The massacre on Sunday of 16 innocent Afghans — 9 of them children — is appalling. It is impossible to imagine, even as we see images floating over the TV and newspapers. But what does it mean? I tried to answer this a bit on Sunday and over the last two days. On Aljazeera English, there was a definite sense of frustration about “yet another” civilian casualty incident in Afghanistan. While this was rare, I tried to say, the war has other issues to deal with that are probably more important.
For the BBC Newshour (minute 6), we discussed what sort of legal action would be available for this psychopath. Sadly, there aren’t many options, since the U.S. will not allow any American working for the government to be tried in Afghanistan (Jack Idema only claimed to be working for the government — he wasn’t when he ran that horrid torture prison in Afghanistan). For CNN, I tried to explain why this horrible act is not actually going to change the war:
So where does the war go from here? A huge challenge facing President Obama is that the U.S. is fighting one war while the insurgency is fighting a very different one.
The U.S. war is obsessed with the traditional metrics of warfare: holding territory, killing or capturing bad guys, exacting details of building roads, schools, and hospitals. The insurgency, on the other hand, is obsessed with influence, undermining confidence in the government, and creating the perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam.
Put simply, the U.S. never put in place the strategic and political framework to make much headway in Afghanistan. Despite the renewed push for negotiations with the Taliban, there is no political strategy for the country. There is no end state for the war, either — right now, the plan is to drawdown to about 20,000 troops or so — similar to troop levels in 2008 — and stay that way for the indefinite future. That’s not a strategy, and it’s not a plan.
It was already directionless and pointless, in other words. This massacre doesn’t change any of the ground truths of what’s happening. But still, there’s a big groundswell of support for accelerating the withdrawal — especially on the Right. For Salon, I tried to explain why that, too, is a terrible idea:
But a more rapid withdrawal would be the worst possible outcome for Afghanistan right now. The desire to cut losses is understandable, even justified, but it would plunge Afghanistan into madness and anarchy.
That’s because there remains no political process at work in Afghanistan than can address the fundamental conflict driving the war: a political contest between the current, corrupt government and the insurgency that rejects that government. The current line about so-called reconciliation – the negotiations process, which demands the Taliban accept the very Afghan constitution they’re fighting to upend – doesn’t account for any of Afghanistan’s politics. It is merely a call to surrender.
President Obama missed a critical opportunity in 2009 to reorient the war away from a military-led battle with some political trappings, to a political strategy with a military component. It’s not too late to make that shift in perspective and outlook – not yet, at least. While Sunday’s mass murder is shocking, it does provide some space in Washington for a pivot point to reorient the war where it needs to be: on the politics of Afghanistan, and not on the insurgency of Afghanistan.
Sadly, I just don’t see any reason to think that such a change in thinking is around the corner. President Obama is determined to drawdown to that infinite training mission and ride out the rest of his term. None of the problems of the war are being addressed, and we’re going to leave a horrible mess when we finally give up and come home.
It’s utterly depressing. All of it.