“Our main objective is getting it right,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “We are assembling the pieces of the endgame.”
In political terms, it is a delicate balance. Polls indicate that the majority of Americans favor a quicker end to the war. But early retreat has its own drawbacks, both politically and for U.S. national security.
“On the merits, the strategic calculus of the war has not changed,” said Stephen D. Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised the Defense Department. But there are “unrealistic assumptions” about the future, even if the endgame proceeds as planned, he said.
Administration officials were tentatively relieved Monday when the day ended without widespread anti-American demonstrations in Afghanistan after the shooting deaths of 16 Afghan civilians Sunday, apparently at the hands of a rogue U.S. soldier. Despite angry words from Kabul, U.S. officials expressed cautious confidence that the latest incident would not bring a repeat of last month’s lethal demonstrations after U.S. troops, in what officials deemed an accident, burned copies of the Koran.
The United States moved swiftly after Sunday’s shootings. President Obama made a condolence call to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and promised that justice would be served. Other top U.S. officials also expressed shock and remorse.
“Our point is that it was entirely an exception to any conduct by the U.S. military. . . . It’s a horrific tragedy, and we understand that the Afghan people are going to be outraged,” Rhodes said. “We want to deal with it appropriately, hold anybody accountable to the full extent of the law and continue our relationship with Afghanistan.”
The administration sees three pieces to the endgame there: transitioning security responsibility to Afghan forces, reaching a peace deal with the Taliban and negotiating a political agreement to allow for a long-term U.S. military presence after 2014.
At a NATO summit in May, the United States and its coalition partners expect to firm up plans for the pace of the transition, the timing of the coalition withdrawal and the size of the Afghan force they are willing to train and pay for. Karzai’s government has little ability to fund its own military force.
On the political front, reconciliation talks with the Taliban have reached a preliminary stage but are stalled, awaiting Karzai’s own reconciliation with the government of Qatar, where the talks are supposed to be held. Karzai called his ambassador home from the Persian Gulf state in December, accusing Qatar of interference in internal Afghan affairs.