Ambassador: U.S. will not accelerate removal of troops from Afghanistan
KABUL — America will not accelerate the removal of its troops from Afghanistan despite a series of attacks on U.S. soldiers by Afghan security personnel angered over the burning of Qurans at a coalition airfield, according to the top U.S. diplomat here.
Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, emphasized in an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that the troop withdrawal would proceed as outlined last summer by President Barack Obama.
“We have not invested the billions of dollars we have and the lives of 1,900 Americans to see the Taliban retake this country and al-Qaida once again be able to restage here,” Crocker said.
“That’s why we’re here — to be sure al-Qaida is defeated and that Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for forces that would seek to attack us on our own soil.”
There are 90,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan. The number will be reduced to 68,000 by Sept. 30, and most of the remaining troops will leave by the end of 2014.
Crocker’s statements echoed those of Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta this week as top U.S. officials attempt to counter deepening suspicion between Afghans and coalition forces, and mounting criticism in America of a war more than a decade old.
Since Feb. 21, when reports surfaced that soldiers at Bagram Airfield had burned several copies of the Quran, Afghan security forces have shot and killed six U.S. servicemembers in three separate incidents.
The latest shooting occurred Thursday, when two Afghan soldiers and a literacy instructor opened fire at a base in Kandahar province, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding a third. Coalition troops returned fire and killed the two Afghan soldiers.
The attack followed the shooting deaths of a pair of American soldiers by an Afghan counterpart at a base in Nangarhar province on Feb. 23.
Two days later, an Afghan police officer gunned down two U.S. military advisers at the Interior Ministry building in Kabul. The suspect remains at large.
The slayings at the ministry led U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, to recall the hundreds of U.S. advisers who work in government buildings in the capital.
Some advisers have since returned to their offices. But the succession of what the military terms “green-on-blue” attacks could strain the relationship between Afghan security forces and the coalition troops charged with training them before departing in 2014.
Crocker, while describing the killings as “horrible incidents,” sought to place the attacks in the larger framework of the ongoing effort to build an Afghan military force of 350,000 troops.
“When you look at the number of international advisers out there every day with Afghan forces, both in training and in an operational context, you’re talking about a tragic but very, very tiny percentage of incidents,” he said.
Violence jolted Kabul and several provinces for a week as Afghans protested the burning of the Qurans. More than 30 people were killed and hundreds injured, with most of the casualties occurring as demonstrators clashed with Afghan security forces.
Considering that some protests drew upward of 4,000 people, Crocker said the bloodshed “could have been a lot worse.”
“One of the hardest things you can ask a police or military force to do is confront your own population,” he said. Crediting Afghan security forces for responding “with discipline and determination … and, under the circumstances, a minimum use of force,” Crocker appraised their actions as a “bright spot” amid the unrest.
“We’ve seen the future, in a sense, of Afghan forces able to operate independently — without coalition partners, without coalition embeds,” he said.
“The Taliban did their best to instigate a lot of these protests,” he added. “They can’t be too happy with how it turned out for them.”
Obama, Panetta and Allen offered apologies for the burning of the Qurans, eliciting criticism from some of the Republican candidates for president, including frontrunner Mitt Romney. Crocker defended the public show of contrition.
“We’re Americans, and one of our qualities is that when we make mistakes, we acknowledge them and we apologize for them,” he said.
“It was also important — although I didn’t think that was anyone’s initial motivation — in giving President (Hamid) Karzai the tool to say, ‘Look, they have acknowledged it was a mistake, they’ve apologized for it, everybody calm down.’”
A military investigation into the burning of the Qurans at Bagram could conclude as early as this weekend. Crocker and Allen have said the soldiers involved may face punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice but will not be turned over to the Afghan courts as requested by Karzai.
Crocker, 62, served a two-year stint as ambassador to Iraq that ended in 2009, and previously held the same post in Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. The native of Spokane, Wash., helped reopen the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2002 after American forces ousted the Taliban from power.
“I’ve never seen such utter devastation and annihilation as I saw here …,” he said, recalling the aftermath of Afghanistan’s civil war. “Parts of the city — large parts of the city — looked like Berlin (in) 1945.”
He returned to Kabul as the U.S. ambassador last summer at Obama’s request, possessed of a “strategic patience” learned from his time in Iraq.
“If Iraq was hard, and it was, Afghanistan is harder,” said Crocker, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President George W. Bush.
“Iraq had a reasonably well-developed infrastructure, a proud military tradition, a skilled set of bureaucrats. … Afghanistan had none of those things after 30 years of conflict. Everything had to be built from the ground up.”
He contends the past decade has brought gains in educational opportunities for girls and women, wider access to health care and an expanded range of government services.
As for the democratic government maturing at a slower rate than Westerners might have hoped, he said, “You cannot have a total revolution in a country and then expect that overnight it’s going to transform itself into a modern liberal democracy. (America) didn’t do it. It’s a struggle.”
Looking beyond 2014 and the withdrawal of most U.S. troops, Crocker envisions an international presence staying in Afghanistan in an advisory role.
In the interim, he considers the elimination of Taliban safe havens in Pakistan near its border with Afghanistan vital to the prospects of peace.
“Ultimately, it’s going to take Pakistani action and the recognition that these insurgent groups are more dangerous to them than they are to Afghanistan,” Crocker said. “They have taken thousands of casualties in their military and paramilitary forces fighting insurgents on their own soil.”
Meanwhile, as speculation persists of discord within the Taliban-led insurgency about entering into peace talks with the Afghan government, Crocker regards that internal strife as an advantage for the coalition.
“A divided Taliban is not a bad thing at all,” he said. “You reconcile with those who are reconcilable, and then you figure out what the minimum number of irreconcilables are and you go after them. I mean, let’s face it, like in Iraq, there are some you simply have to kill because they’re not going to come across.”