The game is over in Afghanistan. An American presence can no longer serve any purpose. It can only extend and exacerbate the pathologies of this war. It is time to get out, and more quickly than President Barack Obama had been planning. The consequences of leaving may be grim, but the consequences of staying are probably grimmer. • Sunday's massacre in Kandahar province, in which a veteran U.S. Army staff sergeant sneaked out of his base at 3 a.m. and methodically gunned down 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, is but the latest sign of a massive unraveling.
Two weekends earlier, an Afghan gunman killed two U.S. officers inside the Interior Ministry's headquarters (making the ninth and 10th Americans who have lost their lives this year at the hands of Afghans they'd been training). Shortly before then, violent riots broke out when Americans were discovered burning copies of the Koran. Just two days before the Kandahar rampage, NATO helicopters in eastern Afghanistan fired on a group of civilians, killing four and injuring three, prompting large street protests.
Finally, the New York Times reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is starting to enforce a law banning the use of private security guards to protect foreign business and aid workers, requiring that Afghan police be used instead. Western officials predict the new law will shut down nearly every development project; no civilians would want to stick around without someone reliable guarding their backs — and after the string of incidents, no Afghan can be regarded as reliable, any more than Afghans can regard any American as reliable.
That's the problem. The U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan relies on building trust, and those bonds of trust — always tenuous at best — are now severed, perhaps irreparably.
Trust has been a centerpiece of the basic counterinsurgency strategy, which calls for NATO troops to focus on protecting the Afghan people, living among them, gaining intelligence from them on the insurgency, and helping to provide them basic services, in order to strengthen the ties between the people and their government, and thus to undermine their ties to the Taliban.
Trust has also been essential to the transition strategy, in which NATO troops train and gradually hand over authority to the Afghan army and police.
The counterinsurgency strategy falls apart if the Afghan people have to worry that an American soldier in their midst might come murder their family in the night. The transition strategy falls apart if NATO troops have to worry that an Afghan cop or soldier they're training might, at any moment, shoot them in the back.
Some of this collapse might be contained if a respected Afghan leader tamped down the outrage. These recent killings are, in one sense, anomalies. The Koran burnings, bureaucratic incompetence; the helicopter shootings in Kapisa province, an accident of warfare; the Kandahar massacre, an isolated case of, apparently, a soldier gone haywire; even the shootings of the two U.S. officers at the Interior Ministry's headquarters seem to have been motivated by unique circumstances.
But Karzai is not highly respected among his people. And because he's not very popular, he can't risk losing further favor by standing up for foreign armies, especially now.
Karzai first tried to ban private security guards in October 2010, until Gen. David Petraeus, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, talked him out of it, convincing him that it would likely shut down all Western-funded development projects. In November 2010, in the wake of a spate of accidental civilian casualties, Karzai demanded that the United States cut back on military operations and stop the Special Operations Forces' nighttime raids altogether, seeing them as a violation of Afghan sovereignty and dignity. The raids were taking a huge toll on Taliban fighters; U.S. commanders saw them as essential to the war plan. Petraeus phoned Karzai's national security adviser and said, "Your president has put me in an untenable position. Please take note of that word. I chose it carefully."
Fearing that Petraeus might resign, which would almost certainly have marked a prelude to U.S. withdrawal, Karzai backpedaled instantly. Sixteen months later, "untenable" seems an apt description of our alliance with Karzai's government and thus our strategy in this war. It's time to cut losses, because whatever gains the war might once have offered are now nowhere in sight.
Fred Kaplan, a senior Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, is writing a book on the group of soldier-scholars who changed American military strategy.
© 2012 Slate