It has not been a good month for America in Afghanistan. Three weeks after U.S. soldiers sparked nationwide riots by burning copies of the Koran, a lone American opened fire on civilians inside their own homes, killing at least 16 villagers, many of whom were children.
President Obama entered office pledging to end the war in Afghanistan. Last year, he publicly declared that U.S. soldiers would hand over control of security operations to local forces by 2014. However, as the deadline approaches, the country is not settling down, and attempts to negotiate with the Taliban are proving troublesome.
Via Meadia cautions readers not to get too alarmed by these recent headlines; Americans overreacted to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, converting a tactical victory into a strategic defeat. Every war brings its harvests of good and bad news, and you have to keep your head in both the good times and the bad.
That said, while we aren’t on the brink of some irretrievable disaster, it seems increasingly clear that President Obama’s Afghanistan policy needs a rethink. The violence has badly damaged attempts to build trust with the local population, and the Afghan government is looking less attractive by the day.
Not all the news from Afghanistan is bad. As Bruce Riedel and Michael O’Hanlon point out in Foreign Policy, there are some real though tentative improvements that need to be taken into account. The wisest course, which the administration unfortunately is unlikely to take, would be to hunker down, dampen the talk of withdrawal to give our opponents more incentive to negotiate, and think hard about exactly what are the remaining minimum objectives we need in order to safely withdraw.
The president had likely hoped the war wouldn’t be a factor in the 2012 election campaign, but one of the consequences of the failure of his chosen strategy is that it is back on the agenda and in a very ugly way. It may seem politically expedient to say and do as little as possible at this point while continuing to move toward withdrawal regardless of the situation on the ground, but the President will serve himself and the country best if, after reviewing where we stand and what we need to do, he explains where we stand in this war to an increasingly worried and skeptical public.
That is not the conversation President Obama wanted to have with the American people in an election year, but events on the ground now demand it.