The fact is that the word “precision” applies to little or nothing about this event. Instead, it’s yet another marker on a confused and misguided counterinsurgency strategy that, while scheduled to end in 2014 – with 200 U.S. bases already shut down – is achieving few of its declared aims. It’s a sad but sobering thought that the disputed death of 50 Afghans in Kunar on August 18 merited precious little news coverage and, so far, no real inquiry by either the government of Afghanistan or by most independent observers. At the same time, the cumulative deaths of 40 NATO service members so far in 2012 at the hands of Afghan army and police – only a small portion of which have been tied to the Taliban-led insurgency – have attracted widespread attention, investigations, commentary, and concern at the highest levels of the U.S. command. On August 23, just five days after the slaughter in Kunar, General John R. Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, presided over a lengthy news conference during which he fielded numerous questions about the so-called green-on-blue attacks, but not a single question on Kunar.
Yet the events in Kunar may hold great significance for the ultimate success of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. That’s because events like the one in Kunar are what generate outrage and desperation among Afghan villagers, often pushing them closer to the Taliban or making them susceptible to Taliban propaganda about jihad against the foreign forces.
That’s why the latest pronouncement about the course of the war by Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations ought to be ringing alarm bells. Biddle, who maintains close contact with U.S. military commanders, has long been relatively optimistic that a political accord with the Taliban might allow for a settlement of the conflict before 2014. Now, he says, “I’m significantly less optimistic than I have been.”
Biddle adds, “I am very concerned about the direction that the war has been taking because of some shortsighted decisions we’ve made that have undermined our long-term prospect for getting an acceptable result. When people ask the question, ‘How’s the war going?’ usually they are focusing on the short term and the battlefield. So the issue usually is: Are casualties up or down? Are we in control of more of the country this month than we were last month? Are civilian causalities up relative to a year ago at this time, or down relative to year ago at this time? Those are all perfectly worthwhile questions, but the more important set of questions has to do with how we get to an acceptable outcome. Our ability to drive the war to a successful conclusion on the battlefield is nil at this point.”
Perhaps a deal between the United States and the Taliban is still possible. But as the U.S. force in Afghanistan draws down, the United States is likely to rely increasingly on airstrikes like the one in Kunar to suppress the insurgency. And because airstrikes often lead to civilian casualties, more often than not they make things worse, not better, from a counterinsurgency point of view. That can only bolster the Taliban as America pulls out, and no doubt many within the Taliban leadership are arguing that it’s better to keep fighting rather than negotiate. Still, there are new reports that the Taliban is once again headed back to the bargaining table in Qatar, reinforcing Biddle – and the Obama administration’s – hope that a political settlement isn’t impossible.