Do Afghan Riots Spell E-X-I-T?

by , February 28, 2012

It’s got to be hard for most Americans looking at the fleeting images of angry Afghans today shouting “death to America” and not think, “What the hell are we still doing there?”

Certainly it’s not a stupid question — in fact it’s a pretty relevant one. After a weekend of our media mavens insipidly wagging on about whether or not President Barack Obama showed “weakness” when he offered apologies to the Afghans for the NATO forces who “unintentionally mishandled” (read: burned) copies of the Quran, a fresh angle has emerged in the U.S. news market: will the ensuing riots in Afghanistan speed up our final exit?

(Photo by Shah Marai)

According to National Public Radio’s Afghanistan correspondent Quil Lawrence, there’s been “a lot of chat” about the possibility of a faster U.S. withdrawal as violent Afghan protests continued into a sixth day. He also quoted a Monday Washington Post story that said the violence “has not only inflamed tensions but possibly exposed a crippling weakness in the American strategy to wind down the war.”

That crippling weakness is not only the inability of the Afghans to police themselves, but also nagging doubts about whether remaining U.S. personnel will be safe if and when the thrust of NATO combat forces are withdrawn by the expected exit date of 2014.

“If the trust, ability and willingness to partner falls apart, you are looking at the endgame here,” said Mark Jacobson, who served until last summer as the NATO deputy senior civilian representative in Kabul. An Army officer also quoted in the Washington Post piece said about the continuing threat of violence against his troops, “this is not going back to business as usual.”

The “accidental” Quran burnings, which was certainly not the first time coalition forces have been accused of desecrating the Muslim Holy Book over the last decade, resulted this week in ongoing protests across several Afghan cities (apparently it’s hard for Afghans to believe that after a decade, western occupying forces still don’t now what a Quran looks like, much less how to handle it).

On Thursday, two U.S. advisers were shot by an Afghan police officer, which led to a lockdown of the U.S. embassy and NATO withdrawing all of its advisers from the Afghan ministries for their safety. Two additional U.S servicemembers were also reported killed, as well as more than 30 Afghans, apparently shot by Afghan and/or NATO security forces in several towns and cities where more angry protests broke out over the weekend.

On Sunday, grenades were hurled over the fence at a U.S. base compound in Kunduz, injuring at least seven American soldiers. And on Monday, the Taliban took responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed nine people outside a military airfield in Jalalabad, and a food poisoning (no one was injured) at Forward Operating Base Torkham near the Afghan-Pakistan border — both were said to be in retaliation for the Quran burning.

Last April, Afghans rioted for several days across restive population centers after what was the bloodiest winter for U.S. troops there, ever. In that case, outraged Afghans rallied against American Bible-thumper Terry Jones burning a Quran in his tiny Florida church after months of talking about it in the press.

Things seemed pretty grim then. But after a year of unrelenting IED attacks against NATO forces, the Taliban creeping back into control, a massive humanitarian crisis, and always, the fan dancing by administration officials over “exit dates” and “transitions,” things look positively bleak today.

“I think the rioting over the Quran burnings, which cuts across the official roles Afghans play in the conflict between the government and the insurgents, is a clarifying moment,” Inter Press News Service writer and author Gareth Porter tells Antiwar.com.

“It should be understood as another indication — along with the evidence that Afghan army troops and police are just as angry at the U.S. night raids as Taliban sympathizers — that U.S. influence over the situation in Afghanistan has long since entered the negative zone.”

A Tipping Point?

Last Memorial Day, I wrote about an American malaise, “akin to feeling as though one is stuck uncomfortably in a Twilight Zone episode, where time never advances, perhaps worse: we are reliving the same Memorial Day over and over again,” as a country endlessly and futilely at war. Most of us, distracted by things as tedious as celebrity funerals or as serious as finding a job, look up stoically from time to time to acknowledge the limbless veterans trickling home, and the President telling us to “wait” until the military can engage in some sort of “full withdrawal” by the end of 2014, which is two years away.

But these riots are indeed a “clarifying moment” if not a “tipping point,” because they are demanding our full attention now and putting in clear focus some ugly (and long denied) truths about our failures in Afghanistan, as well as how little we know about what our commitment might be for the next several years. In other words, it is time to channel that malaise into some urgent consideration about how much longer we can take this.

First, the so-called “withdrawal” date seems to have some very soft and shifting parameters, with the latest statement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggesting that while the U.S. military might hand off combat operations to the Afghans in 2013, NATO “will remain fully combat capable … and we will engage in combat alongside Afghan forces as necessary.”

This means the U.S. military role will likely go on indefinitely, wrote former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald E. Neumann, in a recent op-ed:

[A]fter 2014, the Afghans will do the bulk of the fighting but will still have advisers from abroad in combat with them. U.S. forces are still expected to supply air support, artillery, medical evacuation and combat logistics after 2014 because the Afghan army will have none of these support services ready before 2016 at the earliest. The U.S. role will shift, but it is critically important to understand that, in the shift to a mission mainly devoted to advising and supporting — whatever the terms used — our forces will still be fighting on the ground, before, during and after 2014.

We know this is true to the extent that the administration is desperately negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai right now to stay in the country beyond 2014 — in other words, do what we couldn’t in Iraq after that withdrawal date expired in December 2011. According to The Washington Post Feb. 22:

The pact is expected to provide for several thousand U.S. troops to stay in the country to train Afghan forces and help with counterterrorism operations. It will outline the legal status of those forces in Afghanistan, their operating rules and where they will be based.

The talks have been going on for a year, but now Karzai has demanded the U.S. stop its deadly night raids and turn over control of the country’s detention facilities, like the Parwan prison at Bagram, which is run by the U.S. and has long been fraught with allegations of abuse.

But what will having “several thousand” U.S. troops there truly accomplish in a country of 30 million people, nearly 40 percent of which (Pashtun) want nothing to do with the central government or its army? Will they even be safe? Americans are told that our exit from this war depends on the Afghan forces being able to secure their own country — thus the squishy deadlines and the constant pleading for more money and trainers. After seeing the chaos and physical confrontation this week between not only our troops and the Afghan population, but in reported cases, NATO troops and the Afghan forces they’re supposed to be handing over control to, Americans must wonder if there will ever be a “right time,” and more urgently, if there is no better time than now, to cut the cord.

Considering what we now know about the true strength of the Afghan National Army (ANA), the prospects for a clean cut appear slimmer everyday.

Depending on who’s doing the counting, the ANA consists of 100,000 to 150,000 soldiers, but only 1 percent of their units can operate without direct NATO assistance, according to Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, an officer with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in a recent interview with Military.com.

Scaparrotti was actually trying to counter a number of charges lobbed by Lt. Col. Daniel Davis in his own explosive treatise, ““Truth, Lies and Afghanistan: How Military Leaders Have Let Us Down” on how we are losing the Afghan war and are being manipulated by our leaders to believe otherwise. One of Davis’ key complaints is that the ANA is incompetent and unready, if not unwilling, to take the fight to the insurgents themselves.

Scaparrotti appears to think it is somewhat redeeming that after $12 billion of U.S. investment in 2011 alone, 42 percent of the ANA units are capable of leading security operations “with advisers.”

Thanks a lot — considering that after this week’s riots, NATO didn’t even deem its advisers safe enough to let them continue their work in the ministry buildings. What happens when three-quarters of U.S. forces withdraw, leaving a residual force of “advisers” behind?

On an even darker note is the increasing number of incidents where Afghan soldiers and police are turning their weapons on NATO forces. The exact number of these murders is not clear because NATO has stopped announcing publicly when they happen, according to a January USA Today report. But last summer the Wall Street Journal quoted a classified military study that said the killing of American soldiers by their Afghan counterparts has become a “rapidly growing systemic threat.”

The study (it was unclassified until the military decided it was ostensibly too incendiary to remain accessible) cites a survey conducted by a behavioral scientist working for the Army of some 600 Afghan soldiers and 100 American counterparts in the field. Though top military officials dispute the meaning behind the results, the survey finds a “crisis of trust” between the two armies and the killing of coalition soldiers by the Afghans they are training as “a severe and rapidly metastasizing malignancy.”

Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, in his new book The Operators, lists dozens of verbatim quotes from each side surveyed, signaling to the reader that understanding and respect between American and Afghan has not really progressed since 2001, and likely never will.

“U.S. soldiers perceived that 50 percent of the ANA were Islamic radicals,” Hastings quoted from the original report, while Afghans, “were more likely to think a suicide bomber in Afghanistan would see salvation than a U.S. soldier killed in action.”

This week, the Wall Street Journal said that Afghans have killed more than 77 coalition troops since 2007 — three quarters of them in the last two years.

Grim Inevitabilities

The Quran burning incident seems to have brought all of these issues to the surface — the cultural tensions, the mistrust and resentment of an occupied people now dependent on foreign assistance. The Taliban has been emboldened, as U.S. leaders struggle to respond without appearing too weak domestically or too insincere to the Afghan population.

As we debate the future here, Afghans who have weathered so much already seem readied for yet another departing Army and the inevitable security vacuum left behind. For them, too, it’s a tipping point, but of another kind.

“With anti-American demonstrations spreading across the country, what may just have been soldiers obeying a simple order could turn into a tipping point,” wrote Andrew North for BBC News on Friday, referring to the Quran burning scandal. Reporting from Kabul, North said the Afghan people, much like their counterparts in the U.S., are sensing change, too.

There is an end of an era feeling in Kabul these days — for what Afghans see as the latest foreign venture in their country.

They have seen off the Russians and the British before and now it is America’s time that is drawing to a close, with the British and other NATO allies eager to depart with them.

The revelation that US troops had dumped copies of the Quran into an incineration pit may hasten that end.

It may be the moment we’ve been waiting for, but it doesn’t feel very good. But we must not be lulled back into complacency, we have to use this as a launching pad for further discussion and demand of our elected officials an answer to this one simple question: What the hell are we still doing there?

Follow Kelley on Twitter @kelleybvlahos.

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