Administration will weather latest Afghan storm

Aijaz Rahi/AP file photo

For years, the Afghanistan war has suffered through unpopular civilian casualties, night raids, drone strikes, illiterate partner-soldiers, and not-so-friendly fire by trigger-happy uniformed Afghan security forces.

It’s unlikely the current firestorm over the U.S. military’s accidental burning of Korans will have political legs in Washington, much less among disinterested U.S. voters -- at least enough to change the course of the war or hasten its end.

The U.S. has larger strategic interests, long-term plans, and hundreds of billions invested which trump outraged Afghans, and even U.S. casualties.

Critics of the administration -- both liberal and conservative -- are trying to use deadly anti-American protests roiling Afghanistan as leverage to claim that the White House should either extend the surge of U.S. troops fighting there until all enemies are pacified, or admit the war has become a quagmire and withdraw expeditiously.

But the administration should have an easy time parrying both sides. That was apparent on Monday, as administration officials linked arms to portray an unwavering commitment to the war plan.

“Anyone who thinks they can weaken our resolve through these cowardly attacks is severely mistaken,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little, in a hastily called morning press conference. “Our coalition will emerge from these challenges far stronger and as determined as ever to provide security for the Afghan people. There is much at stake.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney led Monday’s briefing by repeating the administration’s war strategy -- to “disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al-Qaida” and create an Afghan government stable enough to allow for troop withdrawals. “That strategy very much remains the right one and remains in place,” he said.

President Obama’s national-security team was already reexamining its war plans before this latest conflagration. Under review is the size of the troop footprint there and the timeline to shift from a combat mission to a mostly training one, in advance of a NATO heads-of-state summit in Chicago this May. The White House, Pentagon, and State Department were beginning a new round of deliberations on the Afghan strategy this week, The New York Times reported on Monday. Little said those discussions continued and no decisions have been made.

That unwavering stance has critics as well as defenders.

"It is always tempting to ride the headlines ...," Anthony Cordesman, senior analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on Monday. "The reality, however, is that the [counterinsurgency strategy] has been dying for a long time."

“We desperately need to either decide on a workable ‘transition’ strategy for the future and then actually fund and implement it, or develop an honest exit strategy that will do minimal damage to the Afghan people and our national interest,” he argued.

Still, the Pentagon attempted damage control, insisting that in Kabul, elevated tensions were winding down and joint U.S.-Afghan missions continue as planned, according to Capt. John Kirby, Defense Department spokesman, who is on temporary assignment in Kabul.

Speaking via video link with Pentagon reporters, Kirby claimed the number of protests dropped from 24 nationwide on Saturday to only three on Monday. Two of those, he claimed, were related to the Koran burning. A lone protest on Monday, he said, took place without incident.

"Getting 1,000 people to protest is pretty poor, even by rent-a-mob standards," Michael Rubin, a historian of the region at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said of the Kabul demonstrations. Rubin claims there's evidence protests outside the Afghan capital were incited by mullahs, while mainstream clerics didn't seem to "call for blood."

Yet, top war commander Gen. John Allen pulled U.S. officials from Afghan ministries, and other allies followed suit. Kirby claimed the measure was temporary.  

“I think it’s really making a leap here to try to extrapolate from what’s been happening in the last week or so to some sort of failure of the strategy," Kirby said.

And conservatives remain leery that the White House will take advantage of the bad publicity for a political score to Afghanistan's detriment.

“Ultimately, it needn’t be a cause for withdrawal unless the Obama administration wants to make a political decision,” Rubin said. “I think it’s pretty transparent.… I do think it’s the beginning of a long line of excuses.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.