There’s been a lot of bad news coming from Afghanistan in recent weeks—deep anti-American sentiment finally overflowed into violence when it was revealed American soldiers burned copies of the Koran at Bagram airbase on February 20. More than thirty people have been killed in revenge attacks, and 11,000 Afghans took to the streets in protest this weekend.
Two American troops were killed inside the Afghan Interior Ministry last week, also in response to the Koran burning, leading to the unprecedented removal of all military personnel from the government ministries. Given that this is the government the United States is trying to build up, it’s a troubling development to say the least, as is the fact that ten of the last fifty-eight coalition deaths have come at the hands of America’s Afghan partners.
Much to its credit, the White House press corps put press secretary Jay Carney through the wringer on the war yesterday—he was peppered through most of his daily briefing with smart, tough questions about the recent violence and the overall viability of the US strategy in Afghanistan. The very first question cut right to the chase:
Q: We've heard a lot over the last day or so about how the United States is taking the long view in the war in Afghanistan and the need to stay focused on defeating Al Qaeda. But I'm wondering how you explain to the average American who has seen this war go on for ten years and is ready for troops to come home—how do explain it when the people that we're training turn their guns on us, or US officers in a secure Afghan Interior building are shot dead? How do you explain why it's working?
Carney responded that the United States will stick to its current strategy, which is to “to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda.” He repeated some variation of that line over ten times, as reporters refused to get off the topic. Finally, Jake Tapper of ABC News got around to asking Carney the obvious question—one that the press secretary couldn’t actually answer:
Q: When is the last time US troops in Afghanistan killed anybody associated with Al Qaeda?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would refer you to ISAF and the Defense Department for that. I don't have that information. It is certainly clear that, because of our efforts in the Af-Pak region, if you will—which is the region covered by the overall strategy that the President put into place—that we have aggressively pursued, with significant success, Al Qaeda's leadership. And I think that everyone knows, of course, of the Osama bin Laden mission. But there have been, as you know because you cover this closely, numerous other instances of successful implementation of this policy, which has resulted in significantly depleting the numbers of Al Qaeda’s leadership. And it is because of the president’s policy, which includes allowing for space for the Afghan government as this transition takes place to the security lead—that gives us the capacity to implement the policy, which, again, is focused on Al Qaeda.
(Note, of course, that bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.) I contacted the Defense Department to follow up—it was unable to give me an answer right away, but I’ll update this post when I hear back. Press accounts don’t turn up any recent Al Qaeda deaths there, however, and Tapper smartly noted statements by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said earlier this year that there were probably no more than 100 Al Qaeda fighters in all of Afghanistan.
As the situation continues to deteriorate there, it’s important to remember that the White House isn’t just feeling pressure to cut losses and get out now—there’s also pressure from those who believe the recent failures mean the United States should stay in Afghanistan even longer.
On Fox News Sunday this weekend, Mitt Romney said that the recent violence is an “extraordinary admission of failure” in the White House plan to wind down the war by 2014. Romney may never reach the White House, but even if he doesn’t, senior military officials are reportedly pressing Obama to pause or lessen the drawdown over concerns that Pakistan is becoming too unstable.
The war has largely receded from view in recent months as the American economy sputtered and the media’s attention was captured by a presidential primary. But as the past two weeks have shown, events on the ground might thrust the war back into public prominence—and either way, there are fierce debates going on that could dramatically shorten or lengthen the war.
If you want to see the full White House briefing yesterday, it’s here: