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The Globe and Mail

Atrocity in Kandahar presents Obama with an opportunity

A U.S. soldier guides a Taliban militant, part of a group of a hundred Afghan Talibans, as he hands over his weapons as part of the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program in Laghman province March 12, 2012.


Obama's war may have reached a tipping point.

The latest atrocity – a massacre by an American sergeant who methodically murdered innocent Afghan children and women – comes closely after Koran burning that ignited nationwide fury and not long since a circle of U.S. soldiers laughingly urinated on the corpses of Afghans they had killed.

The ugly truth is that Afghan loathing and American war-weariness may give U.S. President Barack Obama a new exit strategy.

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In the United States, support for the war is at an all-time low.

Any hope of winning Afghan "hearts and minds" – the core strategy embraced by Mr. Obama – has faded, lost in blood and recriminations, in the perhaps unfair but widely embraced Afghan view that U.S. troops are blundering, murdering, foreign occupiers.

But defeat, or perhaps the failure to win Afghan "hearts and minds," presents Mr. Obama with an odd sort of victory, an exit from a war that few in the United States care about any longer and one whose abrupt termination would pose no immediate political risk.

Four years ago, then-presidential-hopeful Barack Obama had a clear two-war strategy that helped defeat Republican Senator John McCain.

On Iraq, Mr. Obama promised to bring American troops home.

In Afghanistan, which Mr. Obama called the "right" war and the one the United States should be focused on, he ordered a surge of troops that eventually tripled American boots on the ground until the numbers exceeded Soviet levels of the 1980s.

The President delivered. The last U.S. troops marched out of Iraq in December – an exit timetable no different from George W. Bush's – but still a promise kept by Mr. Obama, who first came to national attention with his stirring 2002 speech against war in Iraq.

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"What I am opposed to is a dumb war," then-senator Obama said. He decried the looming war to topple Saddam Hussein as "a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."

Afghanistan was supposed to be a different war, worth fighting and worth winning.

"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow," Mr. Obama said in 2009 as he poured in reinforcements.

Three years later, civilian casualties are at an all-time high and more than 80 per cent of Afghans support talking to the Taliban to end the war.

Even before the horrific news of Sunday's atrocity, fully six in 10 Americans told a Washington Post-ABC News poll the war in Afghanistan was "not worth fighting."

Major allies have come to the same conclusion.

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Canada and the Netherlands, two of the nations battling the Taliban in its heartland of southern Afghanistan before Mr. Obama's surge, have quit combat. France, after the latest "fragging" of its soldiers by Afghans enraged by the Koran-burning, announced it would pull out a year sooner than planned.

With scant support, in either the United States or Afghanistan, for keeping 100,000-plus U.S. troops in the country, Mr. Obama may also opt to hurry the pace to the exit.

He has already agreed to free top Taliban leaders held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison so they can be sent to Qatar to participate in talks aimed at a power-sharing deal.

In this U.S. election cycle, the Afghan war is barely an issue. Mr. Obama is under fire not for failing to win in Afghanistan, or for propping up the corrupt regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, or even for the steadily mounting casualties and costs of the decade-long conflict. Rather, his Republican rivals get applauded for castigating Mr. Obama's repeated apologies. "This President has got to stop apologizing for America," Rick Santorum said after the Koran burnings. "His gut reaction is always to blame us, to blame our men and women in uniform. Stop it, Mr. President. Stand up for our troops. Stand up for this country."

Mitt Romney agreed, saying, "For us to be apologizing at a time like this is something which is very difficult for the American people to countenance."

Newt Gingrich openly suggests the war is unwinnable.

Americans want their troops home. Afghans apparently want them gone.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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