The Disintegration of Obama's Afghanistan War Strategy

Recent incidents there, like the rogue U.S. soldier who killed 16 civilians on Sunday, may accelerate the U.S. withdrawal.

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President Obama talks on the phone with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday to express his shock and sadness / Reuters

Recent events in Afghanistan, including Sunday's horrific shooting of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier, are not just going to alter U.S. strategy there. They are very likely to upend it. Even before the latest tragedy, President Obama was trying to expedite his way out of that quagmire, which is already the longest war in American history, as he faced a tough fight at home for re-election. Now Obama is likely to only speed things up further.

Obama's 2014 withdrawal timetable depended on a gradual handover of control to Afghan troops by U.S. and NATO forces, possibly by mid-2013. But after it was revealed in February that U.S. troops burned old Korans as garbage, Afghans have been "fragging" their American advisors randomly and are not deemed nearly as reliable. Those tensions are almost certain to worsen dramatically following Sunday's events, in which a U.S. soldier allegedly opened fire on sleeping Afghan civilians, including women and children, in their homes and killed at least 16. Gen. John Allen, for the second time in recent weeks, was forced to issue something close to an apology, saying he "was shocked and saddened" and offered his "profound regret."

The disintegration of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been accelerated by historically poor relations with neighboring Pakistan, which supplies a safe haven to the Taliban that is far worse than anything the U.S. endured in fighting the insurgents in Iraq. Last month, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, sent a top-secret cable to Washington concluding that Taliban havens in Pakistan were jeopardizing the success of the U.S. strategy, The Washington Post recently reported. U.S.-Pakistan relations have been all but frozen by continuing fallout from the raid that killed Osama bin Laden last spring and errant NATO strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last fall. Many members of Congress are also fed up: Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who made a recent trip to Pakistan, told me recently he sees no hope of restoring trust.

Though the official line is that the U.S. withdrawal timetable is unchanged, some U.S. officials have begun to talk about speeding it up--in part because there are also positive developments that might make a faster pullout more feasible. First U.S. forces can do much more with less. Back in 2009, when the administration was engaged in an intense debate over adopting a troop-heavy counterinsurgency strategy versus a more narrowly focused counter-terrorism approach, U.S. covert capabilities, both from the air (armed drones) and on the ground (special ops), were not as finely honed as they are today. Obama and other U.S. officials proudly point to the near-decimation of al Qaida's upper ranks. Today, led by close teamwork between CIA Director David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, U.S. military resources are being directed toward covert "direct action" and special operations as never before.

Some Obama administration officials are also convinced that the Obama "surge" of 30,000 additional troops, scheduled to be wound down by September, has left just enough stability on the ground, or what Petraeus has called "Afghan good enough" in the crucial part of the country called "regional command east." As National Journal senior correspondent James Kitfield wrote in a perceptive assessment from Afghanistan in December: "Although they remain dependent on coalition 'enablers' such as airpower and logistics, Afghan security forces have increasingly shouldered the burden in RC East and kept the insurgents on the defensive." But it is a fragile standoff: the 14 provinces of the east constitute more than half of Afghanistan's total population of 30 million.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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