Two-thirds of National Journal’s National Security Insiders said the shooting spree allegedly carried out by an American soldier should not cause the Obama administration to speed up its ongoing troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.
President Obama has said that the United States will draw down in Afghanistan at a steady pace after the remainder of the 33,000 surge troops leave by the end of September. A recent Insiders poll found a narrow majority, 51 percent, of our national security experts believed the U.S. would continue its drawdown on pace despite the violence sparked by last month's protests over the military's accidental burning of Korans. Now, 64 percent of Insiders said the Obama administration should not draw down faster because of last week’s attack, in which 16 Afghan civilians were killed in their homes.
“Whatever one thinks of the current transition plans, the actions of one soldier should not be enough to derail those plans,” one Insider said. The attack “doesn't change the war's strategic calculus,” another added. “If you thought it was worth waging, it still is—and vice versa.”
This sentiment was evident in many Insiders’ responses. “The U.S. disengagement should be sped up, but because the Afghan government is not an adequate partner and because the Afghan people don't seem to want U.S. assistance, not because of the murders."
Accelerating the drawdown based on this incident would show lack of steadiness and purpose, said one Insider, who also highlighted other arguments for a faster drawdown. “Continued inept governance from Kabul, amid large-scale corruption and virulent anti-American posturing by key leaders, should cause us to realize that attaining our strategic goals is becoming less likely.”
Another Insider said that Washington would be playing into the hands of the Taliban if it pulls out troops quicker than planned. “The United States cannot afford to be seen as running away—as we did in the final days of our presence in Saigon.”
Another 37 percent of Insiders said the incident should cause the United States to accelerate the troop withdrawal. “That is perhaps the dumbest reason to leave more quickly, but if the good reasons aren't helping people recognize that the game isn't worth the candle, you have to use what works.”
On the subject of Iran, 75 percent of Insiders said the planned negotiations with the United States and other world powers would not persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
"Unless the West steps up its pressure, maintaining and expanding sanctions, negotiations will simply amount to another Iranian ploy to buy time as it proceeds apace with its nuclear weapons program," one Insider said. Another added: "While I support the idea of negotiations with Iran, I do not expect them to abandon their nuclear weapons program as a result. They have invested too much national prestige into the project, and abandoning it now would be seen as a weakness by the Iranians themselves."
With sanctions biting Iran's economy, another 26 percent of Insiders expressed more optimism about the diplomatic effort that could begin within weeks. "Negotiations, if pursued with enough seriousness and perseverance, can prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon while allowing a supervised peaceful nuclear program," one Insider said.
"You never know," another Insider added. "The name of the game is time."
1. Insiders were narrowly divided over whether the protests over the military's accidental burning of Korans would speed up Washington's planned drawdown in Afghanistan. Should the latest news of a U.S. soldier allegedly gunning down 16 Afghan civilians cause the Obama administration to accelerate its pullout?
- No 64 percent
- Yes 37 percent
"War entails horrors, and this was a particularly terrible one, but steady strategic purpose and deliberate action remain essential to securing our interests during withdrawal."
"Despicable, yes. Derailment, no."
"A government doesn't make policy decisions on the basis of battlefield aberrations."
"Should it? No. Will it? Possibly."
"There is a plan in place that is just a piece to a larger puzzle and should be played at the right time. While I see diminishing returns for the cost of being in Afghanistan itself, our withdrawal will impact other, larger issues at play in the region, such as those associated with Iran, Pakistan, China, our nonproliferation strategies, and the like."
"The president may have good reasons to want to speed our departure, but if he lets this event trigger a change, he'll squander the credit he's earned for a cool and deliberate foreign policy."
"The Koran protests shouldn't accelerate the drawdown, and these murders shouldn't either. The only way to responsibly get out of Afghanistan is to double down on our training efforts with the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police and shift responsibility for population security to those forces on a steady timeline."
"This news should not accelerate our drawdown—we should accelerate the drawdown because winning in Afghanistan is not a possibility, and leaving only a small training force is the best way to... bolster the ANA while not exacerbating the situation, as the Koran-burning and killing have done."
"Obama could have ended the war in his first year, saved many lives, and we would be much better off today. No matter how long we stay, the end game will always be the same, just as in Vietnam."
"This has been a tenuous mission from the start, and the size of the Afghan response, justified or not, will have political implications. It is tough playing an away game where they provide the refs. Our actions will never be judged by standards that we can comprehend."
"There already were good reasons to accelerate withdrawal. The incident underscores, and adds to, the difficulty in effectively performing a military mission in Afghanistan."
"[The] president will wait until after [the] election to announce an acceleration, so long as Republicans don't press him."
"Not so much because of another popular uprising in Afghanistan—it's not the Koran-burning—but because [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has been backed into a corner on demanding that the soldier be tried in an Afghan court. This will be another problem for the Status of Forces discussions. And the effects of this latest incident on the American public [are] equally negative. Yes, we'll accelerate the withdrawal."
"Urination on bodies, holy-book burning, murder of innocents—pick your reason to pop smoke and make a hasty retreat from this lost cause that has already consumed enough of our blood and treasure. Looking at the most basic change model, we can see that Afghanistan was lost when [George W.] Bush pulled the focus off the effort at the height of the initial change/chaos zone where the real progress could have been realized. Afghanistan has been doomed since 'shock & awe' over the Tigris."
"Yes, but they should do their best to achieve a major result (such as the capture of Taliban leader Mullah Omar) prior to leaving. Such a result would send the message that we could return should Afghanistan ever host al-Qaida operatives again. Also need to reengage with local Afghans to finish the training mission and let them know this was an aberration."
2. Iran appears to be taking a more conciliatory public approach toward the United States, and a new round of talks over its nuclear program could begin within weeks. Would new negotiations persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions?
- No 75 percent
- Yes 26 percent
"Iran is clearly determined to acquire nuclear weapons capability and has demonstrated its willingness to pay a high price to achieve that objective. It will use negotiations to buy time, but there's no reason to expect them to abandon their goal, especially now that they're so close to achieving it."
"I do not think so, but a major weakness of the current strategy is a lack of any 'off-ramp' for the Iranian leadership. Are we allowing them space to climb down, or are we simply on a march toward war?"
"Likely not, but negotiations are a better course than military action. Must find a way to give Iran a way out."
"Nuclear negotiations absent pressure have achieved little of consequence in Iran. Diplomacy can succeed only if economic and travel sanctions become steadily tighter and are combined with credible military threats to assets the Iranian regime values highly, e.g., targets associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, oil exports...."
"Unless the West steps up its pressure, maintaining and expanding sanctions, negotiations will simply amount to another Iranian ploy to buy time as it proceeds apace with its nuclear weapons program."
"Both sides are in a kabuki dance. Iran is testing us, and as long as they conclude we are tough, they will eventually back down. In the dance, Israel is irrelevant."
"One would like to think that diplomacy alone could resolve this issue, but all forms of national power must be kept in play, working together to force Iran to place itself under [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections and come clean. I don't see the current regime agreeing to back down. They are boxed into a corner and have no way out. Regime change caused by domestic forces must take place for this issue to end."
"The Iranians are starting to look a little rattled by all our war talk. That doesn't make war a good idea, but it suggests one of the reasons why Obama hasn't totally shut it down."
"They'd be irrational to trust us. We're offering them the [Muammar el-] Qaddafi deal. Any American foreign policy expert who tells you he'd take that deal if he were in Iran's shoes is a liar."
"It’s smart to pursue diplomacy, because it gives us more insight into levers that could cause the regime to change course. But given the popular support for nuclear weapons as a prestige item, not for use, I think Iran will eventually acquire them; the question is simply when, and under what type of regime—the current hostile one, or a more democratic and pro-American one."
"But it's more than negotiations; it must be combined with ever-tighter sanctions, covert and cyber activity, and openings to other paths."
"They are weaker than most assume."
"Notwithstanding the hype from Israel and right-wing candidates, the U.S. intelligence community has found no evidence that Iran has nuclear ambitions with regard to weapons. Israel, with its 200+ nuclear weapons and constant threats to bomb Iran, is the country that should most worry the U.S. It would certainly be dragged into any war with disastrous results."
"Some remote chance. (Better than being led by Israel into a war, especially as decision to weaponize nukes apparently far off....)"
"Diplomacy has not run its complete course, and we have to move away from resorting to military action to solve every problem. If we committed 1/100th of the resources to diplomacy that it would cost to achieve a military outcome, we'd most likely be able to achieve an outcome that will serve all sides for far longer than blasting apart a few facilities."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts.
They are:Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Rachel Kleinfeld, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the March 20, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.