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U.S.: Growing Pessimism on Afghanistan After Quran Burning

WASHINGTON, Feb 28 2012 (IPS) - While top officials in the Barack Obama administration insist that U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is working, the violent aftermath of last week’s apparently inadvertent burning of copies of the Quran at a military base is fuelling growing pessimism about the U.S. and NATO mission there.

Some three dozen Afghans were killed in anti-U.S. protests that drew tens of thousands of people into the streets in Kabul and other cities around the country following news of the incineration at Bagram Air Base and despite a series of apologies from U.S. commanders all the way up to President Obama himself.

Two U.S. military officers working at a supposedly secure site in Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry were also shot execution-style by an Afghan security official in apparent retaliation for the burnings in what was the latest of 36 “fratricidal” Afghan attacks on foreign troops in the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the past 14 months. That the assailant escaped suggested that he may have been supported by others in the ministry.

Their killings prompted ISAF commander U.S. Gen. John Allen to order all ISAF and U.S. staff working in Afghan ministries to leave their posts temporarily. Officials here said Tuesday they did not know when the order would be lifted.

On Monday, nine Afghans were killed when a car bomber detonated his vehicle at the entrance of an air base used by U.S. and ISAF forces in Jalalabad, a city in northeastern Afghanistan, which late last month celebrated the transfer of control over security from ISAF to Afghan national forces.

“It has been a truly grim week and one where these events raise questions about U.S. strategy and the value of continuing with the current approach to the war,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, a highly respected military and security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in a lengthy commentary released Monday under the dour title of “Afghanistan: The Death of a Strategy”.

He noted that the increasing unpopularity of U.S. and ISAF troops was just one factor – along with persistent government corruption and incompetence and Pakistan’s tolerance and support of Taliban sanctuaries – among several others that challenged the basic assumptions of the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy the Obama administration adopted in 2009.

Cordesman concluded that it was “now clear that withdrawal timetables will continue to accelerate, cutbacks will continue to grow, and popular attention will continue to shift away from Afghanistan.”

Indeed, most analysts here predicted that the past week’s events are likely to hasten the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign combat troops from Afghanistan through 2014, leaving only an as yet undetermined number of military and police advisers and trainers, according to NATO’s current timetable.

“The U.S. public has trouble understanding why the United States continues to sink blood and treasure into Afghanistan when the people we are trying to help are killing us,” Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for a New American Security, told the Los Angeles Times.

Washington, which currently has some 90,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, is scheduled to reduce that number to 68,000 by this September.

The pace at which the remaining troops will be withdrawn has been a major source of contention both within the administration and between Republicans, who generally have favoured maintaining as many troops – and bases – in Afghanistan as long as possible, and most Democratic lawmakers who have repeatedly pressed for an accelerated withdrawal.

Nonetheless, the administration is standing firm, at least for now. “This is not an endless commitment that will take lives far into the future,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told unhappy Democrats during a Senate hearing Tuesday.

“(W)e have … made progress on the principal reason we were there – security. Because of our platform and our presence in Afghanistan, we’ve been able to target terrorists, particularly top Al-Qaeda operatives, including (Osama) bin Laden in their safe havens. And we have made progress in helping the Afghan people.”

Likewise, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told an audience here Tuesday that his forces will “continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Afghan partners. …We are in Afghanistan to build stability and security for the Afghan people, which is in the interest of our own security.”

But given the most recent events, particularly the “fratricidal”, or “green-on-blue”, attacks by Afghans on ISAF forces, Rasmussen’s determination is likely to be severely tested, especially when NATO chiefs meet again to discuss Afghanistan strategy in Chicago in May.

Indeed, it was the killing by an Afghan soldier last month of four French troops at a fortified base that prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy to decide to withdraw all of France’s nearly 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2013, a year before their scheduled departure. Last Friday, the German contingent also announced it had closed one of its military outposts in the face of anti-NATO demonstrations touched off by the book burning.

Just a few days before the Quran burning, another two U.S. soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier in eastern Nangahar province near the Pakistani border.

While U.S. and NATO officials have routinely described these attacks as “isolated” incidents, a classified report disclosed by the New York Times last month found that explanation “disingenuous, if not profoundly intellectually dishonest”.

“Lethal altercations are clearly not rare or isolated,” according to the report, which was drafted last May by a U.S. command in eastern Afghanistan. “They reflect a rapidly growing systemic homicide threat (a magnitude of which may be unprecedented between ‘allies’ in modern military history).”

The report found that the animosity of Afghan soldiers was fed by many factors, including traffic disruption caused by U.S. convoys; indiscriminate U.S. fire that causes civilian casualties, the use of flawed intelligence sources, U.S. road blocks, night raids, violation of female privacy during searches; past massacres by U.S. forces; rudeness, disrespect and arrogance in dealing with Afghan soldiers, and unnecessarily shooting animals.

For their part, U.S. troops complained of illicit drug use, “massive thievery”, incompetence, corruption, covert alliances with insurgents, laziness, and poor hygiene, among other criticisms, by their Afghan counterparts.

The report’s disclosure, as noted by tomdispatch.com, came during the same week that a videotape of four U.S. Marines casually urinating on the corpses of dead Afghans circulated on the Internet, another in an accumulating, decade-long series of incidents, including the bombing by U.S. warplanes earlier this month of eight young shepherds, ranging in age from six to 18, that have alienated Afghans from their western “allies”.

“If we are not able to restore trust between Afghan and coalition troops, then the strategy is unworkable,” John Nagl, another counter- insurgency specialist at the U.S. Naval Academy, told McClatchy newspapers this week.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

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