By Eugene Robinson
It was clear before Sunday’s horrific massacre of civilians that it’s past time for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to end. Now the only question should be how quickly we can get our troops onto transport planes to fly them home.
What are we accomplishing, aside from enraging the Afghan population we’re allegedly trying to protect? How are we supposed to convince them that a civilian massacre carried out by a U.S. soldier is somehow preferable to a civilian massacre carried out by the Taliban? How does it make any of us safer to have the United States military known for burning Qurans and killing innocent Muslim children in their beds?
The killing spree in southern Afghanistan, which left at least 16 people dead, seems to have been the work of a single deranged individual—a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant. Little about the man was known Monday except that he is married, has two children and belongs to a unit from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. The sergeant was in Kandahar province as part of a “village stability” operation.
According to widely published reports, the sergeant went door to door, breaking into three houses and killing the residents in cold blood. Among the victims reportedly were nine children. The sergeant gathered some of the bodies and set fire to them.
U.S. officials insisted the sergeant acted alone. Understandably, some Afghans were skeptical of that assertion and suspected the gunman must have had help. It’s not an unreasonable question: How could a soldier walk away from his unit and go on a murderous rampage without anyone noticing or trying to stop him?
For the Taliban, which is competing against the U.S. military and the Afghan government for popular allegiance, the killings were a public relations gift.
“If the perpetrators of this massacre were in fact mentally ill,” the Taliban said in a statement, “then this testifies to yet another moral transgression by the American military because they are arming lunatics in Afghanistan who turn their weapons against the defenseless Afghans without giving a second thought.”
The U.S. image was sullied last month when soldiers at a NATO base burned a number of Qurans—an act of desecration for which President Obama had to apologize. The violent reaction in Afghanistan made it reasonable to ask whether Obama’s withdrawal timetable should be speeded up. Sunday’s killings provide a definitive answer.
“Despite what some people are saying out there, we are absolutely not changing our fundamental strategy in Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters Monday.
But we should.
Public opinion in this country is increasingly fed up with the war. A new Washington Post poll shows that 60 percent of Americans believe the war has not been worth the blood and treasure we’ve expended. Fifty-five percent of those polled believe most Afghans are opposed to what we are trying to accomplish in their country, and 54 percent say we should withdraw our troops even before the Afghan army is trained to be “self-sufficient.”
The poll was taken before Sunday’s massacre. Imagine what the response would be if those questions were asked today.
Even Newt Gingrich, who tries mightily to portray Obama as weak-kneed on defense, was sobered by the killings and said it may be time to reassess our strategy. “I think that we’re risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable,” he said, adding that we may “need to decide that the United States is going to have to back off” from a region whose problems are too big for us to solve.
This is supposed to be a period of transition from U.S. occupation to Afghan government control. But what do we expect to accomplish between now and 2014, when our troops are supposed to come home? We can be confident that the Afghan government will still be feckless and corrupt. We can anticipate that the Afghan military will still lack personnel, equipment and training. We can be absolutely certain that the Taliban insurgents will still constitute a threat, because—and this is what gung-ho advocates of the war fail to grasp—they live there. To them, Afghanistan is not a battlefield but a home.
It’s their country, not ours. In increasingly clear language, Afghans are telling us to leave. We should listen and oblige.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group
AP / Rafiq Maqbool