The protests over the Koran burnings appear to be over in Afghanistan–knock on wood. The violence directed against American personnel by insurgents, some of whom have managed to infiltrate the Afghan Security Forces (or been turned by the Taliban after joining in good faith, or simply become deranged), is, sadly, not over. But as emotions calm down it is worth taking a closer look at the protests and “friendly fire” killings and what they mean. That is just what two analysts at the Institute for the Study of War–Isaac Hock and Paraag Shukla–have done. They have produced a valuable backgrounder on the protests whose first paragraph is worth reproducing here:
Protests emerged in stages across small regions of Afghanistan following the accidental burning of Islamic religious texts at Bagram Airfield on February 20, 2012. Most of the protests are not spontaneous or self- organizing outbursts of anti-Americanism, but rather organized violence orchestrated by insurgent groups, Iran, and Afghan political factions aiming to harm their local rivals. Neighboring Iran has utilized its media outlets, especially radio, to influence Afghan demonstrators to be destructive during their protests. The Taliban have issued multiple statements encouraging violent actions. President Karzai and his administration, in contrast, have actively tried to quell violence.
That tallies with what I wrote in this Wall Street Journal oped in which I argued based on polling data that most Afghans don’t hate America and don’t want our troops to leave while a Pakistan-backed insurgency continues to rage. Given the relatively small size, and and political motivations of, the protests, they do little to suggest that there has been any reversal in the thinking of most Afghans. But there is no doubt that, Koran burning or no Koran burning, the Taliban tactic of encouraging members of the security forces to turn their guns on American troops has been an effective one–not because it poses a serious danger to our troops’ ability to accomplish the mission but primarily because it (wrongly) sends a signal to Americans back home that we have no reliable allies in Afghanistan.
This sense of disgust with the Afghans and despair about the state of the war effort add momentum to the efforts of those in the administration, led by Vice President Biden, who want to pull out troops out more quickly. But it is hard to see why their preferred approach, focusing on a small number of Special Operations Forces and advisers, is any better. A smaller number of troops will be be able to exert less control and will not be able to defend themselves as well as our force of nearly 100,000 can today. In fact, the faster we withdraw, the more likely it is there will be more shocking incidents of violence including “green on blue” attacks with Afghan soldiers killing American troops.
That, in turn, will feed into even greater opposition to the war effort back home and make it impossible for us to achieve any of our objectives in Afghanistan, even the most minimal.
It would be a tragedy if, after being driven out of their safe havens in Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban were able to stage a comeback because of the willingness of a handful of killers wearing Afghan uniforms to ambush unsuspecting American advisers. It’s not much of a tactic for a conventional war but as a tactic for information warfare–in many ways the dominant battlefield today–it is fiendishly effective.