Archive for December, 2008

More Bloodshed in the Holy Land

Posted in International Terrorism, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , on December 28, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Some aspects of contemporary world affairs never seem to change. The pattern of bloodletting between Israel and the various movements that purport to represent the Palestinians is one of those depressingly recurring events. And as the New Year approaches, they are at it again. In the end, nothing will change except that more people will suffer and die.

The latest round is in Gaza. Hamas, the terrorist/governing body of that part of Palestine, began lobbing rockets and mortars over the “Separation Fence” the Israelis had erected to prevent terrorist attacks from Gaza shortly after the latest ceasefire expired on December 18. Until yesterday, these rocket attacks had unnerved many Israelis but had killed no one (one Israeli has since been killed). The Hamas attacks are predictably pointless and ineffectual. So is the Israeli response.

The Israelis, of course, have responded with a massive aerial bombing assault on positions in Gaza they say are the sites of rocket attacks or the arsenals from which the rockets are dispensed. Predictably, the Israelis have killed far more Palestinians than Israeli fatalities: reports suggest over 280 Gazans killed and upwards of 600 wounded. Many of these casualties were Hamas security forces and personnel rresponsible for the rocket attacks. Many were not–no one knows for sure how many were innocent Gazan bystanders, but some surely were.

Meanwhile, the Israelis have announced a mobilization of the reserves, thus putting the country in a war footing and raising the prospect of an invasion of Gaza to put the bombing to an end once and for all. The Israeli government argues strong military action is the only antidote for Hamas attacks. The Bush administration agrees; most of the rest of the world does not. Once again, this is all very familiar.

Two things stand out at this point in this latest episode in the battle for the Holy Land. First, an overt conventional military action is the Israeli response to a problem; it will almost certainly fail to achieve its goal, will further embitter the Gazans, and will equally certainly prove counterproductive. By creating more Palestinian martyrs, opposition will be increased. The Israeli 2006 experience in South Lebanon was supposed to be the lesson Israel needed to figure this dynamic out; clearly the Israelis have shorter memories than even the United States does in trying to reprise Vietnam in Afghanistan. It all raises questions about the hypothesis that man is a learning animal.

The experience also raises a real question about the wall the Israelis have constructed to restrain Gazans from infiltrating Israel and carrying out terrorist attacks. That fence is obviously not high enough to stop mortars and rockets from flying over it. What is may do instead is inflame sentiments so that some kinds of attacks are more likely. This is of some consequence because the “success” of the Gaza barrier is the prime rationale for bullding a similar wall between Israel proper and the West Bank Palestinian territories. The Israelis might want to rethink that rationale; they almost certainly will not.

And so it goes. Hamas conducts terrorist attacks on Israel that serve no purpose other than to inflame Israeli hatred toward them. The Israelis respond with much bloodier counterattacks that end up serving no purpose other than further to inflame hatred against them. When this round is over, neither side will have gained anything, and innocents Israelis and Gazans will have died again. It’s kind of hard to feel much sympathy for anyone except the innocents caught in the crosshairs of the arguably harebrained on both sides.

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Diving into the Afghan Abyss

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , on December 21, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Admiral “Mike” Mullen announced yesterday in Kabul that the United States may well increase U.S. force commitments not by the 20,000 previously announced and discussed in this space, but might go to 30,000 additional troops, thereby doubling the American commitment to Afghanistan. He (and whoever else in the command chain contributed to this decision) have to be kidding! His statement and rationale may be the dumbest military pronouncement since General William Westmoreland justified one of many troop buildups in Vietnam by saying he could “see the light at the end of the tunnel.” As a reminder, he saw that light in 1967; the United States limped out of Vietnam in 1973. Adding additional troops to the Afghan mix is similarly akin to throwing them into the abyss.

Currently, there are about 60,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about half American and half non-American NATO. An additional 30,000 American troops would raise the number to 90,000. That may sound like a lot until one looks at a map of Afghanistan, which is the size of Texas. The reason for adding 30,000 tyroops, in Mullen’s words is “to provide security for the Afghan people so these other areas can be developed.”

90,000 troops to secure and protect a country of 30,000,000, most of them hostile? The estimates vary, but all the figures I have seen suggest that a force of at least 300,000 would be necessary to provide even rudimentary protection for the Afghan populace, and that figure is probably unnecessarily optimistic and based on estimates of a level of cooperation between the liberators/occupiers and the Afghan population that is highly dubious. Adding 30,000 to the existing force and expecting it to make a difference is ludicrous.

The admiral also has something to say about what all this is supposed to accomplish. The idea, apparently, is to achieve “moderate” U.S. strategic goals defined as an Afghanistan that can govern itself and be a responsible member of the international community. That presumably means an Afghanistan that will not protect Al Qaeda and will suppress the heroin trade. How exactly the United States Army and Marines are going to contribute meaningfully to that objective is not so clear.

To repeat an earlier assessment, the United States cannot achieve its goals in Afghanistan with military force. Suggesting that putting an additional 30,000 American military lives at risk will change that dismal situation is irresponsible at best, totally incompetent at worst. If this is the best advice that Admiral Mullen can provide to the Commander-in-Chief, he should be relieved of his responsibilities immediately. He is counseling a descent into the abyss. That is shameful!  Americans expect better advice from their military leaders than that–and they should!

Flying Shoes and the Queen of England

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace, US Occupatio with tags , , , , on December 16, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The recent incident of an Egyptian journalist hurling his shoes at Prrsident Bush during a press conference with Prime Minister al-Maliki in Baghdad has received enormous publicity over the past several days. More often than not, it is depicted as a clownlike portratit of the soon-to-depart president in a scene befitting a Saturday Night Live sketch. But is it the symbol of something more important than that?

It was certainly an insult to President Bush himself. The perpetrator of the “air attack,” Muntadhar el-Zeidi, certainly meant it that way. Apparently, throwing shoes at someone is the ultimate insult in Middle Eastern culture, symbolizing the conviction that the victim is considered to be dirt below the soles of one’s shoes. El-Zeidi’s accompanying epithet concluded by referring to the President of the United States as “you dog.” Being called the “dog” in my house means you are a privileged character who essentially rules the roost; I doubt if that is what the Egyptian had in mind.

El-Zeidi is apparently being hailed as a hero in the “Arab street” of Baghdad and beyond, even though he is being held under arrest. What should we make of this? Was it simply an embarassing moment akin to when Bush’s father upchucked on the feet of the Japanese Prime Minister at a state dinner? Or was it a more serious popular indictment of the United States and its policy? In other words, was Bush or the United States the object of the attack?

Enter the Queen of England. One of the great advantages the British system has over ours is that it separates the two major functions of the political executive. In England, the prime minister is the chief elected, partisan politician in the country, and he (or she) can be attacked on partisan grounds based on what one thinks of his or her policies without raising questions about loyalty to or support of England. The prime minister is the head of government, in textbook fashion. The Queen (or King), however, is the symbolic representative of the country, the head of state. Attacking the queen is not so much an attack on the individual as it is a criticism of the state.

In the United States, by contrast, the two roles of head of government and state are combined in the president (head of government) and the presidency (head of state), so that it is difficult to tease out whether an attack against the office is a based on a dislike of the incumbent or the country. This is occasionally troublesome. For instance, during the disgrace of Richard Nixon, many defended him not because of his innocence but instead because criticism seemed to weaken the presidency and thus the country.

So against whom was el-Zeidi was directing his ire? The prime minister (the president)? Or the queen (the United States)? In one sense, it is hard to distinguish, since it is the policies of the Bush administration that have created an outpouring of disrespect, even hatred, for the United States. It is, however, important as the United States moves forward in the Middle East under a new leader.

If it is just George W. Bush who is the object of disdain, then the problem is less severe. In that case, Bush’s replacement by Obama will help put the hurt behind us: there is some evidence that many Middle Easterners have some positive hope for the administration of a man with a shared regional middle name. If, on the other hand, it is the queen at whom the ire is directed, that is a more serious and difficult matter to reverse. If el-Zeidi and those who agree with him hate America, then only a sharp reversal in how we are perceived will turn that situation around.

Changing the American image will require overcoming the reasons we are resented in that part of the world, and nothing symbolizes the resentment more than the enormous, very public American military presence in the region, the capstone of which is the military occupation in Iraq and the American intervention in Afghanistan. The Iraqi occuption will begin to wind down with the change of administration,  but American interference in Afghanistan is scheduled to increase, not decrease. Does this mean more flying shoes in our future? God save the queen if it does.

President Obama: Please Don’t Do It!

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Global War on Terror, International Terrorism, War on Terror with tags , , , , , on December 11, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The morning papers announced that Secretary Robert Gates is ordering up to an additional 20,000 American troops (3-4 brigades) into Afghanistan for what he describes as “some protracted period of time.” This action is compatible with incoming President Obama’s repeated statements of preference on the subject, and presumably Obama signed off on the increases when he convinced Secretary Gates to remain at his post. Doing so is a mistake that will not improve the situation or the achievement of America’s goals in southwest Asia. Rather, it is more likely to further entrap the United States in the swirling maelstrom that is Afghanistan and turn an ill-conceived protracted involement into President Obama’s Vietnam and possibly even drag down his presidency. Please, Mr. Obama, don’t do it!

The inadvisability of expanding America’s role in Afghanistan has been a recurring theme in this space. The central theme of the message has been that the United States cannot possibly win a military victory (whatever that means) or achieve the more important political goal of helping an anti-terrorist (anti-Al Qaeda) regime prevail, thereby contributing to America’s only real valid objective in the region, which is the eradication of Al Qaeda.

 Unfortunately, the United States bungled its best chance at doing so in late 2001 and instead bumbled its way into an ongoing civil war in Afghanistan, at least part of the impetus for which is continuing American presence. In the process, the United States has helped to create two unfortunate outcomes: the fate of the Karzai government is now inextricably linked to his support by the NATO coalition of which the United States is leader, and it has fueled ongoing support for the loose coalition of largely Pashtun groups who collectively are described as the Taliban.  The former error means many Afghans consider Karzai an American puppet and oppose him on that ground; the latter implies that American presence serves as a poster child for Taliban recruitment. More American troops will not defuse those conditions; it will make them worse.

The real reason the U.S. will fail in its attempt to transform Afghanistan into an anti-terrorist bastion is because the effort runs directly in the face of Afghan history. A strong anti-Al Qaeda Afghanistan requires a strong central government in Kabul, and that is something Afghanistan has never had. Wny? Because Afghanistan is so fractionalized that such an arrangement is unacceptable to the majority of the people, regardless of who is running it. Combine that problem with the long-held Afghan antipathy for foreign invaders and occupiers, and it is hard to conceptualize how the United States could possibly prevail in any meaningful sense. Secretary Gates is known for his advocacy of avoiding American involvement in unwinnable wars, and Afghanistan is the current prototype of just that kind of war. There is a significant disconnect here.

Moreover, ramping up American physical presence in Afghanistan will largely negate the calming effect in the region of American withdrawal from Iraq. Except for those elites who believe Amercian forces keeps them in power, most people in the region want the United States physically out of the region–at least in a military sense. Drawing down, not ramping up, U.S. presence in Afghanistan will actually increase American leverage to negotiate in the region, including the ability to get the Taliban to talk to us and possibly even to gain their help in dealing with Al Qaeda on both sides of the Durand Line. Less American force in the area will also have some calming influence in Pakistan, where there is great opposition to American incursions across the border to pursue Al Qaeda.

The counter argument, of course, is that American forces are necessary to pursue Al Qaeda and that removing them would in effect declare defeat in the war on terror and embolden America’s adversaries. That argument may puff up some people’s chests, but it runs aground the facts that American forces have not succeeded in destroying Al Qaeda for over seven years and that their deployment in Afghanistan does not do much to aid that quest. Removing American ground forces from Afghanistan, moreover,, does not mean the United States forfeits all measures of power projection in the region; it just gets American forces out of the cross-hairs of the Afghans and as an irritant in that country.

Hardly anyone is yet moving the term “quagmire” from Iraq to Afghanistan, but the course is being set for such a transference. It is a mistake, because it will not work and will taint the new administration by committing it to a virtually endless, unwinnable campaign. George W. Bush will forever be known largely for “Mr. Bush’s War” in Iraq. Does Barack Obama want Afghanistan to be known as “Mr. Obama’s War” and the centerpiece of his legacy? Please Mr. Obama, don’t do it!

Upping a Losing Ante in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , on December 7, 2008 by whatafteriraq

There is an old saw in military affairs that there is a tendency in war to increase the action (up the ante) whether one is losing or winning. In the case of losing, the purpose is to avoid defeat; if one is winning, an increeased effort is intended to seal the victory by administering the coup de main to the opponent.

Despite abundant effort that it is unlikely to succeed, the United States seems determined to up the ante in Afghanistan, with reports of upwards of 20,000 additional troops scheduled for deployment in the next few months. In all likelihood, the additional troops will not make any noticeable difference in the outcome. Why not?

There are several reasons for pessimism, three of which deserve mention here. The first is that the troop increases are an act of desperation to try to stave off an impending defeat and overthrow of the Karzai government by the insurgents: the U.S. is upping the ante to avoid defeat. The telling admission that this is the intent is that most of the new troops will be deployed around Kabul to protect the capital from the insurgency. The implicit admission here, of course, is that the contest in the rural areas that dominate the country has essentially been lost. Falling back to protect the capital is an old theme in Afghan history and a tacit acknowledgement that things have not chanced much since 2003, when Karzai was effectively the President of Kabul.

Second, the troop increases are pitifully inadequate to make mch difference. This assertion has been made previously in this space but bears reiterating. According to an article in today’s New York Times, there are currently 62,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, 32,000 of which are American. An addtional 20,000 Americans raises that total to about 80,000 (which allows for the withdrawal of some troops by American allies). That number is clearly a drop in the bucket to control a country with 32 million people and an area of a quarter million square miles (about the same as Texas). Even conservative estimates suggest the need for at least 300,000 to make a difference. Nobody is proposing that.

Third, the whole enterprise defies Afghan history. Once again, this point has been raised before in this space. The British have fought over Afghanistan three times, twice in the 19th and once in the 20th centuries, and the Soviet Union tried in the 1980s. All these efforts failed because if the Afghans have one overriding characteristic, it is their determination and talent for expelling unwanted outside invaders. What makes the U.S. government think it is different?

 Robert Gates has agreecto stay on as Secretary of Defense in the early Obama administration. Although he is associated with the militaristic views of the Bush administration, he is also an outspoken opponent of American involvement in “unwinnable” wars. Afghanistan is clear such a war. Gates doubtless did not dare say so under Bush for fear of being sacked by a team that put loyalty before truth; maybe he will be able to under Obama. As the old Kenny Rodgers song puts it, “You have to when to hold them, know when to fold them.” And when not to up the ante.