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Monday, October 26th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Recent events in Afghanistan seem to have given Obama pause – and with good reason.

If there is an evolving Obama doctrine underlying the administration’s foreign policy, it is a focus on the consent of the governed and civil society. (I consider this a marked step forward from the “Democracy!!” approach by the Bush White House.) On top of this, counterinsurgency doctrine holds that we must have a partner seen by the local population to be legitimate in order to succeed in containing insurgent forces.

The massive electoral fraud in the recent Afghan elections then undermined both the core principle the Obama administration has put forward in its foreign policy and any chance of military success using a counterinsurgency strategy. Restoring the legitimacy of the Afghan government thus has been one of the major goals of the Obama administration in the past month as they attempted to salvage the situation. The obvious solution was for Karzai to allow some of the many millions of votes for him that were clearly the result of fraud to be thrown out thus ensuring a runoff between the top two contenders for the presidency.

Though it would seem to be in Karzai’s own interest to be seen as legitimate as well as America’s, he apparently did not see it the same way – and believed American forces would protect him and ensure he remained in power even if he blatantly stole the election.

It thus took significant efforts by the Obama administration to push him to act in both his own and America’s interests.

According to Ahmed Rashid, prominent Afghani author and reporter, writing for the New York Review of Books blog there were two main factors that pushed Karzai to finally consent to “enduring” a runoff election:

  1. He finally became convinced that Obama was serious about not sending in more soldiers to secure the country – as he realized Obama was less concerned about “looking tough” in the eyes of the world and more interested in making sure American soldiers were fighting a winnable war for American interests and was willing to cut Karzai loose if that turned out to be in America’s interest. (Karzai apparently believed Bush would commit to supporting him no matter what, as Bush had a “chummy,” mentor-mentee type relationship with the Afghan leader. Obama deliberately kept his distance to keep the focus on America’s interest in the region.)
  2. Karzai, as a vain man, did not appreciate dealing with anyone who had ever publicly said a critical word about him; thus the administration used officials who had previously criticized him to ramp up the pressure while three of the few people in Washington who never had (John Kerry, Rahm Emanuel, and Karl Eikenberry) were tasked with cajoling him into complying.

It seems quite silly that despite American and Afghan interests coinciding on this, it took so much attention to the vanities of a corrupt leader in order to persuade him to act in his own and his main sponsor’s interests. Despite elaborate theories about how history works, to get things done, to implement a larger agenda, you need to pay attention to petty personal details.

On such petty-ness, the fate of the world apparently too often turns.

[Image by KarlMarx licensed under Creative Commons.]

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The Virtue in Muddling Through in Afghanistan

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Andrew Sullivan’s most recent column was quite good – and it suggests his position on Afghanistan was moved by this Marc Lynch blog post:

[W]hat’s so terrible with muddling through for a while, giving the new tactics a chance to work at the local level while preventing the worst-case scenarios from happening? Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can, and try to figture out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part which all the smart set agrees is the real issue these days? Why not focus on applying the improved COIN tactics with available resources right now instead of focusing on more troops?

…Why is this not the right time to muddle through, avoiding the worst outcomes and changing strategy at the local level where possible, while waiting for the political situation in Afghanistan to clarify? [my emphasis]

This plan makes sense – but I’m not sure it’s the Obama administration’s plan. National Security Advisor Jones said on Sunday that Obama would make a decision about overall Afghanistan policy “in a matter of weeks.” I doubt that’s sufficient time to sort all of these issues out, though certainly it might give time to see what direction each of this issues is heading.

Meanwhile, Peter W. Galbraith has a quality op-ed in the Washington Post based on his first-hand experience in the recent Afghanistan elections which he had a role in attempting to supervise – and in which he alleges that there was massive fraud. He states that he was fired by the United Nations because he refused to go along with their attempts to ignore this fraud. Galbraith’s takeaway point:

President Obama needs a legitimate Afghan partner to make any new strategy for the country work. However, the extensive fraud that took place on Aug. 20 virtually guarantees that a government emerging from the tainted vote will not be credible with many Afghans.

Obama has repeatedly stressed the “consent of the governed” as being essential to the legitimacy of a state, specifically linking the issue to non-fraudulent elections in the case of Iran. To be consistent with his general foreign policy approach of avoiding charges of rank hypocrisy, he must figure out how to respond to what increasingly seems like a fraudulent election in Afghanistan. This is perhaps the main reason behind Lynch’s point that this might not be the time to make a stark choice:

Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear?

A final note on Afghanistan: It’s irresponsible for Senators to call the Commander-in-Chief an “armchair general” as Senator Jon Kyl did a few days ago.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

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Posted in Foreign Policy, National Security, The Opinionsphere | 60 Comments »

Outlasting America in Afghanistan

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Andrew Sullivan’s take on Afghanistan strikes me as the sad but honest truth of the matter:

America’s relatively tiny stake [in Afghanistan] means that we will always be outlasted by those with deeper commitments, wider knowledge and much greater fanaticism. And yet we plow on …

It happened before – after the forerunners of the Taliban drove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.

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Afpak & Iran

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I’ve highlighted a bunch of different articles in the past week about the upcoming challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Iran as a potential complicating factor. Here’s my attempt to cram all of these highlights into one post…

Jodi Kantor in the New York Times on Richard Holbrooke and Afpak:

For now, Holbrooke is both raising expectations and lowering them. He is talking about Afpak – Washington shorthand for his assignment – as his last and toughest mission. But along with the rest of Obama’s foreign-policy staff, he is also trying to redefine success in the region, shifting away from former President George W. Bush’s grand, transformative goals and toward something more achievable. 

Fareed Zakaria has some ideas on what at least one of these less exalted goals should be:

In May 2006 a unit of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan valley were engulfed in a ferocious fire fight with the Taliban. Only after six hours, and supporting airstrikes, could they extricate themselves from the valley. But what was most revealing about the battle was the fact that many local farmers spontaneously joined in, rushing home to get their weapons. Asked later why they’d done so, the villagers claimed they didn’t support the Taliban’s ideological agenda, nor were they particularly hostile toward the Americans. But this battle was the most momentous thing that had happened in their valley for years. If as virile young men they had stood by and just watched, they would have been dishonored in their communities. And, of course, if they were going to fight, they could not fight alongside the foreigners.

In describing this battle, the Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen coins a term, “accidental guerilla,” to describe the villagers. They had no grand transnational agenda, no dreams of global jihad. If anything, those young men were defending their local ways and customs from encroachment from outside. But a global terrorist group—with local ties—can find ways to turn these villagers into allies of a kind. And foreign forces, if they are not very careful, can easily turn them into enemies.

Reduced to its simplest level, the goal of American policy in Afghanistan should be to stop creating accidental guerrillas. It should make those villagers see U.S. forces as acting in their interests. That would mark a fundamental turnaround.

Another major problems is – as Tom Ricks quotes Abu Muquwama to explain – that:

It’s tough to fight a war in Afghanistan when the opposing team decides to fight the war in Pakistan

At the same time, Pakistan seems to be dragging it’s feet with regards to destroying the forces it considered – until recently – it’s proxies in it’s struggle with India for regional power, the Taliban. This creates a nagging feeling of suspicion among Pakistan’s allies, as Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti explained in the New York Times:

In recent years, there have been some significant successes in the hunt for Taliban leaders. Pakistani operatives tracked Mullah Dadullah, a senior aide to Mullah Omar, as he crossed the Afghan border in May 2007, and he was later killed by American and Afghan troops.

Yet most of the arrests in Pakistan have coincided with visits by senior American officials.

The arrest of Mullah Obeidullah, the former Taliban defense minister, in Quetta in February 2007 coincided with the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unclear whether Mullah Obeidullah is still in Pakistani custody or was secretly released as part of a prisoner exchange to free Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who was kidnapped last February and released three months later.

Schmitt and Mazzetti clearly convey the suspicion among top American officials that Pakistan’s wars against its terrorists are mainly a public relations effort to pacify America. Pakistan’s reluctance to fully accept America as an ally (believing we will again retreat from the region after we are done with Afghanistan one way or another, as we did after the Soviet Union was defeated there) is not our only challenge in the region. Parag Khanna of Foreign Policy describes how Afpak is also the center of maneuvering by other nations:

China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are also becoming increasingly important – not as neighbors of the chaos, like Pakistan, but meddlers in it. The United States is already failing to grasp not only the details of other powers’ maneuverings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the extent to which these dealings could eclipse even the most brilliant U.S. shuttle diplomacy by Holbrooke.

He describes how China has become Afghanistan’s largest investor, how Saudi Arabia continues to funnel enormous amounts of money to fund religious extremism in the region, including Wahabbi mosques, and how Iran is taking steps to provide energy for what they anticipate will be shortages in Afpak and India. Khanna – seeing this pipelines and other relations between Iran, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as inevitable as all partners stand to benefit – suggests America get out in front and support the pipeline. Better to build it ourselves than having it built without us.

Building roads and controlling their usage has for centuries been the foundation of spreading Silk Road influence, as well as the key to success in the 19th-century Great Game. Today’s struggle for control follows similar rules.

This Great Game – a term historically used to describe the strategic competition for influence in the region, especially when it involves great intrigues and turnabouts –  would seem to require us to neutralize or flip Iran into an ally. Roger Cohen of the New York Times makes the case:

Iran’s political constellation includes those who have given past support to terrorist organizations. But axis-of-evil myopia has led U.S. policy makers to underestimate the social, psychological and political forces for pragmatism, compromise and stability. Iran has not waged a war of aggression for a very long time.

Tehran shares many American interests, including a democratic Iraq, because that will be a Shiite-governed Iraq, and a unified Iraq stable enough to ensure access to holy cities like Najaf.

It opposes Taliban redux in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda’s Sunni fanaticism. Its democracy is flawed but by Middle East standards vibrant. Both words in its self-description — Islamic Republic — count.

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How the War on Drugs Is Making America Less Safe From Terrorism (cont.)

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Yesterday’s post on the conflicts between the Drug War and the War on Terror seems more timely today – as the New York Times has a prominent article by Thom Shanker on the Afghan narcotics trade and Esquire has an article by John H. Richardson claiming that sources in the Obama transition team are suggesting that marijuana be decriminalized and the Drug War ended by Obama’s second term.

From Richardson’s article:

Marsha Rosenbaum, the former head of the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance, who quit last year to become a fundraiser for Obama…remains confident that those recommendations would call for an end to the drug war. “Once everything settles down in the second term, we have a shot at seeing some real reform.”

From Shanker’s:

[A] number of NATO members have in broad terms described their reluctance publicly, including Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. Their leaders have cited domestic policies that make counternarcotics a law enforcement matter — not a job for their militaries — and expressed concern that domestic lawsuits could be filed if their soldiers carried out attacks to kill noncombatants, even if the victims were involved in the drug industry in Afghanistan.

End the Drug War. Focus on stopping terrorism. It’s the only sane choice.

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Illegal Drugs and the War on Terror

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

In researching a post I was working on, I came across a Congressional report from 2004 that I was surprised I hadn’t heard about. Entitled “Illicit Drugs and the Terrorist Threat: Causal Links and Implications for Domestic Drug Control Policy” [pdf], it lists five potential links between drug trafficking and terrorism:

  1. Supplying cash for terrorist operations;
  2. Creating chaos in countries where drugs are produced;
  3. Generating corruption in law enforcement, military, and other governmental and civil-society institutions that either build public support for terrorist-linked groups or weaken the capacity of the society to combat terrorist organizations and actions;
  4. Providing services also useful for terrorist actions and movements of terrorist personnel and material, and supporting a common infrastructure, such as smuggling capabilities, illicit arms acquisition, money laundering, or the production of false identification papers;
  5. Competing for law enforcement and intelligence attention.

The report focuses on how drug trafficking undermines the War on Terror – but it makes clear both the current quagmire that is the Drug War and the ways in which the incentives created by the War on Drugs undermine the War on Terror.

Now at first glance, it may seem as if the War on Terror and the War on Drugs should be benefit one another. After all, a successful policy that made heroin production and trade less profitable or more difficult would deprive the Afghan Taliban from one of their primary sources of cash. A successful anti-smuggling policy would make it harder for drugs to slip across the border as well as terrorists and weapons.

The Bush administration meanwhile has sought to conflate the two wars – for example, by running ads immediately in the aftermath of 9/11 claiming that drug money paid for terrorism1 and by repeatedly using measures from the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism measures to go after drug offenses.

But looking more closely, one can see that the War on Drugs has often impeded the War on Terror in these very areas. For example, critics of the Bush administration’s drug policy in Afghanistan believe we are in fact driving poor farmers to seek the protection of the Taliban. By using laws designed for the War on Terror in the Drug War, it undermines claims that the War on Terror is “different” and should unite all of us. By using these new powers more often, law enforcement undermines it’s credibility. It’s a vicious cycle.

    1. At the time, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were not making money from the heroin trade however, so this was rather misleading. The Taliban in fact had prevented poppy-farming until they needed it as a source of revenue after they were ousted from power. The commercials based their claims on FARC in Columbia. []

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    Posted in Libertarianism, National Security, Politics, The War on Terrorism | 3 Comments »

    The ultimate feelgood war

    Monday, June 2nd, 2008

    Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian:

    The Americans are right, that if you want something done in the world, get a nation to do it, not an inter-nation. I may be opposed to both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there is a significant difference between them noticeable to any visitor to their capitals. In Baghdad, America is unmistakably in charge and the world follows. There is a clear line of command that leads, however misguidedly, to Washington. Things get done.

    Afghanistan is the opposite, the embodiment of Tharoor’s globalism in practice. Some 30 nations piled into Kabul after 2001, under the banners of Nato and the UN. There was and remains no coherence, no agreed strategy and a perpetual feuding over rules of engagement, use of air power and policies for anti-corruption and counter-narcotics. Things do not get done.

    Some 10,000 UN, Nato and NGO officials and their hangers-on fall over each other in the streets of Kabul. Command structures overlap. It is a recipe for failure. Yet because the “international community” has given Afghanistan its blessing, the intervention must be benign. It is the ultimate feelgood war.

    (more…)

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    Posted in Foreign Policy, Iraq, Politics | 1 Comment »

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