US Strategy In Afghanistan Questioned Amid Violence

Recent events in Afghanistan, including violence since the inadvertent burning of Qurans and the murder of two American officers in Kabul, are challenging core assumptions of US strategy in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has planned to wind down US involvement in the war by training Afghan forces to take over the mission. Whether the Afghans and Americans can even trust each other is now being questioned.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The ongoing protests in Afghanistan are raising complicated questions about the U.S. mission there. Demonstrators are angry over the burning of Qurans by American troops. And so far, four Americans have been killed, apparently at the hands of Afghans working with them.

SIEGEL: In a couple of minutes, I'll talk about this with one of President Obama's national security advisers. First, as NPR's Tom Bowman explains, the violence has raised concerns about the way ahead and the way out.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The violence against U.S. forces in Afghanistan has called into question the American exit strategy. It was only a few weeks ago that the number two American officer in Afghanistan described a new phase of that strategy: Small groups of U.S. advisers would team up with larger Afghan units to train them. Here's Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: Well, as we move forward and our - we're thinning our forces out, these advisory teams will come in.

BOWMAN: Come in to train Afghan police and Afghan battalions. The first of these U.S. assistance teams, as they're called, plan to head into Afghanistan this spring.

SCAPARROTTI: You may see an advisory team that's 18 persons. You may see one that's got a rifle platoon with them because of the threat in the area.

BOWMAN: The threat the general was talking about a couple weeks ago was the Taliban. Now, the threat could be from Afghan forces. Consider what's happened in a week: American commanders have pulled U.S. military personnel from Afghan ministries after two American officers were murdered, allegedly by an Afghan official. U.S. soldiers working with Afghans at bases around the country have been ordered to keep a safe distance. And security has been beefed up at operations centers where Americans and Afghans work together. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker insisted that tensions do not mean a permanent split or any change in strategy. Crocker spoke on CNN.

AMBASSADOR RYAN CROCKER: We remain committed to a partnership with the Afghan government and people.

BOWMAN: Crocker pointed out that most Afghan forces are working closely with the Americans.

CROCKER: They have been defending U.S. installations, and so they are very much in this fight trying to protect us.

BOWMAN: The question is whether a few violent incidents undermine good working relationships everywhere else. Kael Weston is a former State Department official who spent three years in Afghanistan. He says U.S. officials may have overreacted to the latest violence.

KAEL WESTON: Most Afghans and most troops who are out on the frontline live, eat, basically sleep together, and I think there is that level of trust.

BOWMAN: Weston says that the solution is to work together more closely, not to pull apart. And he says the new plan for training teams is the best way to regain trust and help America pull its combat troops out.

WESTON: I think they're crucial, because after 11 years of war, we need to start to transition and show the Afghan people, foremost, that Afghans are protecting them and showing the American people as well that Afghans are fighting for Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: That's the vision for how to give Afghan forces responsibility for their own defense. Events of the last week highlight the dangers. John Nagl is a former Army officer who backed the idea of trainers. Still, he says their small numbers and distance from home bases make them vulnerable.

DR. JOHN NAGL: I think that if we don't come to a reconciliation between the United States and the Afghan people that the strategy of sending small teams of American advisers inside Afghan units from the ministries all the way down to battalions and police stations in the field is at real risk.

BOWMAN: Another risk: After 10 years of war, neither side seems to understand the other. Nagl says Afghans are bitter that U.S. forces are still culturally insensitive. American troops are angry they're being shot at by the very Afghans they're fighting and dying for. Nagl says the mission will likely hinge on the home front and whether more and more Americans question whether the mission makes sense, especially if more American soldiers are killed by their Afghan allies. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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