Unable to reboot relations with allies in Islamabad due to the unrest in Afghanistan (which was, in fact, already migrating across the border), the U.S. now found itself partially severing ties with its "partners" in Kabul as well. Meanwhile, back home, Gingrich and others raised the possibility of severing ties with President Karzai himself. In other words, the heat was rising in both the White House and the Afghan presidential palace, while any hope of controlling events elsewhere in either country was threatening to disappear.
As yet, the U.S. military has not taken the next logical step: barring whole categories of Afghans from American bases. "There are currently no discussions ongoing about limiting access to ISAF bases to our Afghan partners," an ISAF spokesperson assured TomDispatch, but if the situation worsens, expect such discussions to commence.
The Beginning of the End?
As the Koran burning scandal unfolded, TomDispatch spoke to Raymond F. Chandler III, the Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army, the most senior enlisted member of that service. "Are there times that things happen that don't go exactly the way we want or that people act in an unprofessional manner? Absolutely. It's unfortunate," he said. "We have a process in place to ensure that when those things don't happen we conduct an investigation and hold people accountable."
In Afghan eyes over the last decade, however, it's accountability that has been sorely lacking, which is why many now in the streets are demanding not just apologies, but a local trial and the death penalty for the Koran burners. Although ISAF's investigation is ongoing, its statements already indicate that it has concluded the book burnings were accidental and unintentional. This ensures one thing: those at fault, whom no American administration could ever afford to turn over to Afghans for trial anyway, will receive, at best, a slap on the wrist -- and many Afghans will be further outraged.
In other words, twist and turn as they might, issue what statements they will, the Americans are now remarkably powerless in the Afghan context to stop the unraveling. Quite the opposite: their actions are guaranteed to ensure further anger among their Afghan "allies."
Chandler, who was in Afghanistan last year and is slated to return in the coming months, said that he believed the United States was winning there, albeit with caveats. "Again, there are areas in Afghanistan where we have been less successful than others, but each one of those provinces, each one of those districts has their own set of conditions tied with the Afghan people, the Afghan government's criteria for transition to the Afghan army and the Afghan national police, the Afghan defense forces, and we're committed to that." He added that the Americans serving there were "doing absolutely the best possible under the conditions and the environment."
It turns out, however, that in Afghanistan today the "best" has not been sufficient. With even some members of the Afghan parliament now calling for jihad against Washington and its coalition allies, radical change is in the air. The American position is visibly crumbling. "Winning" is a distant, long-faded fantasy, defeat a rising reality.
Despite its massive firepower and staggering base structure in Afghanistan, actual power is visibly slipping away from the United States. American officials are already talking about not panicking (which indicates that panic is indeed in the air). And in an election year, with the Obama administration's options desperately limited and what goals it had fast disappearing, it can only brace itself and hope to limp through until November 2012.
The end game in Afghanistan has, it seems, come into view, and after all these fruitless, bloody years, it couldn't be sadder. Saddest of all, so much of the blood spilled has been for purposes, if they ever made any sense, that have long since disappeared into the fog of history.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.
Nick Turse is associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His new TomDispatch series on the changing face of American empire is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.
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Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse