Afghan Revolt Threatens Obama Election Strategy

"You will soon lose your caste, as ere long you will have to bite cartridges covered with the fat of pigs and cows.”

-- Retort by a low-caste Indian when refused a drink of water by a high-caste native soldier in the British army, according to J.A.B. Palmer’s “The Mutiny Outbreak at Meerut in 1857.” Rumors about animal grease used in new cartridges for the native soldiers sparked a yearlong rebellion across the nation that ended with as many as 100,000 mutinous troops killed.

Whether an apology is seen as magnanimous or humble depends a lot on the stature of the apologist.

The Republican presidential contenders (other than Ron Paul) have blistered President Obama for a series of apologies from him, his administration and military commanders because some Korans got pitched in the incinerator pit at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.

The burnings, or more specifically the rumors about the burnings as overt insults to Islam rather than neglectful soldiering by a guy on trash duty, have sparked a week of riots, terror attacks, and violence across the country.

The problem is that Americans rely so heavily of Afghan soldiers and contractors for security and basic services. That leaves Americans, who are supposed to be training and mentoring Afghan troops and security forces, wondering whether one of their charges will be the next Afghan insider to go rogue and start killing foreign infidels.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling for order, but also still demanding that the responsible parties be severely punished in a bid to calm the offended pride of the members of his military and government. An apology, even from the president of the United States, is not sufficient for soothing the anger of native soldiers who must face friends, family and neighbors who believe that their U.S. paymasters are in Afghanistan to interfere with Islam.

The Taliban is ramping up the outrage and recruiting more suicide bombers and foot soldiers to press their current advantage with the incensed native population.

It is a most unfortunate time to have an Afghan revolt.

With an eye on Election Day, the president has been pushing hard to expedite U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The war is unpopular overall and many American liberals are unhappy with how much of the Bush-era security and military policies have been retained, and in several cases, expanded in Obama’s term.

Obama has ordered two troop surges in Afghanistan since taking office. But, looking to help solidify his campaign’s unofficial slogan: “bin Laden is dead, GM is alive,” the president is eager to wring out any kind of an early peace dividend. Obama is getting back to his political roots by casting himself as the guy who brought the troops home and used the money on domestic government programs: “focus on nation building here at home.”

Military commanders had sought the surges (though in greater numbers) approved by Obama in hopes that they could pacify rebellious sections of the country, particularly in the Taliban strongholds of the south and east. The fear was that American forces and their Afghan allies were being turned into a garrison force stuck in Kabul, and, like the Afghan government itself, without much influence in the countryside. In that case, it would only be a matter of time before the U.S. was forced to retreat and Kabul fell to the Taliban.

In announcing his second surge, 30,000 additional soldiers that started shipping out in early 2010, Obama promised that the troops would be part of a massive civilian surge to bolster the weak Afghan central government and get the country ready for a transition of power. Obama said troops from the second surge would start trickling home in the summer of 2011 and all of the forces from the second surge out by 2012, but that a substantial U.S. force would remain to hold the gains from the time-limited surge.

But in the summer of 2011, not long after Navy SEALS snuffed Usama bin Laden in Pakistan, Obama ramped up his timetable dramatically, saying the U.S. would be done fighting by 2014 with expedited draw downs.

This speedier drawdown has been a big part of Obama’s plan to cut the military overall, reducing troop strength and focusing on cheaper remote-control aircraft and special forces united to kill individuals considered threats. The administration is forecasting more than $1 trillion in war savings over the coming decade, monies to be used for Democratic domestic priorities – infrastructure and government workers.

But here’s the rub, you can’t get a 100,000-person Army anywhere quickly. And when it is withdrawing from hostile turf – especially after a decade-long presence – it’s even harder. Go too fast, and you could have chaos and the rapid fall of the civilian government. (Think Vietnam, twice). Go too slow and you leave your own troops exposed and without sufficient firepower to keep the enemy at bay.

In order to prevent massacres in outer provinces, American commanders are trying to centralize their forces for the maximum degree of security before withdrawal. But even in and around Kabul, America has nowhere near the manpower necessary to deal with a popular revolt against the Karzai government and its American protectors – especially since the enemy can’t be discerned from the general population, even inside the Afghan government and military.

American rules of engagement don’t allow for much muscle flexing without increased troop levels, so commanders have to hope that this weeklong insurrection peters out and that they can resume the work of an orderly withdrawal. It was in service of that goal that Obama began and has maintained his apologies – “We’re sorry, please let us leave.”

The Republicans are flaying Obama for his apologies because it syncs up so nicely with their argument that the president is hostile to Christian religious freedom. They point out that even as Obama is apologizing to Muslims for the accidental burning of Korans, he is trying to mandate that American Christians obey regulations antithetical to the tenets of their faith.

But it’s really about showing Obama as weak, the bowing supplicant Republicans have described since even before he took office. Their point is that if Obama hadn’t drawn down too fast, hadn’t included a timetable in his second surge, hadn’t been so quick to negotiate with the Taliban, etc., the Koran burnings would be less of a problem. The GOP message is that a weak policy is being followed by a weak apology.

But Obama may yet get out of this scrape. He only needs his goldilocks strategy in Afghanistan to work until after Election Day. Thereafter he could either let Kabul fall or give the commanders the troops they want to pacify the country.

The political upside of the unrest for Obama is that it will make the war even more unpopular and has caused American forces to quickly pull back even more. That means a higher public appreciation for withdrawal and a faster withdrawal. He just needs to prevent the appearance of a rout or chaotic retreat, and could have the Afghan force down even more dramatically by the time voting begins.

If he can be the guy who sent two surges to Afghanistan but still get to run as the candidate who wants to bring the boys home against a Republican nominee insistent on a long war, Obama will have threaded the needle on Afghanistan.

But if things get much worse and his military strategy looks like a failure before the election, it will be American pride, not that of the Afghans, which Obama will have to worry about.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.