Sunday, February 26, 2012

Killing of two American military Officers inside Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — American officials sought to reassure both Afghanistan’s government and a domestic audience on Sunday that the United States remained committed to the war after the weekend killing of two American military officers inside the Afghan Interior Ministry and days of deadly anti-American protests.

But behind the public pronouncements, American officials described a growing concern, even at the highest levels of the Obama administration and Pentagon, about the challenges of pulling off a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan that hinges on the close mentoring and training of army and police forces.

Despite an American-led training effort that has spanned years and cost tens of billions of dollars, the Afghan security forces are still widely seen as riddled with dangerously unreliable soldiers and police officers. The distrust has only deepened as a pattern of attacks by Afghan security forces on American and NATO service members, beginning years ago, has drastically worsened over the past few days. A grenade attack on Sunday, apparently by a protester, wounded at least six American soldiers.

Nearly a week of violent unrest after American personnel threw Korans into a pit of burning trash has brought into sharp relief the growing American and Afghan frustration — and, at times, open hostility — and the risks of a strategy that calls for American soldiers and civilians to work closely with Afghans.

The United States now has what one senior American official said was “almost no margin of error” in trying to achieve even limited goals in Afghanistan after a series of crises that have stirred resentment.

The official said the unrest might complicate but was unlikely to significantly alter the overall plan: to keep pulling out troops and focus instead on using Special Operations forces to train the Afghans and go after insurgent and militant leaders in targeted raids while diplomats try opening talks with the Taliban.

At the same time, the administration plans to continue negotiations on a long-term framework to guide relations with Afghanistan after the NATO mission through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ends in 2014. Officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies are to begin meeting this week to hammer out details of the various efforts, and to work out the size of the next round of withdrawals, which President Obama is expected to announce at a NATO summit meeting planned for May in Chicago.

Those immediate talks, officials say, could be most affected. What only weeks ago was an undercurrent of anti-Americanism in Afghanistan is now a palpable fury, and if the situation continues to deteriorate at its current pace, plans could be altered, the official said. “There’s a certain impatience — I mean, there are people who don’t see how we succeed under the current conditions, and their case is getting stronger,” the official said.

Hundreds of American military and civilian advisers have already been pulled out of the Afghan ministries and government departments in Kabul, the capital. While that move has been described as temporary, the official declined to speculate about what kind of long-term changes could be envisioned. The official and others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the crisis with Afghanistan.

Another administration official said the unrest was “going to have a really negative effect” on all the initiatives but added that much remained unclear and that the focus was on damage control.

Regardless of the challenges, and possible setbacks to vital negotiations, senior American officials said on Sunday that the mission had to go on. “This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,” the American ambassador in Kabul, Ryan C. Crocker, said in an interview on CNN. “We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation in which Al Qaeda is not coming back.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed regret for the burning of the Korans but said it should not derail the American military and diplomatic effort in Afghanistan. “We are condemning it in the strongest possible terms,” she said in Rabat, Morocco, “but we also believe that the violence must stop, and the hard work of trying to build a more peaceful, prosperous and secure Afghanistan must continue.”

Another administration official said, however, that there was recognition that the commitment was most likely to carry a greater political cost. “There is no less a commitment to a long-term relationship with Afghanistan,” the official said. “But is there a concern now that many will question the need to stay? Yes — especially in an election year.”

A leading Republican candidate for president did appear to strike a more measured tone on Sunday in speaking about the crisis in Afghanistan while urging that the United States stay on its course.

Mitt Romney, speaking to Fox News, said: “It’s obviously very dangerous there, and the transition effort is not going as well as we’d like to see it go. But certainly the effort there is an important one, and we want to see the Afghan security troops finally able to secure their own country and bring our troops home when that job is done.”

He did, however, reiterate his opposition to the administration’s setting a public timetable for drawing down American forces in Afghanistan. And he and his main rival in the Republican field, Rick Santorum, on Sunday continued their harsh criticism of Mr. Obama’s apology for the Koran burnings.

On ABC News’s “This Week,” Mr. Santorum said the president’s apology showed weakness. “There was nothing deliberately done wrong here,” he said.

Even before this crisis, the Obama administration was scaling back American ambitions in Afghanistan, abandoning previous goals that focused on nation building, even if the result was just “Afghan good enough” — a pejorative phrase often used as shorthand for the low expectations many Westerners held for Afghanistan. Administration officials have described a current aim of leaving behind a relatively democratic government secure enough to keep Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for Al Qaeda and other militants who threaten the West.

But their often unhappy partner in that enterprise, President Hamid Karzai, has been the source of growing impatience for American officials. The Afghan leader is in a tight spot, needing to balance his domestic political considerations against his long-troubled relations with his Western backers, upon whose support his government survives.

Still, some officials have been complimentary of his repeated call for calm during the current crisis. In some past cases, Mr. Karzai was seen as trying to stoke his people’s anger against the Americans.

“So far, they’re saying the right things,” a senior defense official said. “Now it’s a matter of them doing the right things.”

The official and others said that in addition to policing the protests — which the Afghan security forces have, for the most part, done well — the Afghan government needed to do a better job of vetting its soldiers and police officers to help stem attacks on alliance troops by Afghans.

“The Afghans have to do their part as well,” the official said. “Our will to pursue the mission is strong but could ebb if the Afghans don’t follow through quickly on their end of the deal.”

One immediate fallout of the violence was a decision on Sunday by two senior Afghan national security officials — Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi — to delay a joint visit to Washington that had been set for this week.

George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said efforts were under way to reschedule the visit, adding, “We believe that we can surmount recent challenges by working closely with our Afghan and ISAF partners to redouble our shared commitment to the sustained progress we’ve achieved together.”

- New York Times

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