As public opinion sours at home and two awful incidents set back the effort to win Afghan trust, the president may decide the "good war" isn't good any longer.
Americans long ago learned that wars are easier to start than to finish. Recent events in Afghanistan suggest what the end can look like when a war outlasts the national interests and the animating logic that originally sustained it. Viewed in that harsh light, Operation Enduring Freedom has been bled of its fundamental coherence by the passage of too much time and tragedy, possibly foreshadowing a chaotic and unsatisfying endgame full of recrimination.
Consider that a decade into the Afghan war, the American public is now forced to make sense of U.S. soldiers slaughtering and desecrating what they were sent to protect, even as they die at the hands of those they are trying to mentor; of American officials talking to uncertain effect with Taliban insurgents, but barely on speaking terms with supposed U.S. allies in Pakistan who are supporting our enemies. All of this to protect the U.S. homeland from a decimated terrorist group that long ago fled Afghanistan, and whose leader, Osama bin Laden, has been consigned to the bottom of the sea.
The U.S. military's inadvertent burning of Korans in Afghanistan triggered a backlash that left almost 40 dead, including six American service members, culminating in this week's horrific killing of 16 Afghan civilians--allegedly by a U.S. soldier. These events may or may not represent a milestone in the Afghan war. Having stared into the abyss of the recent riots over the Koran burnings, both governments have stepped back and attempted to calm matters. What already seems clear, however, is that real life is defying the Obama administration's determined portrayal of a war that is winding down toward a negotiated settlement and a relatively smooth transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2013.
"The Koran burnings and the atrocities that followed are a serious setback for a narrative that was already very challenging in terms of creating resilient Afghan security forces and reaching a negotiated settlement with the Taliban," said James Dobbins, who was the special envoy for Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration and is now director of the Rand International Security and Defense Policy Center. "Most importantly, the crisis has increased public hostility in both countries to a sustained American presence in Afghanistan, which has already prompted intense discussions inside the Obama administration about an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops. Such a precipitous withdrawal would, in turn, significantly increase the risk of strategic failure. So the recent incidents have made the difficult path that both the U.S. and Afghan governments were trying to climb much steeper."
Even before the current crisis, notoriously bipolar Afghan President Hamid Karzai viewed the United States simultaneously as a benefactor and as a threat to his reign of corruption and nepotism. Anti-American anger in the Afghan street may prompt Karzai to drive an even harder bargain on a post-2014 strategic partnership agreement, pressing his demand that any residual U.S. military force abandon the deeply unpopular "night raids." Such a concession could prompt Congress to end its support for the Afghan mission.