The White House will probably endure the turmoil in Afghanistan and any backlash at home.
Afghan protesters shout anti-U.S. slogans during a protest in Kunduz province / Reuters
For years, the Afghanistan war has suffered through unpopular civilian casualties, night raids, drone strikes, illiterate partner-soldiers, and not-so-friendly fire by trigger-happy uniformed Afghan security forces.
It's unlikely the current firestorm over the U.S. military's accidental burning of Korans will have political legs in Washington, much less among disinterested U.S. voters -- at least enough to change the course of the war or hasten its end.
The U.S. has larger strategic interests, long-term plans, and hundreds of billions invested which trump outraged Afghans, and even U.S. casualties.
Critics of the administration -- both liberal and conservative -- are trying to use deadly anti-American protests roiling Afghanistan as leverage to claim that the White House should either extend the surge of U.S. troops fighting there until all enemies are pacified, or admit the war has become a quagmire and withdraw expeditiously.
But the administration should have an easy time parrying both sides. That was apparent on Monday, as administration officials linked arms to portray an unwavering commitment to the war plan.
"Anyone who thinks they can weaken our resolve through these cowardly attacks is severely mistaken," said Pentagon press secretary George Little, in a hastily called morning press conference. "Our coalition will emerge from these challenges far stronger and as determined as ever to provide security for the Afghan people. There is much at stake."
White House spokesman Jay Carney led Monday's briefing by repeating the administration's war strategy - to "disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al-Qaida" and create an Afghan government stable enough to allow for troop withdrawals. "That strategy very much remains the right one and remains in place," he said.
President Obama's national-security team was already reexamining its war plans before this latest conflagration. Under review is the size of the troop footprint there and the timeline to shift from a combat mission to a mostly training one, in advance of a NATO heads-of-state summit in Chicago this May. The White House, Pentagon, and State Department were beginning a new round of deliberations on the Afghan strategy this week, The New York Times reported on Monday. Little said those discussions continued and no decisions have been made.
That unwavering stance has critics as well as defenders.
"It is always tempting to ride the headlines ...," Anthony Cordesman, senior analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on Monday. "The reality, however, is that the [counterinsurgency strategy] has been dying for a long time."
"We desperately need to either decide on a workable 'transition' strategy for the future and then actually fund and implement it, or develop an honest exit strategy that will do minimal damage to the Afghan people and our national interest," he argued.
Still, the Pentagon attempted damage control, insisting that in Kabul, elevated tensions were winding down and joint U.S.-Afghan missions continue as planned, according to Capt. John Kirby, Defense Department spokesman, who is on temporary assignment in Kabul.
Speaking via video link with Pentagon reporters, Kirby claimed the number of protests dropped from 24 nationwide on Saturday to only three on Monday. Two of those, he claimed, were related to the Koran burning. A lone protest on Monday, he said, took place without incident.
"Getting 1,000 people to protest is pretty poor, even by rent-a-mob standards," Michael Rubin, a historian of the region at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said of the Kabul demonstrations. Rubin claims there's evidence protests outside the Afghan capital were incited by mullahs, while mainstream clerics didn't seem to "call for blood."
Yet, top war commander Gen. John Allen pulled U.S. officials from Afghan ministries, and other allies followed suit. Kirby claimed the measure was temporary.
"I think it's really making a leap here to try to extrapolate from what's been happening in the last week or so to some sort of failure of the strategy," Kirby said.
And conservatives remain leery that the White House will take advantage of the bad publicity for a political score to Afghanistan's detriment.
"Ultimately, it needn't be a cause for withdrawal unless the Obama administration wants to make a political decision," Rubin said. "I think it's pretty transparent.... I do think it's the beginning of a long line of excuses."
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