After decades of writing stories dubbed “whither NATO?” – what’s going to happen to the alliance following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies? – reporters were amazed as NATO continued to push ahead, going so far as to launch a successful campaign to oust the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year.
Along the same lines, national-security circles were buzzing Monday over “whither Afghanistan.” Or, to put it more precisely, “whither the U.S. role in Afghanistan?”
While the Obama Administration didn’t see the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians coming, its withdrawal plan plainly is built on a foundation of getting out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Think of the slaughter, allegedly by a 38-year old Army staff sergeant sniper, as a squirt of WD-40 into the process. There’s even debate among some Pentagon officials over whether that can be accelerated (currently, all but a relative handful of U.S. forces are slated to be out of the country by 2015).
(PHOTOS: The Afghan Massacre)
“This incident does not change the strategic imperative that is embodied in the president’s strategy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. But he didn’t rule out a change in the withdrawal calendar: “I do not believe that this incident will change the timetable,” he allowed. Carney conceded that “this is a challenging time” in Afghanistan, and that the U.S. “interest is in not in staying any longer than we have to.”
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Howard McKeon of California, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said U.S. “vital interests” in Afghanistan require that American commanders there “are given the resources and time they need…Now is not the time to abandon hope and freedom’s cause, but to persevere.” He said it “has been too long” since the nation heard Obama detail what’s at stake in Afghanistan, and he urged the President to lay it out for the American people, sooner rather than later.
No, the U.S. won’t accelerate its withdrawal because of a single event, however tragic. But it’s the steady accumulation of such events — Koran burnings, urinating Marines, apparent murder most foul — that will drive the public around the bend. Then all bets are off, despite what the Administration or Congress has pledged. That’s how a democracy, for both good and ill, works.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan have dropped from 101,000 last summer to 91,000 today. By the end of this summer, 23,000 more are slated to depart, bringing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan down to 68,000.
Obama cautioned against a “rush for the exits” in an interview with KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. “It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,” he said.
The military plainly likes the go-slow approach. Marine General John Allen, commander of all U.S. forces, as well as the allied International Security Assistance Force, in Afghanistan, said his troops would persevere. “Every single day, Afghan soldiers and Afghan police and ISAF troops are serving shoulder-to-shoulder in some very difficult situations,” he told CNN. “And our engagement with them, our shoulder-to-shoulder relationship with them, our conduct of operations with them every single day defines the real relationship. This is an isolated act.”
Time — the fourth dimension — is never neutral in war. It is either an ally or foe. Senior military leaders tend to acknowledge this fact in a tactical sense – that repeated deployments (the alleged killer was supposedly on his fourth combat tour, following three earlier Iraq deployments) can warp a soldier.
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But there is a strategic sense of time that is cumulative that too often tends to be overlooked. When things happen swiftly on the battlefield, time can be exhilarating for both soldier and civilian (think of the 100-hour land war in 1991’s Gulf War). But when things drag on – the war in Afghanistan is now more than a decade old – the atmosphere between warrior and citizen can become poisonous. That seems to be where Afghanistan is now.
Given that truth, it’s good news that Washington is moving at all deliberate speed toward the exit. Whether it accelerates the pullout depends on what happens on the ground in Afghanistan in coming weeks and months. Count on the Taliban to test the resolve of the Afghan government, its U.S. sponsor, and their allies.