Are we learning the right lesson from the Kandahar killings?

It’s barely two days after the Kandahar massacres and, although the full facts are not yet clear, there are various calls from a number of quarters about what the unfortunate incident actually means.

Some are approaching it from an instinct of fear and worry about the potential “backlash” from the “Afghan anger.” As I have described this elsewhere, this is exactly the wrong approach because it ignores the pain and grief felt by many Afghans after this horrendous incident, casting them as potential aggressors instead of the victims that they are.

But then there is the other camp, including Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who are calling for a quick, complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. They argue that incidents like this create a clear imperative for the US to get out because it “can’t fix” Afghanistan. Gingrich and company do not realize is that these events demonstrate, even more urgently, the need to take immediate and appropriate measures to prevent similar incidents in the future — in Afghanistan and beyond. That there have been so many of them in Iraq, Gitmo and Afghanistan means the systemic loose ends must be tied to minimize the likelihood of similar incidents from happening.

Proponents of this view also fail to understand that the United States is already withdrawing fairly precipitously. President Obama has hastened the already-short 2014 timeframe to include an acceleration of drawdown by mid-2013. Then there’s the logistical challenge: you can’t plop 80,000 troops and millions of tons of weapons and equipment back into the US — the process requires negotiation of withdrawal routes, fees and other arrangements with difficult partners such as Pakistan, Russia and its Central Asian neighborhood.

From the Afghan perspective, a precipitous withdrawal could be disastrous. I was asked on the BBC today (video forthcoming) what achievements ISAF has had in Afghanistan and I listed, in the little time I had, the assertive women’s movement, increased rights for minorities, education for girls. The interview was short and ended before I could add the caveat about ISAF’s failures, but the point about those achievements stands. The withdrawal is already threatening those gains which, without an appropriate settlement with the Taliban or other safety measures, would be significantly reversed.

So, in short, the lessons from the Kandahar massacre are numerous but we need to identify them accurately. More on this subject later.

Update (March 13): My post on UN Dispatch dealing with this subject in greater depth.

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