The shooting of 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday by a U.S. soldier and the Koran burning on the Bagram air base several weeks ago have American officials questioning whether these two events will make it next to impossible for coalition forces to carry through with the mission as planned until 2014, when the U.S. is expected to leave Afghanistan.
Several hundred Afghans descended on Camp Belambay in Kandahar to protest the incident which replicates a similar pattern of Afghans generally protesting a foreign presence in the country. Similar protests erupted after the burning of the Koran at the Bagram air base and an Afghan intelligence officer killed two Americans officers at the Interior Ministry in Kabul at the end of February. Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote shortly after the protests following the revelation that American soldiers had burned copies of the Koran, “It has been a truly grim week and one where these events raise questions about U.S. strategy and the value of continuing with the current approach to the war.”
American and coalition forces rely on Afghans for a variety of tasks along with providing support on the many U.S. and coalition bases that dot the Afghan landscape. Afghan soldiers routinely accompany American and NATO units when they conduct patrols. The U.S. military is fast tracking the training of Afghan military units to provide security for their country once the U.S. military leaves by 2014. However, with the seemingly obvious problems that Sunday’s shooting, the Koran burning and the videotape of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghan militants will cause, the relationship between the Afghan and U.S. military will become more acrimonious.
“The Afghan people can withstand a lot of pain,” Prince Ali Seraj, who heads the National Coalition for Dialogue with the Tribes of Afghanistan, told CNN in an interview following the shooting. “They can withstand collateral damage. They can withstand night raids. But murder is something that they totally abhor, and when that happens, they really want justice.”
It is possible that the Taliban will use Sunday’s shooting to their advantage. What presence the Taliban has in Afghanistan is debatable having witnessed setbacks on the battlefield over the past few years since Obama ordered a surge in U.S. forces shortly after taking office. Prince Ali Seraj told CNN in that same interview, “They (Taliban) are really going to milk this for all it’s worth.” He continued, “This is playing right into their program of psychological warfare against the Afghan people.”
Shortly after the shooting hit the wires, Obama said publicly that he was “deeply saddened” by the incident and supported an investigation to “get the facts as quickly as possible and to hold accountable anyone responsible.”
The U.S. military has already taken steps to hand over control of a detention facility in Parwan to the Afghan government and other agreements are certain to follow. Under the agreement, which falls under the rubric of a long-term security agreement between the two countries, the U.S. will hand over nominal control of the facility to the Afghan government which currently holds around 3,200 detainees suspected of being Taliban insurgents. In six months, if the agreement still holds and no major obstacles have arisen, the U.S. will transfer full control of the facility to the Afghans. Undoubtedly the shooting will quicken calls for a full exit by U.S. forces before 2014.
Domestically, although an unlikely choice for the nominee to face off against Obama in November, Newt Gingrich has suggested that the shooting raises the question if the war is even winnable at this point. Gingrich’s dower assessment follows other Republicans who aren’t party to the neoconservative wing of the GOP like former Utah Governor, Jon Huntsman and Rep. Ron Paul. However, their views are in contrast with those of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who are both competing for the GOP nomination. Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House said “we clearly have to investigate it,” adding “We have to indicate clearly and convince the people of Afghanistan that justice will be done and we are not going to tolerate that kind of thing.” Prodded by host Chris Wallace as to whether the shooting will prompt an escalated withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces, “it’s very likely that we have lost — tragically lost the lives and suffered injuries to a considerable number of young Americans on a mission that we’re going to discover is not doable.”
If the Obama administration decides to accelerate the removal of U.S. forces before the 2014 self-imposed deadline, American sentiments about the war would give the administration cover. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 55 percent of Americans take the position that Afghans oppose the mission of the U.S. military. Additionally, 54 percent of Americans want a full withdrawal even if the Afghan army is unable to protect the gains that the U.S. military has made over the past decade. The poll also found that once staunch Republican support for the Afghan War has eroded with Republicans evenly divided on the war at 47 percent apiece.
Aside from domestic pressures for the administration to consider Afghanistan a lost cause at this juncture, there are the inevitable calls for the immediate withdrawal of combat and support personnel by America’s European partners. France has already publicly announced that it will be “suspending joint combat and training programs” with an eventual full removal of French forces in the near future. French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the announcement after several French soldiers were killed by Afghan soldiers who had turned their weapons on them in January in the Kapisa province. “The French army is not in Afghanistan to be shot at by Afghan soldiers,” Sarkozy said at the time.
Attacks by Afghan soldiers on coalition forces have been a more common occurrence as the Afghan military lacks adequate security checks to insure that Taliban insurgents have not infiltrated Afghan military units. With a fast approaching NATO summit scheduled for May, many of America’s coalition partners may soon follow suit. Many European states face economic pressures to cut defense spending further than they already have and are beginning to, similarly to Americans, view the Afghan War as unwinnable.