One of the hardest things for a great power to do is reverse course when it's made a strategic blunder, especially when it involves a war. Fred Ikle wrote a whole book about this problem -- the classic Every War Must End -- where he described many of political obstacles that getting in the way of cutting one's losses and either making peace or just getting out. You know some of the reasons: politicians don't like to admit they screwed up, the fallacy of "sunk costs" continues to drive policy, the military doesn't like admitting defeat, etc. And even when the decision to end a war is made, it usually takes longer to get out than it should.
Case in point: Afghanistan. I don't know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn't going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn't going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to "surge" there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.
Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave. The corrupt Karzai government has been giving us a hard time about the terms under which the residual force would operate, however, and insisting that we accept their terms if we wanted to stay.
But instead of seizing this free gift and saying "da khoday pa amaan" ("goodbye" in Pashto), Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials have done a full-court press to persuade Karzai & Co. to let us keep pouring resources into this bottomless pit. To do that, reports the New York Times, U.S. officials "are planning a more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are not squandered or pilfered."
I have two comments. First, if you've read any of the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), you'd know that vast sums of money have been squandered already. It therefore beggars belief that we're going to do a better job of monitoring Afghan spending of our aid programs with a smaller force. Bottom line: a lot of the money spent in the future is just going to disappear.
Second, this whole enterprise looks like a can-kicking, face-saving operation, precisely the sort of long, drawn-out end that Ikle and others have described. In this regard, it is revealing to read what retired general David Barno, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2003-05, told the Times we are going to get for this extra effort (my emphasis):
"The most important thing we can do is keep writing checks so the Afghan National Security Forces can remain funded - fuel, food, weapons, salaries. . . If that continues, they will be at least able to maintain a stalemate with the Taliban, and that is enough to keep the state up and running."
That's right: more than ten years of war, and we've managed to create a corrupt central government that cannot defeat the Taliban (who aren't getting $4 billion a year in US aid, by the way). The government can manage a stalemate, but only if Uncle Sucker keeps thousands of troops there and keeps the money flowing. . . presumably forever.
I don't quite know how to describe this policy, but I sure wouldn't use the word "strategy."
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Last Friday I posted an entry on America's "one-sided" war on terrorism, arguing that the country has focused enormous efforts on deterring, thwarting, or killing suspected terrorists and hardly any effort on removing the incentives or grievances that might make someone join a terrorist organization. The very same day, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution posted an article on the Daily Beast, arguing that various al Qaeda affiliates are making a significant comeback in places like Iraq and Syria.
Precisely my point. Undoubtedly, some pundits will interpret Riedel's article as evidence that the United States should have been even more aggressive and should have stayed in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or wherever for as long as it took. This argument overlooks the tremendous costs of these operations -- including their degrading effects on Army performance and morale -- as well as their inherently self-defeating character. Given that opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activity -- especially suicide bombings -- maintaining an extensive military footprint in the Arab and Islamic world is a recipe for endless war. Even more limited operations like drone strikes have been tactically effective but are strategically questionable, precisely because they give jihadi recruiters a constant pool of angry locals from which to draw and vindicate their claims that the United States is unalterably addicted to violent interference in their societies.
Indeed, the real lesson of Riedel's article is that much of the so-called "war on terror" has been misguided to the point of foolishness. It was both smart and necessary to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but letting Osama bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora was a massive command failure. It was dumb to take on the task of nation-building in Afghanistan, and even dumber to invade Iraq in 2003. It was both immoral and counterproductive to torture captured terrorists (it tarnished America's image and didn't yield better intelligence) and obtuse not to rethink other aspects of the United States' Middle East policy. The post-9/11 TSA regime has been a colossal waste of resources that has added little to Americans' overall level of security. And vacuuming up gazillions of bytes of email and phone records merely proved that government agencies operating in secret will invariably grow like Topsy, without making Americans significantly safer. As Riedel suggests, none of these activities has prevented al Qaeda and its copycats from making a comeback.
What is needed is a much more fundamental rethinking of the entire anti-terrorism campaign. As I suggested last week, part of that rethink means asking whether the United States needs to do a lot more to discredit jihadi narratives, instead of persisting with policies that make the extremists' charges sound plausible to their audiences. A second part is to keep the jihadi threat in better perspective: They are a challenge, but not a mortal threat to Americans' way of life unless the country reacts to them in ways that cause more damage to its well-being and its values than they do. Sadly, a rational ranking of costs, benefits, and threats seems to be something that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is largely incapable of these days.
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Did the "surge" work in Afghanistan? The Obama administration would like you to think that it did, mostly so that it can declare victory and get out. I'm all in favor of the latter option, but let's not deceive ourselves about the wisdom of the Afghan surge itself.
Courtesy of Belfer Center fellow Matt Waldman, the chart above nicely captures why escalating was a bad idea in 2009. Contrary to claims that we've "broken the back" of the Taliban, this chart (based on official ISAF figures) shows that the Taliban remains a potent force. U.S. casualties increased significantly as the surge proceeded, and the pace in 2012 is roughly similar to the toll the previous two years. Whatever else we may have accomplished, we don't seem to have retarded the Taliban's ability to kill and wound our soldiers very much.
Equally important, the final column (based on figures reported by Simon Klingert) suggests that the Taliban's ability to inflict casualties on Afghan security forces (ANSF) remains undiminished. Given that U.S. hopes of a "soft landing" following withdrawal depend on the ANSF taking up the fight themselves, this does not augur well for Afghanistan's post-American future.
And not to beat a dead horse, but if four more years of effort haven't altered the basic strategic realities, then what does that tell you about the people who lobbied forcefully for the surge back in 2009?
I hadn't even finished my morning coffee, but one didn't have to be fully awake to detect a bit of tension between these two headlines in today's New York Times:
The first story details the various reasons why the long and costly U.S. effort to train Afghan security forces is mostly failing (illiteracy, desertion, corruption, etc.). The second story suggests we've learned little from that experience, and that U.S. leaders again think the way to achieve our aims in Libya is to get U.S. military officers in there to teach Libyans how to be good soldiers. Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that this is something we know how to do, particularly in these contexts.
I know, I know: Libya is not Afghanistan, and training a small elite force is a lot easier than trying to build an entire national army from scratch. But we're going to face some similar problems (i.e., diversion of funds or weapons by corrupt Libyans, mistrust among the Libyans we're trying to recruit and train, infiltration by extremists with the wrong agendas, etc.). And some Libyans are bound to suspect that the real purpose of the training effort is to cement American influence (which, in a way, it is). There's also the danger that we'll succeed, and end up creating the nucleus of a new authoritarian regime.
But as you may have noticed, concerns like that rarely stop us from meddling in other societies. I hope this new effort works, but our recent track record doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.
According to yesterday's New York Times, assorted "senior American officials" are upset that adversaries like al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Somali pirates are not simply rolling over and dying. Instead, these foes are proving to be "resilient," "adaptable," and "flexible." These same U.S. officials are also worried that the United States isn't demonstrating the same grit, as supposedly revealed by high military suicide rates, increased reports of PTSD, etc. According to Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, these developments
"raise concerns that the United States is losing ground in the New Darwinism of security threats, in which an agile enemy evolves in new ways to blunt America's vast technological prowess with clever homemade bombs and anti-American propaganda that helps supply a steady stream of fighters."
Or as Shanker and Schmitt put it (cue the scary music): "Have we become America the brittle?"
This sort of pop sociology is not very illuminating, especially when there's no evidence presented to support the various officials' gloomy pronouncements. In fact, the glass looks more than half-full. Let's start by remembering that the Somali pirates and al Qaeda have been doing pretty badly of late. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden is down sharply, Osama bin Laden is dead, and his movement's popularity is lower than ever. Whatever silly dreams he might have had about restoring the caliphate have proven to be just hollow fantasies. And as John Mueller and Mark Stewart showed in an article I linked to a few weeks ago, the actual record of post-9/11 plots against the United States suggests that these supposedly "agile" and "resilient" conspirators are mostly bumbling incompetents. In fact, Lehman Bros. might be the only major world organization that had a worse decade than al Qaeda did.
Second, and more importantly, the degree of battle fatigue that the United States might be experiencing has less to do with the "war on terror" per se and more to do with our decision to take our eye off the ball and do a lot of other things instead. The single most costly thing the United States has done since 9/11 -- in terms of both lives and money and strain on our forces -- was invading Iraq, but Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. (Repeat after me: Nothing.) Similarly, the United States invaded Afghanistan to catch bin Laden and oust the Taliban, but that mission eventually morphed into a much more ambitious and ill-defined campaign of nation-building that has not -- ahem -- gone very well. If U.S. military forces are stretched thin, tired, or showing signs of strain, it is because U.S. leaders made bad strategic choices. Even so, I'd argue that U.S. forces have held up remarkably well over a long and inherently difficult campaign.
As for the rest of the country, I'm not even sure how one would measure national "resiliency," but I don't see many signs that the country as a whole is curling into the fetal position. Americans are tired of fighting losing wars, especially when they don't believe there are vital interests at stake. But that's not a sign that we've lost our collective determination; it's actually a sign that the American people are pretty good at cost-benefit analysis and know a bad bet when they see one.
In fact, I think there's something quite different going on. The United States is very secure by almost any standard, and most countries in the world would be delighted to be as safe as we are. For this reason, most Americans don't worry very much about foreign policy, and the only way you can motivate them to support the sort of activist foreign policy that we've become accustomed to since 1945 is to constantly exaggerate external threats. Americans have to be convinced that their personal safety and well-being are going to be directly affected by what happens in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, or some other far-flung region, or they won't be willing to pay the costs of mucking about in these various places. Threat-mongering also depends on constantly overstating our adversaries' capabilities and denigrating our own. So senior officials tell sympathetic journalists that our foes are "resilient" and clever and resourceful, etc., while bemoaning our alleged lack of fortitude. The good news is that it's not true; if anything, Americans have been too willing to "pay any price and bear any burden" for quite some time.
One more thing: To the extent some of our adversaries do seem more willing to fight us than we are to fight them, that has a lot to do with where these wars are being waged. If somebody ever invaded the United States, I'm confident Americans would fight like tigers to throw them out. I'll bet it would be child's play to organize tough, well-armed, and resilient insurgencies against any foreign occupier of American soil. Nationalism and other forms of local identity are very powerful forces in the modern world, which is why groups like the Taliban or the Haqqani network or al Qaeda's various local copycats are able to attract local recruits and are hard for foreign occupiers to eradicate. You don't have to agree with anything these groups do or stand for to recognize that we're on their home turf, and it is hardly surprising that they care more about what happens there than we do.
Lastly, Shanker and Schmitt conclude their piece by saying that "the best weapon against terror is refusing to be terrorized. That starts with giving Americans timely, accurate information about potential threats." I agree, but assuming I'm reading them correctly, I'd draw a somewhat different conclusion. The best way to keep Americans from being "terrorized" is to remind them that the risk is extremely low -- though not zero -- and to explain further that most anti-American terrorism in the world today is largely a reaction to things the United States has been doing overseas. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey noted in 2002 that "antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically." Similarly, a 1997 study by Defense Science Board found "a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and increased terrorist attacks on the United States."
Nothing has changed much since then. The connection between U.S. foreign policy and anti-American terrorism does not necessarily mean that U.S. foreign policy is wrong or misguided; perhaps terrorism is just part of the price we must pay to keep doing all these things. That's a separate issue, about which reasonable people can disagree (and do). But let's at least be realistic enough to acknowledge the connection.
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Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
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Which university is more likely to defend academia's basic commitment to sharing ideas and knowledge in an open and unconstrained way, West Point or Yale? You'd probably think it would be Yale, that well-known bastion of tweedy academics and liberal values. How wrong you'd be.
As West Point faculty member Gian Gentile outlines in a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, former U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has been teaching a course at Yale's Jackson Institute of Global Affairs on strategy and leadership. Nothing wrong with that: Plenty of universities (including my own) hire practitioners to share insights from the real world with students. And I've got no problem having a former general teach a course. But in a shocking departure from normal academic practices, Yale requires students taking the course to sign a non-disclosure form, pledging that they will not divulge what is said in the course to outsiders. In other words, McChrystal is teaching an "off-the-record" course.
This restriction is so contrary to the normal practice of universities that it is hard to know where to begin. Academic institutions exist to pursue knowledge, to teach what we know to our students, and to instill in them an appreciation for free and open inquiry. The whole principle of academic freedom rests on the idea that knowledge is best advanced by allowing ideas to blossom and to be shared without restriction. In this way, good ideas can be validated and retained and bad ideas or conjectures can be scrutinized and eventually excluded. By telling students in McChrystal's class that they cannot share what they learn with others, Yale is artificially constraining the normal give-and-take of ideas. There may be vigorous discussions inside that particular classroom, but the rest of Yale (and the larger world) won't know about them. Secrecy of any kind is fundamentally at odds with the principles that universities stand for, yet here Yale has enshrined it in one of their courses.
A commitment to free and open discussion also keeps the focus on the ideas themselves, rather than on the identity or the supposed prestige of the faculty member leading the course. Giving McChrystal a special exemption immediately tells Yale students that the general is a "Very Important Person" who gets to be treated differently from other members of the faculty. Again, that's not how universities are supposed to work: People taking my courses aren't supposed to accept what I tell them because I am the professor and they are mere students. They are supposed to accept what I tell them only if I've successfully convinced them it is useful and makes sense. And they are free -- even encouraged -- to disagree with me, especially if they have good reason to do so and can make their objections stick. And I want them to talk about my courses outside of class; maybe someone they know will point out a new way to think about an issue or identify a mistake I've made. But if I made my students sign a non-disclosure form, I would limit their capacity to hold me accountable.
Requiring students to sign a non-disclosure form also sends the subtle but unmistakable signal that the instructor is imparting secret knowledge that is too hot or potentially controversial to be shared with the outside world. I can easily imagine students lapping this up -- we all like thinking we're getting info that others aren't privy to -- but this is just not how universities are supposed to work.
Yale officials might argue that McChrystal is a unique asset for their teaching program, and that the only way they could convince him to teach there was to promise him that some student wouldn't blab about the course to the Yale Daily News or the New York Times. But that argument won't wash: If McChrystal really believes what he's teaching, then he should be willing to have it openly discussed. He shouldn't be able to win arguments in the classroom by saying, "Now let me tell you about some really secret stuff I did in Afghanistan, stuff you won't find out about in books. Trust me." He should be willing to be held accountable for what he says to his students, and not just by those who happen to be sitting there (and whom he might eventually be grading). If some students disagree with him, he should be willing to have them voice their disagreements to the rest of the class, but also to their roommates, friends, parents, other faculty members, and yes, even to reporters. That's the same risk that all of us run when we teach: All of our students are free to talk about what they learn with anyone they want. What's General McChrystal so afraid of?
Yale's abandoning of its principles is itself a symptom of the growing deference that Americans now grant the professional military (and to a lesser extent, top members of the broader national security establishment). The country has been at war for over a decade, and there's an inevitable tendency for civilians to start treating those who've been fighting these wars with kid gloves. This tendency is not healthy, however, because the professional military has its own interests and world view -- as such, it is not necessarily the best judge of what is in the overall interests of the nation. National security is a topic that affects all Americans, and it is more likely to be openly and intelligently debated when we don't give any of the participants (and especially not those with particular interests in the subject) a free pass.
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Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but the new "strategic partnership" agreement between the United States and Afghanistan strikes me as little more than a fig leaf designed to make a U.S. withdrawal (which I support) look like a mutually agreed-upon "victory." It is already being spun as a signal to the Taliban, Iran, and Pakistan that the United States remains committed, and the agreement will undoubtedly be used as "evidence" that the 2009 surge is a success and that's now ok for the US to bring its forces home.
I have no problem with cosmetic gestures that facilitate doing the right thing, but let's be clear about the limited significance of the agreement itself. Although the final text of the agreement has not been made public (which itself makes one wonder both what it says and what it doesn't say), the New York Times account says that there is no specific agreement on the magnitude of future U.S. aid. Indeed, it describes the agreement as "more symbolic than substantive." We're told that Washington has pledged to support Afghanistan for another ten years, but the actual aid amounts are unspecified and will have to be voted each year by Congress. Long-term U.S. support may also be conditional on reduced corruption and Afghan reforms, but given their track record to date, it is hard to believe that the Afghans will make much progress on that front.
Ten years is a pretty long time, and a lot will happen -- including three U.S. presidential elections -- between now and 2022. The Obama and Karzai governments can make whatever promises they want to each other, but those agreements will have to be carried out by their successors and both sides can always renege by claiming that "conditions have changed." I'm not saying that the agreement is worthless, but in the end the two states will abide by its terms only if it is in their respective interest to do so. Given the volatile nature of politics throughout Central Asia, it would be folly to assume that a deal hatched now will remain in force for ten years.
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What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.
On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.
Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.
One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.
I'd like to believe this version story -- really -- and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.
I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.
Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.
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I hope to post later today on another issue, but in the meantime, here's a link to my contribution to a New York Times' "Room for Debate" forum on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The question was whether we should get out sooner or get out later. As you can read, I favor the former. Money quote:
"Afghanistan is not a vital United States interest. President Obama had said that we must prevent Al Qaeda from establishing safe havens there, but Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda already has better safe havens elsewhere. Victory in Afghanistan will not eliminate Al Qaeda, and leaving won’t make it more dangerous. If it makes no difference whether we win or lose, why fight on?"
I would only add that I don't think most Americans have any idea what the conflict in Afghanistan has really been like, or what U.S. soldiers and commanders really did and really thought. We will learn more with the passage of time, and I suspect it won't be pretty.
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Close your eyes, and imagine the following situation...
Suppose the town or city where you live had a bunch of heavily-armed foreign soldiers living nearby. As part of their normal duties, they sent patrols down your street with some frequency, bristling with guns and other instruments of war. Imagine that these soldiers were from a very different culture and nearly all of them did not speak your native language, although they could occasionally use a local translator to order you around. You have been told repeatedly that they are there to protect you, but sometimes these protective activities involve entering your neighbors' houses, arresting people, and even shooting up the place. Of course, these well-armed foreign troops have access to lots of sophisticated airpower, including helicopters, fighter-bombers, and drones, and these sophisticated gadgets fire missiles and drop bombs on suspected bad guys in your city, town, or village. Most of the time it appears that the foreign occupiers get who they were aiming at, but sometimes they make mistakes and kill your friends and neighbors. Maybe even one of your close relatives.
The question I'd ask you is this: If you had been living in such circumstances for five or ten years, do you think you and your neighbors might become resentful of those well-intentioned but heavy-handed foreigners? Do you think you might even begin to hate their intrusive interference, even if it were done with the best of intentions? If you then discovered that some of them were burning Bibles, Torahs, or the American flag, might you leave your house and join an angry demonstration, or may even try to do something worse?
If the answer to those questions is "yes," then you can probably understand why the United States and its allies are in such deep water in Afghanistan.
You see, the outburst of public rage at the idiotic burning of a bunch of Qurans actually tells you something very important about our Afghan campaign. It's not as if the news about this act suddenly swung lots of Afghans from being really fond of the United States to being really mad at us. Rather, news of the Quran burning was just a catalyst-the proverbial straw on the camel's back-that ignited resentments that have been building up for a long time.
The fact is: Nobody likes being ordered around by a tough and well-armed bunch of foreigners, and no amount of "hearts and minds" feel-good diplomacy can totally eliminate that fact. (And a lot of that COIN-speak was rhetoric intended as much to make the war sound more genteel here in the United States). That is one of the many reasons why the Obama administration was wrong to escalate the Afghan war in 2009, and why neoconservative supporters of the Afghan "surge" were as wrong about that as they were about the similar surge in Iraq. (For more on the latter issue, see Jim Sleeper's pointed commentary here).
Sending more troops to Afghanistan escalation didn't alter the trajectory of the war in any fundamental way, and this recent article in Armed Forces Journal suggests that we've been fed a bill of goods about the real conditions there. The Afghan reaction to the Quran burning is one of those moments of clarity where the real landscape is revealed, and it's not a pretty sight.
And now, all we need to do is imagine an administration that can face these facts squarely and bring this misguided effort to an end. I can't guarantee that Obama would do it in his second term (after all, he whiffed on this decision the first time around), but I'd bet he's more likely to do it than the people who hope to challenge him in November.
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I'm scrambling to get ready for a trip overseas, so today's post will be brief. I'll be participating in a conference in Berlin on "The Public Mission of the SocialSciences and Humanities," co-sponsored by the Social Science Research Counciland the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlinfür Sozialforschung. (You can find some of the papers -- including mine -- here. I'malso giving a lecture on "The Twilight of the American Era" at the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswartige Politik, and then heading off to the University ofLille in France to converse about U.S. Middle East policy. Of course, what I'm really going to be doing is trying to figure out if Europe is really headed over a cliff, and I'll be especially interested in what my German and French hosts have to say about the momentous decisions that their leaders have to make about Greece, the euro, and the whole EU experiment.
I'll blog when I can, and there may be one or two guest posts while I'm away, but in the meantime take a look at this short piece on Afghanistan by Columbia's Graciana del Castillo. It makes lots of smart points about how we ought to be approaching Afghan reconstruction, although I think she exaggerates the ability of the international community to shape events inside the country. But most importantly, the implicit assumption in her analysis is that it is time for a political solution to what is best thought of as a protracted Afghan civil war.
NATO (read: the United States) is not going to defeat the Taliban so long as the Karzai government refuses to reform or share power andas long as the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan, and there is no reason to think that the latter problem is going to be solved in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the Taliban aren'tstrong or popular enough to take over themselves. In this sort of stalemate, a negotiated settlement to devolve power to local areas, end what many Afghans see as a foreign occupation, and remove the current $100 billion per year drain on theU.S. Treasury is the smart way to go. But I haven't seen anything that suggests we're exploring that possibility with any energy, and it makes me wonder what special envoy Marc Grossman has been up to lately.
Given all the other problems on the president's plate, I'm betting this is one can that just gets kicked down the road into 2013. To little good purpose, I might add.
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It goes without saying that the accidental killing of nine Afghan boys by an American helicopter gunship was yet another public relations setback for the U.S. war effort. But more than that, I think it may also tell us a lot about how we are really waging that war, which is somewhat at odds with the rhetorical emphasis that it tends to get back home. The incident also underscores the inherent contradictions in U.S. strategy and does not augur well for our long-term prospects.
Ever since the publication of Field Manual 3-24, much of the rhetorical emphasis in U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine has been on "population protection," along with the necessity of building local institutions. As noted at the very beginning of FM 3-24: "A successful COIN operation meets the contested population's needs to the extent needed to win popular support while protecting the population from the insurgents." To win "hearts and minds," in short, a counterinsurgency force is supposed to provide security for the local population so that the enemy cannot win local support via intimidation or by exploiting local rivalries. Protecting the population is also supposed to earn their gratitude and convince them that the central government and its NATO allies are winning, so that local populations will tilt in our direction and provide us with additional intelligence, thereby allowing us to go after insurgents effectively.
This approach sounds great on paper, and it helps make the war more palatable to Americans back home. We all like to think that our armed forces are performing noble deeds, and protecting Afghan civilians from the likes of the Taliban certainly qualifies on that score. The problem, however, is that this is a misleading picture of what our forces are actually doing in Afghanistan. (It's also an oversimplification of what the Field Manual actually says because it also devotes plenty of space to the military operations that are also part of any serious counterinsurgency effort.)
The deaths of these nine Afghan boys remind us that this is a real war and that we're actually devoting a lot (most?) of our effort not to population protection but to killing suspected insurgents. U.S. reliance on airpower has increased dramatically, and USAF airstrikes are reportedly up by some 172 percent since General David Petraeus replaced Stanley McChrystal last year. The approach is also consistent with greater U.S. reliance on drone strikes in Pakistan and should be seen as part of an intensifying effort to kill as many insurgents as possible and especially to target key insurgent leaders.
Furthermore, "population protection" itself is not always a purely benign or politically neutral act. Protecting a local population often requires interfering with their daily lives in sometimes onerous and bothersome ways, whether through the construction of massive concrete barriers (as in Baghdad), or "strategic hamlets" (as in Vietnam), or through intrusive search missions in local villages. Even when we are in fact improving the security of the local population, that may not be how the people we are supposedly protecting perceive it. In the Pech Valley, at least, the local population mostly wanted us to get out and leave them alone.
Put all these elements together, and the central conundrum of our position becomes clearer. Heavier reliance on airpower and more aggressive military operations on the ground are bound to lead to more accidental civilian deaths, because military force is a crude weapon, humans are imperfect, and errors are bound to happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Yet the more we emphasize that our objective is "hearts and minds" and protecting the population, the more damage the inevitable mistakes do in the eyes of Afghans, the world at large, and to popular support here at home.
Ironically, Section E-6 of FM 3-24 makes this same point quite clearly (my emphasis):
The proper and well-executed use of aerial attack can conserve resources, increase effectiveness, and reduce risk to U.S. forces. Given timely, accurate intelligence, precisely delivered weapons with a demonstrated low failure rate, appropriate yield, and proper fuse can achieve desired effects while mitigating adverse effects. However, inappropriate or indiscriminate use of air strikes can erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda. For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during COIN operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively."
But in their zeal to find some way to turn the war around (or to at least appear to have done so), have our commanders forgotten their own advice? And given all the internal contradictions in U.S. strategy, doesn't it suggest that the war simply isn't winnable (in any meaningful sense), at anything like a reasonable cost?
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Last Friday I suggested that one reason we keep slogging along in Afghanistan is the natural tendency for military organizations to portray their own efforts in the most favorable possible light. This tendency is not unique to militaries, of course; most organizations (including universities) prefer to talk about their virtues and achievements and find it harder to acknowedge shortcomings and setbacks.
In a democracy, it isn't the miltiary's job to decide where and when to fight, or for how long. But they don't like to lose either (which is by itself an admirable trait), and one should therefore expect them to do a lot of spinning, especially in the absence of clear and obvious signs of progress.
With that warning in mind, two sentences caught my eye over the weekend. The first was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' much-publicized remark to cadets at West Point. His whole speech is well worth reading, but here's the money quote:
In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should "have his head examined," as General MacArthur so delicately put it."
Notice the not-so-subtle implication: if it would be foolish to send a big army into Asia in the future, might we also question the wisdom of having one there now? Or to put it somewhat differently: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly as it is today but U.S. forces were not present at all, would President Obama be getting ready to send 100,000+ troops there? I very much doubt it. And if that's the case, then the only reason we are still fighting there is some combination of the "sunk cost" fallacy, misplaced concerns about credibility, overblown fears of an al Qaeda "safe haven," and the usual fears about domestic political payback.
The second sentence that grabbed my attention came at the end of Dexter Filkins' New York Times Book Review piece on Bing West's new book The Wrong War. Filkins writes (my emphasis):
As ‘The Wrong War' shows so well, the Americans will spend more money and more lives trying to transform Afghanistan, and their soldiers will sacrifice themselves trying to succeed. But nothing short of a miracle will give them much in return."
Put those two statements together, and they cast further doubt on the positive spin we've been hearing about how the Taliban is on the run, the Afghan "surge" is working, and how we'll be able to start leaving by 2014. I think the latter claim is correct, by the way, but not because we will have succeeded in creating a stable Afghanistan. We'll eventually leave Afghanistan to its fate, but it will be because we've finally figured out that the stakes there aren't worth the effort, especially given the low odds of meaningful success. It's just taking us longer to figure that out than it should.
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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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Of course it's embarrassing to discover that the supposed Taliban leader you've been negotiating with -- and giving a bunch of money to -- is an imposter. But it's more than that: it's also deeply revealing about the flaws in our entire approach.
Our strategy in Afghanistan based on "nation-building." We hope to create Afghan institutions that can run the place so we can leave. That goal, in turn, is predicated on the belief that the United States and its allies have sufficient knowledge and skill to create something that has never existed before: an effective, efficient, legitimate, Western-style state in Afghanistan. Accomplishing this task requires that we understand the underlying culture, the history, and the cross-cutting cleavages within Afghan society, and that we have sufficiently intimate knowledge of the players to know whom to work with and whom to shun.
There was already plenty of evidence that this knowledge was lacking. After all, back in 2002 we thought Hamid Karzai was the ideal choice to lead a new Afghan government. Now, nearly eight years later, he's proven to be a disappointment (at best). And this latest fiasco merely underscores the degree to which we are out of our depth there. There's no question we can kill a lot of Taliban (or people we suspect might be Taliban, or unfortunate civilians who get in the way), but successful nation-building requires a lot more than that.
So here's Rule No. 1 for would-be Afghan nation-builders: If you can't tell the Taliban from the imposters without a scorecard, maybe you shouldn't be playing this game.
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So far, the big news from the NATO Summit in Lisbon is that the United States is trying to change the "sell by" date in Afghanistan. Instead of July 2011, the new deadline for victory is going to be sometime in 2014. Right.
In policy terms, this is called "kicking the can down the road." At that point, I'm betting we'll declare victory and get out, via the same sort of blue-smoke-and-mirrors ("the surge worked") that we used in Iraq. Except that as with Iraq, there will still be thousands of U.S. troops there and we will still be spending billions of dollars trying to create a workable Afghan state. This is good news for corrupt Afghans, but not the U.S. taxpayer or, in the longer term, the U.S. military.
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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It's Election Day, and I'm about to go out and vote, but first a few belated comments on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's failed attempt to blow up cargo planes by shipping fairly sophisticated bombs to fictitious locations in the United States. What lessons did I draw from last week's event?
First, this incident reminds us about the perils of instant analysis. Initial news reports suggested that the targets were synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago, leading various pundits to speculate that this was either another sign of al Qaeda's deeply rooted anti-Semitism, or perhaps a bizarre attempt to send a message about the influence of Chicago-based politicos like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. But The New York Times reports today that the addresses on the bombs were outdated and that investigators now believe that the bombs were intended to destroy the planes, not targets on the ground.
Whatever the target may have been, the more obvious point is that these groups are still hoping to make Americans pay a price for our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are angry about our close ties with Saudi Arabia, by the drone attacks the United States is conducting in Yemen and Pakistan, and by our unstinting support for Israel. And even though AQAP's main target appears to be the Saudi regime, America's unpopularity throughout the region makes attacking the United States a useful recruiting tool.
Second, this latest episode reinforced my belief that winning in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for eliminating the terrorist threat in general and al Qaeda or its clones in particular. There is little or no al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and in the unlikely event that we defeated the Taliban completely, it wouldn't eliminate the groups that already exist in Pakistan, Yemen and assorted other places. At this point, in fact, our costly attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan may be a distraction from the broader global effort to deal with terrorism itself. And if that's the case, then what are we doing there?
Third, the big lesson is that this plot was thwarted not by drones or airstrikes or special operations forces, but by good old-fashioned intelligence and police work, largely conducted by the Saudi intelligence services. Because AQAP seeks to overthrow the Saudi regime, the Saudis are highly motivated, and they also seem to have done a good job of infiltrating the organization and passing the information on to us in time to thwart the attack.
One might also infer that responding to 9/11 with a "global war on terror" was a bad idea all along, because wars and occupations create conditions in which terrorist organizations can more easily thrive. Osama and his imitators are not heroic warriors and don't deserve to be treated as such, even rhetorically. Instead, they are criminals who believe the murder of innocents is justified in order to advance a fanciful fundamentalist cause. They are best defeated by intelligence sharing and patient police work, and where appropriate, by addressing some of the underlying conditions and grievances that give rise to such movements in the first place. Toppling individual governments or waging costly counterinsurgency campaigns in one or two countries cannot eliminate a global phenomenon like this one; indeed, such actions are likely to make it worse.
Lastly, although we can all be glad that this latest attack was foiled, it is hard for me to believe that one of them won't eventually succeed. It is impossible to inspect every single package in the global shipping system, and terrorist organizations are bound to learn more about how to exploit vulnerabilities in existing (or future) security procedures. We should take all reasonable measures to prevent them from succeeding, but we also ought to recognize that perfect security is probably not achievable. And remaining resolute in the face of that reality ought to be part of our counter-terrorist response too.
In short, although the bomb plots remind us that the terrorist danger is still with us, it also says a lot about the best way to deal with it. And one obvious step is not to go into conniptions every time a plot like this gets exposed. On that score, kudos to Jewish community figures in Chicago, who responded to the initial (and false) reports that synagogues had been targeted with an admirable degree of aplomb.
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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Today's Washington Post has a lengthy article reporting on high-level talks between the Karzai government in Afghanistan and the Taliban over a negotiated end to the war. It is impossible to know how serious the effort is or what the prospects for success are, in part because all of the parties appear to be insisting that the talks are preliminary and saying very little about what's on the table (to give themselves an easy way out if the talks don't go well).
The thrust of the Post piece is that most (if not all) of the contending parties are beginning to realize that a decisive victory is not going to be won by force of arms. It is perhaps significant the talks do not include representative of the Haqqani network, which may be why the Obama administration has been going after it with particular energy in recent weeks.
In any case, I think this is an encouraging sign. The first recommendation of the Afghanistan Study Group in which I participated was "Emphasize Power-Sharing and Political Reconciliation," and I'm glad to see several key actors behaving in ways that are consistent with that recommendation. If the Karzai government, the Taliban leadership, and various members of ISAF are moving in that direction, there's a chance that the United States and its allies will get out of there sometime before 2020, and maybe some chance that Afghanistan can revert to its previous status as largely neutral and not very important strategic backwater.
The United States and others would still have to keep an eye on the area for counter-terrorism purposes, but we'd be out of the costly and counterproductive business of nation-building. Given the other items that we really ought to be addressing, that would be a good thing. So I will keep my fingers crossed that these talks are serious and that they eventually succeed.
The Afghanistan Study Group report that I wrote about last week is getting some predictable flak from people who hold different views about U.S. strategy there.
It is hardly surprising, for example, that Andrew Exum lavished high praise on Joshua Foust's extended rant against the report. Exum is a counterinsurgency enthusiast and was a vocal advocate of escalating the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. As such, he is hardly likely to favor a report that questions the wisdom of this approach, despite his telling admission that our current strategy is "troubled."
It is of course possible that Exum will one day be proven right, but one would have more faith in his judgment if the situation in Afghanistan had not gone from bad to worse since Obama took his advice. Obama began escalating the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan shortly after he took office, and since then we've had a fraudulent presidential election, an inconclusive offensive in Marjah, a delayed and downgraded operation in Kandahar, and a run on the corrupt Bank of Kabul. Casualty levels are up, and aid groups in Afghanistan now report that the security situation is worse than ever, despite a heightened U.S. presence.
This situation is no accident, as Anatol Lieven outlines here. Rather, it reflects our enduring ignorance about Afghan society and the folly of trying to build a Western-style centralized government in a multi-ethnic society that is notoriously suspicious of foreign occupiers and where the prerequisites for a Western-style political order are lacking. Given the actual situation on the ground (and the condition of the U.S. economy), the Study Group concluded that it did not make sense to spend $100 billion or more per year trying to "nation-build" in a country whose entire GNP is about $14 billion.
As for Foust, his main criticism seems to be that the Study Group didn't consult as many Afghan experts as he would have liked, or provide a lot of nitty-gritty empirical detail to back up our analysis. This latter complaint is partly valid, but largely beside the point. Our objective was to encourage U.S. leaders to rethink the strategic stakes at issue in Afghanistan, to help them understand why the current U.S. strategy wasn't working, and to outline a plausible alternative approach. Despite his overheated rhetoric, Foust says he agrees with most of that, and he also agrees that the current U.S. approach is wrong-headed. Yet he is so eager to cast cold water on the report that he dismisses virtually all of its recommendations, even on obviously specious grounds. For example, he criticizes our call for greater effort to engaging regional partners by saying "it's been tried." But what's his alternative: that we refrain from trying to get regional stakeholders to help us neutralize the conflict? And isn't it palpably obvious that any enduring solution to the Afghan mess is going to require a lot of buy-in from its neighbors?
Moreover, Foust can't even get our arguments straight. He claims that we recommend turning Afghanistan into a "Special Forces and drone firing range," which is simply false. Like President Obama, we argued that America's only vital strategic interest in Afghanistan was to prevent it from becoming a "safe haven" that would materially increase al Qaeda's capabilities and thus make it a significantly greater threat to the United States. This situation could only occur if 1) the Taliban regained power, 2) Al Qaeda moved back into Afghan territory in strength, and 3) if it once again created large bases in which to train a substantial number of new cadres and thus become significantly more dangerous. We pointed out that if that were to happen -- and it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it will -- such large bases would be readily visible and could be targeted in a variety of ways. And unlike the 1990s, when the Clinton administration vacillated about attacking al Qaeda's compounds, there were would be little debate about going after large al Qaeda encampments today. As Greg Scoblete notes here this sort of campaign does not requires a large scale U.S. military presence, and it is far cry from turning the entire country into a "firing range."
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Contrary to what many (but not all) commentators seem to think, the firing of Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus is not that significant. To be more precise, it will only be a significant event if Obama uses this shift as an opportunity to move towards withdrawal. Otherwise, we'll just rearrange some deck chairs and watch the war effort continue to founder.
Until the Rolling Stone article surfaced, there was little sign that Obama was unhappy with McChrystal's handling of the war. (Gareth Porter of IPS reports that there was in fact growing discontent within the administration over the lack of progress, but it hadn't surfaced in any visible way.) More importantly, there was no sign that Petraeus had serious problems with McChrystal's performance or visible doubts about the need to continue the fight until "victory" was achieved. Don't forget that Petraeus's status and prestige is based on his knowledge of and commitment to counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, and COIN is exactly what McChrystal was doing too. Unlike the "surge" in Iraq, which involved a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy and tactics, there is no reason to expect Petraeus to implement a fundamentally different approach in Afghanistan. The subhead in today's New York Times says it all: "Obama Says Afghan Policy Won't Change after Dismissal." Uh-oh.
There is also no reason to believe Petraeus will achieve significantly different results because the problem in Afghanistan is not the quality of our generals. Bad leadership can hamper a war effort, of course, but it is a fallacy to think that all we need to do is get the right leader in place at the top and then all will be well. (Military history is often written in ways that glorifies the role of the "great captains," but there's a lot more to military success than just a smart and inspired commanders).
The real problem is that our campaign in Afghanistan is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The Karzai government is a liability, not an asset, and we have no way of making it perform better. Similarly, we have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open -- where they would be easy to beat -- when confronted by superior force, they simply melt away and wait us out. Although troop morale seems to be good, our forces have been fighting a long time and burnout is beginning to set in. Our NATO allies are leaving the field, and Americans are beginning to realize that the costs of continuing this fight exceed either the benefits of victory or the risks of withdrawal. "Victory" in Afghanistan -- whatever that might mean -- wouldn't make al Qaeda a lot weaker; and "failure" wouldn't make them much stronger either. Putting a new general in charge doesn't change that calculus at all.
Third, some prominent commentators like Andrew Sullivan now worry that Obama is in effect hostage to Petraeus, because the latter's stature and prestige will make it almost impossible for Obama to overrule him should he ask for more troops or seek to continue the war indefinitely. That is an obvious danger, but that same prestige and stature also makes Petraeus the best person to help Obama sell a prudent decision to cut our losses and get out. Moreover, Petraeus' stature is based primarily on the supposed success of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, a campaign that achieved the tactical objective of lowering the level of violenace but did not achieve the strategic goal of political reconciliation. If Iraq goes south again as U.S. forces withdraw, some of Petraeus's current luster is bound to diminish and Obama's freedom of maneuver might increase.
In any case, the only important question here is what Obama is telling Petraeus to do. In essence, McChrystal's gaffe has given Obama a chance for a "do-over." He made the wrong choice in the fall of 2009, when he agreed to escalate the U.S. presence despite all the obvious pitfalls. Has he learned from the results of the past nine months? Does he now realize that he is not the master of events in Afghanistan, and that he cannot achieve success there simply by giving inspiring speeches and sending more troops? And has he begun to sense that this war might not be winnable at acceptable cost, and that continuing the fight is putting his entire presidency at risk?
If he has, he'll tell Petraeus that his mission isn't to pacify Afghanistan, build a stable central government there, or even "defeat, disrupt, and defeat al Qaeda" (which isn't in Afghanistan anymore). Rather, his mission is to find a way for the United States to end this futile and unnecessary adventure in social engineering, so that we can turn our attention (and our finite resources) to more pressing problems.
If Obama hasn't learned that lesson, then he will find himself stuck in the Afghan quagmire for the remainder of his time in office. As with Johnson in Vietnam and Bush in Iraq, the war will suck the life out of his presidency and make it impossible to achieve more urgent domestic and international priorities. And because he's now had two opportunities to chart a different course, it will have been entirely his own doing.
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Color me skeptical. The past few weeks have seen a spate of news suggesting that the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan isn't going well at all. For starters, the assault on Marjah last spring failed to achieve any decisive strategic goals. The much-heralded summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and downgraded, and U.S. officials have been steadily lowering expectations. We learnt over the weekend that U.S. intelligence is increasingly focused on uncovering corruption, which means we are getting sucked back into "nation-building" instead of focusing our assets on destroying al Qaeda (which is what President Obama said he'd do when he (foolishly) decided to increase the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. The Taliban managed to bomb Afghan President Hamid Karzai's semi-bogus "peace jirga," and Karzai himself is said to be losing faith in our ability to prevail and hoping to cut a deal with the Taliban.
So today -- surprise, surprise -- comes news that Afghanistan isn't a poor country whose primary strategic asset is its ability to grow opium poppies. Nope, turns out Afghanistan is just brimming with iron ore, lithium, cobalt, copper, and other strategic minerals. This report -- which comes from "a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists" may well be completely correct, but isn't the timing of the release a mite suspicious? This looks to me like an attempt to provide a convincing strategic rationale for an effort that isn't going well.
As Jack Snyder noted in his book Myths of Empire, the "El Dorado" myth is a common justification for imperial expansion. Great powers often convince themselves they have to control some far-flung area because it is supposedly rich with gold, diamonds, oil, etc., and that physical control is essentially to preserving access to them. In most cases, however, the cost of trying to control these areas isn't worth the resources they contain, and it usually isn't necessary anyway. Gulf Oil used to pump oil from Marxist Angola, and those pesky Iranians would be happy to sell us oil and gas and give us fat development contracts for their petroleum industry if only we were willing to do business with them.
We don't need to control Afghanistan in order to gain access to whatever minerals do exist, because whoever is in charge is going to have to sell them to someone and won't be able to prevent them from being sold to us (even if indirectly) if we want to buy (that's how markets work). And if we want to make sure that U.S. companies have the opportunity to compete for the opportunity to mine these resources some day, it might be a good idea if we didn't spend the next decade blundering around and angering the local population.
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Winning a counter-insurgency war is hard, and especially when you don't have reliable partners from within the local population. What makes it even harder is when policies designed to accomplish one goal that have the unintended effect of making other goals harder to achieve. When your own strategy contains such internal contradictions, success will be even more elusive.
Case in point: our commander-in-chief flew to Afghanistan last week to pay a call on Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in part to insist that Karzai do more to root out corruption in his government and in the country more generally. A stern lecture from Obama is unlikely to work, however, because Karzai knows a lot more about incentives and constraints he's facing and the various deals he has to make to stay in power. He's betting that Obama won't be willing to pull the plug and leave him on his own, and I'm sorry to say that Karzai is probably right.
But even as we are telling the Afghans to stop corruption, we are contributing to it by pumping vast sums of cold hard cash into Afghan society. According to yesterday's New York Times, part of our strategy in southern Afghanistan consists of flooding places like Marjah with "hundreds of thousands of dollars a week," in an effort to buy the loyalty of the local population.
There are three problems here.
First, as Times reporter Richard Oppel pointed out in his piece, we can't easily discriminate between Taliban sympathizers and other members of the local population, so some of the money we are disbursing is almost certainly going to our enemies.
Second, other recipients of U.S. cash are quickly targeted by the Taliban, which continues to enjoy signifcant support among the local population. If Oppel's account is accurate, we are basically reminding the local population that cooperating with us is really, really dangerous. Moreover, as William Polk argues here, many local Pashtuns actually oppose these various cash-based "aid programs," because they perceive them (correctly) as designed to aid a foreign occupier's campaign against them, and to strengthen the despised central government.
Third, how can we credibly tell Karzai to "end corruption" (i.e., patronage, drug-dealing, payments to warlords, the exchange of cabinet positions for support, etc.), when we're relying on some of the same tactics ourselves? If our approach is to buy political support by doling out money or other benefits, why are we surprised when Karzai and his henchmen employ more-or-less that same approach back in Kabul? Pumping piles of cash into the local economy (no doubt with little or no accounting) is precisely the sort of policy that itself encourages very corruption that we claim to be opposing.
Even though I don't regard Afghanistan as a vital interest (for reasons I've explained before), I would like to think that our overall strategy was working. Remaining bogged down there is costly, and a significant distraction from other policy problems. So it would be nice if we were making genuine progress in weakening the Taliban, encouraging a political process of reconciliation, and fostering a more effective Afghan government. But it sure sounds like our efforts are at cross-purposes right now, which may be one reason why relations with the Karzai government are deteriorating.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
I don't watch much televised news -- there's just not a lot of content per unit of time and I get bored too quickly -- but I did happen to catch a report on President Obama's whirlwind trip to Afghanistan yesterday. (As a sign of my indifference to the major networks, I couldn't even tell you which channel I was watching). But I did see a film clip of the president giving a speech to the troops at Bagram air base, where he thanked them for their efforts, said the country was grateful, and told the troops "the American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere, and together with our partners we will prevail."
As always, Obama looked comfortable and sounded good. And it's possible that he meant every word of his pep talk. But I kept wondering what he meant by "prevail?" What is his definition of victory? Is it the surrender and capture of Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura, or the military defeat of the Taliban itself? Is victory defined as the establishment of a unified Afghan central government (something that hasn't existed for decades) in command of native security forces that can take over the battle themselves, with little or no foreign support? If special representative Richard Holbrooke thinks we'll "know success when we see it," what exactly are we looking for?"
Here's how Obama defined the strategy in his remarks:
Our broad mission is clear: We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives here in Afghanistan are also clear: We're going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We're going to reverse the Taliban's momentum. We're going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces and the Afghan government so that they can begin taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people.
And our strategy includes a military effort that takes the fight to the Taliban while creating the conditions for greater security and a transition to the Afghans; but also a civilian effort that improves the daily lives of the Afghan people, and combats corruption; and a partnership with Pakistan and its people, because we can't uproot extremists and advance security and opportunity unless we succeed on both sides of the border. Most of you understand that."
If that's what the President really thinks, we are going to be there for a long, long time. So I found myself hoping (perhaps naively) that this was all a bit of blue-smoke-and-mirrors, and that he's actually planning to follow the same script in Afghanistan that Bush followed in Iraq. It won't be identical in every detail, but the basic logic would be similar. Here's how it goes:
First, announce an escalation of the U.S. effort (aka a
"surge"), but set a rough deadline for it and quietly put new emphasis on
"political reconciliation." (Done). Next, bombard the media with lots of
evidence of progress, such as Taliban "strongholds" seized, al Qaeda leaders
killed or captured, Taliban leaders arrested in Pakistan, etc., so that people
think the surge is working. (Now underway). Third, arrange a diplomatic settlement that requires the
phased withdrawal of U.S./ISAF troops, even if their departure is on a rather
lengthy timetable. The Iraqi
equivalent was the Status of Forces agreement negotiated by the Bush
administration in the fall of 2008; in Afghanistan, it would probably entail
some sort of negotiation between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and
various other warlords (whether by a loya
jirga) or some other device (Maybe
underway too?). Finally, start
removing the "surged" forces more-or-less on schedule-and ahead of the 2012
election cycle-so that you can claim to have avoided the quagmire that critics
warned about back in 2009 (Remains to be seen).
I have no idea if this is what Obama or his team are actually planning -- or maybe just hoping for -- but at this stage it is offers the best chance of avoiding an open-ended commitment there. Part of the trick is to keep sounding resolute and determined even while you're (quietly) looking for an exit, and as someone who remains unconvinced that the Afghan campaign is worth the costs, I'll continue to hope that this is what is really going on.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
To be completely honest, I don’t know what to make of the 15 point peace plan offered by Afghan warlord/insurgent/former U.S. ally/Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but my first thoughts are two-fold.
First, this isn’t an offer Karzai or NATO will or should accept. It calls for foreign troops to start withdrawing this summer (not gonna happen), and that “foreign fighters” (e.g., non-Afghan allies of the Taliban, or al Qaeda) "will not remain" after NATO et al leaves. Hard for me to imagine NATO leaving without more convincing assurances that al Qaeda will not be welcome back on Afghan soil.
Second, the fact that the offer was made at all does strike me as significant, as do reports that this initiative has tacit backing from interested foreign powers (e.g., U.S.) The BBC reports that “there is a growing recognition, both within Afghanistan and from its foreign partners, that insurgents have to be part of any peace settlement and that military operations alone will not be enough to bring peace to the country." That sounds right to me.
As for Hekmatyr, he has the reputation of being a pragmatist and he may be trying to position himself at a moment when he thinks the contest is shifting from insurgency to negotiations. Whatever his motives, this is a process we ought to encourage. In the best case, the Afghans negotiate some sort of peace agreement and power-sharing arrangement that stabilizes the country and allows economic development efforts to continue, but also allows us to get the hell out. In the worst case, we get a flawed arrangement that still gives the United States a fig leaf for disengagement, at which point Afghanistan falls apart again.
Since I don’t think the latter outcome would be disastrous from the U.S. perspective (though it is obviously not desirable from a purely humanitarian perspective), I’m open to a pretty wide-range of alternative outcomes, provided that they reflect an Afghan consensus. But like I said, this is just my initial reaction, and I may change my mind after I read more and ponder further.
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.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
I'm still swamped with grading papers and with preparations for our annual New Year's Eve potluck (about which more in a day or two), but I hope everyone takes a look at the Times piece on China's commercial activities in Afghanistan. While we've been running around playing whack-a-mole with the Taliban and "investing" billions each year in the corrupt Karzai government," China has been investing in things that might actually be of some value, like a big copper mine.
As the article suggest, it's not like U.S. troops are "guarding" China's investments. Rather, there's a tacit division of labor going on, where "American troops have helped make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment."
The rest of the article makes depressing reading, however. Here's what one Afghan contractor had to say:
"The Chinese are much wiser. When we went to talk to the local people, they wore civilian clothing, and they were very friendly," he said recently during a long chat in his Kabul apartment. "The Americans - not as good. When they come there, they have their uniforms, their rifles and such, and they are not as friendly."
The result? According to the Times:
"the Chinese have already positioned themselves as generous, eager partners of the Afghan government and long-term players in the country's future. All without firing a shot."
The point is not that somehow those wily Chinese have fooled us into squandering a lot of money and lives and annoying lots of people in Central Asia, while they make profitable investments. Rather, the broader lesson is that the entire thrust of U.S. policy towards a large part of the world has been fundamentally misplaced for a long time. If we think we are somehow trapped in an endless cycle of intervention in the Muslim world-Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, now Yemen-it is because our policies towards the entire region have generated enormous animosity and to little good purpose. And when that animosity leads to direct attacks on the United States, we respond in ways that guarantee such attacks will be repeated.
To be sure, some of this situation is due to America's position as the sole superpower, which means that it gets blamed for things that aren't always its fault. Plus, a dominant power does tend to end up with a disproportionate role in providing certain collective goods while others free-ride. (If China ever does supplant the U.S as the dominant world power, the same thing will undoubtedly happen to them.) But it also reflects specific decisions that we've been taking for a long time, in the mistaken belief that they would never blow back and affect us here at home. That's why we ought to thinking very strategically about our overseas involvements, and trying to shift those burdens onto locals whenever we can. Unfortunately, the predominant view in Washington still favors an "America First" approach to solving most global problems, even when it's not clear we have any idea how to do that.
Don't forget: we are fighting in Afghanistan because a radical anti-American terrorist movement-Al Qaeda-located there in the 1990s and then attacked us on September 11. Al Qaeda attacked the United States for a number of different reasons, including its support for various Arab monarchies and dictatorships, its military presence in the Persian Gulf, and its "special relationship" with Israel (which is oppressing millions of Palestinians and consolidating control of Jerusalem). Al Qaeda also wanted to strike at the world's strongest power, in the vain hope that a dramatic act like that would win them lots of new supporters. They also hoped that they could goad us into doing a lot of stupid things in response, and that achievement may be their only real success to date. We are also bogged down in Central Asia because our earlier support for anti-Soviet mujaheddin there helped create a bunch of well-armed warlords and religious extremists who proved impossible to control later on.
But the key lesson is that the current situation is not immutable. We don't have to keep implementing the same policies that led us to this situation; instead, we need to start working on strategic approaches that will minimize our involvement in these regions without sacrificing our vital interests (mostly oil) or endangering the security of key allies. One step would be to do what President Obama promised to do in his Cairo speech and then abandoned: namely, get serious about a two-state solution. A second step would be to stop trying to reorganize vast chunks of the Arab and Islamic world, and focus our efforts solely on helping local governments capture or neutralizing violent anti-American terrorists. A related step is to move back to an "offshore balancing" strategy in the region, and rely more on naval and air forces and less on on-shore intervention.
And maybe a fourth element of a new approach would be to remember that the United States rose to its position of great power by letting other major powers do the heavy lifting, while Americans concentrated mostly on building the world's biggest and most advanced economy and building influence with lots of other countries. For the most part, we also kept our fiscal house in order, which gave us the resources to maintain and expand productive infrastructure here at home and made it possible to act overseas when we really had to. This isn't the 19th century and we can't just rewind the clock, but there's still a lot of wisdom in much more selective approach to the use of American power. You know, sorta the way that Beijing seems to doing it.
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.