HKS Faculty Add Perspective on the Crisis in Afghanistan
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As if the situation in Afghanistan wasn’t tenuous enough, recent events give the impression whatever U.S. goals have been reached in the country are quickly unraveling.
In late February anti-American protests proliferated throughout the war-ridden country after American personnel at Bagram Air Base inadvertently burned copies of the Koran. On March 11, a United States Army sergeant went on a shooting spree, killing at least 16 people including nine children in southern Afghanistan. Following the shootings, the Taliban threatened to retaliate. March 15, Afghan protestors demanded the accused soldier be prosecuted in Afghanistan as word spread that the American military moved him out of the country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has demanded that the United States confine troops to major bases by next year, and the Taliban has announced they are suspending peace talks with the Americans.
“Acknowledging their involvement in the Qatar talks was a significant move for the Taliban. They expected that the U.S. would move quickly with confidence building measures,” adds Semple. “The transfer of Taliban leaders to Qatar was top on the list. The Taliban announcement of suspending engagement in Qatar is a response to their frustration at the U.S.’s slowness to deliver. The Taliban also believe that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is in disarray and their hardliners want to take advantage of that by launching a new fighting season.”
“A single incident does not normally have such tremendous consequences. Wars are not lost or won in a single day,” said Juliette Kayyem, lecturer in public policy. “But the killings are as much about the brutal slaughter by our own soldier as they are about the false perception that America’s presence there is solely destructive.”
“You simply can’t place soldiers in the ambiguous environment of an indigenous insurgency, where the boundary between friend and foe is exceedingly hard to discern, and not expect some of them to crack and go rogue,” writes Stephen Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations, in Foreign Policy. “Even if discipline holds and mental health is preserved, a few commanders will get overzealous and order troops to cross the line between legitimate warfare and barbarism.”
Since the killings by what U.S. and Afghan officials have said was a “lone rogue soldier,” there have been other incidents of violence, adding to the urgency of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s previously scheduled visit to Afghanistan. Panetta’s arrival on Wednesday (March 14) was marred by a person speeding onto a ramp alongside a runway at a British military airfield, crashing into a ditch and then emerging from the truck in flames.
“There is simply no political support for staying longer in Afghanistan,” said Kayyem. “The momentum will be the opposite.”
“The sad truth is that this shameful episode would not have happened had Obama rejected the advice of his military advisors and stopped trying to remake Afghanistan from the start of his first term,” writes Walt.
American troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014.