How the US is Still Getting Afghanistan Wrong

The debate following the Kandahar massacre shows that Americans at home and in Afghanistan still don’t quite understand the meaning of events in that country. Domestically, the calls for a swifter withdrawal are not only divorced from the realities of logistical constraints but also displays a reckless disregard for the negative consequences of a hasty pullout on Afghans. In Afghanistan, an instinct of fear pervades the US and ISAF reaction, which leads them to ignore the grief of the victims.

This approach is precisely the wrong one because disregarding the human suffering and concentrating on “Afghan anger” and threat of a “backlash” dehumanizes the people affected by this incident and paints them not as victims but as potential aggressors. From a practical standpoint, it is especially counterproductive that the mission charged with protecting the civilians is taking the fear approach, because it separates them from the population and prevents a more human connection with the population in grief.

Further, it ignores all historical precedent of how civilians have reacted to such incidents, which is with much restraint. Afghan civilians have been killed intentionally – like in the case of the “Kill Team” – and unintentionally during aerial strikes, but the civilians have remained overwhelmingly peaceful despite the loss and a pent-up sense of anger. Misreading the public reaction after repeatedly observing an overwhelmingly peaceful population means the international mission has some serious difficulties connecting with the people and drawing the right lessons.

Similar insensitivity is on display in reactions within the United States to the killings. Some, including the Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, have been calling for an immediate and complete withdrawal, arguing that the US cannot “fix Afghanistan.”

First, there’s the logistical challenge: you can’t just plop 80,000 troops and millions of tons of weapons and equipment back into the US — the process requires negotiation of withdrawal routes, fees and other arrangements with difficult partners such as Pakistan, Russia and its Central Asian neighborhood. This could take months if not years.

Second, proponents of this view fail to understand that the United States is already withdrawing precipitously. President Obama has hastened the already-tight 2014 deadline to include an acceleration of drawdown in mid-2013. At its current pace, the withdrawal is already endangering some hard-won gains in the areas of civil society and human rights. From the Afghan perspective, a thoughtless withdrawal could be disastrous because of the vacuum it will leave behind and the genuine potential for things to go very wrong, very quickly. This would leave Afghan women, minorities and the unarmed civilian population in general to contend with its disastrous consequences.

It is now too late for the US and its NATO allies to change policies and come up with a panacea. The best – and the least – they could do is avoid further damage by a hasty, thoughtless pullout.

The advocates of disengagement argue that events such as the Kandahar massacre necessitate immediate withdrawal; they don’t realize that such repeated blunders demonstrate an urgent need to take immediate and appropriate measures to prevent similar incidents in the future — in Afghanistan and beyond. That there have been so many such incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan means the systemic loose ends must be tied to minimize the likelihood of these incidents from happening. Because the best way to avoid PR damage in a battle for hearts and minds is to do everything to avoid generating victims and, by extension, negative emotions among the population. Sure, the military has been looking at individual offenders’ backgrounds and conducting trials of isolated perpetrators, but it is not looking at the broader pattern and the systemic hazard that allows these incidents to repeatedly happen.

American reaction to the unfortunate massacre of civilians has been characterized by insensitivity to the victims and to the nation they will be leaving behind after 10 years of war. The citizens and politicians of the most powerful country in the world share its power and the responsibility for its actions. They must realize that any calls they make have consequences not only for the US, its taxpayers and troops but also for Afghans, its citizens and suffering victims.