The West must get out of Afghanistan this year

Rory Stewart writes: Afghanistan is a tragedy: but it is not one the West can end. For a decade Nato has tried to fix a failed state and defeat the Taliban. This strategy required three things: preventing the Taliban from finding safe haven and supplies in Pakistan, creating an effective Afghan government, and winning the support of the Afghan people.

None of this has worked. The house-to-house shooting of women and children by a US soldier yesterday feels like a terrible, final symbol. But it follows many dramatic public examples of failure. There was the anger after the burning of the Korans two weeks ago. There was the discovery, last year, that Bin Laden had been living next to a Pakistan military academy. There was President Karzai’s statement last week supporting conservative social codes, targeted at women — on International Women’s Day.

Did our mission go wrong because Nato had too few troops; or because it sent too many? Could a different strategy have fixed the situation; or was it always impossible? The reason no longer matters. Whatever the explanation, things will not improve: Nato will not “solve the relationship with Pakistan”; it will never create “an effective, credible, legitimate Afghan government”; and in most parts of the country it has already lost “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

The New York Times reports: Displaced by the war, Abdul Samad finally moved his large family back home to this volatile district of southern Afghanistan last year. He feared the Taliban, but his new house was nestled near an American military base, where he considered himself safe.

But when Mr. Samad, 60, walked into his mud-walled dwelling here on Sunday morning and found 11 of his relatives sprawled in all directions, shot in the head, stabbed and burned, he learned the culprit was not a Taliban insurgent. The shooting suspect was a 38-year-old United States staff sergeant who had slipped out of the base to kill.

The American soldier is accused of killing 16 people in all in a bloody rampage that has further tarnished Afghan-American relations and devastated Mr. Samad, a respected village elder whose tired eyes poured forth tears one minute and glared ahead in anger the next.

Once a believer in the offensive against the Taliban, he is now insistent that the Americans get out. “I don’t know why they killed them,” said Mr. Samad, a short, feeble man with a white beard and white turban, as he struggled in an interview to come to terms with the loss of his wife, four daughters between the ages of 2 and 6, four sons between 8 and 12, and two other relatives.

“Our government told us to come back to the village, and then they let the Americans kill us,” Mr. Samad said outside the military base, known as Camp Belambay, with outraged villagers who came to support him.

The New York Times also reports: The Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.

Accelerating the withdrawal of United States forces has been under consideration for weeks by senior White House officials, but those discussions are now taking place in the context of two major setbacks to American efforts in Afghanistan — the killings on Sunday of Afghan civilians attributed to a United States Army staff sergeant and the violence touched off by burning of Korans last month by American troops.

Administration officials cautioned on Monday that no decisions on additional troop cuts have been made, and in a radio interview President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the Afghan mission in spite of the recent setbacks, warning against “a rush for the exits” amid questions about the American war strategy. “It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with KDKA in Pittsburgh.

Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.

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