COMMENTARY | The actions of one individual can sometimes have globally significant consequences. That is especially true when said actions are carried out in an area where international relationships are already tenuous and the region teeters from day to day on the edge of chaos. This fact was displayed with striking clarity following an incident in which a U.S. Army staff sergeant allegedly massacred 16 Afghan civilians in a small village near the soldier’s outpost in Kandahar province of Afghanistan. According to reports, nine children were among those killed in the attack.
As reported by CNN, the situation further escalated when Afghan officials learned on March 15 that the U.S. military had relocated the suspect to Kuwait rather than leaving him in Afghanistan to face trial as the host nation officials had desired. President Hamid Karzai expressed his nation’s outrage and insisted that NATO forces pull out of rural areas and return to their main bases. Additionally, Karzai stated that he wanted his own nation’s forces to assume control of security operations in 2013, one year earlier than the date called for by President Obama’s timeline.
This immediate withdrawal from rural areas, as well as the change to the timeline, will no doubt impede U.S. attempts to smoothly transfer control of security operations to Afghanistan’s own military forces. If the consequences of these changes were to come about rapidly, President Obama may feel the heat politically as the 2012 presidential election draws near.
He has already faced criticism for his Afghanistan withdrawal strategy, and any development which even partially breaks down what has been called an arbitrary timeline could be seized upon by Republican opponents as a failure of policy. This is especially likely given previous reactions to Obama’s exit strategy. In June 2011, for example, U.S. News reported that Obama’s timeline had been criticized by many representatives in Congress. Also, on March 13, 2012, GOP Primary candidate Rick Santorum attacked the timeline by stating that it gave our enemies hope.
The true political consequences of Afghanistan’s response to the alleged civilian massacre cannot yet be known, but the event does beg the question: is it possible for the U.S. to smoothly carry out Obama’s exit strategy in a country that generally does not hold a favorable view of the United States? More importantly, is any long-term exit strategy doomed to failure in a country whose civilians appear to have grown tired of an occupation that has already lasted 10 years?
It would seem that the longer we remain in Afghanistan, the more likely we are to run into situations which further deteriorate our ability to leave on good terms. This situation, along with the economy, will likely come up as a primary issue once President Obama faces his Republican opponent in the general election.