How a massacre of women and children doomed the U.S. mission in Afghanistan

Military analysis.
March 12 2012 5:48 PM

Game Over in Afghanistan

American troops no longer serve a purpose there. It is time to get out. Now.

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The whole relationship between the United States and Karzai has been a tangled web from the outset. The Americans have had to prop up his regime; but if they’re seen as too close, Afghans will see them as abetting the regime’s corruption (the main source of Karzai’s illegitimacy). Karzai depends on the Americans for security (his and his country’s), but if he makes excuses for their flagrant misdeeds, Afghans will see him as an imperial puppet.

After those two U.S. officers were slain inside the Interior Ministry’s headquarters, Karzai’s first reaction was to say the gunman might have been a Westerner. After the Quran burnings, he waited a few days before stating that the act might not have been deliberate or hostile. After the Kandahar massacre, Karzai’s first comment was to denounce the “U.S. forces” (plural) who committed the act. (He later acknowledged that the gunman had acted alone but not before rumors of death squads and helicopters overhead began to spread, rumors that, of course, will be believed by many).

Karzai first tried to ban private security guards in October 2010, until Gen. David Petraeus, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, talked him out of it, convincing him that it would likely shut down all Western-funded development projects. It is hard to see what kind of leverage Petraeus’ successor, Gen. John Allen, or Ambassador Ryan Crocker might possess to make Karzai back down under the present circumstances.

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In November 2010, in the wake of a spate of accidental civilian casualties, Karzai gave an interview to the Washington Post, demanding that the United States cut back on military operations and stop the Special Operations Forces’ nighttime raids altogether, seeing them as a violation of Afghan sovereignty and dignity. The raids were taking a huge toll on Taliban fighters; U.S. commanders saw them as essential to the war plan. Petraeus phoned Karzai’s national security adviser and said, “Your president has put me in an untenable position. Please take note of that word. I chose it carefully.” Fearing that Petraeus might resign, which would almost certainly have marked a prelude to U.S. withdrawal, Karzai backpedaled instantly.

Sixteen months later, untenable seems an apt description of our alliance with Karzai’s government and thus our strategy in this war. It’s time to cut losses, because whatever gains the war might once have offered are now nowhere in sight.