No one but a rogue Army Sergeant is responsible for the crime of killing 16 Afghan civilians on the weekend. And no one but rogue Afghan soldiers are responsible for the recent killings of American GIs. But the events take place against a political backdrop in which everyone, friend and foe alike, knows the U.S. is heading toward the exits in Afghanistan. Retreats are messy in warfare, and they can quickly become disorderly when the mission becomes something other than military victory.
That's the big picture to keep in mind as U.S. and Afghan leaders try to quell any violent reaction to the GI's murderous rampage in Kandahar province. His motive and identity aren't publicly known. The Taliban and antiwar Americans want to turn the killings into a 21st century My Lai and a symbol of American mistakes.
But the striking fact is that nothing like this has happened over 10 years of difficult, counterinsurgency warfare. Coalition troops have been disciplined and professional despite the constant ambushes, roadside bombs and even (rare) betrayals by Afghans fighting at their side. Perhaps the explanation is as simple as the sergeant snapped.
President Obama and other officials have apologized for the killings, and rightly so. Afghan leaders have to contend with public anger and need help to calm passions. President Hamid Karzai, who isn't immune to anti-American outbursts, has little to gain from a repeat of last month's violent riots after GIs burned copies of the Quran at Bagram air base. Tempers were falling over that incident when the Army sergeant struck.
The larger problem is the perception of discord and disarray that all of this is promoting—in the U.S. and Afghanistan. On the ground, Mr. Obama's decision last summer to speed America's withdrawal has made it harder to build the trust and Afghan institutions needed to transfer the security lead by the American-imposed deadline of 2014.
Afghan leaders are worried about their future, and many are hedging their bets in Kabul and elsewhere. Mr. Karzai has reached out to Iran and Pakistan. He has been pushed into driving a harder bargain on a possible deal on the U.S. role after 2014.
America's allies in the government have expressed their frustration. "A catastrophe," said Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak recently, in response to an American proposal to slim the ranks of the Afghan National Army, one success story of the war. The army, which would be reduced to 230,000 troops after 2014 from 352,000 troops today, is supposed to take the baton from the U.S.
With its eye on the exits, the U.S. has been pressing (over Afghan government objections) for talks and a truce with Mullah Omar and the Taliban, who still operate with impunity out of Pakistan. But no wonder those talks are going nowhere. With the U.S. signalling it won't maintain a robust military presence into the future, Omar knows he can insist on maximum demands (prisoner releases, no night raids) while waiting until the U.S. departs.
The Taliban also know that attacks on coalition soldiers by Afghan army or police is a way to sap support for the war in home capitals. When four French soldiers were killed by a man in an Afghan military uniform in January, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a faster withdrawal timetable. Mr. Obama's rare recent public comments on the war have been moments of apology to Afghans, rather than explaining to Americans the progress our troops have made and the support they receive from the vast majority of Afghans. Rarely has a U.S. President in wartime said so little so infrequently about his own strategy and the forces fighting to make it work.
The tragedy is that Mr. Obama pulled the plug on his own surge in mid-course, just as it was starting to work. With 30,000 surge troops sent to the fight in 2010, Marines, Army troops and special forces have cleared and held the Taliban heartland in Helmand and Kandahar. But with 10,000 fewer surge troops than generals on the ground requested, the U.S. couldn't devote as many resources to the east of Afghanistan.
That was supposed to be the next military priority when in June Mr. Obama ordered the entire surge force home by this summer. Media leaks say the Administration plans an announcement soon to end all combat operations by next year. This can't be good for morale. No soldier wants to be the last to die in a conflict that his Commander in Chief has politically checked out of.
Americans are understandably tired of war, and a Washington Post-ABC poll this weekend showed that 60% think Afghanistan wasn't worth the cost. GOP candidate Newt Gingrich, ever the opportunist, quickly declared that Afghanistan was probably "not doable."
One GI's killing spree should not be able to undermine a war effort for which Americans have sacrificed so much. But that's what can happen when everyone concludes that a President's timetable is geared more to an election than to military success. If only Mr. Obama spoke as clearly about U.S. purposes in Afghanistan as he has about the risks of an Israeli attack on Iran.