The U.S. goal in Afghanistan has always been a worthy one keeping the country from becoming a haven from which terrorists can launch attacks against us. But that aim is fast approaching impossible, not only because of the chilling massacre Sunday of at least 16 civilians by a U.S. soldier, but because of the policy missteps and contradictory messages that preceded it.
After a decade of war with seemingly little accomplished, Americans and Afghans have largely lost patience with our presence there. Sundays attacks, in which the rogue soldier shot nine children and at least seven adults execution-style, were for many a convincing argument that our relationship with Afghanistan has deteriorated beyond repair.
President Barack Obama had an appropriate response to the killings, promising a full investigation and full accountability for anyone who was involved. That investigation should be swift and transparent but even a thorough, conclusive response might not be enough for the Afghans. Sundays killings followed two other incidents the accidental burning of some Qurans by American troops in February, and the circulation of a video in January of Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban. A stronger partnership might have been able to endure a trio of such incidents, but these have merely added more weight to a relationship already collapsing under years of mistakes.
Those began with the Bush administration focusing its post-9/11 attention on Iraq, not Afghanistan. More recently, the Obama administration has struggled with how to deal with President Hamid Karzai, an erratic leader but the only one Obama has to work with in Afghanistan. U.S. officials, however, have taken the risky route of eliminating a Bush-era practice of regular communications with Karzai, according to the Washington Post, then largely bypassing him in negotiations with the Taliban.
The U.S. also has sent mixed signals about our commitment to the NATO mission. This editorial board agreed with the need for a timeline last year when Obama announced a plan for steady troop reductions toward an eventual withdrawal in 2014, but Afghans have suspected that were merely tidying up as best we can before making a hasty exit. Complicating matters is the 2012 election, in which U.S. voters are expressing frustration at our continued presence in an apparently ungrateful country that showed little sorrow when four American soldiers were killed in February by Afghans in uniform.
That incident, however, reinforces the need to train and equip Afghan police and military so that the Taliban doesnt rise to power once again. We need to remember: Should Afghanistan again become the home base for al-Qaida and other terrorists, they will inevitably turn their gaze next door to unstable Pakistan and its nuclear weapons.
We were encouraged Wednesday by key Republicans and Democrats, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell, urging Obama not to further hasten troop reduction. Its a difficult tug the president faces trying to execute a weakened strategy while fatigued Americans call for a speedier troop withdrawal. But doing the latter makes an improbable mission nearly impossible, and if Obama chooses to pull out troops at a faster pace, he might as well bring the rest of them home now.