A plan gone awry

The effect of Sunday’s attack on civilians and the recent burning of Korans imperil Obama’s plan to hand control to the Afghans while drawing the Taliban to talks

Written by New York Times | Published: March 13, 2012 3:20 am

DAVID E. SANGER

The outrage from the back-to-back episodes of the Koran burning and the killing on Sunday of at least 16 Afghan civilians imperils what the Obama administration once saw as an orderly plan for 2012: to speed the training of Afghan forces so that they can take the lead in combat missions,all the while drawing the Taliban into negotiations to end more than a decade of constant war.

President Obama and his aides had once hoped that by now they would have cemented the narrative that the Taliban were a spent force being pounded into peace negotiations. But now,American military and civilian officials acknowledged that the events would embolden the hard-liners within the Taliban who want to use the next two years to appeal to the understandable national allergy to foreign occupation.

“The fear,” one American military official said,“is that all these incidents,taken together,play into the Taliban’s account of how we treat the Afghan religion and people. It’s a very hard perception to combat.”

The US discovered as much in Iraq,where in 2005 American Marines killed 26 unarmed Iraqis in Haditha. That episode helped contribute to what became some of the worst months of the war. The speed with which Washington reacted to the news of the killings on Sunday underscored the depth of the concern in US and Afghan circles. President Karzai has long faced accusations of being a lap dog to the Americans.

Both Obama and the defence secretary,Leon E. Panetta,called Karzai after that attack. Panetta added,“we are steadfast in our resolve to work hand in hand with our Afghan partners to accomplish the missions and goals on which we have been working together for so long.”

And at the White House,Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications,Benjamin J. Rhodes,acknowledged that such events were “heart-wrenching,very difficult moments,and they take a lot of time and effort for both sides to move beyond.” But he added that US had learned during the Koran burning that “if you respond appropriately,you can actually build trust with the Afghans.” To many Americans,even onetime supporters of the Afghan mission in both parties,these episodes only underscore the need to hurry to the exits in a war whose outcome,some military officials say,now seems less certain than at any time since Obama took office.

While some Republican presidential candidates—notably Mitt Romney—have criticised Obama for committing to leave Afghanistan before the Taliban are defeated,a growing number seem to be joining Democrats who say there is little more US can do.

“I think it’s very likely that we have lost—tragically lost the lives and suffered injuries to a considerable number of young Americans on a mission that we’re going to discover is not doable,” Newt Gingrich,the former speaker of the House.

Gingrich added: “Look at the things that are going on around the region and then ask yourself,‘Is this,in fact,a harder,deeper problem that is not going to be susceptible to military force,at least not military forces in the scale we are prepared to do?’”

As a practical matter,there are two major concerns that grow out of these episodes: the first has to do with the training mission. After the Koran burning,there were fears in the military that it would become harder for American or NATO military trainers to move freely among an Afghan Army force of 350,000 troops,most of whom are poorly trained. Fearing for their own safety,the trainers will bring along larger security details,to assure they do not fall under attack.

“It takes months and months to build the trust of the local populations,and then something like this happens and it’s gone,literally overnight,” said Seth G. Jones,a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who worked in Panjwai,where the attack took place,in 2009 and 2010 as an adviser to the military’s Special Operations Command.

The second concern is that the Taliban will conclude that events like this will,in the end,only increase the pressure on the US to get out quickly. So far,the efforts to bring the Taliban to the table in Qatar,where Ambassador Marc Grossman and other American diplomats are seeking to arrange talks,have gone painfully slowly.

It is episodes like this,one American official said,“that create an instant windfall for the Taliban,” at just the moment that the United States is trying to persuade them that their cause is all but lost.

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