The last few weeks have not been very good for the Obama administration's conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
First, there was the incident when our soldiers mistakenly burned a number of Qurans (the Islamic holy book) and other holy Islamic texts, which resulted in days of violent rioting across the county that killed 30 Afghan civilians and a number of U.S. soldiers.
Despite immediate reaction condemning the burnings by U.S. officials, the country convulsed in violence and strained relations between Washington and Kabul to the breaking point. The Afghani response to the news of the burnings got so out of hand that President Obama, hoping to calm the situation, issued an apology for this incident to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
Then, last Sunday, a U.S. staff sergeant went on a rampage, killing 16 Afghani civilians, including 11 children, further inflaming anti-U.S. passions in the county. President Karzai, as usual, threw fuel on the fire by condemning the shootings. "This is an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven," he said.
Presently, there are 91,000 troops in Afghanistan and President Obama has ordered that 23,000 be withdrawn by September, and the rest by 2014. While that U.S. strategy centers on a commitment to quickly pull out in a manner that does not look like a retreat, the recent incidents acerbated the perception of U.S. failure and weakness in Afghanistan.
Obama administration officials insist the two incidents have not changed their withdrawal game plan in Afghanistan, which calls for a three-tiered program of negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban, transitioning security responsibility to an Afghan police force, and negotiating with the Karzai government to allow a long term U.S. military presence after 2014.
Yet, so far, the Obama withdrawal game plan doesn't look good, and now with the two incidents mentioned above, there is talk by members of the administration about an expedited withdrawal.
Peace negotiations with the Taliban are in their infancy stages, with no true breakthrough apparent in the near future. With a withdrawal timetable already set in place, there is not much urgency for Taliban leaders to negotiate, but instead wait until 2015 to once again attempt to take over the country.
In terms of transitioning counter insurgency and policing functions to Afghan forces, it's not going well. As shown by the overheated reaction to the two recent incidents of both civilians and Afghani troops, who turned on and attacked U.S. advisors, there is no true trust, or liking of U.S. forces by their Afghani counterparts.
The truth is that despite the fact that Americans are very tired of fighting the war in Afghanistan, the repercussions of these two incidents showed that our mission of defeating the Taliban and creating a stable ally there is not even close to being completed.
We need to remember the tragic consequences of withdrawing too early from South Vietnam, which also involved very similar circumstances that now exist today in Afghanistan.
It was there in Vietnam, too, that an overriding weariness of fighting a protracted war and heavy political pressures at home hastened the withdrawal -- or retreat -- of U.S. troops despite very similar conditions that did not warrant abandoning the mission there. Those circumstances: a lack of dedication by the American people to commit our entire military might to finishing the enemy there; a weak government headed by a corrupt, mercurial leader who wasn't really an ally at all; a country not ready to assume responsibility for its own security; and an enemy with a driven ideological purpose, a long history of fighting and the patience to wait for U.S. withdrawal to achieve final victory.
Those images of people falling off helicopter skids as they lifted off the U.S. embassy in Saigon stay forever stuck in our collective American consciousness, symbolizing our failure to prosecute a long term war, or even withdraw from it correctly.
The instability shown from the reaction of the Afghan government and its people to the two recent incidents, and the lessons learned in Vietnam begs the question of whether we can afford not to stay there in Afghanistan indefinitely in order to build our security in that region-and remain the most powerful nation on earth
Published in The Sun Sentinel on March 15, 2012