A month ago, the one sure thing about Afghanistan was that the U.S. would not withdraw troops before November 2012, staving off potential disaster until after the elections.
Now that assumption is no longer certain.
In the last month, the American effort in Afghanistan hit a grim trifecta: inadvertent Koran burning; the killings of Americans inside the heavily fortified Interior Ministry in Kabul; and the horrific Columbine-comes-to-Kandahar murder of 16 civilians, allegedly by an Army sergeant. The Pentagon will probably still be able to hold on for while. But let there be no mistake: America’s hold on Afghanistan is unraveling, and the troops may come home as quickly as military logistics will allow.
The basic logic for keeping large numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan began with the surge in 2010. The idea was that a technique that had worked for General David Petraeus and President George W. Bush in Iraq might work in Afghanistan as well. The odds were never good -- much worse than they had been in Iraq, partly because unlike Iraq’s Sunni Muslim insurgents, who are a minority, the Taliban belong to Afghanistan’s dominant Pashtun ethnic group.
Trying a Surge
But for President Barack Obama, it was worth a try. A withdrawal then would have been perceived as a victory not only for the Taliban but also for al-Qaeda and a still-living Osama bin Laden. And on the campaign trail, Obama had committed himself to the “right war” in Afghanistan. This had locked him into trying to win that struggle at a time when it was possible for his rivals to argue that the surge had made the Iraq war winnable.
Once it became clear to the Obama administration that the Afghan surge would not generate a clear victory over the Taliban, however, it moved to a fallback position: The continued offensive pressure by the U.S. would give the Taliban incentive to come to the negotiating table. No one would dream of describing that goal as “peace with honor,” but the strategic aim closely matched that of the U.S. in the later phases of the war in Vietnam.
Indeed, much of President Richard Nixon’s expansion of that conflict reflected Henry Kissinger’s judgment that although the war certainly could not be won, it would be impossible to negotiate meaningfully with the North Vietnamese in Paris unless the U.S. had some leverage. Increased force, then as now, was supposed to provide the incentive for the enemy to come to the table.
Yet, by last summer, that fallback position had itself fallen away, and little was left to keep the U.S. in Afghanistan except domestic politics. The Obama administration announced a speeded up withdrawal process, complete with target dates.
Strikingly, that final withdrawal date was planned for 2014, not this year. Clearly, the Obama administration did not want to risk a Saigon-like collapse and the rapid return of the Taliban before the election. Eventually, President Obama might have to confront the reality that the right war was ending even more disastrously than the “wrong” one. So the plan was to put off that historical re-evaluation until at least after the votes were cast and counted, when he had already been re-elected -- or when he had lost, and had nothing to worry about except his legacy.
There was nothing especially unusual about this caution. During the Iraq war, the Bush administration regularly made crucial strategic decisions informed by the timing of U.S. elections. The Iraqis took it in stride -- and themselves have been happy to subordinate American interests to their own domestic political concerns.
Chain of Tragedies
Yet we are now faced with another possibility entirely: a scenario in which, despite wanting to keep Afghanistan in check for a while longer, the Obama administration decides it cannot wait any longer and must begin to withdraw major numbers of U.S. forces ahead of time, no matter the consequences.
We have reached this point thanks to a staccato chain of events, any one of which was predictable individually, but which mean something vastly more significant taken as a group.
Any war gamer worth his salt would have modeled Afghan popular reaction after the desecration of the Koran by U.S. personnel. After all, the U.S. faced serious retaliation in Afghanistan and elsewhere when a minister in Florida simply announced plans for a book burning. A similar event, in-country, was sure to have worse results, even if the burning reflected gross negligence rather than intent.
Slightly less predictable was the breaching of security in the fortress of the Interior Ministry -- not by an attack from the outside but from within, by a ministry employee. The message was not simply that the Taliban could infiltrate the innermost chambers of government. Worse, it suggested that people who might originally have taken jobs out of loyalty to the government were now potential killers. The response, also predictable, was to withdraw all NATO personnel from ministries -- in effect ending the governance aspects of the U.S.-led mission before the military ones could be wound down.
Most predictable of all was the horrific spectacle of an American soldier gone rogue, killing women and children in a door-to-door massacre. Hundreds more people died at My Lai in Vietnam in 1968. And 24 died at Haditha, Iraq. But both of those tragedies arose from routine operations gone haywire. Kandahar was truly an example of the lone gunman, both totally deviant from the goals of military discipline and also symptomatic of what can happen when a body of men is under unimaginable pressure and looking defeat in the face.
Calm After Massacre
It is notable that the Kandahar massacre didn’t have anywhere near the public reaction of the Koran burnings. From the standpoint of many Afghans, it would seem, innocent civilians are killed all the time in their country. The moral distinction between collateral damage and intentional murder seems stark to us, who must bear the responsibilities of the use of force on a large scale and from the air. But for the person whose family is killed, the difference may seem less salient.
Nevertheless, the American position in Afghanistan becomes more tenuous each day. Large crowds of angry Afghan civilians would make a sustained presence harder and harder. President Hamid Karzai last week called for coalition troops to end patrols in villages and retreat to bases, while the Taliban, who have known since last summer that it was all over but the waiting, shut down nascent negotiations with the U.S.
In terms of U.S. politics, concern with losing American lives is coming to outweigh desire for salvaging some sort of victory. Should the Obama administration decide to abandon ship this year, it is not even clear who will object. Yes, it will be a black day for Afghanistan women, human-rights advocates and all those who bravely and perhaps a little foolishly took the side of democracy and hope. But it is hard to imagine any very great criticism of Obama, even from a Republican candidate in a heated election.
The American public knows the war is over. The Afghan public knows it. The tragedy, unfortunately, is just beginning.
(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at email@example.com.