By Paolo von Schirach
March 13, 2012
WASHINGTON – Talk about the success of asymmetric warfare. Except that this is asymmetric warfare by America against itself in Afghanistan. Hard to imagine better planned self-inflicted wounds that destroyed in a few instances years of hard work aimed at building trust and good will between American occupiers and Afghans. First we had the sad video of US soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses. This was followed by the stupid Quran burning incident with all its consequences, including US soldiers killed by supposedly friendly Afghans. And now there is a deranged Sargent who wanders off his base at night and starts murdering Afghan civilians. The Taliban could not have plotted this any better, if they were to think of ways in which to place the Americans in a bad light.
Of course, we all know that, as bad they are, these are all extremely unfortunate, isolated acts. We know about the US desire to help Afghans against the Taliban. But in this context, as in most others, perception is reality. After all these incidents the perception more than ever before is that the Americans are hostile occupiers, and not precious allies in the fight against the Taliban.
Go explain to the villagers that the army Sargent who went on in his private shooting spree, killing 16 civilians, is most likely a mentally disturbed person. (If so, though,what is he doing serving in Afghanistan? And, as we are at it, can anybody explain how a soldier can just wander off his base, all by himself, undetected and carry on a shooting expedition? These are separate but quite pertinent questions that probably would open painful subjects on how active duty soldiers are screened or not screened for mental conditions in the US armed forces, and on how security is maintained in forward operating areas).
Urinating on corpses, Quran burning
And going back to the list of the other incidents, go explain that the Quran burning was totally accidental. Go explain that the other soldiers urinating on corpses are just a small group of uncivilized people, while the vast majority of all US servicemen observe all codes and laws of warfare.
Among true allies all this would have been looked at differently
But the fact is that, in the context of a friendly and trusting relationship, these unfortunate incidents would have been treated for what they really are: isolated events caused by a few individuals; and not as part of some sinister plot concocted by the Americans to hurt and humiliate Afghans. And yet, the very fact that the sinister plot interpretation finds plenty of angry followers is another indication of how weak the foundations of this relationship really are. Whatever good the Americans are trying to do in Afghanistan, it is not working very well.
Opportunity for rethinking the whole operation
More broadly, incidents aside, Washington should rethink the entire scope and objectives of the whole operation. The official explanation routinely offered whereby we are in Afghanistan because this is where the 9/11 attacks were planned in 2001 is patently absurd. 9/11 occurred more than 10 years ago. Al Qaeda is a diminished force and it moved on to other countries. Osama bin Laden is dead. We can and should prevent plans to re-establish training camps in Afghanistan by disrupting al Qaeda and Taliban operations. Yet this is mostly about using good intelligence assets and special operations units. We do not need to occupy the entire country to pursue these goals.
Reduce US foot print
This does not mean “abandoning Afghanistan”. But it means that our presence there has to be adjusted to our basic national security objectives. Certainly we do not want Afghanistan in chaos. But this large US foot print is not necessary. We should be after the pro-al Qaeda Taliban and al Qaeda itself. Leave the rest out. Adopt a low profile.