Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
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You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
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In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously recommended that the United States simply "declare victory and get out." With the benefit of hindsight, that seems like pretty good advice. Today, it is more or less what the Obama administration is trying to do in Afghanistan.
The president has already made it clear that he intends to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops by the end of 2014. But because Americans don't like to admit defeat and no administration likes to acknowledge mistakes, they have to pretend that their Afghan policy has been a great success. In particular, the administration would like us (and the world) to believe that their decision to escalate the war in 2009 was a game-changer that broke the back of the Taliban and enabled us to build an independent Afghan security force that will carry on the fight after we've left. As we head for the exits, therefore, get ready for a lot of upbeat stories and well-orchestrated spin.
The only problem with this story is that it isn't true. The Taliban hasn't been defeated, the Karzai government isn't more effective or less corrupt, Pakistan hasn't stopped backing its various proxies, and efforts to train competent Afghan security forces haven't worked very well. The Afghan government can't even afford to pay its troops' salaries, so they'll have to stay on the Western dole for years to come. I don't know exactly what will happen after the United States and its NATO allies leave, but the outcome won't be much better than what we could have expected back when Obama took office. By that standard, the 2009 "surge" was a failure.
But if pretending that we've won some sort of victory makes it easier for us to do the right thing and get out, then shouldn't commentators like me suspend our judgment and help sell the story? Nope. Because if we tell ourselves a lot of politically expedient untruths about the Afghan campaign, we'll learn the wrong lessons from the experience and we'll be more likely to repeat this sort of debacle in the future.
Specifically, the idea that the 2009 surge led to a significantly different outcome reinforces the idea that counter-insurgency in societies like Afghanistan is something we're good at, once we get the right generals in charge and adopt the right tactical menu. It encourages us to think that if we just keep trying, we'll eventually get really good at social engineering in war-torn societies that we don't understand very well. And the more we think that doing this sort of thing is just a question of mastering the right techniques, the easier it will be to convince ourselves that we've learned how to do it and that next time everything will be different. Except that it won't.
I don't really blame the Obama administration for trying to spin this one as best they can; that's what the politics of the situation demands. But if we want to avoid learning the wrong lessons, it will be up to scholars, journalists and other independent thinkers to give us a more objective appraisal of America's longest war.
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The U.S. Agency for International Development is pulling the plug on the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, which it was funding as part of its broader development and public diplomacy efforts. The reason given was alleged fraud in the handling of funds, although the Pakistani producer responsible for the program denies any malfeasance. Bottom line: another upbeat moment on the increasngly fraught U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
I'm glad to hear that State's money managers are keeping a watchful eye on expenditures, but the whole theory behind this initiative seems dubious to me. Apparently the idea was that if you got Pakistani tots acquainted with cute Muppets like Elmo (the only character transplanted from the U.S. version), they'd develop a greater love of learning, a better sense of social tolerance, and they might even grow up with a more favorable image of the United States.
I'm not one to deny the power of television, but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. The Pakistani version of Sesame Street (known locally as Sim Sim Hamara) may have been popular with kiddies (I don't know) and may even have encouraged some basic literacy and tolerance. But such programs are also justified by the desire to improve the U.S. image in places where it could use some polishing. And if that is the case, as Peter Van Buren notes here, then canceling the program could negate whatever benefits were previously gained by funding it.
More broadly, the assumption underlying most efforts at public diplomacy seems to be the belief that anti-Americanism around the world is a failure of marketing. If we just do a better job of selling what we do around the world (or if we get to them young enough, with clever characters like Elmo or Cookie Monster), then Pakistanis won't mind our launching drone strikes on their territory and will give us a free pass when we kill a bunch of border guards by accident.
The core problem, needless to say, is that a successful public diplomacy effort needs to start with a good product. Defending America's dominant world role isn't impossible, but it's not primarily a question of "spin," propaganda, cultural exchange, or better children's TV programming. If U.S. foreign policy is consistently insensitive to others' interests, and if our actions are seen by others as making things worse instead of better, then no amount of clever public diplomacy is going to convince them that Washington is really acting selflessly on behalf of all mankind.
Ironically, Obama's first term offers a potent illustration of both the potential and the limits of public diplomacy. In his first year, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the U.S. rose dramatically in most of the world, and even improved slightly in the Middle East (where the U.S. image is especially poor). But while Obama and the U.S. remain fairly popular in Europe, his subsequent policies have produced a profound slide in a number of key areas, including Pakistan. Other societies don't always have a fully accurate view of what the United States is doing and why, but they aren't completely ignorant or ill-informed either. Sorry to sound like Oscar the Grouch, but bringing Sesame Street to Islamabad wasn't going to fix that problem, even if all the money had been spent as intended.
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If you are someone who is inclined to favor hawkish responses to foreign policy problems, then your choice for president should be Barack Obama. Not because Obama is especially hawkish himself, or interested in prolonging costly and failed commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan. For that matter, his administration is making a modest and fiscally necessary effort to slow the steady rise in Pentagon spending, and they seem to understand that war with Iran is a Very Bad Idea. (It is of course no accident that military action there is being promoted by the same folks who thought invading Iraq was a Very Good Idea. But I digress.)
So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it's because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It's the flipside of the old "Nixon Goes to China" meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don't have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government's permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.
The key to making this work, as Andrew Bacevich suggests here, is to insulate the vast majority of the American population from the effects of this effort. Obama understands that there's no stomach for big, costly, and inconclusive wars like Iraq and Afghanistan (he's right, and there's also little to be gained from them). But he and his advisors are betting that the American people will tolerate active efforts to hunt down and kill perceived bad guys, provided that the costs are low and occur far away and mostly out-of-sight. And it is in this context that one has to view recent proposals to give U.S. Special Forces greater presence, autonomy, and capability, an idea that remains controversial within military circles.
In other words, we are engaged in a grand strategic experiment: can the United States make itself more secure by dispatching troops and drones to various corners of the world, with the explicit mission of killing anyone we think might be a "terrorist?" At first glance, this approach certainly looks better than the debacle in Iraq, and it consistent with the "laser-like focus on Al Qaeda" that some of us recommended way back in 2001. But it is not without its own dangers, of which the following strike me as especially paramount.
The first danger lies in the secrecy with which these activities are now shrouded. We don't really know who is being targeted for attack, or what the error rates are. Is it really true that U.S. forces have targeted not just suspected terrorist but also the people who seek to provide medical or rescue assistance after an attack, on the assumption that the rescuers are in cahoots with original targets? How often do we make honest mistakes? How reliable is the information on which targeting is being conducted?
The second danger -- "blowback" -- follows from the first. What if we end up creating more new terrorists than we kill? What if aggressive efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda in Pakistan ends up destabilizing the nuclear-armed Pakistani state and convinces lots of people there that the United States is inherently hostile? Are we going to understand that such hostility didn't emerge solely because these people "hate our values," but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countrymen was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error? The less we know about what U.S. forces are doing, the harder it will be for us to understand why some people don't like us that much.
A third danger is imitation. There is every reason to assume that other states, as well as some non-state actors, will decide to follow us down this particular path. The United States used to say that it opposed "targeted assassinations," but now we we are legimitizing this practice and others are bound to get into the act too. Similarly, by paying less and less attention to the old norm of sovereignty, we are making it more difficult to object when other states start interfering in each other's internal affairs. If we can send drones and/or special forces into any country we choose, why can't other states violate national borders in order to advance some policy objective of their own? What are we going to say then?
Fourth, is this a temporary expedient or a slippery slope? A case can be made that Obama's approach is a smart response to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda and its progeny, and that his policies reflect a temporary necessity. In this view, groups like Al Qaeda arose in a particular historical and political context, and they are gradually being attrited by an increasingly precise and effective strategy. If you believe this, then you might also believe that eventually the war on terror will be won, and that eventually we will be able to ratchet back these activities, shut down Guantanamo, rescind the Patriot Act, get rid of those demeaning scanners at airports, and cut back or quit those drone strikes. One could even argue that what we are really seeing is a last flurry of activity as we exit Iraq, prepare to exit Afghanistan, and start pivoting toward East Asia.
I'd like to believe that, but as Bacevich suggests, it is at least as likely that we have entered a new phase in American strategy from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. The problem is that we have these new capabilities (i.e., drones), and Obama and Bush have established the precedent of a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to warfare that keeps most of what we are doing in the dark. My fear is that future presidents are going to find those capabilities and that precedent very hard to resist. When hammers (drones?) are cheap, it's tempting to buy a lot of them and you'll tend to see a world full of nails. Drug lords in Mexico causing trouble? Let's just take 'em out. Tired of Hugo Chavez and his shenanigans? We've got an app for that. Sickened by the carnage in Syria? Let's give Assad and his underlings the same treatment we gave Ghaddafi. And so on. But most actions generate unintended consequences, and I suspect that trying to be the global policeman -- or in the minds of some, the global vigilante -- on the cheap may be a decision we'll eventually regret.
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The New York Times has a startling report today about an incident from way back in 2007, where Pakistani soldiers attacked a group of U.S. military officials, killing one officer and wounding three others. It is obviously a disturbing report, although not that surprising to anyone who's been paying even modest attention to the highly complicated relationship between the United States, the various factions that make up Pakistan's government, and the various groups that are contending for power in Central Asia. Juan Cole has a good quick rundown here.
I have two comments of my own. First, it is interesting that this story is coming out now, in the aftermath of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen's recent denunciations of Pakistani collaboration with the Haqqani network. The Times story says that the incident was hushed up back in 2007 so as not to disturb overall U.S. relations with Pakistan, but its appearance in the news right now sure looks like a deliberate leak. If so, what's the larger purpose here? Is the Obama administration or the Pentagon contemplating a real rupture with Islamabad, or do they think that turning up the heat in this highly public fashion is going to convince the ISI or whoever is doing these things to change their ways?
Second, the incident also shows you the dangers that arise when governments keep lots of secrets. Suppose this story had come out back in 2007. It would have been additional evidence conveying just how little control we had over our putative allies in the region, and cast further doubt on our ability to achieve a successful outcome in the Afghan campaign. Success in Afghanistan depends on cooperation with Pakistan (and in particular, on getting rid of the safe havens for the Taliban there), and this incident from four years ago was a clear sign that it was going to be damn hard to get the requisite help. It would also have suggested that U.S. officials really didn't understand very much about the complicated dynamics in that region, thereby suggesting that maybe, just maybe, we were never going to accomplish our stated objectives.
So: if Americans had actually known about this attack, they might have had a clearer picture of our prospects in Central Asia, and the uphill fight we faced. Barack Obama's claims that he was going to get out of Iraq and focus on Afghanistan might have been viewed with greater skepticism, and his subsequent decision to escalate the war might have faced greater opposition within his administration and in the public at large.
In short, when U.S. officials swept this incident under the rug for various short-term reasons, they encouraged the American people to maintain a false picture of the actual situation in Central Asia. Unfortunately, making judgments and decisions on the basis of inaccurate information rarely works out well.
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It seems somewhat superfluous of me to join the feeding frenzy of commentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is also an event that I can't quite ignore. I caught the announcement late last night, along with some rather breathless initial commentary. Here are a few initial reactions.
For starters, I think it's important to keep his killing in perspective. By all accounts bin Laden was no longer playing an operational role for al Qaeda, and his main value to the movement he founded was largely symbolic. It was the fact that he was still at large and still defiant that made him significant, and his death takes that symbolic value away. He may serve as an inspirational martyr for a few people, but I doubt that lots of new recruits will rally to al Qaeda's banner merely to avenge his death.
In fact, one could argue that the movement he founded has already failed. He hoped to inspire a broad fundamentalist revolution that would topple existing Arab governments and usher in a unified Islamic caliphate, but that goal has failed to resonate among Arab and Muslim populations and his own popularity has declined steadily since 9/11. Instead, the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in 2011 have drawn their inspiration not from bin Laden but from more universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and open discourse. And the more that these movements succeed, the more discredited his entire approach to politics will be.
Which is not to say that bin Laden was a complete failure. One of his main goals was to lure the United States into costly and protracted wars in the Muslim world, and with our help, he succeeded. Had 9/11 never occurred, the United States would not have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly accelerated the end of the "unipolar moment." But this "achievement" was not solely his doing. Had the Bush administration been smarter, and focused on counter-terrorism rather than a misguided campaign of "regional transformation," we might have found him sooner and at less financial, human, and reputational cost.
Going forward, focusing too much attention on bin Laden threatens to distract us from the broader social and political challenges that the United States still faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Bin Laden is gone, but anger at various aspects of U.S. policy continues to drive anti-Americanism and makes it more difficult to protect our core interests in that part of the world. Al Qaeda isn't the real reason we having a hard time in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with our difficulties with Iran. Indeed, even it it were disappear entirely, we'd still face plenty of other foreign policy challenges in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
Furthermore, there's a tendency for both presidents and the media to exaggerate the long-term significance of events like this. Whenever we are successful, we assume our credibility will soar, our opponents will be disheartened and confused, and our allies will once again be impressed by our prowess and inclined to do our bidding. Maybe so, but the effect usually wears off quickly. In the long run, what really matters is not our ability to catch a single bad guy after ten years of trying, but rather the long-term health of the U.S. economy and our ability to devise foreign and defense policies that other powerful states will welcome and/or respect.
Perhaps the best thing to hope for, therefore, is that Obama will use this event as an opportunity to "declare victory and get out." Not that he will do this overtly, but the United States can now claim -- as Obama did last night -- that the primary perpetrator of 9/11 has been "brought to justice," and that our long campaign in Central Asia has finally achieved its primary goal. (That's not quite true, of course, but politics often involves a bit of sophistry and rhetorical sleight-of-hand). So if Obama can exploit this triumph to justify an accelerated disengagement, he'll reap the maximum benefits from this otherwise modest victory.
But don't count on it. For one thing, we've spent that past ten years creating a pretty massive set of organizations designed to prosecute the "war on terror," and government bureaucracies (like other organizations) tend not to put themselves out of business without a fight. It will take a sustained political effort (and continued fiscal pressure) to unwind the post-9/11 version of the national security state, which means we'll be standing in TSA lines, conducting drone attacks, and having our emails and phone calls scanned for a long time to come. And I suppose bin Laden would take posthumous credit for that too.
Lastly, although President Obama and his team are undoubtedly (and deservedly) gratified by this achievement, I wouldn't rest on these laurels if I were them. President George H. W. Bush won a smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and then he was turned out of office by a disgruntled electorate eighteen months later. Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, but memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012. As the winner of the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, might have put it: "It's the economy, stupid."
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In the past two years I've done several posts on sports, focusing on how athletic contests can sometimes (improbably) affect world politics. My top ten list of "foreign policy sporting events" is here, and some readers may recall I was rooting for the "Indo-Pak" express (the men's doubles team of Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan) at the U.S. Open last year.
We might be seeing a new entrant into the list of sports events that helped shape the foreign policy agenda. India and Pakistan played a semi-final match in the cricket World Cup today, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India invited Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani to watch the match with him. Thus, while over a billion people obsessed about spinners, fast bowlers, fielding miscues, and the bumpiness of the pitch, the two leaders had a chance to exchange some friendly words and establish a bit of personal rapport.
The issues dividing India and Pakistan are deep and enduring, and a cricket match obviously won't resolve them. Unlike the U.S. and China in the era of ping-pong diplomacy, there aren't powerful geopolitical forces pushing the two states toward a rapprochement. But it would be highly desirable if relations between the two countries improved, and if their leaders developed a greater sense of trust and mutual regard. So I hope the meeting went well.
In the end, India won by 29 runs. I tried to follow the match online, and I confess that none of it made any sense to me at all. I'm not proud of that fact, however, so I also hope somebody will stop by my office one of these days and explain cricket to me.
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The news that various Afghan and Pakistani insurgent groups are coordinating their activities more extensively is neither surprising nor encouraging. This outcome is exactly what balance of power theory (or if you prefer, balance of threat theory) would predict: as the United States increases its military presence and escalates the level of violence, its various opponents put aside their differences for the moment in order to deal with the more imminent danger.
This pattern of behavior has a long-tradition in Afghan internal politics, as my former student Fotini Christia showed in a terrific Ph.D. thesis a few years back. It's also a phenomenon we've seen in earlier foreign interventions. The various mujaheddin warlords put aside their various quarrels in order to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, just as China, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam set aside their mutual fears and rivalries when the United States was fighting in Indochina.
Once the Soviets withdrew, of course, divisions within Afghan society re-emerged and made the place nearly ungovernable before the emergence of the Taliban. Something similar happened in Indochina: as soon as the United States withdrew from Vietnam, rivalries between the various communist nations and the Khmer Rouge eventually led to a Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea and a short border war between China and Vietnam. It was our presence that held them together and our departure that allowed long-standing resentments to burst forth anew.
The obvious lesson is that there is little danger of some sort of powerful jihadi monolith emerging in Central Asia. It is our war effort there that is leading these groups to make common cause with each other, and the longer the war goes on, the more we can expect them to cooperate. Because our strategic interests in Central Asia are very limited (i.e., we just don't want people organizing attacks on American soil from there) our real objective should be to reduce the U.S. presence, play "divide-and-conquer," and let the natural centrifugal tendencies in this region reassert themselves. That's not necessarily the "heroic" play (which is why our commanders aren't embracing it), but wouldn't it make more sense than giving a set of un-natural allies more reason to work together?
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Perhaps you noticed the following two headlines from today's New York Times (print edition; the online headline is different):
Those two stories tell you a lot about the situation in Central Asia, especially when read in the context of the latest strategy review. Surprise, surprise: that review reaffirmed virtually all of the Obama administration's justifications for continuing the war, and offered just enough upbeat assessments to support a continued effort. At the same time, it provides just enough prophylactic pessimism to appear "realistic."
But what's missing in all this role-playing was a clear and convincing statement of costs and benefits. For all the talk of defeating al Qaeda (which isn't in Afghanistan any more), or preventing "safe havens," the administration scrupulously avoided the question of whether the money spent, lives lost, and presidential time consumed is worth it in terms of advancing core American interests. While parsing the evidence that it is making progress, the administration carefully avoids the question of whether the resources devoted to achieving something that might be defined as "success" are worth spending. Similarly, it avoids asking whether the costs of disengagement would be all that significant; it simply assumes that getting out would lead to catastrophe. So it just repeats the usual affirmations that "we must...." and "we will...." while avoiding the far more important issue of whether we should. Our German allies appear to have asked themselves that question, and come up with a different answer.
And the news that the United States intends to expand the war even further into Pakistan is especially worrisome. On the one hand, it suggests that the administration has figured out that it cannot ever win in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban have a safe haven across the border (and the tacit or active support of some key elements in the Pakistani military). But as Anatol Lieven notes in The Nation, unleashing additional violence in Pakistan could have long-term destabilizing consequences that would be far more significant than whatever ultimately happens in Afghanistan.
And it is hard not to see echoes of Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia in 1970, in a failed attempt to eradicate Viet Cong bases there. The two situations are hardly identical, but both illustrate the tendency for wars to expand in both the scope and extent of violence, especially when they aren't going well. You send more troops, but that doesn't turn things around. So you send a few more, and you widen the war to new areas. But that doesn't work either, so you decide you have to alter the rules of engagement, use more missiles, bombs, or drones, or whatever. Maybe that will work, but it's looking more and more like the strategic equivalent of the Hail Mary pass. And so we have the bizarre situation where the president who won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office has now escalated the war twice, expanded the use of drones, and now intends to widen the war in Pakistan even more.
Let's not forget that the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 also helped destabilize that country, and helped usher in the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. I'm not predicting a similar outcome here, but that example is a cruel reminder that military force is a crude instrument whose ultimate effects are difficult to anticipate in advance.
Decades from now, historians will look back and wonder how the United States allowed itself to get bogged down in a long and costly war to determine the political fate of landlocked country whose entire gross national product is about a quarter the size of the New York city budget. And when they reflect on the fact that the United States did this even after a major financial collapse and in the face of persistent budget deficits and macroeconomic imbalances, they will shake their heads in amazement.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
McClatchy news service reports that the Obama administration is starting to back away from the president's July 2011 timeline for a de-escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Instead, "the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014."
Assuming the report is accurate, it shouldn't be a surprise. I don't know anyone who thought the U.S. could turn things around in eighteen months, and that particular deadline was little more than a piece of political sleight-of-hand designed to make escalation look like a temporary step. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan was the right one (I think it wasn't), but Obama's straddle on this issue is one reason why some of his most enthusiastic supporters have become disenchanted.
Of course, there's a long tradition of presidents telling the American people that some new military mission won't take long and won't cost that much. Nixon told us he has a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War (he didn't) and Bill Clinton said U.S. troops would only be in Bosnia for 12 months (it was more like nine years). President George W. Bush and his advisors said that the occupation of Iraq would be brief and pay for itself yet we are still there today. And now Obama has done essentially same thing: selling an increased committed by suggesting that it is only temporary, and then backing away from his own self-imposed deadline.
This report also suggests that the war is not going as well as we're being told. We may be achieving some successes on the battlefield, but as with Iraq, the real challenge is political. Success requires building some sort of effective and legitimate governing authority in Afghanistan, and achieving some sort of political reconciliation among various contending groups. If this goal means building a strong, centralized Afghan state (something that has never existed before) then we are talking about an effort that will take years, costs tens of billions of additional dollars, and could still fail. It also requires rooting out corruption in the Karzai government, but the news on that front is hardly encouraging. Al Qaeda's leaders are no longer in Afghanistan and they don't need safe havens there in order to threaten the U.S., so it is no longer even clear why we are engaged in a massive effort at social engineering in this country. Or as I've said before: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly what it is today, but no U.S. forces were present, would Obama have ordered 100,000-plus troops to go there?
I don't think so, but he'll keep them there for the rest of his presidency (whether he gets one or two terms), and he or his successor could end up facing essentially the same choice in 2014 that he is facing today. Barring a new approach from the United States, does anyone think it will be any easier to change course then?
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With one caveat, I'll give Obama's team credit for the deft endorsement of India becoming a permanent member (with veto powers) of the U.N. Security Council. It was a smart move because it appealed to India's sense of national pride, and because it didn't cost the United States much. Washington's opinion on this issue matters somewhat, but it doesn't get to determine the composition of the SC by itself and so Obama's endorsement of Indian membership was a bit of cheap talk that nonetheless managed to delight his Indian hosts. If it helped convince the Indian government to back the U.S. position at the upcoming G20 summit in Seoul, then that's a pretty smart deal.
In fact, reforming the U.N. Security Council would be a major undertaking, and it's not going to happen anytime soon. Other P-5 members will be wary of having their own influence and status diluted by the addition of new members, and China wouldn't be thrilled either. There are also plenty of other aspirants -- Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, etc. -- who would be more than a little irritated if India got in and they didn't.
So the only real objection to Obama's endorsement is that it might annoy these countries (and Pakistan, of course, which has already expressed its opposition to the idea). My caveat, therefore, is to wonder whether the good will won in India is outweighed by irritation in other quarters. I'd bet not, if only because SC reform is not exactly a burning issue on anybody's agenda.
The other issue that is becoming clearer, however, is the fundamental strategic contradiction in America's South Asia policy. On the one hand, because we are deeply mired in a war in Afghanistan, and because the Taliban and other extremist groups operate in and out of Pakistan, we have to try to work with the Pakistani government despite its many problems and our growing unpopularity in that country. At the same time, there are larger strategic imperatives pushing the United States to move closer to India. Indeed, Obama even referred to U.S.-Indian strategic partnership as an "indispensable" feature of the 21st century. But a deeper U.S. partnership with India drives Pakistan crazy, encourages some parts of the Pakistani government to hedge bets by backing the Taliban, complicating the U.S. effort to make progress in Afghanistan. One can even imagine some Pakistanis wanting to prolong the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, precisely because our military presence there makes us more dependent on them and thus gives Islamabad some degree of influence and leverage over us.
Notice, however, that this problem would diminish significantly if the United States were not stuck in a costly counter-insurgency and nation-building exercise in Central Asia. If we weren't trying to build a effective centralized state in Afghanistan, while simultaneously attacking militants in Pakistan's fronteir provinces, then we would be free to move closer to India without facing potential blowback elsewhere. And if we weren't constantly interfering in Pakistan too, we might actually discover that they resented us less. In other words, if we were acting more like an offshore balancer, and less like an post-colonial nation-builder, it would be a lot easier to design a less tortured South Asia strategy. Add that to your list of reasons to find a new way forward in our Afghan misadventure.
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I'd like to believe that the United States and its (remaining) allies have got their act together and turned a corner in Afghanistan. Really. That's more-or-less what New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall told us in a front-page piece yesterday, and it was the key theme of retired general Jack Keane's appearance on Charlie Rose a couple of nights ago.
It would obviously be better for nearly everyone if the Taliban were routed, if order and security were restored in Afghanistan, and if the United States could extricate itself from this costly and seemingly open-ended commitment. But there are at least two good reasons to view these upbeat reports with some skepticism.
First, U.S. commanders have emphasized in the past that this conflict is largely one of perceptions. If everyone thinks we're winning, so the argument runs, then fence-straddlers in Afghanistan will tilt our way and popular support in the United States will remain high enough to keep us in the war. If everyone thinks we're losing, by contrast, momentum will swing the other way, more Afghans will gravitate toward the Taliban, and support back here will evaporate. Unfortunately, this situation means we can't really believe anything that our military leaders tell us about the progress of the war, because they have an obvious incentive to spin an upbeat story to reporters, or to people like Charlie Rose.
Second, as critics of the war have repeatedly pointed out, defeating the Taliban on the battlefield is nearly impossible as long as they can go to ground in local areas or flee across the border into Pakistan. And Gall's story in the Times makes it clear that this is precisely what is happening now. This is undoubtedly why the Obama administration is making yet another effort to get Pakistan to do more on its side of the border, and dangling a fat new military aid package as inducement. And at the same time, we're supposedly supporting negotiations with certain Taliban leaders, and we might even be willing to back some sort of deal.
So let me tell you what I think is going to happen. The United States is going to spend the next few months trying to clear out or kill as many Taliban as we can find, accompanied by a lot of optimistic reports about how well we are doing. This won't be about a "hearts and minds" approach or even a long-term strategy of nation-building; it will be about creating the appearance of momentum and success. At the same time, we're going to try to shepherd a political process that can be sold as "peace deal" between the Karzai government and some moderate Taliban. If we're really lucky and offer big enough bribes (oops, I mean foreign aid), we might get Pakistan to pretend to be on board too. And then Obama will claim "the Afghan surge worked" sometime in the latter half of 2011, and begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
As our numbers fall, the Taliban will regroup, Pakistan will help rearm them covertly, and the struggle for power in Afghanistan will resume. Afghanistan's fate will once again be primarily in the hands of the Afghan people and the nearby neighbors who meddle there for their own reasons. I don't know who will win, but it actually won't matter very much for U.S. national security interests.
There are ample historical precedents for this sort of outcome. The Soviet Union concocted a peace deal before they withdrew in 1988, but their chosen successor, Najibullah, didn't last long once they had left. (Notice, however, that their enemies in Afghanistan didn't "follow them home" either). The United States achieved "peace with honor" in the 1973 Vietnam peace accords, but then Saigon fell two years later. No matter; the United States ended up winning the Cold War anyway. And then there's Iraq,where the 2007 "surge" was hailed as a great military victory but is now unraveling. In each case, the peace deal was mostly a fig leaf designed to let a great power get out of a costly war without admitting it had been beaten.
Petraeus & Co. are trying to pull off something similar here, and it may well be the best that can be made of a bad situation. But there is a subtle, long-term danger in this sort of sleight-of-hand. If we tell ourselves we won and then get out, we will end up learning the wrong lessons from the whole experience. By portraying the Iraqi and Afghan "surges" as victories, we fool ourselves into thinking that this sort of war is something we are good at fighting, that the benefits of doing so are worth the costs, and that all it takes to win this sort of war is the right commander, the right weapons, and the right Field Manual. And if we indulge in this familiar form of historical amnesia, we'll be more likely to make similar errors down the road.
Update: According to McClatchey, those recent stories about the United States facilitating peace talks between Taliban leaders and the Karzai government are part of an elaborate "psychological operation" designed to sow dissension within Taliban ranks. I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, it suggests that the U.S. military is either still hoping for a decisive victory over the Taliban (which would make negotiations unnecessary), or it thinks that the Taliban has to be weakened a lot more before negotiations are likely to work. I think the latter is more likely, but it still leaves open the possibility of "declaring victory" and getting out, starting next summer. We'll see.
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One of the most enjoyable books I've read in the past year was S. C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. It's a terrific, gripping story, and I learned a great deal about aspects of U.S. history of which I was only partly aware.
In brief, the book tells the story of the U.S. effort to subdue the Comanche, the most powerful Native American tribe on the Great Plains. It was a bloody and fascinating struggle, in part because the Comanche proved so hard for the far more numerous and technologically superior Anglos to defeat. If you grew up with a John Ford/John Wayne/Randolph Scott view of the Old West, this book will be something of a revelation. And the saga of Quanah Parker himself, a Comanche war chief whose mother was a white woman kidnapped in 1836 at the age of nine, and "rescued" many years later (when her son Quanah was twelve years old), is itself a heart-rending tale of cultural conflict and personal tragedy.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn't help but read it with the current war in Afghanistan in mind. In both cases, a numerically superior, wealthier, and more technologically advanced United States confronts a tribal adversary fighting on its home ground. And in both cases, the U.S. government faces an adversary that is cunning, ruthless, and by our standards even backward or barbaric.
But as my late colleague Ernest May used to warn, when you make a historical analogy, it is a good idea to make a list of the ways the two situations differ, instead of just invoking the similarities. So lest you think that the ultimate victory of the U.S. government over the Comanche heralds a similar victory over the Taliban, consider the following differences between the two situations.
First, in the war against the Comanche, total victory was a vital interest for the United States. As the American republic expanded across North America, the United States was hardly going to allow an independent and hostile tribe of semi-nomadic natives to control a large swath of the territory that Americans believed was theirs by virtue of "Manifest Destiny." I am not defending this policy on the grounds of fairness or justice, by the way; just stating an obvious fact. By contrast, Afghanistan is thousands of miles from the U.S. homeland, and what happens there ultimately matters much more to the Afghans than it does to us. All Afghans know that sooner or later the United States and its allies are going to go home, but that was obviously not the case for the European settlers who had created the United States and were now pushing rapidly across the continent.
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More than a year ago I did a post on sporting events that had a significant impact on world politics, and I wonder if we might be seeing another one at the U.S. Open tennis tournament today. I refer, of course, to the men's doubles team of Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, who will be playing the favored team of Bob and Mike Bryan of the United States this afternoon. Bopanna and Qureshi view their partnership as symbol of the possibility of improved relations between their two countries -- among other things, they sometimes wear t-shirts reading "Stop War, Start Tennis" -- and their success at this year's tournament even got the two countries' U.N. ambassadors to sit together at one of their recent matches.
This isn't the sort of thing that realists consider all that important, and it is hard to imagine that their example could overcome all the other barriers that have marred relations between India and Pakistan since independence. But who cares? One can only applaud what they are trying to do, and I'll be rooting for them today.
UPDATE: Alas, the "Indo-Pak Express" went off the rails against the Bryan Bros., although the match was in fact pretty close (7-6, 7-6). Not quite the inspirational outcome I was hoping for, but it takes nothing away from their laudable effort to show that Indians and Pakistanis are not fated to be rivals forever. And congrats to the Bryans, who may well be the best doubles team of all time.
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One of the themes I have harped about on this blog has been the issue of opportunity costs. When a great power gets itself over-committed in a lot of costly and time-consuming commitments (and when it mismanages its economy in various ways), then it won't have the surplus it needs when an unexpected challenge (or an unforeseen opportunity) arises.
Case in point: the current floods that have ravaged Pakistan in recent weeks. The situation is by all accounts horrific, and could have significant long-term consequences for millions of people. It is precisely the sort of event that calls for a vigorous and generous U.S. response.
As everyone knows, the United States is widely despised among broad swathes of Pakistani society. Some of this hostility is unmerited, but some of it is a direct result of misguided U.S. policies going back many decades. As the U.S. experience with Indonesia following the 2004 Asian tsunami demonstrated, however, a prompt and generous relief effort could have a marked positive effects on Pakistani attitudes. Such a shift could undermine support for extremist groups and make it easier for the Pakistani government to crack down on them later on. It is also the right thing to do, and the U.S. military is actually pretty good at organizing such efforts.
The United States has so far pledged some $76 million dollars in relief aid, and has sent 19 helicopters to help ferry relief supplies. That's all well and good, but notice that the U.S. government sent nearly $1 billion in aid in response to the tsunami, and we are currently spending roughly $100 billion annually trying to defeat the Taliban. More to the point, bear in mind that the United States currently has some over 200 helicopters deployed in Afghanistan (and most reports suggest that we could actually use a lot more).
So imagine what we might be able to do to help stranded Pakistanis if we weren't bogged down in a costly and seemingly open-ended counterinsurgency war, and didn't have all those military assets (and money) already tied up there? It's entirely possible that we could do more to help suffering individuals, and more to advance our own interests in the region, if some of these military assets weren't already committed.
Of course, Obama didn't know that there would be catastrophic flooding in Pakistan when he decided to escalate and prolong the Afghan campaign. But that's just the point: when national leaders make or escalate a particular strategic commitment, they are not just determining what the country is going to do, they are also determining other things that that they won't be able to do (or at least won't be able to do as well).
Thus, another good argument for a more restrained grand strategy is that it might free up the resources that would allow us do some real good in the world, whenever unfortunate surprises occur. As they always will.
Despite the seemingly damning evidence against him, none of us actually knows for certain if Faisal Shahzad really did try to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He has reportedly told authorities that he did it (which is pretty convincing), the car involved apparently belonged to him (ditto), and he tried to flee the country immediately afterwards (hmm...). If I were an attorney I wouldn’t look forward to defending him, but his guilt or innocence is ultimately for a jury to decide.
But let’s assume he did, which doesn’t seem to be a very daring assumption. Obviously, the good news here is that he was an incompetent bungler: he didn’t know how to build a workable bomb and he didn’t know how to cover his tracks. And this seems to be the case even though he says he received some training from jihadists in Waziristan. Unfortunately, we can’t assume that all like-minded individuals will be equally befuddled. Timothy McVeigh and his associates were hardly world-class master criminals, and look at what they managed to do in Oklahoma City.
And then there's the question of why he tried to do this. Based on the still-sketchy information I’ve read so far, it seems likely that he wanted to kill Americans in New York City because he didn’t like our killing people in Central Asia. (Most of our victims are suspected terrorists, but we sometimes kill innocent civilians by mistake). Whether he was acting alone or in cahoots with Pakistani extremists, his abortive attack was probably a response to our efforts to eradicate terrorist groups in Pakistan via drone strikes and other special operations. In short, he decided to enlist in the "war on terror," but not on America's side.
If this is correct (and I'm prepared to revise my views as we learn more about his alleged motives), it would remind us that illegitimate violence directed at innocent Americans is mostly about what we do and less about "who we are." (This was also true of the suicide bomber who killed a cadre of CIA agents in Afghanistan earlier this year). To say this is not to argue that what the US is doing is necessarily wrong, however, or to sign up for the "blame America first" crowd. Whether the current drone war in Pakistan is a good idea is a separate question that involves both cost-benefit analysis (i.e., on balance, is it weakening al Qaeda or not?) and moral judgment. And yes, even realists can worry about morality.
Instead, recognizing "why they hate us" is critical to understanding the overall price tag associated with America's global military presence and interventionist foreign policy. When the United States is waging war in some far corner of the world, some people aren’t going to like it and will try to make us pay. It's a very good thing that this guy failed, but it would be naïve to believe that we can maintain our present global posture and be wholly immune from attacks here at home.
It also means that we should continue to analyze and debate whether our current counter-terror strategy is the right one. On the one hand, one could argue (as this BBC report does), that drone strikes are disrupting militant leadership and organization in places like Waziristan, and thus making these organizations less lethal or effective. The fact that Shahzad seems to have been poorly trained and forced to act more-or-less on his own could be seen as a sign that this aspect of our strategy is working.
But on the other hand, our continuing military engagement there also reinforces the accusation that the United States is engaged in illegitimate interference in foreign (i.e., Muslim) lands, an argument that Osama bin Laden has repeatedly emphasized and that appears to resonate with people like Shahzad. Our ultimate goal, therefore, ought to be to lower our footprint (including the shadow cast by Predator and Reaper strikes) as soon as we possibly can.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
We've all had the experience of suddenly realizing what we should have said, but long after the opportunity to say it has passed. (On Seinfeld, George Costanza was once obsessed with this problem). Anyway, it happened to me last week, during a seminar with Special Representative for Afghanistan/Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, prior to his public appearance at the Institute of Politics Forum here.
During the discussion, I asked Holbrooke a less-than-inspired question and he gave a perfectly reasonable if not especially illuminating answer. (It was an off-the-record session so I can't tell you what I asked or what he said. But trust me, it wasn't a very good question). And then an hour later, as I was traveling home, I realized what I should have asked him.
Some of you may recall Holbrooke's remark at a conference in DC last August, when he defined success in Afghanistan with "the Supreme Court test: we'll know it when we see it." (The reference is to Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of pornography). That's a bit vague, as several critics noted at the time. But it raises the question that I wish I had asked: How would Holbrooke identify or define failure? In other words, what developments or events in Afghanistan and Pakistan would lead him, in his best professional judgment, to advise President Obama that our efforts there were not working and that it was time to disengage?
To ask the question is not to hope for an unsuccessful outcome; or even to suggest that one thinks failure is likely. But unless we are willing to stay in Afghanistan forever no matter what, we need to be as alert for signs that our efforts aren't working as we are in looking for signs of success.
I missed my chance, but maybe a reader out there will get the chance to pose the question down the road. I'd love to hear what he says.
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I've been trying to make sense of the recent news from Afghanistan and Pakistan, so let me share my musings here. There's no question that the news from the past week or so is encouraging. The Marine-led effort to clear the Taliban out of the Afghan city of Marjah appears to be going well (despite some obvious mishaps, like the accidental killing of a dozen Afghan civilians by an errant rocket attack), and the capture of a top Pakistani Taliban commander is likely to weaken those forces and suggests that the Pakistani government is taking this fight more seriously.
These are encouraging signs, and we should all hope that progress like this continues. Whether you supported Obama's escalation of the war or not, the obvious way to end America's costly and distracting efforts in Central Asia is to achieve a rapid victory that enables us to withdraw. I'm still not optimistic about our long-term prospects (or convinced that it is as vital a contest as others think) but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong on this one.
That said, there are several reasons why it's premature to be hoisting the "Mission Accomplished" sign at this stage (and to be fair, I haven't seen anyone doing that yet).
First, most of the accounts we are getting from Marjah are from official sources or embedded journalists, and these initial reports often tend to highlight achievements unless the operation is a complete disaster. In short, there may be a bit of an upward bias in the reports we've seen so far.
Second, it is always difficult to know whether a tactical success is strategically significant, especially in this sort of engagement. There was never much question about the Marines' ability to expel the Taliban, the only question was how much resistance they would face and what the casualty ratios might be. Casualties do not seem to be that high on either side, however, which suggests that many (though not all) of the Taliban have slipped away to fight another day. That problem has always been one of our major strategic challenges, especially given the porous Afghan/Pakistani border. How can the United States and its allies pacify the entire country, when the adversary can flee and wait us out?
Third, as others have already noted, the real issues are 1) will Afghan security forces will be able to hold the area after the Marines move on, and 2) can the various groups and factions in Afghanistan achieve a workable political formula that will stabilize the country and (eventually) permit the United States and NATO to withdraw? Unfortunately, as Juan Cole notes today, there are still good reasons to be skeptical about the ongoing effort to train reliable Afghan police and security forces. And there are still few signs of genuine political reconciliation (or even compromise).
What I can't decide is whether the capture of Mullah Baradar is a step forward or something more ambiguous. On the one hand, it's hard not to be pleased by signs that Pakistan is taking the counter-Taliban campaign more seriously, and equally hard to be displeased when a top Taliban military commander is no longer in the field (and is presumably giving up useful information while in custody). But as the Times notes today, this development may also give Pakistan a bigger voice in the deliberations over Afghanistan, and its past support for the Afghan Taliban hasn't always been constructive (at least, not from the U.S. point of view).
The lesson I draw from all this -- admittedly speculative -- is that U.S. military efforts in Central Asia need to supplemented by even more energetic efforts at regional diplomacy. We don't have the military forces, staying power, cultural insight, or influence to play unilateral "kingmaker" in that part of the world, and we ought to be putting as much of the burden on regional actors as we can. So it may be a good thing if the Pakistanis now have a more credible claim to a place at the table, provided we seize the opportunity and are open to a wide range of possibilities. Paging Ambassador Holbrooke?
The key thing to remember is that we ultimately don't care very much who is running Afghanistan or Pakistan, provided that whoever is in charge isn't giving anti-American terrorists free rein to attack the United States, and in the case of Pakistan, provided they are maintaining reliable control over its nuclear arsenals. Helping the regional actors work out a modus vivendi may be our best strategy, even if the outcome doesn't conform perfectly to our own ideals or political values.
So I see the past week or so as somewhat encouraging, but I'm not breaking out the champagne yet. And neither should anyone else.
UPDATE: In my haste this AM, I mistakenly referred to the captured
Taliban official, Mullah Baradar, as a member of the Pakistani
Taliban. That’s wrong: he is/was of course part of the Afghan
Taliban (though he was hiding out in Pakistan before he was
captured). My bad. And I'm still not sure what it tells us about
Pakistan's overall aims at this point.
A reader also challenged whether it makes sense to refer to Marjah as a city. Wikipedia gives its population as 85,000 or so, swelling to 125,000 if you include the surrounding areas, and Radio Free Europe described it as a "large village." CNN used the term “city” in a recent background story, and the video found here makes it look like either term would be appropriate. So I’ll stand by my original use of the word, but would happily defer to anyone who’s actually been there and has a different and well-informed view.
For additional “musings” on what all this might mean, see here.
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I'm crashing to finish a conference paper on why "wars of choice" last so long (and how to end them), so blogging will be fairly light this week. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at the CSPAN broadcast of a conference on Capitol Hill last week on Afghanistan policy, sponsored by the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy. Most of the speakers were thoughtful and worth a listen, although I was struck by how even the advocates of "staying the course" did not seem very confident of success. The "outside the box" perspective (in other words, disengagement) was represented by Chris Preble of CATO and yours truly. If you're interested in what we had to say, my presentation begins at about 2:35.00 into the broadcast, and Chris is right after me.
I've been out of town for the past 24 hours and unable to blog, but I did want to alert you to a new piece I've written on Afghanistan. Unlike many of the pundits who are now telling Obama what to do, I think it's actually a rather easy call (assuming, of course, your first priority is the U.S. national interest).
If you want to know why I think so, go here.
I watched the Frontline documentary on Afghanistan ("Obama's War") Tuesday night, and most of my concerns got reinforced. One should watch most documentaries with a skeptical eye, because skilled filmmakers can easily slant the story by omitting any footage that doesn't fit the impression they are trying to leave and by shaping the story in ways that reinforce a particular conclusion.
Nonetheless, the presentation didn't offer much grounds for hope, and even the on-screen advocates of a continued U.S. effort (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, CNAS President John Nagl, etc.) didn't sound very encouraging. I think McChrystal and maybe even Holbrooke know they've got a loser on their hands, and were operating in damage-limitation mode. As others have noted, the on-screen interviews with Pakistani officials made it clear that they are playing a double-game here; they've been in bed with the Afghan Taliban for years and are even less reliable partners than the Karzai government, no matter how much aid we dump on them. To believe we can eke out something resembling "victory" in these circumstances is like believing one could drain the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon. And watching the footage of U.S. Marines attempting to do the impossible made me admire their dedication and raw courage and resent like hell the strategic myopia that sent them on this fool's errand.
Remember that the main justification for our counterinsurgency campaign is the "safe haven" argument: We must defeat the Taliban to prevent Al Qaeda from regaining a sanctuary there. A recent presentation by Richard Barrett, coordinator of the United Nations' Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, suggests that this may not be much of a problem (h/t: John Mueller).
Money quotes (from pp. 17 and 23 of the PDF file):
p. 17: "If I could just talk a little bit about Afghanistan and al-Qaida, the link between al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban is a historic one but not a very strong one, in my view. The Afghan Taliban have their own objectives. And their objectives are to take power in Afghanistan. Essentially, it's a local issue for them. Al-Qaida can join the party; fine, they can help them, but to a certain extent, al-Qaida doesn't help them because if – and I think Mullah Omar's made this very clear – if they take over in Afghanistan, they want to consolidate their power. They don't want to be kicked out again like they were in 2001. And to consolidate their power, they don't want al-Qaida hanging around. They want to be able to say we are a responsible government; we're not going to support anybody who meddles in the business of our neighbors or in other international countries or partners.
Well, you might say well, they'd say that anyway; why wouldn't they – why shouldn't they say that? But I don't think they lose a lot if they don't say that. They don't gain a lot by saying it and they don't lose a lot by not saying it. So I think that we could possibly think that we might take them at the face value – that they would not automatically allow Afghanistan to become a base for al-Qaida…"
p. 23: "I'm not sure that if the Taliban took over in Afghanistan that they would necessarily welcome al-Qaida back in great forces, particularly if al-Qaida was going back there to set up camps to train people to mount attacks against other countries. I think the Taliban must calculate that had it not been for 9/11 they'd still be empowering Kabul now today, that no one would have come to kick them out. It was only 9/11 that caused them to lose power. So you know, they lost all that time, and if they get back they perhaps don't want to make that same mistake again."
If the Frontline report was mostly accurate and Barrett is mostly correct, there are no good strategic reasons to wage a costly counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It's no more the "good war" than Iraq was, and Obama is deluding himself if he thinks he can achieve a meaningful victory there.
Postscript: If Obama wants a more promising strategy -- and Lord knows he should -- he should take a look at Robert Pape's op-ed in today's New York Times. Readers here know that I'm in favor of the "offshore balancing" strategy that Pape outlines, and not just in Afghanistan. I believe we will eventually head in that directon, but as Winston Churchill once noted about America, only after "trying all the alternatives."
If you want to keep up with the debate on Afghanistan, you should obviously be reading FP's AfPak Channel. But here are a few other items of special note:
2. A new CATO Institute report on how to get out.
3. An open letter from the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy on why Obama should rethink his Afghan "strategy." (Full disclosure: I'm one of the signatories).
4. What Sarah Palin and the guys who thought invading Iraq was a good idea think now. For some reason the phrase "caveat emptor" springs to mind.
5. Tom Englehardt is skeptical of benchmarks, but offers a long list of his own.
JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images
Why is Afghanistan so hard? It's not difficult to think of reasons: 1) the long-standing divisions among the various tribal/ethnic groups that make up Afghan society, 2) the mountainous, inhospitable terrain, 3) lack of infrastructure, 4) weak governmental institutions and little history of centralized authority, 5) the destructive effects of many years of warfare, 6) endemic corruption, 7) traditional hostility to foreign occupation, etc. ... Given all that, it is hardly surprising that outside efforts to rebuild the country and establish a legitimate central government have thus far failed to accomplish very much.
If that weren't enough, our efforts there are also hampered by some inherent strategic contradictions. In particular, most of the things the United States might do to improve the situation tend to make other aspects of the problem worse. Even if we make progress on one dimension, it tends to set us back in some other way. Here are five reasons why running harder seems to leave us in the same place.
1. If the U.S. does more, others do less.
The United States didn't want NATO's help when it first went into Afghanistan in 2002. As one U.S. official put it at the time, "the more allies you have, the more permissions you have to get." Those days are long past, however, and the Obama administration would love to get more help from its allies. Unfortunately, working with lots of allies creates obvious coordination problems (e.g., the recent airstrike at German instigation that killed a number of Afghan civilians), and public support for the war is visibly waning in Europe (as it is in the United States). Even worse, there is a basic contradiction between the Obama administration's decision to increase US force levels and its desire to get greater allied assistance. As the well-known theory of collective goods tells us, the more we do, the more that other states will be tempted to "free-ride," leaving Uncle Sam holding the bag.
2. The more money we put in, the more corrupt Afghanistan will become.
Afghanistan has two main industries: opium growing and international assistance. It also has an endemic problem with corruption. Even if various forms of external assistance do accomplish some worthy tasks, it also tends to reinforce the other dysfunctional behaviors that have plagued the Karzai regime since its inception. In short, even well-intentioned and admirable efforts to help the Afghan people in concrete ways may not leave us in a better position overall.
3. If we keep telling the Afghans that we are "here to stay," they may believe us. And some of them won't like it.
We are often told that we need to persuade the Afghan people that we will stay long enough to "finish the job," and that we aren't going to leave precipitously. But anything we do to convince them that we intend to stay for a long time inevitably makes us look like a foreign occupier with ulterior motives. Thus, efforts to make our commitment look more credible also makes it look more sinister to some Afghans, and make it easier for the Taliban to recruit sympathizers.
4. The more prestige we commit, the less leverage we have.
This is an old story: increasing the U.S. commitment makes us more dependent on whoever we are currently backing (whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan), which in turn gives us less leverage over their conduct. Increasing troop levels makes us more dependent on supply lines through Pakistan, which makes it harder to press the Pakistani government to go after al Qaeda or undertake other reforms. Doubling down in Afghanistan also ties us more firmly to the Karzai government, despite the reliable reports of widespread fraud in the recent election. Once we decide that a client regime "cannot be allowed to fail," our ability to influence its conduct evaporates quickly. Once again, trying to do more achieves less than we expect.
5. The paradox of publicity.
President Obama has defended his policies by declaring it a "war of necessity," thereby highlighting the importance of the conflict. That's a necessary step in a democracy, but it inevitably draws more public attention to the conflict and places a premium on showing significant progress within a reasonable amount of time. After eight years, public support is going to wane if clear positive signs aren't forthcoming, which means the Taliban can play for time and tailor their efforts toward U.S. public opinion.
It's possible that clever leadership can overcome or mitigate each of these tensions, but it won't be easy. And these (and other) contradictions might help us understand why the current effort in Afghanistan is likely to fail, even if we devote a lot more resources to it and even if the people in charge do their best.
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I'm clearing off my desk today and working on the opening lecture for my graduate IR theory course, so I'm not going to try to write a detailed commentary. Instead, let me take this opportunity to pass on a few pieces that caught my eye, on a wide array of subjects.
1. From the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore comes an optimistic assessment on the status of the Pakistani Taliban. According to Khuram Iqbal, the Pakistani Taliban have failed to gain popular support, and show no signs of becoming an effective mass movement (akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon). Instead, they are increasingly seen as a narrower terrorist group, reinforced their unpopularity. While they remain a problem to be dealt with, fears that the Pakistani state was on the verge of collapse or that the entire country might be "Talibanized" seem to have been greatly overblown. (Juan Cole: take a bow).
2. There is a fascinating article by Richard Oliver Collin in the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, entitled "Words of War: Iraq's Tower of Babel." It is a careful analysis of the extraordinary degree of linguistic diversity and fragmentation in Iraq, and it underscores how ill-prepared the United States was to try to occupy and govern the place. Money quote from Collin's conclusion:
It cannot be argued that enhanced language proficiency in Arabic and Kurdish would assure military victory for the United States in its conflict with the various Iraqi insurgent groups. Language capability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for triumph in war and diplomacy. The evidence does strongly suggest, however, that American inability to create a basic communications capability has contributed importantly to the failure of the United States thus far to resolve its Middle Eastern problems at some minimally acceptable level ... Can this historical trend be changed? There is no reason to believe that the present spate of Middle Eastern difficulties is going to be the last chapter in America's involvement in the Middle East ....
The United States historically has attempted to pursue a policy of intense involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, sometimes diplomatic and sometimes military, but without a concomitant commitment to understanding the region's culture, religion, and particularly its languages. Since American foreign policy in the Middle East policy has never been more than sporadically successful, an argument can be made that Washington needs to match its military investment with a serious commitment to language and area studies. Language lessons are cheaper than tanks, and if America's linguists were good enough, the United States might not need quite so many tanks."
Note: he says linguistic competence is "necessary but not sufficient," so please don't assume that training some more linguists would suddenly give us a magical capability to reorder other countries at low cost.
3. If you're just now trying to catch up on the situation in Afghanistan (and why haven't you been reading the AfPak Channel here at FP?), a good short introduction is Thomas Billetteri, "Afghanistan Dilemma," CQ Researcher, available here. (Full disclosure: I'm quoted a couple of times, but so are lots of other people with varying views.) Billetteri takes no position on the policy choices facing us, but the piece is an excellent introduction to the issues.
4. I've also just finished a fascinating paper by two economists from the Universidad de los Andes, analyzing the effect of Plan Colombia on the production and distribution of drugs (e.g., cocaine). The analysis is fairly technical and some of the math is beyond me, but it's clearly a serious attempt to determine the impact of different policies and how the different actors involved (the U.S. and Colombian governments, the drug growers, the drug smugglers, etc.) interact in a strategic fashion. Among other things, the authors (Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo) show that although Plan Colombia's drug eradication efforts have reduced the amount of acreage under cultivation by nearly 50 percent, actual cocaine production has decreased by only 11 percent and the prices of coca leaf, coca paste, and actual cocaine have remained fairly stable. Why? Because growers responded to eradication efforts by adopting more productive cultivation techniques, thereby producing nearly the same amount of cocaine from smaller amounts of land.
They also demonstrate that the Colombian and U.S. governments have conflicting interests in pursuing the "war on drugs." Specifically, the Colombian government benefits far more from every dollar spent on eradication efforts (i.e., against drug production) because that takes money away from the growers (and thus the insurgency). By contrast, the United States gets a larger "bang from the buck" from drug interdiction (i.e., against drug trafficking) because the main U.S. interest is in trying to keep cocaine out of the United States. Here's a summary of their main findings:
We find, among many other things, that a three-fold increase in the U.S. budget allocated to Plan Colombia would decrease the amount of cocaine reaching consumer countries by about 19.5% (about 60,000 kg). We also estimate that the elasticity of the cocaine reaching consumer countries with respect to changes in the amount of resources invested in the war against illegal drug production is about 0.007%, whereas the elasticity with respect to changes in the amount of resources invested in the war against illegal drug trafficking is about 0.296%. In other words, if the main objective is to reduce the amount of drugs reaching consumer countries, targeting illegal drug trafficking is much more cost effective than targeting illegal drug production activities. However, if the objective is to reduce the cost of conflict in Colombia, targeting drug production activities is more cost effective .... Furthermore, we find that the optimal allocation of resources from the point of view of the U.S., whose objective is to minimize the amount of cocaine reaching its borders, implies that all the U.S. assistance to Plan Colombia should be for the war against drug trafficking. From the point of view of Colombia, whose objective is to minimize the total cost of internal conflict, the optimal allocation would imply that all the U.S. assistance for Plan Colombia should go to finance the war against drug production."
I'm sure one can raise questions about their analysis, but this is the sort of work that really ought to be informing the debate over whether Plan Colombia is working and how U.S. assistance should be allocated.
I’ll be at a luncheon panel at The Century Foundation tomorrow, discussing Central Asia strategy with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress and Francesc Vendrell, the former EU special representative in Afghanistan. As readers know, I’m something of a skeptic about our deepening involvement in this region, and I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion.
We’re getting lots of encouraging reports about the Pakistani army’s current offensive in the Swat Valley, and I hope the optimism is justified. But two features of the situation give me pause. First, the area has been pretty much off-limits to journalists, and we are therefore relying almost entirely on the Pakistani army's reporting of its own achievements. Needless to say, there is a long and rich history (and not just in Pakistan) of militaries exaggerating their achievements on the battlefield. And even if they have killed a fair number of Taliban fighters and forced the rest to flee, the real question is whether the gains will endure. Remember that it was an unnamed "senior Administration official" who warned at the outset "they'll displace the Taliban for awhile. But there will also be a lot of displaced persons and a lot of collateral damage. And then they won't be able to sustain those effects or extend the gains geographically."
That’s my second concern: does it make strategic sense to displace upwards of three million people in order to go after around four thousand Taliban, most of whom aren't "global terrorists" in the same way that al Qaeda is? The Pakistani army has reported only light losses thus far, which suggests they aren’t risking their own soldiers in careful counter-insurgency operations but are relying instead on firepower and other indiscriminate tactics (which helps explain why people are fleeing in such large numbers and could be why the region has been off-limits to reporters). If the operation has left a lot of destruction in its wake, as seems likely, will it make the government or the Taliban more popular in the long run? And given that we helped egg the Pakistani government into this, are we likely to get blamed for it down the road?
McClatchy News reports that the United States is planning to spend over $700 million dollars to build a major new embassy complex in Pakistan, while negotiating to purchase a five-star hotel to serve as the new consulate in Peshawar. These new facilities are intended to support the "surge" of diplomats and aid workers that the United States intends to deploy as part of President Obama's deepening involvement in Central Asia. The obvious comparison is to the huge U.S. embassy in Iraq (which cost nearly $600 million dollars and occupies on 104 acres (in downtown Baghdad), but I’m also reminded of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, which was one of the largest U.S. facilities in the 1970s and was later occupied by Iranian students in the infamous 1980 hostage incident.
I'm all for providing U.S. officials with adequate facilities, but this idea merely underscores the inherent contradictions in the current U.S. approach. One of America's main problems in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan is the widespread popular belief that it is now addicted to interfering in these societies, usually in a heavy-handed and counter-productive way. In their eyes, Washington is constantly telling them which leaders to choose, which leaders should step down, which extremists to go after and how they should reorder their own societies to make them more compatible with our values. And oh yes, we also drop bombs and fire missiles into their territory, which we would regard as an act of war if anyone did it to us. Even when well-intentioned, these activities inevitably lend themselves to various conspiracy theories about America's "real" motives, and reinforce negative impressions of the United States. As of last year, only 19 percent of Pakistan’s population had a favorable view of the United States, and this hardly makes it easier to get meaningful cooperation on issues that we should (and do) care about, such as the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Building a costly new embassy -- which will undoubtedly resemble a giant fortress -- is not going to help win "hearts and minds" there, or allay concerns about our ambitions in that part of the world. And if we need a facility like that in order to execute our overall strategy, doesn’t that cast some doubt on the merits of the strategy itself?
At the New Yorker blog, Steve Coll reports that the U.S. Congress is preparing a five-year $1.5 billion per annum non-military aid package for Pakistan, with full support from the Obama administration. (You can read the text of the legislation, entitled the "Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act," here.)
This step sounds impressive, until one remembers that Pakistan's population is nearly 180 million and its GDP in 2006 was about $144 billion. So the aid package amounts to around a 1 percent increase in Pakistani GDP, which works out to about $8 for each Pakistani. In other words, the U.S. Congress is going to increase their per capita income from $850 per year to about $858. (It's actually less than that, because some of the money goes to administrative expenses, auditing, and the like.)
This act might have some symbolic value, and I'm willing to assume that a few good things might get done with the money. But let's not forget that Pakistan has already received about $45 billion of U.S. economic and military aid since 1946 (measured in constant 2007 dollars), so it’s not like $1.5 billion today is going to work miracles. Moreover, because money is fungible, even careful accounting can't prevent Pakistan from shifting some of its own resources to other areas, which means the areas we are trying to help (such as education and public health) may not get that much better.
Overall, it's hard for me to believe it will have much effect on the lives of ordinary Pakistanis or do much to erode the endemic anti-Americanism there. Pakistan actually got a big influx of money after 9/11 (due in part to increased U.S. aid and also to a lot of reverse capital flight), yet the increased cash either went to the army or tended to fuel financial and real estate speculation instead of genuine economic growth. Moreover, even with the best of intentions, big aid initiatives like this one are bound to reinforce perceptions that the United States is perennially interfering in Pakistani society, which probably reinforces hostility and suspicion.
Instead of another aid package, we could probably do more to help Pakistan by removing U.S. tariffs on Pakistani exports (e.g., textiles), which would benefit Pakistani producers and American consumers alike. But that would trigger opposition from domestic interests here, so Congress will just adopt the politically convenient but less helpful step of appropriating more money.
I spent the weekend catching up on some of my reading, and I'll blog about some other items later today or later in the week. Here are two short pieces that caught my eye.
1. Another warning on our AfPak "strategy."
Graham Fuller -- former CIA station chief in Kabul and vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council during the Reagan administration -- casts some cold water on our whole approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. His leap-into-the-obvious: "the situation in Pakistan has gone from bad to worse as a direct consequence of the US war raging on the Afghan border." His deeper insight: "the deeply entrenched Islamic and tribal character of Pashtun rule in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan will not be transformed by invasion or war." His warnings: "occupation everywhere creates hatred," and "Pakistan is beginning to crack under the relentless pressure directly exerted by the US." His good news: "The Pashtuns on either side of the [Af-Pak] border will fight on for a major national voice in Afghanistan. But few Pashtuns on either side of the border will long maintain a radical and international jihadi perspective once the incitement of the US presence is gone." His advice: "let non-military and neutral international organizations, free of geopolitical taint, take over the binding of Aghan wounds and the building of state structures."
If Fuller is right, then our entire approach to the region—which basically consists of using various heavy-handed instruments to force these societies to accept our political values and institutions—is fundamentally misguided. I wonder if anyone in the Obama administration has talked to him.
2. Ahmadinejad is Not Nice, but He's (Fortunately) Not Hitler. Meanwhile, from Israel, Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom accuses Shimon Peres of trivializing the Holocaust, explains why Iran is not Nazi Germany, and reminds us that the best way to undermine Iranian influence is to move swiftly to a two-state solution. I wonder what would happen if we had someone like Avnery writing a weekly column for a major U.S. media source like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Avnery was a member of the Irgun, fought in the 1948 war, and served in the Knesset, so his credentials as an Israeli patriot would seem to be well-established. Yet he has also been a tireless and outspoken advocate for peace for decades, sometimes at great costs. Yet for some reason the WSJ op-ed page thinks Americans will be better informed if they hear only from people like Bret Stephens, Bernard Lewis, Elliot Abrams or Fouad Ajami, despite their appalling track record in recent years, instead of someone like Avnery.
Americans wonder why the U.S. position in the Middle East keeps deteriorating, and one reason for their confusion is that elite publications like the Journal feed readers only one side of the story, no matter how discredited it's become. The Journal (and plenty of other U.S. media outlets) could do everyone a public service by promoting a wider range of views on its op-ed page, but its editors seem to think democracy is best served by a diversity of opinion that is about as broad as what one used to see in Pravda.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Should we talk to the Taliban or not? Hassani Sherjan says we shouldn't, because they are "one of the most repressive organizations on earth." For him, the key to success is "making changes at the community level." In particular:
The government and its allies can best weaken the insurgency by better protecting the population, organizing local citizens' groups to cooperate on economic development, and hiring more people from every part of the country into the growing Afghan Army and police force."
But who's going to pay for the massive increase in the Afghan army and police that he's recommending (and that seems to be a key part of current U.S. plans)? Afghanistan's economy has only two main sectors: opium cultivation and foreign assistance (comprising nearly 80 percent of Afghan GDP). We're trying to eradicate the former (which means Afghans end up growing less lucrative crops), which will make it harder for the central government get sufficient revenues to support larger security forces. So where will they get them? Answer: from you and me and other folks in the "international community." Given that the Afghan economy won’t have the resources to support all those hired guns for years (if ever), we are in effect making Afghanistan a permanent ward. According to William Byrd at the World Bank:
While there is a strong case for larger and more effective Afghan security forces, this will cost substantial amounts of additional money -- roughly estimated at up to $2 billion per year. It is clear that Afghanistan will be unable to provide anywhere near this amount from its own revenues for many years -- likely two decades -- to come. Indeed, projections suggest that additional security sector expenditures at such levels will exceed the country’s entire domestic revenues (currently in the US$700 million range per annum) for more than a decade."
That reality suggests that negotiations designed to probe Taliban intentions and to test their cohesion deserve a serious look. On that point, see Andrew Blandford's discussion of the pros and cons of negotiations at the Harvard Negotiation Law Journal. He's no idealist, and is obviously aware of the pitfalls of premature talks. But his bottom line is sharply at odds with Sherjan's adamant rejection of any talks:
The U.S. must pursue numerous strategies if it is to fulfill its objectives in Afghanistan: it must convince Pakistan to increase its pressure on the Taliban in the tribal areas, compel NATO allies to dedicate more troops to Afghanistan, and build the capacity of the Afghan government to provide much-needed services to its people in order to lure them back from the appeal of authoritarian stability. These strategies are not alternatives to a negotiated agreement, but rather complements to negotiating with the reconcilables. Barring total victory for the U.S. over a pervasive, locally-based force, the question is not whether we will negotiate with the Taliban, but when, under what circumstances, and with which members? It may indeed be too soon to push for direct talks with the Taliban because the conditions are not yet ripe to negotiate an acceptable outcome for the U.S., and serious costs may result. But it is probably never too soon for indirect talks, in order to feel out the Taliban's interests and seek a path to a ZOPA [zone of potential agreement] -- all while striving to increase bargaining power by improving the U.S.'s BATNA [best alternative to no agreement] and decreasing the attractiveness of the Taliban's BATNA."
If Richard Holbrooke read the Times this morning, I hope he reads this, too.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.