Pentagon officials said they would stick by U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the face of “cowardly attacks” on U.S.-led forces as a suicide car-bombing killed nine Afghans and wounded two American soldiers.
“We work alongside thousands of Afghans every single day” to improve conditions in the country, George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters yesterday after a week of protests over the burning of Korans at a U.S. air base led to deadly protests and attacks on U.S. personnel in the war-torn nation. “And nothing that has happened over the past week is going to deter us from that goal.”
The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan aims to weaken the Taliban to force the insurgents into peace talks, while training the Afghan army and police to take over security by the end of 2014. The turmoil of the past week undercuts the Obama administration’s contention that security in Afghanistan is improving, according to Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., a research institute in Arlington, Virginia.
“It makes it much more difficult to sell that argument with events like the rioting and instability and then suicide attacks that have all come together,” Jones, who worked in Afghanistan last year for the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command, said in an interview.
While Pentagon officials said yesterday that protests across Afghanistan were easing, coalition advisers remained barred from Afghan ministries out of fear for their safety and authorities searched for a suspect in the weekend killings of two Americans assisting the Interior Ministry.
The Taliban claimed credit for yesterday’s car bombing in eastern Afghanistan, police said.
President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan and coalition officials have called for an end to the violence sparked when Afghan workers at the main U.S. military base near Kabul discovered copies of the Koran being burned in a trash dump. U.S. officials said the treatment of the Korans was inappropriate and unintentional and are conducting a joint investigation with Afghan authorities.
The number of protests dropped from 24 three days ago, involving 11,000 Afghans, to three yesterday with participants only in the hundreds, and one of those focused on unrelated land disputes, according to Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman who appeared via video link from Kabul for the briefing with Little.
Any easing of tensions over the Koran-burning isn’t likely to rescue a strategy that “has been dying for a long time,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan has been hobbled for years by the resilience of the Taliban and aligned militant groups in neighboring Pakistan, as well as by Afghan government corruption, Pakistan’s tolerance of insurgents and the coalition’s careless and half-hearted investments of money and personnel, Cordesman said in an e-mailed statement.
The Pentagon has said there’s been no waning of determination as a result of the past week’s events. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey are “fully committed” to proceeding with the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Little said.
The coalition plans to shift increasingly away from a lead role in combat in the next year and toward intensified training and advising. That plan rests on the ability of the two sides to work together day-to-day.
The U.S. has 89,000 troops in Afghanistan, along with 40,000 from other nations, and all have begun to pare their numbers.
“It is clearer and clearer that even spending through 2014 is having to be steadily cut back, allied force commitments keep dropping, and there is far more popular and bipartisan congressional support for an exit than anyone wants to admit in an election year,” Cordesman said.
Marine General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, recalled all coalition advisers from Afghan ministries in and around Kabul over the weekend after two American officers, a lieutenant colonel and a major, were shot in the back of the head in the heavily guarded Interior Ministry. The shootings followed the killing of two other U.S. soldiers in the country’s east last week as the protests over the Koran burning began.
Allen cautioned military commanders elsewhere in the country to take precautions as they saw fit, and most operations are continuing as usual, according to Kirby.
Coalition troops just completed a successful multi-day operation with more than 900 Afghan army forces in the country’s south to weaken any potential resurgence of militant attacks with the onset of the fighting season as winter ends, Kirby said.
‘Little More Vigilant’
“Clearly everybody’s going to be a little more vigilant right now -- that’s the right thing to do,” Kirby said. “But the mission itself continues.”
Afghan authorities and the coalition are pursuing the alleged suspect in the Interior Ministry shooting, he said. The two sides also are evaluating the threat and how coalition advisers might be better protected in the future.
While President Barack Obama and the coalition have apologized for the Koran burnings, viewed in the Muslim religion as desecration of the holy book, Afghan leaders have apologized for the deaths of the coalition soldiers.
“We have taken responsibility for what we have done over the past week,” Little said. “The Afghans have taken responsibility as well. And I think that is a key measure of trust.”
The instability may be all the more reason to stand fast, Jones of the Rand Corp. said.
“They would be leaving behind a situation that is nowhere close to being finalized,” Jones said.
Al-Qaeda cells remain in Afghanistan and multiple terror groups operate across the porous border in Pakistan, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as the leader of al-Qaeda, Jones said. That raises the risk that a direct threat to the U.S. could reconstitute itself within Afghanistan’s borders as it did after the U.S. left the region in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s, he said.