Afghanistan massacre: How rising tensions could cost Obama politically

The tragic killing of the villagers is likely to complicate US efforts to negotiate future bilateral relations with Afghanistan. It's also a potential stain on Obama's foreign policy record.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.
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The mass slaying of Afghan villagers by a US Army sergeant would be a tragic stain at any time, but it hits the Obama administration at a particularly bad moment.

Not only is the US in delicate negotiations with the Afghan government over the scope of future bilateral relations, but the horrific events risk souring Americans generally on what has been a solid plus for President Obama’s reelection bid: foreign policy and national security.

Sunday’s shooting spree, in which 16 Afghan civilians – mostly women and children – were hunted down and killed in their homes, is only the latest in a string of incidents involving US soldiers in Afghanistan. The killings, the recent Quran burnings by US soldiers destroying what they thought were subversive materials, and previously the videotaping of US soldiers urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters, are straining relations just as the US is negotiating a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan for a continuing US role after the hand-off of all combat duties.

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The Obama administration is trying to complete the planning for the full turnover of responsibilities from NATO to Afghan forces, which is to take place by the end of 2014.

The massacre of the villagers seems likely to place further strain on relations between the US and Afghan militaries, and thus on the crux of Mr. Obama’s strategy for a US military drawdown: the training of, and joint operations with, Afghan soldiers, so they can take over combat duties from their American colleagues.

And rising tensions could make Afghanistan a reelection liability by upending what until now has been more or less a pass for Obama. While a majority of Americans have for the past couple of years said the 11-year-old war is not worth the price the country is paying, many Americans have also recently said the president is doing a “good or fair” job of managing the war.

In a TIPP/Monitor poll taken last week, 46 percent of Americans said Obama is doing a “good” job on Afghanistan, a number that hardly changed from February (47 percent) even though the recent poll encompassed the Quran-burning tensions during which a number of US soldiers were attacked and killed by Afghan soldiers.

“The issue of Afghanistan is one of a very few where [Obama] does better than his overall performance rating,” says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of Technometrica Market Intelligence in Oradell, NJ.

In the most recent TIPP/Monitor poll, for example, Obama earned an over-all approval rating of 44 percent.

Afghanistan shifted to a better-than-the-overall-rating issue for Obama last June, following the successful strike by special operations forces against Osama bin Laden, Mr. Mayur says, and has remained a bright spot for the president since.

But that could change if the cascade of negative events continues.

Despite a call from the Afghan Taliban for retaliatory acts to avenge the killings, Afghans appeared to remain calm Monday. But some Afghan politicians quickly responded by saying the brutal acts put into deeper doubt any long-term arrangement for the US to retain a counterterrorism role in their country.

In the Afghan parliament Monday, representatives demanded a halt to the ongoing negotiations with the US on a strategic partnership agreement, at least until the US soldier responsible is brought to justice.

“We said to [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, ‘If you sign that document you are betraying your country,’ ” Shikiba Ashimi, a member of parliament from Kandahar Province where the killings occurred, told the Associated Press. “The US should be very careful. It is sabotaging the atmosphere of this strategic partnership.” 

Both Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called President Karzai Sunday to convey their condolences, but the president refrained from offering Karzai an outright apology, as he did over the Quran burnings. Some Republican leaders had criticized Obama for too quickly apologizing.

Republican presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich lost no time in ramping up the heat on Obama over Afghanistan, saying on Fox News Sunday that the US mission there “may not be doable” and suggesting the country should speed up its troop drawdown. That position stands in stark contrast to Republican hawks and other presidential hopefuls such as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who on the contrary have criticized Obama for adopting the end-of-2014 handover date.

But renewed calls for ending the war were also coming Monday from outside the Republican Party.

“We need dramatic action to bring this war to an end,” says David Cortright, director of policy studies at Notre Dame University’s Institute for International Peace Studies. “Suspend combat operations. Intensify negotiations for a political solution. Announce a timetable for withdrawal.”

Professor Cortright, author of “Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” questions whether the “winning of hearts and minds” that is key to winning a counterinsurgency war is “even remotely possible now” in light of recent events. “Why,” he adds, “do we continue to put our troops in this impossible situation?”

Other Afghanistan experts, without taking such a firm position, say the weekend’s events provide the opportunity for a much-needed reevaluation of a strategy that is clearly in trouble.

The US “needs to look beyond the latest incident” and “to realize that its current strategy is becoming a façade that can only make things worse,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Concluding that the time, money, and training manpower simply aren’t available for the US and its NATO allies to stick to a strategy of turning over responsibilities to trained and equipped Afghan security forces by 2014, Mr. Cordesman says the US can either deny reality and follow the current course, or shift to something different.

Two options he gives: an “honest exit” under which the US is up-front about the resources available and is realistic – particularly with the Afghans – about what can reasonably be accomplished; or what he calls the “most challenging” alternative, a “real transition” that he says would mean significant spending and involvement until at least 2020.

But neither the current environment, nor the intensifying campaign season, seem conducive to consideration of an even deeper commitment to Afghanistan.

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