Archive for September, 2008

Are We Losing in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Diplomacy, Foreign policy and 2008 election, Global War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2008 by whatafteriraq

With public attention understandably directed at the election campaign and the credit meltdown, the war in Afghanistan has faded from the public view. Only a trickle of press reports are being published, and the news they contain is not particularly good. Are we losing the war in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has, of course, been a minor “theater” in the election campaign “wars.” The Obama campaign has made a point of arguing that we have “dropped the ball” in Afghanistan by diverting attention from there to Iraq. Obama proposes roughly 8,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to correct the problem. McCain acknowledges the need for more forces in Afghanistan as they become available during an Iraq drawdown, but, as a champion of the Iraq war, he can hardly agree the problem was Iraq.

Will additional American forces in Afghanistan make a decisive difference in the effort there? The answer is that it depends on what the problem is, and what can be done–if anything–to correct it.

The problem in Afghanistan is conceptualization. What is the United States (and the NATO allies) doing there? There are two possible answers. One is that the United States is engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban, who are attempting to overthrow the Karzai government the United States helped put in power and now supports. The other is that the United States is engaged in a counterterrorism campaign, the object of which is the destruction of Al Qaeda. The two are by no means the same thing, either as a concptual objective or as a military problem. In fact, they may even be contradictory goals if pursuing one makes the other worse (which it may well be doing).

What is the political objective in Afghanistan for the United States? Since, as Clausewitz taught us nealy two centuries ago, the objecives in wa are always post-war political situations that we favor, the answer is important both for framing our actions and telling if we have achieved them (or “won”). If the objective is defeating the Taliban, the news is not very encouraging: the Taliban is resurgent, claiming control over widening amounts of territory, and issuing a broader appeal than it did in the past. If it is the destruction of Al Qaeda, the news is not much better.

What is the problem here? Assuming the two goals (effectively countering the Taliban insurgency and pursuing Al Qaeda) are compatible, the problem is not an ambiguity of objectives (part of the problem in Iraq), but rather how to develop military obejectives and (especially) strategies to achieve the objectives.

The cointerinsurgency (in the vernacular, COIN) problem is more familiar and is the subject of FM 3-24, the Army and Marine Corps’ doctrinal statement issued over David Petraeus’ name. Successful COIN requires control of territory (denying it to the insurgents) and the transfer of loyalty from the insurgents to the government. The former requires lots of toops (far more than is proposed) and is problematic even under the best of circumstances. The simple fact is that COIN efforts only succeed when the insurgency has very little support (Che Guevara in Bolivia, for instance). If the insurgency has the support of a goodly part of the population and its suppression is attempted by foreign, racially distinct forces, those efforts have never succeeded since 1945 (see Snow, Distant Thunder, for a detailed explanation). Moreover, Karzai is widely viewed as an American puppet, further undercutting his appeal. The COIN being proposed smells decidedly like South Vietnam. If it is achievable, the strategy that will achieve is not evident; FM 3-24 does NOT provide the guidance to ensure its success.

If the real objective is destroying Al Qaeda, the problem changes. Seven years of experience suggests that we do not know how to carry out an effective counterterror effort in the peculiar circumstances that surround the hunt for Usama bin Laden. Military efforts have failed and havecaused more ill will than anything else: botched bombing attacks that kill civilians and produce new Taliban and Al Qaeda recruits, incursions into Pakistan that violate that country’s sovereignty and create anti-Americanism within the government and the people. It is possible that military efforts are simply “feel good” exercises with little prospect of success. In that case, would it not be better to pull back and negotiate with the governments to provide the assistance needed to suppress the terrorists?

It is entirely possible that the missionary zeal quite naturally created by 9/11 has put the United States in an untenable position in Afghanistan. The situation is untenable if there is no realistic way the political objectives–either defeating the Taliban insurgents or destroying Al Qaeda–cannot be translated into effective strategies that will accomplish those goals. That aspect of the problem deserves a much more thorough airing than it has gotten to this point. It is time to quit breast beating and to face the problem of Afghanistan more soberly.

During the Vietnam War, Richard Rovere borrowed the lyrics from an old work song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” to describe America’s deepening involvement there. As the song put it, “We’re waist deep in the  big muddy, and the damned fool said to go on.” In Afghanistan, we are at least thigh deep. Should we wade deeper, or turn around and go back to shore? 

Donald M. Snow, Distant Thunder (2nd ed). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.

Pamela Constable. “A Modern Taliban Thrives in Afghanistan.” Washington Post (online), September 20, 2008.


Dealing with Iran: Two Approaches

Posted in Diplomacy, Foreign policy and 2008 election, Iran, Iran and Iraq, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , on September 24, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in the New York this week. The occasion is the opening of the new session of the UN General Assembly. As the president of his country, Ahmadinejad was one of the heads of state who attended and offered an address to the assembly. The U.S. reaction and alternatives to it speak volumes about how and how not to run foreign policy.

In case you missed Ahmadinejad’s speech, you did not miss much. It combined bromides with the ritual denunciation of the United States and other “bullies” into the affairs of other states–i.e. Iran. It was pure boiler plate intended primarily for viewing back home, and should have been treated as such.

Unless they watched it on television, the Bush administration’s representatives to the General Assembly could not know that, because they were prominently absent. To accentuate the point, CNN cameras occasionally panned to the American delegation’s place in the hall; all one could see were empty seats. The statement being made was clear: “We do not approve of you, Mr. President, and so we are not going to dignify you by being present.” The adjectives that come to mind to describe this display include churlish, childish and stupid, but then, this is the Bush administration we are talking about. This is the Axis of Evil we’re dealing with here, so let’s not soil ourselves with diplomatic civilities. Talking with adversaries is a sign of weakness; threatening to bomb them is the only thing they will understand.

This approach contrast with a speech Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden gave in Ohio this morning. Among the messages that Biden had was that talking to your adversaries was not a sign of weakness and irresolution, but rather was a sign of willingness to try to settle differences peacefully. As he reminded his audience, when one begins to talk to adversaries like the Iranians (whom he mentioned by name), one does not forfeit the right to say “no” to them if that is appropriate. Rather, he maintained, ignoring/snubbing your adversaries, as the United States did at the UN, only reinforces their anti-Americanism and strengthens the position of those we oppose (like Ahmadinejad).

John McCain has shown tendencies that are frighteningly similar to the instincts that told the Bush administration to boycott the Ahmadinejad speech. When the economy started going south, he reacted (in George Will’s analogy) like the Queen of Hearts, shouting “Off with their heads” about the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and suddenly became Jean Valjeans mounting the barricades of the Paris Commune in support of working people and in opposition to the Wall Street fat cats (whom we used to call Republicans) who had caused the mess. It was not a cool-headed response, which is what one would hope for in the relations between the United States and Iran, a country with which this country must deal with on issues as fundamental as nuclear weapons and post-war Iraq. What should we do: talk to them, or march out of the room? Talking may not succeed, but it is hard to understand how turning your back on those with whom you disagree can succeed.

Iraq End Game and the Election

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , on September 20, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Remember when the main issue in the 2008 Presidential election was the Iraq War? When was the last time you heard the war raised recently in the campaign, except in McCain commercials boasting the prescience of his support for the surge? What happened?

The main thing that happened, of course, was the domestic economic crisis. It is virtually an axiom of American politics that the only time a foreign policy issue can dominate an election is if there is no significant domestic issue to overshadow it: domestic concerns trump foreign policy concerns. But in the case of Iraq, there is more to it than that.

Part of the answer is that the positions of the two political parties have moved closer together on Iraq, a dynamic I discussed earlier under the category of “schlepping”. The issue in Iraq has narrowed; it is no longer whether the United States will withdraw, it is when. The surge has succeeded (whatever that means), but no one talks of (or certainly does not define) victory. Both sides agree it would be better to reallocate military resources to Afghanistan. The edges of the debate have lost all their clarity.

This does not mean there are not remaining issues to be decided before the United States leaves Iraq. There are two major questions, each of which requires some interpretation. Both are part of the negotiations over a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the United States.

The first, of course, is how long the United States will stay or be allowed to stay. The two sides of this debate are whether to set a firm withdrawal date, a position favored by Obama and the Iraqis, or whether to remain flexible on leaving, a position favored by McCain. In all likelihood, the withdrawal date that will emerge from ongoing negotiations will specify a target of 2010 for the removal of the last American combat forces. The question is what will activate or disengage that process.

The handover of command in Iraq from David Petraeus to Roy Odierno laid out the parameters. Petraeus, in effect, said the situation is improving (which means that some troops can be withdrawn), but that the situation remains fragile (meaning it would be unwise to commit to a withdrawal timetable, since the situation could deteriorate). It is not clear the McCain campaign wrote this scenario; they certainly were supportive of it. No one, however, is suggesting that the withdrawal will come after some “enemy” surrenders and one can really declare “mission accomplished.”

The major sticking point in negotiations has been over the status of American forces and civilians regarding Iraqi law and legal jurisdiction.  The Iraqis argue that the Americans should be accountable to the Iraqi legal system for alleged transgressions, basing their arguments in Iraqi sovereignty (that it is their country). Moreover, it would be political suicide for al-Maliki or any other Iraqi politician to argue anything less. The Americans counter that American forces and civilians should be exempt from Iraqi law and instead be governed by American rules and enforcement mechanisms. The reasons include the historic American aversion to aving its forces not completely under its control and the fear the Iraqis might use legal jurisdiction as a way to harass Americans.

The rough translation of this issue is that neither side trusts the other. The Iraqis allege (not without some basis) that the Americans have abused Iraqis and broken Iraqi laws in the past and that their insistence on not being subject to Iraqi law is just a way to allow them to continue those abuses. Abu Ghraib comes to mind as an example. The Americans fear retribution for alleged past excesses. Would, for instance, the Iraqis insist on prosecuting the next American pilots whose bombs miss their targets and kill civilians? Both sides probably have a point in not entirely trusting the other.

The Iraqis havebecome intransigent on the jurisdiction issue, and they are unlikely to reach an agreement (epecially a compromise where they give up something) with the lame duck Bush administration. Settling that issue will be a problem for the new administration.

Will we hear much more about all this between now and November 5? Probably not, unless one of two unlikely things happen. One would be a miraculous turnaround of the U.S. economy that would move domestic concerns down the issue agenda. The oher would be a dramatic change (probably deterioration) in the situation in Iraq itself. Barring one of those things happen, the recollection that Iraq would dominate the 2008 election campaign will be nothing more than a nostalgic memory.

Palin’s ABC Interview: Flunking Foreign Policy

Posted in Foreign policy and 2008 election, Georgian Invasion, Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia with tags , , , , , on September 12, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Republican  Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave her first unscripted interview yesterday to ABC’s Charlie Gibson. The major topic of questions was the Governor’s preparation for dealing with foreign and national security policy. Based on her public responses, she could scarcely have failed more miserably.

Palin’s responses were revealing in two ways. The first was that they displayed her virtually pristine lack of knowledge of foreign affairs and U.S.policy toward the world. She clearly has never heard of the Bush doctrine, which has been the guiding “principle” of U.S. policy since 2001 (she described it as Bush’s “worldview”: that would get you one or two points for a nice try on a ten-point scale in one of my classes). She blithely replied that the Russian invasion was totally unprovoked. Whether it as justified is one thing; that the Georgians did nothing to provoke the Russians is simply not true. She came out in favor on Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO, including acceptance of the commitment to defend them militarily if they were made members. She accepted the prospect of war with Russia arising from these acts as essentially no big deal. And here most of us thought the purpose of the Cold War was to avoid just that outcome.

In some ways, the more frghtening aspect of her performance was its embrace of neo-conservative doctrine about the world. This was particularly obvious in her bellicose remarks about encircling Russia with NATO and closely reflects similar attitudes expressed by John McCain. Most Americans have repudiated the neo-conservative creed which, among other things, provided the rationale for Iraq, raised the utopian goal of global democratization to a central place in U.S. policy, and has militarized much of America’s stance in the world. With the possible exception of the Likud faction in Israel, no one outside the United States endorses this world view. Four more years?

Demonstrating that the election campaign is about electing politicians and not debating public policy, the GOP has gone on the counteroffensive. Palin is qualified as commander-in-cchief because she commands the Alaska National Guard (although not when it is engaged in military operations), can see Russian soil from one of the Alaskan islands, has traveled overseas once, and knows something about energy policy (extrapolated to energy security). Joe Biden, on the other hand, has the skinny resume of being chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Quite a comparison.

One may choose to vote for McCain-Palin for a variety of reasons, but please do not insult our intelligence by saying that preparation for the role of head of state and commander-in-chief is among them, at least not in the case of Sarah Palin. She must not have taken a course in American Foreign Policy while she was getting her political science degree from the University of Idaho, or if she did, she must not have passed it.

The Seventh Anniversary of 9/11

Posted in 2001, Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Global War on Terror, September 11, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2008 by whatafteriraq

On the Pentagon grounds today, President Bush commemorated a beautiful memorial to the Washington, DC victims of the 9/11 attacks on the seventh anniversary of that day of national infamy. Seven years! Time flies, but what sense can be made of the effort that has transpired to this point?

The attacks of 9/11 galvanized American policy and resulted in a series of dramatic responses of varying effectiveness. Three were discrete and focused; the other more amorphous but pervasive.

The three discrete responses are led by two physical acts of war. The United States first intervened in the civil war in Afghanistan to help dissident groups overthrow the Taliban government that refused to relinquish the Al Qaeda leadership it was protecting from apprehension after 9/11. The Taliban were indeed swept aside, at least temporarily, but they and the Al Qaeda leadership escaped capture, retreated into the rugged no-man’s land along the Afghan-Pakistan border (marked by the Durand Line–a border that none of the tribes in the region honors), and the Taliban have returned to menace the American-backed government in Kabul, presumably aided by their Al Qaeda brethren. NATO members drawn into the fray are increasingly wary of their role, and the historic precedents of outside inteference in Afghanistan’s often violent politics do not bode especially well for this initiative. No one knows–or even dares guess–the eventual outcome in Afghanistan. Could it be another Vietnam-style morass–even one more difficult than Iraq?

The second war, of course, has been the ongoing struggle in Iraq. Although it has subsequently been fairly well established as fraudulent, the underlying claim for that involvement was its ties to terrorism and the “war on terror.” The conduct and outcome of the war, regardless ofother effects, will almost certainly have no particular positive impact on the effort against terrorism.

The third concrete form of reaction was bureaucratic–the consolidation of government efforts inside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The idea here was to bring together all the government’s often competing assets under one umbrella that could coordinate and make more efficient and effective the government’s response to terrorism and other forms of disaster. Anyone who believes it has been much of a success must also have an abiding belief in the Tooth Fairy.

The fourth and more amorphous effort has been in the bending of rules to accommodate the anti-terrorist effort. Some of these efforts have been annoying but basically innocuous: airport security and the blocking of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, for instance. Some aspects, however, are more profound, controversial, and at least to some, troubling. These more troubling aspects include infringemnts on the civil liberties of Americans through various forms of surveillence, suspensions (or delays) in habeus corpus, and the like, all justified to remove impediments to the pursuit of terrorists. Possibly most troublesome have been accusations the United States has violated canons against torture of which it is a member in the name of national security.

Have all these efforts brought Americans happiness–or much added security? There are two ways to look at it. There have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11, an apparent vindication of the effort. The problem is that one cannot demonstrate the efforts have caused the absence of the attacks. The other side of the argument is that Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden are alive and well somewhere in Waziristan, and that the terrorist threat is as alive and dangerous as it was seven years ago. Certainly, even the most ardent supporters of the various actions lumped together under the rubric of the global war on terror (GWOT) are not willing or ready to declare victory. There is precious little discussion of measurable progress, for that matter.

Is the seventh anniversary a cause for celebration, remorse, or rededication of effort? The new president will inherit the “fruits” of ongoing efforts–two physical wars, a DHS bureaucracy, and assaults on American civil liberties–and have to decide how to proceed. The easiest course is simply to continue doing what has been done to this point, but is that likely? The policies in place are, after all, those of the Bush administration, and both sides in the campaign have distanced themselves as far as possible from those as they can (watch McCain advertisements, and see how often he identifies himself as a Republican). At the same time, each candidate argues he is the proponent of change. Exactly what changes need to be made so that President Obama and McCain can announce real, concrete progress against terrorism on September 11, 2009, the eighth anniversary of the tragedy?

Convention Pander Bearing

Posted in Diplomacy, Georgia and NATO, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , on September 7, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Rudy Giuliani’s keynote address at the Republican convention last week in St. Paul may serve as the yardstick against which future efforts at pander bearing are measured. Pander bears, noted for their propensity for telling constituents what they want to hear rather than what they should, must have their chests inflated at Rudy’s efforts. As noted in the last entry (“Poking a Georgian Stick in Russia’s Eye”), Rudy made his appeal to the more bloody-thirsty neo-conservatives in his feckless effort to drum up military support for defending Georgia (the European members of NATO, fortunately, were having nothing of it). Because nothing will come of the “We are all Georgians” pander, it is a virtually perfect pander: those who wanted their red meat got it, but there is no lasting effect (unless, of course, one is Georgian and has now seen the prospects of ever getting into NATO dealt a severe blow).

Rudy did not, however, quit with a one-pander performance. Instead, he raised the bar with a second, blatant pander that has been discussed in earlier entries here: the status of Jerusalem. As the reader may remember (or can look up), this pander is the idea that a “unified” Jerusalem is one of the pillars of U.S. policy in the region. One Jerusalem translates into the city as a single Jerusalem under Israeli rule that also serves as the capital of the Jewish state. In June 2008, both Obama and McCain pandered to AIPAC that they supported this idea. The problem, as noted then, is that the one Jerusalem solution is an absolute deal breaker in peace negotiations for the Israelis and Palestinians, since the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital and are adamant that here can be no peace settlement if that demand is not met. Coming down on the Israeli side of this argument demonstrates the United States does not wish to serve as an honest broker between the sides in peace talks, but instead is a surrogate for the Israeli leadership and thus not to be trusted by the Palestinians.

Recognizing this consequence, Obama subsquently softened his stand on this issue to allow for negotiations on the Jerusalem issue. Puffing up like a peacock, Giuliani assailed this change of positions as “flip-flopping” of the worst sort and reiterated the original McCain pander. Although he did not say so, Rudy was effectively arguing that trying to set the scene so the United States might help move the peace process forward was irresponsible, whereas pandering to the Israeli right was responsible. One can only hope that American Jews who were the target of the pander are sophisticated enough to recognize Rudy’s pander or what it is. (Rudy did not, by the way, mention that the United States does not recognize any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which is why the American embassy is still in Tel Aviv.)

There is a conundrum in all this. In an intertwined world, foreign policy is too important not to be a central feature of election debates: voters do need to know how their proposed leaders will respond to foreign crises and day-to-day relations with friends and adversaries. Election campaigns, however, are about getting more votes than one’s opponent, and that means appealing to voting groups who are critical to election. As the Georgian and Jerusalem cases offer more than adequate evidence, the appeal to voters can and often does devolve into irresponsible pandering that can make situations worse for whoever is elected. If there is a silver lining in this latest episode, it may be that at least Rudy Giuliani is not a candidate whose pandering can bring him personal victory–unless he is pandering to candidates McCain and Palin for a spot in a McCain administration.

Poking A Georgian Stick in Russia’s Eye

Posted in Diplomacy, Georgia and NATO, Georgian Invasion, Missile defenses and Russia, Russia with tags , , , , , , on September 5, 2008 by whatafteriraq

While most of us were busy admiring the work that Aunt Bea’s hairdresser did on Sarah Palin’s hair in St. Paul this week, Vice President Cheney was skulking around Georgia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Some of the things he said and promises he suggested were alarming, to put it mildly.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hinted at the mischief in decribing a quote he ascribed to GOP nominee John McCain: “We are all Georgians.” We are? Clearly the attempt was to suggest a solidarity between the United States and Georgia akin to that between Americans and Berliners, but does the analogy hold? And if it is accepted, what are the implications of this newfound brotherhood and synergy?

Amongst the nuggets that Cheney held out to the people of Georgia was the prospect of NATO membership (he suggested that Ukraine fell in the same category). As noted in an earlier entry, discussion of adding these republics to NATO has been under discussion in Brussels but has been shelved for the time being. There are at least two good reasons that this initiative should remain where it is: buried in NATO’s in-box.

The first reason is suggested in the title of this entry. Cheney suggested in Georgia that the Russians should not fear the inclusion of former parts of the Soviet Union along is border into the military alliance that faced it throughout the Cold War, because “NATO is a defensive alliance. It is a threat to no one.” The Russians, of course, do not see it quite that way. When combined with the recent agreement to install missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic (missiles in one, radars in the other), the suggestion of adding Georgia and Ukraine to NATO seems ominously like hostile encirclement to Russia, a possibility that no significant power could possibly embrace. Given the disagreement about who was actually the provocateur in the recent Georgian-Russian confrontation, taking up the cudgel so aggressively at this point can only seem very antagonistic, boredering on aggressive, to the Russians. Indeed, it is akin to poklng the bear in the eye.

The other reason to wonder about this proposed commitment is the question of whether it is in the interests of the United States to commit itself to the defense of Georgia through NATO membership. As also noted in an earlier entry, NATO members agree that a threat (or aggression) against one is a threat (or aggression) against all that obligates members to come to one another’s aid. Article 5 of the treaty (the operative article) does not specify that such a response will be military, but that is the normal expectation.

Does the United States really want to make that kind of commitment to Georgia? When the question of NATO expansion was first raised in the 1990s, the question of commitment to places where there were no previous important interests was lively, and many people argued it was not in the best interests of the United States to become committed to such places. High among the counries where this question was raised were the sucessor states to the Soviet Union. The United States does, of course, have an affinity for struggling democracies like Georgia, but does this translate into a mandate to defend them with military force against their traditional adversaries (the Russians)? In the spirit of no-conservatism idealism, such a case can be made, Through the lens of traditional realism, the case is by no means obvious.

Russia has already responded, grumbling about cutting oil production and the flow of natural gas to Europe, and these threats may well dampen what little enthusiasm there is for Cheney’s initiatives among the other members of the alliance. In the meantime, Cheney skulks around the world, carefully being excluded from St. Paul, looking and acting like Burgess Meredith playing the Penguin in the old Batman television series. In the wings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has added her two-cents-worth, intoning “The free world cannot allow the destiny of a small independent country to be determined by the aggression of a larger neighbor.” Of course it can, and of course it has and will in the future. Let’s hope the election campaign does not get infected with this sappily sentimental thinking.