Afghan troops keep killing US troops

Two more US soldiers were killed in a gunfight with an Afghan soldier today, bringing the total to six Americans killed in incidents since Qurans were burned at a US base.

An Afghan soldier and an Afghan civilian employee murdered two US soldiers at a base near the southern city of Kandahar today.

That brings the total so-called green on blue killings in Afghanistan to six since an Afghan witnessed US soldiers dumping Qurans into a burn bit at Bagram Air Base a week ago. The heightened levels of violence since then, with mobs besieging NATO and UN compounds across Afghanistan, brings into stark relief the fundamental failure of the US-led mission in Afghanistan OVER the past 10 years.

There are growing, not decreasing, numbers of Afghans angry at the foreign occupation. Corruption and thuggery within the Afghan government installed and protected by NATO remain rampant and the Taliban remain active across large parts of the country. 

Though much of the blame for the failings of the Afghan government lie with Afghans like President Hamid Karzai, who owes his current position to a fraud-marred election two years ago, the large presence of foreign troops and the vast cultural gulf between them and most Afghans, make them convenient targets for public ire.

And the willingness of Afghan soldiers to turn their guns on US forces, usually in heavily fortified installations in what amount to suicide missions, is a dark indication of the fragility of the local forces being built – and of their loyalty to the state. For every Afghan soldier who takes such a drastic step, there are surely more who are sympathetic with their aims.

At the end of January, Pentagon officials told a Senate hearing that 70 NATO soldiers have been killed by Afghan forces since 2007. The murder of two US officers in the heart of the Afghan Interior Ministry last week prompted the withdrawal of hundreds of US and other foreign advisers from Afghan government installations. The Interior Ministry and the rest of the Afghan government are almost entirely financed by European and American taxpayers and are now without hands-on oversight from those nations.

To be sure, NATO press releases and embedded reporters continue to pump out anecdotes of steady progress, like this piece from a few days ago titled "Stability takes root in Kandahar." In the article, Capt. Widmar Roman explains: "The amount of security down here is unparalleled compared to what people have seen in the past."

Perhaps. But stories of "slow but steady progress" have been common over the past decade of war. And it's natural that mission-focused soldiers and officers report progress in the areas under their control. The Pentagon wants to present a view of progress to maintain support for the war, and the can-do qualities of soldiers inculcates in them a bias towards optimism, particularly when talking to the press.

But quantitative analysis is something else again. Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has been mining data on both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since their inception, has a far grimmer outlook.

"The reality... is that the strategy developed under General Stanley McCrystal has been dying for a long time and for many more reasons than the growing distrust between US and ISAF personnel and the Afghans," Mr. Cordesman wrote at the end of February. "It was clear from the start in forming the new strategy that no number of tactical victories could bring security and stability to Afghanistan unless a massive effort in 'nation building' gave Afghanistan a more honest political system, far more capability in governance, effective security forces, and a better economy... Without such success, 'classic counterinsurgency (COIN)' became a farce that could win temporary control in sparsely populated areas like Helmand — the strategic equivalent of “ink spots”— for a while. It could never win the war."

(A long review of the COIN strategy adopted in Afghanistan can be read here).

The recent violence in Afghanistan comes as the Obama administration is reviewing its commitment to Afghanistan. Last June President Obama promised to have 33,000 US troops out of Afghanistan by this coming summer, and promised that "after this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support."

The US public appetite for the Afghan war is on the decline as the country steams toward presidential elections, something Obama and his rivals are well aware of. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that Afghan forces can act effectively in the field without a massive NATO logistics and supply backstop. In his piece, Cordesman says that the latest US approach could have worked with a truly open-ended commitment, and all the losses in blood and treasure that it implies.

But the US public has never tolerated that kind of military commitment and the Afghan war is already the longest in US history. The previous record was Vietnam, at 103 months. The Afghan war is now at 124 months and counting. While the US military will soldier on as long as it's asked to, the US voter will not. 

Cordesman writes that Obama "faced hard choices in terms of budget pressures, a war that polls showed had lost the support of the American people, as well as the populations of most of United States’ allies" but that the consequence of those choices means the US will now "lack the forces to execute its current campaign plan in both the east and the south in 2012, while it now had to rush toward a political deadline at the end of 2014 for which there was no transition plan or supporting analysis."

These realities have seen an increased urgency to backchannel talks with the Taliban on a peace settlement, which last year was allowed to open a political office in Qatar. Whether a deal can be reached or not, the current mood of electorates in both the US and Europe indicates the Afghan war is heading into the home stretch. Until it crosses the line, though, it looks like soldiers will keep dying, and some of them will be killed by Afghan troops they're there to support.

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