Americans long ago learned that wars are easier to start than to finish. Recent events in Afghanistan suggest what the end can look like when a war outlasts the national interests and the animating logic that originally sustained it. Viewed in that harsh light, Operation Enduring Freedom has been bled of its fundamental coherence by the passage of too much time and tragedy, possibly foreshadowing a chaotic and unsatisfying endgame full of recrimination.
Consider that a decade into the Afghan war, the American public is now forced to make sense of U.S. soldiers slaughtering and desecrating what they were sent to protect, even as they die at the hands of those they are trying to mentor; of American officials talking to uncertain effect with Taliban insurgents, but barely on speaking terms with supposed U.S. allies in Pakistan who are supporting our enemies. All of this to protect the U.S. homeland from a decimated terrorist group that long ago fled Afghanistan, and whose leader, Osama bin Laden, has been consigned to the bottom of the sea.
The U.S. military’s inadvertent burning of Korans in Afghanistan triggered a backlash that left almost 40 dead, including six American service members, culminating in this week’s horrific killing of 16 Afghan civilians—allegedly by a U.S. soldier. These events may or may not represent a milestone in the Afghan war. Having stared into the abyss of the recent riots over the Koran burnings, both governments have stepped back and attempted to calm matters. What already seems clear, however, is that real life is defying the Obama administration’s determined portrayal of a war that is winding down toward a negotiated settlement and a relatively smooth transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2013.
“The Koran burnings and the atrocities that followed are a serious setback for a narrative that was already very challenging in terms of creating resilient Afghan security forces and reaching a negotiated settlement with the Taliban,” said James Dobbins, who was the special envoy for Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration and is now director of the Rand International Security and Defense Policy Center. “Most importantly, the crisis has increased public hostility in both countries to a sustained American presence in Afghanistan, which has already prompted intense discussions inside the Obama administration about an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops. Such a precipitous withdrawal would, in turn, significantly increase the risk of strategic failure. So the recent incidents have made the difficult path that both the U.S. and Afghan governments were trying to climb much steeper.”
Even before the current crisis, notoriously bipolar Afghan President Hamid Karzai viewed the United States simultaneously as a benefactor and as a threat to his reign of corruption and nepotism. Anti-American anger in the Afghan street may prompt Karzai to drive an even harder bargain on a post-2014 strategic partnership agreement, pressing his demand that any residual U.S. military force abandon the deeply unpopular “night raids.” Such a concession could prompt Congress to end its support for the Afghan mission.
“If the president of Afghanistan doesn’t understand that the night raids have been the biggest blow to the Taliban … then there is no hope of winning. None,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the strongest congressional supporters of the war, recently told Foreign Policy. If Karzai doesn’t relent on his demand that the military end the raids, then Graham is ready to “pull the plug” on the U.S. presence, he said, because “it means that I no longer believe we can win, and we might as well get out of there sooner rather than later.”
The Koran burnings, the killing spree, and an earlier video of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of suspected Taliban fighters have handed the insurgents a propaganda bonanza, playing directly into their narrative of brutal foreign invaders waging a war against Islam. That may breathe new life into an insurgency that was in retreat for the past two years. With preliminary reconciliation talks already stalled and Karzai showing no urgency in moving them forward, the incidents will likely embolden Taliban hard-liners who already question the need to reach a settlement with Western forces looking for the exits.
Meanwhile, perhaps no major player has seen the sands shift beneath his position more dramatically than Obama, who as a presidential candidate in 2008 embraced Afghanistan as the “good war” because it was notably not George W. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq. After Obama spent much of the past three years formulating a strategy for the conflict, he may have little choice now but to grind out his plan to transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2013, possibly while accelerating the withdrawal of the 68,000 U.S. troops that will remain after September. In light of recent events, even that position is likely to become increasingly lonely, with 60 percent of all Americans and even roughly half of Republicans now convinced that the war was not worth the cost in blood and treasure, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll.
The unpopularity of the war may partially protect Obama’s right flank from attacks by Republican presidential candidates who are sounding less hawkish by the day, but it’s safe to say that as a presidential candidate in 2012, Obama wants nothing so much as to wind down the “good war” as quickly as possible without having to issue any more apologies. The danger is that the endgame resembles the last time the United States stayed too long in an unpopular war and Congress pulled the plug on a president’s plan of an orderly transition and ongoing support for local forces. You can find it on YouTube under “Vietnam Saigon Evacuation,” circa 1975.
This article appears in the March 17, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.