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Up Front

Responding to Afghan President Karzai’s Apology Demand

Michael E. O’Hanlon

What to do about the latest unreasonable demand from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, this time for a U.S. apology over accidental casualties? In fact there is a solution.  And it can help us solve another problem—President Obama’s reluctance to speak frankly and fully to his own country about a war that he feels Americans have long since tired of discussing.  His only public rhetoric on the war in recent years tends to emphasize the need to end it.  While understandable, that is inadequate. Americans need to know what they have accomplished and why, even at much more modest levels of effort in the future, it is worth staying the course.

President Obama should underscore, at a time when we have just commemorated Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in this country, the remarkable efforts of Afghans and Americans to fight a common foe and try to build an increasingly stable and secure Afghan state.  Focus on the men and women in uniform on both sides who have made such noble sacrifices together, and suffered such losses.  Honor the diplomats, aid workers, and other civilians from the United States, Afghanistan, and many other countries who have done so much so bravely as well.  Focus on the many Afghans who, after the overthrow of the Taliban, returned home from many locations abroad to help rebuild their native land—as well as the tens of thousands who never left and who have also done their part to get things on track.  Acknowledge the huge challenges still faced by the country while underscoring the case for hope.

That is the kind of speech a country at war deserves from its commander when its men and women are still deployed in harm’s way, and when we are thinking about whether it has all been worth it—and whether to sustain a modest follow-on effort in 2015 and thereafter.  America needs it.  And it would actually help the war effort too, by underscoring America’s commitment at a time when many Afghans and Pakistanis doubt that commitment.  As a result, many hedge their bets, and their resolve against our common foe sometimes wavers.  That is highly counterproductive.

Apologies may not belong in such a speech, per se.  But acknowledgement of the many mistakes and difficulties—on all sides—can and must be part of it.  That will provide also a natural opportunity to explain how hard we have worked, especially since the command of General Stanley McChrystal in 2009-2010 and thereafter under generals Petraeus, Allen, and now Dunford, to limit civilian casualties in a way never before seen in a sustained and intense conflict.  We have done very well, but yes we can do better and there is no harm in saying so.

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