Violence broke out across Afghanistan last week when news emerged that American forces had burned copies of the Koran. American military officials explained that the books had been taken from prisoners held at the Bagram detention facility and were being destroyed together with other collected materials. It was a completely avoidable mistake, and one with serious consequences. In the demonstrations and attacks that have followed, at least thirty people have been killed, including two American soldiers who were shot in the back of the head while they were inside Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry.
These sad developments come at a time when, notwithstanding an official façade of commitment to present operations, senior figures in the nation’s security establishment and the Obama Administration are asking tough questions about the success of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal introduced in Afghanistan, and that their successors have faithfully continued. The protests and deaths also raise once again the question, never convincingly answered, of just what America and her NATO allies expect to accomplish. America has poured immense resources into Afghan nation-building, and what has emerged is a highly corrupt state run by figures of exceptionally modest ability. Afghanistan today is probably stronger and more stable than it was before the Soviets invaded in 1979, but that’s claiming very little. The construction of a truly strong and stable state requires not only the rise of able Afghan leaders but also the success of COIN. Neither is in prospect.
COIN can succeed only if the bulk of the domestic populace accepts the forces implementing the strategy as their protectors and the Taliban as the enemy. Last week’s developments were not a worst-case scenario—Afghan civic and religious leaders largely called for calm and order, and the violence, while widely distributed, remained within manageable limits and appears now to be subsiding. On the other hand, it revealed a population highly suspicious of the motives of foreign military forces, and a sizeable number of Afghans who are prepared to reject NATO’s efforts as just another in a long series of foreign occupations driven by imperialistic aspirations.
Also troubling for COIN has been the number of NATO soldiers who have been shot by Afghan forces who are their presumed allies. At least fifty-eight have been killed in twenty-six events between mid-2007 and mid-2011, and according to one NATO study, the frequency of the incidents steadily accelerated during this period. Many of the deaths were due to poor communications or petty squabbles, but some reflected systematic issues with COIN, for instance in the shooting of livestock, in conduct disrespectful to women and elders, and in the use of night raids to pick up targets, a practice Afghans almost uniformly hate. It is hard to see how these strategies can produce anything that looks like success in Afghanistan.
Republican critics have flailed about in response to these developments, instinctively attacking President Obama over his apology for the acts of desecration against the Koran. These rebukes reflected the usual election-year triumph of politics over common sense—Obama had done no more than his generals bade him, driven by proper concern for the safety of U.S. and NATO forces and other personnel on the ground. These same Republican critics are also committed to keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan in seeming perpetuity, without a clear deployment strategy or clear objectives. Their attitudes reflect the enemy the Taliban claims to be fighting: Christian crusaders, driven by a hatred of Islam, who want to occupy Afghanistan and treat it as a subjugated province.
There is no obvious fix for NATO’s operations. In the end, the effort will simply wind down, leaving a menacing security environment for the contractors who planners anticipate leaving in place in Afghanistan for some time. The result will be an environment that is welcoming to only one foreign party: Pakistan. For years, key figures in the Pakistani military have pursued a strategy of keeping their support networks in Afghanistan alive until Western forces quit the field. They expect to reassert themselves and perhaps convert Afghanistan once more into a satellite state. This depressing scenario seems increasingly likely to unfold. Yet perhaps the prospect can drive Afghans to reconcile and build a more responsible government in Kabul—one committed to a vision of their nation as truly independent.