Saturday’s killing of two U.S. military officers inside the highly-protected Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul by a Taliban-allied shooter is an apt microcosm of the decade-long conflict. The Pentagon was quick to label the killings “murder” and a “tragedy,” and Marine General John Allen, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, labeled the still-at-large perpetrator a “coward.”
Such language has been heard before; killing Taliban and other foes with unmanned drones has been labeled cowardly by those targeted. And what’s murder to one side can seem a justifiable combat action by the other. That’s what tends to happen when a superpower fights a primitive society.
U.S. and NATO charts detailing suicide attacks and assassinations suggest such internal threats shouldn’t come as a surprise. The weekend’s two killings bring to four the number of U.S. troops killed since the Koran burning at Bagram. Ten of the 60 U.S.-led troops with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force killed so far this year have been slain by their supposed Afghan allies.
“This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,” U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told CNN on Sunday, the same day that seven troops, at least some of them reported to be Americans, were wounded in the northern city of Kunduz after someone tossed a grenade into their compound. “We’ve got to create a situation in which al-Qaida is not coming back.”
Allen ordered hundreds of U.S. and allied troops out of the Afghan ministries where they were working alongside Afghans to help rebuild a nation torn by more than three decades of conflict. “For obvious force protection reasons,” Allen said he has “taken immediate measures to recall all other ISAF personnel working in ministries in and around Kabul.” Britain, France and Germany followed suit. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quickly endorsed Allen’s move. It’s hard not to see such a retreat as a blow to U.S.-led efforts to build an Afghan security force capable of defending the country.
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Just how Abdul Saboor, a driver for the past year at the ministry for the past year, was able to gain access to one of its most tightly-guarded sections remained unknown Sunday. After shooting U.S. Air Force Lieut. Colonel Lt. Col. John D. Loftis and a yet-to-be-identified major in the head with a silencer-equipped handgun, he apparently was able to slip away undetected, raising anew questions about security and complicity.
The brutal killing of the two U.S. officers while sitting at their desks highlights the key missing ingredient in Afghanistan: trust.
Many Afghans protesting the desecration of the Korans at Bagram a week ago believe the burning was deliberate. They also believe that the apologies rendered by everyone from President Obama on down are insincere. Plainly, the Koran-burning ignited a bigger conflagration among a tinder-dry slice of the Afghan population that wants the U.S. and its allies out of their country, now. That mistrust seems only to be deepening.
On the other side, the goal of the U.S. and its allies has been to pull out of Afghanistan as a growing Afghan security force becomes increasingly able to defend their nation. But that quest is jeopardized when every U.S. troop wonders if the Afghan next to him is going to turn on his American trainer as soon as the Afghan gets live ammunition.
Mistrust has become a two-way street.
Add the U.S. public’s war weariness to the equation – the American public has never cottoned to decade-long wars with scant evidence of success (imagine that!) – and you’ve got to take a knee and ask some tough questions about where Operation Enduring Freedom is headed.