In the wake of the murder of 16 innocent Afghan civilians, slain by a lone American soldier, the Afghan government is asking the Obama administration to do two things.
The first request should surprise no one. The Afghanis want America to bring the mass murderer to justice, and do so quickly. An open, transparent investigation and trial, conducted fairly but also swiftly, will forward reconciliation. The death penalty must be considered and, if the murderer is convicted, it must be imposed.
The second request, however, is even more morally sobering. It is also more difficult to execute, which means fulfilling it requires steadfast international leadership by President Barack Obama. The Afghan government wants the U.S. and NATO to avoid a rapid and precipitous withdrawal, for it would undercut 10 years of effort and all but certainly restore the Taliban's homicidal regime.
Mass murder lies behind this second request -- the prevention of mass murder, on a genocidal scale. Following America's Vietnam retreat, Cambodia's unrestrained communist potentate, Pol Pot, slaughtered 2 million Cambodian civilians. The body count left following a Taliban restoration could rival Pol Pot's genocide.
Avoiding Afghani killing fields requires a firm commitment by the Obama administration to create certain minimum conditions before the U.S. departs the country.
At one time, Barack Obama knew what those minimum conditions are. Candidate Obama called Iraq the wrong war and implied Afghanistan was the right one. Obama said, "Only a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaida will succeed, and that's the change I'll bring to the White House." President Obama's 2009 policy study concluded that disrupting and defeating al-Qaida meant the U.S. had to promote "a more capable, accountable and effective" Afghan government, build "increasingly self reliant" Afghan security forces, support civilian constitutional government in Pakistan and pursue these goals with U.N. and international support.
Obama's fine words described necessary conditions to achieve vital goals. However, he undermined his own condition-based goals with a politically convenient time scheme: The U.S. would begin to "transition" from Afghanistan in 2011 with 2014, to use Joe Biden's now sad phrase (November 2010), a "drop-dead date" for withdrawal.
Nothing like telling the enemy, "Hey, just hang on and we're gone." This from the people who touted "smart diplomacy."
Obama is cutting troop levels and reducing spending. Little wonder the Taliban, their Pakistani supporters and, for that matter, many Afghanis who do support the U.S. and NATO mission believe Obama is preparing to desert Afghanistan in 2014.
Perhaps he is. More likely, he doesn't know. The withdrawal timetable was a 2012 election gimmick designed to pre-empt criticism from Vietnam-syndrome "antiwar" Democrats. The March 2012 massacre, however, has ignited cries for immediate retreat and abandonment.
We heard this in 2004, with the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal -- a rough equivalent to 2012's massacre. Abu Ghraib involved a dozen soldiers, not a lone actor, but then no one was murdered at Abu Ghraib. The scandal harmed the U.S. effort in Iraq, for it shook Iraqi confidence in America's moral commitment to build a just society governed by the rule of law. The Bush administration court-martialed the criminals and continued with the mission. President George W. Bush, in particular, never wavered in his personal commitment to the Iraq mission. And America's friends and enemies knew he meant it.
The March massacre gives Obama the opportunity to demonstrate he has comparable grit. Obama claims the U.S. will withdraw "responsibly," which is a fine word, and the U.S. will meet its "objectives," another good word. Deeds, however, must support the words. Halting or reducing 2012's planned troop withdrawals, in consultation with the Afghan government, would demonstrate that he is willing to sacrifice personal political needs to addressing changing battlefield conditions.
Democrats, to include Obama, reaped tactical political benefit from a mean little ditty about George Bush and Iraq. "Bush lied, people died" was the phrase. Should the Taliban return, a far crueler and more accurate doggerel will brand the Obama administration's legacy: "Obama fled -- and left our Afghan allies for dead."
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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