President Obama has long been criticized by Republicans for his purportedly inadequate zeal in pursuing the war in Afghanistan. He was criticized sharply from the right for his plan to draw down troops over three years; too fast, they said.
So it's ironic that Obama now finds himself defending that timetable against GOP critics who want to pull out more quickly in the wake of news that a U.S. soldier allegedly massacred at least 16 civilians.
"We're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable," Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said Sunday.
Obama's logic is that no single incident, no matter how horrific, should be the tipping point in a war we've been fighting for more than 10 years. And he has a point.
But Gingrich has a point too. Never mind how weary Americans are of this conflict; even more important, an increasing number of Afghans, including some who were once resolutely pro-American, have had enough.
That's why the United States and its allies face a genuine crisis in their effort to keep troops in Afghanistan until 2014 and beyond. Last weekend's tragic killings in Kandahar province are only a small part of the problem.
A few examples:
The chairman of the Afghan Senate, whose life has been protected by U.S. troops, said this week that his people no longer see much difference between American soldiers and the Soviet army that occupied their country in the 1980s.
A prominent Afghan American businessman, Farid Maqsudi, said he too has concluded that the Americans should leave sooner rather than later. "The point of no return has been long overdue," he told the Washington Post. That was an important statement because of who Maqsudi is: one of the founders of Kabul's American Chamber of Commerce and an ethnic Uzbek whose people have been fighting the Taliban longer than we have.
And this week, Afghanistan'smost influential council of Muslim clergymen renewed its demand that NATO troops end their search-and-capture night raids, which U.S. officials say have been a major ingredient in the military successes of the last two years.
If the night raids continue, the Ulema Council warned, the Afghan people could erupt in "a wave of anger and revenge … [and] no one will be able to control it."
That's the rub: As long as thousands of U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, ugly collisions between Afghans and Americans will happen.
Before the Kandahar killings, there were attacks by Afghans on U.S. troops to avenge the desecration of a truckload of Korans. Before that, there was a spate of sudden attacks by Afghan troops on their foreign advisors, including one inside the headquarters of the Interior Ministry. As tempers fray and patience erodes, there's no reason to expect that there won't be more.
That means the stately "glide path" out of Afghanistan that Obama and his aides designed for the next three years looks much harder to pull off now that both Afghans and Americans are calling for a faster withdrawal.
Let's remember what happened in Iraq. The U.S. had planned to maintain a strong presence there even after withdrawing most of its forces. But then last year, in a burst of nationalism, the Iraqi government abruptly decided that it wanted all U.S. troops out.
The uncertainty in Afghanistan has put Obama in a bind that he must find particularly uncomfortable in an election year. His critics on the left were never happy with the slow pace of the pullout. Now critics on the right have joined the chorus, and the president finds himself defending the extension of a long and costly war he never much liked.
Obama is right, of course, to warn against a "rush for the exits." The United States still has interests in Afghanistan, beginning with the need to prevent Al Qaeda from rebuilding.
But "stay the course" isn't an adequate response either. Both Americans and Afghans need a clearer sense of what their troops can realistically accomplish between now and 2014, and after.
Plan A — turning Afghanistan into a smoothly functioning democracy — didn't work. Plan B — handing the war over to an Afghan army with U.S. advisors, is under siege. Reassessing a major foreign policy effort in the middle of an election year won't be a welcome idea for a president seeking to project an image of calm and steady leadership. But election year or not, it's time to come up with Plan C.