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A Disaster in Afghanistan--and What it Means for the War

My new print story this week looks in part at the tensions between the Obama administration and the military over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan this fall. Central to that debate, of course, is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in the past has fretted that the American military footprint could reach a counterproductive size if it alienates the local population with its sheer intrusiveness. Yesterday, Gates hedged that point, saying he might accept a larger force size so long as the U.S. runs a skillful counterinsurgency campaign which, essentially, treats ordinary Afghans with TLC. Said Gates:

I think that the way that the -- the approach that General McChrystal has taken in terms of civilian casualties and in terms of the way we -- our troops interact with the Afghans has given us a greater margin of error in that respect, because I think it does affect the way the Afghans look at our troops. 

But today comes some very bad news: An American airstrike targeting Taliban fighters has also killed 80 civilians in northern Afghanistan. This is not just a human tragedy, but an utter disaster from a strategic point of view--and is just the sort of thing that will lead Gates to think twice about a major troop escalation. If we can't fight the Taliban without making people there recalling the marauding Soviets, then we are not going to succeed.

P.S. And that's not all--it gets worse! The deadly airstrike occurred in the far north of Afghanistan, an area that had long been peaceful and more or less insurgent-free. Apparently Taliban fighters hijacked two NATO jet fuel tankers on their way down from Tajikistan. One of the few consolations about our mission in Afghanistan has been that it is contained to a relatively small part of that vast country, which is substantially larger than Iraq. But perhaps no longer.