they don’t like giving up troops before the end of the fighting season, which runs from spring until autumn. 

Barno has a different take. Fewer US troops on the ground could potentially cause fewer difficulties for US commanders – a point that might be fresh in the minds of commanders, he says. The Sunday rampage came on the heels of US soldiers burning Qurans earlier this month, as well as US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, as seen on a YouTube video that was widely circulated in February.

“How much of this friction is because there are 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, as opposed to 20,000 when I was there?” says Barno, now a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security. “You have to make sure that any Americans you have there are absolutely essential to the mission.”

In an American election year, Obama is less likely to explore a troop withdrawal much beyond what’s already planned, says Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and a former civilian cultural adviser to the US Army. The White House does not want to appear soft on the Taliban, he adds. Its strategy is that “we need to get the Taliban to give up” through armed force "so we can have reconciliation and negotiations.”

Anything short of that, Mr. Foust says, and political adversaries might accuse Obama of “surrendering” to the Taliban. Obama emphasized in the same Pittsburgh interview this week that there would be no “rush for the exits.”

Even so, talk of an “accelerated” drawdown "comes up every time there’s a new event,” says Paraag Shukla, a former intelligence at the Department of Defense.

Despite the Sunday shootings, Afghans do not appear to be turning to violent protests against the US presence the way some had feared. “There is already a sense [among Afghans] that Americans kill a lot of civilians,” Foust says. “My feeling is that it disgusts people, but they’re not really surprised by it, whereas the Quran burnings really surprised them. They thought, ‘Despite everything else, how could you do this?’ ”

Those protests have died down for the most part, and now the most effective way to repair the damaged relations between US and Afghan security forces “is not to change our partnership or our training strategy with the Afghans,” says Mr. Shukla, currently a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. 

It is to "recognize that our presence has to be responsibly handled, in order to support Afghanistan once the bulk of our troops are gone,” he adds. Despite discussions of stepped-up troop withdrawals, “With the realities on the ground – and the fighting season ahead this summer – there’s still a lot left to do.”