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PV Vivekanand: Time for the US to cut and run
March 20, 2012
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Tensions are record high between the US and Afghanistan in the wake of a rampage by an American soldier in which 16 Afghan civilians were killed last week in southern Kandahar. The suspect has been returned to the US to face military justice, but there is no telling how far the process could pacify the Afghans, who are seething with anger not only over the slaughter but also incidents involving disrespect for the Islamic faith, killings of civilians, deadly drone strikes and summary detentions and torture.

They say the West is totally insensitive to their suffering and considers Afghan lives as of no value.

Add to that the seemingly strong alliance between the administration of the US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is seen to have lost credibility over allegations that his re-election was rigged.

Afghans are also angry that despite reports of billions of dollars being pumped as aid into the country, they have yet to see any tangible improvement in their daily life. They are also aware that the massive corruption that is deeply embedded in their country means that donor assistance is channelled away to individual pockets. That has made them all the more bitter.

Karzai is caught between a rock and a hard place. Notwithstanding his recent high-pitched criticism of the US, he would like to mend the strain in relations with the Obama administration and continue to receive American backing and assistance, but he is unable to do so because of internal imperatives. Being seen getting closer to the US is bad news in Afghanistan today and it would get only worse in the days ahead.

That places Karzai in a position where he is unable to deliver what the US wants him to deliver. He has been increasingly critical of the US, particularly over the death of Afghan civilians in North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) attacks and night-time raids of villages.

Karzai even called the US a demon and placed it at par with the Taliban. “Let’s pray to God to rescue us from these two demons,” Karzai said on Friday during a meeting with relatives of the victims of the Kandahar slaughter. “There are two demons in our country now.”

The killings, he said, “was not the first incident, indeed it was the 100th, the 200th and 500th incident.”

Earlier, the Afghan leader rejected an apology offered by the US for the burning of the copies of the Holy Quran at the US-run Bagram Air Base. He said that the US claims its soldiers burned the Qurans by mistake, but really those were “Satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies.”

Karzai also demanded that Nato forces leave rural areas although he did not press the call further. Ironically, Nato commanders appear confused whether it would be a good idea to pull out of Afghan villages or whether the move would worsen everything.

So much for the “lessons” that they have learnt in their 10-year Afghan campaign. In simple terms, most Afghan villagers could not wait to see the back of the foreign forces. There are of course those who argue that the Nato-led force should not cut and run because it bears the responsibility for having messed up their lives and therefore should leave only after stabilising the country.

On the other side, Obama is under pressure from the American public to end the war in Afghanistan and withdraw the US military from the country as soon as possible. Recent opinion polls have found that a majority of Americans oppose the war and want the US military to leave Afghanistan regardless of whether Afghan forces are able to take control of security.

Last week’s killings in Kandahar have added to his woes. The people of Afghanistan want the soldier, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, to be sentenced to death. But many in the American public sympathise with him because of his media-built image, which is that of a family and community man forced into war despite his objections and denied what he considered as his rights. The Americans are told that Bales could have “snapped” under immense pressure.

Therefore, sympathisers see Bales as a victim of government policy, and a trial with a possible death sentence before the November presidential elections could hurt Obama’s prospects for a second term at the White House.

On the Afghan front, Obama stands no chance of realising his objective of leaving the country stable and capable of fighting off an Al Qaeda revival. His hopes of working out a negotiated solution to the crisis have all but collapsed in the wake of reports of burning of the copies of the Holy Quran and the Kandahar killings. The US military has failed in its efforts to make the Afghans US-friendly as the centrepiece of a strategy that is largely dependent on acquiring the goodwill of the average Afghan.

American and allied Western trainers say they can no longer trust their Afghan colleagues after six US officers were shot dead or killed in blasts following the Quran burnings. That undermines ongoing training programmes for Afghan security forces ahead of a scheduled 2014 US departure from the country.

In effect, the March 11/12 slaughter of Afghans has exposed the reality that there is little hope that the Obama administration could or would succeed in realising whatever objectives that the US has in Afghanistan.

Adding insult to injury, says a report carried by the Guardian newspaper, regional countries stand to gain from the failed US strategy. The Guardian report says: “The money and blood pit that is Afghanistan – where the US and Britain have expended more than 2,100 lives and £302 billion ($478 billion) – is about to start paying a dividend. But it won’t be going to the countries which have made this considerable sacrifice. The contracts to open up Afghanistan’s mineral and fossil-fuel wealth, and to build the railways that will transport them out of the country, are being won or pursued by China, India, Iran and Russia.”

Obama might not be able to acknowledge in public the haunting realities on the ground in Afghanistan, but he must be scratching his head hard trying to plan a way out of the mess. Continued stay in Afghanistan will serve no purpose. Instead, the situation could only turn worse and deadlier.

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