“This has the potential,” one administration official said, “to become a game-changing moment.”
The initial reaction, however, suggests that this crisis may well hew to the arc of other moments of brinkmanship in the U.S.- Afghan relationship: claims of irreparable damage and demands for profound change, followed by a grudging recognition in both capitals that the two governments have more reasons than not to stick with their previously agreed-upon strategy of fighting the Taliban, training the Afghan security forces and creating a semblance of civil administration across the country.
There still is a chance the killings could follow a different script, fracturing the shaky alliance between the U.S. and Afghan governments. The Taliban on Tuesday vowed to behead foreign troops “in every corner of the country,” and insurgents fired on an Afghan government delegation visiting the village where the shooting occurred.
But public protests and Taliban counterattacks so far have been less significant than many U.S. officials had expected, said several who described internal administration reaction on the condition of anonymity.
Troubled as the current U.S. military deployment is, American officials say a hasty drawdown could pose greater risks for Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Although he is furious over the killings, Karzai’s public expressions of anger also serve to insulate him from accusations by political rivals that he is too deferential to the Americans.
In previous crises — most notably, the Koran burnings — Karzai has sought to increase his leverage in negotiations with Washington over the contours of the American presence in Afghanistan once U.S. and NATO combat operations end in 2014. Karzai has said that he wants a smaller, more restricted U.S. presence right away, but he doesn’t favor a wholesale American departure, according to diplomats in Kabul, because U.S. troops, and U.S. financial assistance, are essential to propping up his government.
There are about 91,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Obama has ordered the Pentagon to remove 23,000 of them by September, but he has not decided on the pace of further reductions despite calls on Capitol Hill and within his administration for a steeper troop drawdown.
Vice President Biden and some others in the White House argue that the large military presence has become corrosive and counterproductive. If Obama sides with them, he risks opposition from his top military commanders as well as campaign attacks from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, should he become the Republican presidential nominee.