Archive for February, 2009

No More Supplemental Appropriations Abuse?

Posted in Iraq War with tags , , on February 25, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Most of President Obama’s speech to Congress last night focused, quite appropriately, on the current economic crisis, a launching pad he also used to propose very ambitious plans in areas like energy, health care, and education. Toward the end of the speech, as he was talking about budget responsibility and deficit reduction, he added a little nugget that may be overlooked (unless he highlights in subsequent foreign policy speeches) but deserves more prominent mention: the use, and in the case of the Bush administration abuse, of supplemental appropriations to finance government operations, and notably the war in Iraq.

The supplemental appropriation is a very old and time-honored budgeting device. As the name implies, it covers additions (or supplements) to the money government spends that are not covered in the regular federal budget (I have discussed this phenomenon in National Security for a New Era, 3rd edition). In that book, I quote a useful definition from OMB Watch of what supplementals are: “spending legislation, generally but not exclusively requested by the President, intended to address a need not known or foreseen when the annual budget for a given fiscal year was drawn up.”  The clearest example of a supplemental appropriation would be emergency funds for a natual disaster such as the response to Hurricane Katrina, and indeed, much of the initial relief effort for that event was provided for by a supplemental appropriations bill. Historically, supplementals were accompanied by “offsets,” reductions in spending elsewhere to compensate for emergency expenditures. 

The problem is that the supplemental appropriations process has been extended beyond unforeseen emergencies to entirely foreseeable (and foreseen) non-emergencies. Over the past several years, the most obvious example has been funding for the Iraq War, most of which has been funded, directly or indirectly, “off budget,” as the process is sometimes referred to. It has also been accomplished without offsets.

Why has this been the case? The major reason is that it obscures the amount of federal spending generally and for specific purposes, if it is the desire of any administration to do so. Supplemental appropriations spending does not appear in the annual accounting of federal spending versus revenue collections, meaning it is not calculated into the federal deficit for any given year. The money is spent just like regular budgetary allocations, but when the books are closed, it does not appear as an inflationary impact on federal deficits. This alone made it a particularly attractive device for a Bush administration that was running up record deficits without the impact of supplementals. It also made the cost of the Iraq War and defense spending gnerally appear much more modest than it in fact was. Moreover, the Bush administration generally provided no offsetting reductions to moderate the impact. Finally, supplementals generally receive nowhere near the public scrutiny of the regular budget, making them an attractive device for in effect hiding potentially controversial expenditures of public funds. Iraq certainly qualifies in that regard.

Obama, in discussing his ten-year budget projections, specifically rejected this form of funding future defense efforts. Specifically, he said there would be public accounting of all expenditures on Iraq (an by extension, other military adventures) through the regular budget cycle. Although he did not say it in so many words, what he appeared to mean is that defense spending (except, presumably, for real emergencies) will no longer be underwritten by distorting the supplemental appropriations process. Members of Congress knew what he was saying, but the general public probably did not.

If he follows through on this pledge, it will be one of the most significant reforms he proposed in terms of its effect on government transparency and on government spending. In effect, he pulled back the curtain on the Bush administration’s attempt to hide the extent of the government’s spendng on Iraq, and he promised  not to let it happen again on his watch. Let’s make sure he follows through on this pledge!

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A Hint of “Afghanistanization”?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Foreign policy and 2008 election with tags , , , , , , on February 22, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The policy of the Obama administration toward Afghanistan is clearly a work in progress. On one hand, the President campaigned on the notion that the United States had “dropped the ball” on Afghanistan by going into Iraq, suggesting at least indirectly that he would pick the ball back up and turn his attention toward Afghanistan. The “mini-surge” of 17,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan announced in the past week or so seems to bolster that interpretation.On the other hand, the President has also announced that he intends to reduce budget deficits and that a major contributor to that effort will be reductions in spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. What is going on here?

One possibility is that the administration is going to adopt the Vietnamization/Iraqification approach taken by its predecessors. Clearly, it will never be called this–and the term is long, clunky, and inherently difficult to say aloud–but we may be looking at a new policy of Afghanistanization. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, standing in front of a podium in Ottawa at his joint press conference with President Obama,may have offered the initial gambit, running up the “flagpole” the idea of turning over the war to the Afghans as Obama stood impassively behind him,  neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

What did Harper say? His reply came in response to a question about whether the PM had decided to extend the Canadian military participation in the NATO-led ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) beyond its scheduled withdrawal in 2011 (an additional commitment Obama denied asking for). While Harper did not answer that question directly, he did offer a Canadian view of Afghan strategy that sounded a lot like a withdrawal.

Harper emphasized two points. The first was to redouble efforts to train, equip, and prepare the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take over responsibility for combating the insurgency. Sound familiar? The second was to move toward more economic and developmental rather than military aid as a way to undercut Afghan support for the Taliban. In other words, he advocated a strategy for the gradual winding down of Canadian–and by extension other western–military involvement in a conflict that almost no one thinks can be won by outside military forces.

This statement of Canadian policy must, of course, be put into context. Like most of the non-American NATO countries in ISAF, the Canadians have been progressively disabused of any notions of triumph in Afghanistan, face domestic political opposition to continuing, and want to pull out. The Canadians, however, have been among a relatively few NATO allies who have provided meaningful combat–as opposed to support–troops, leading some Americans on the ground to refer to ISAF as “I saw Americans fighting.” This policy statement, in other words, plays well in Canada.

If the President really wants to reduce budget deficits, it should play well in the United States as well. Published reports suggest U.S. spemding in Iraq and Afghanistan will approach $200 billion this year, and cutting back in both places thus has economic benefits, as well as assuaging a Democratic Party base none too enthused about either war. It will also be opposed on the grounds that it amounts to selling out the Afghans and asuring the success of the Taliban.

Will a policy change to Afghanistanization work? The precedents are not encouraging. Vietnamization was an obvious utter failure, and Iraqification remains an open question. For the policy to work in Afghanistan, it would have to accomplish two ends. Once again, the prospects are not entirely enocuraging.

The first thing it must do is result in a sustainable Afghan government, which very roughly means one the Afghan people will support more than the alternative. That did not happen in South Vietnam, and it is still an open question whether the al-Maliki government of Iraq will find enough support outside the Shiite majority to remain viable. 

In Afghanistan, the question is even more problematical. Recent polling suggests that only about 15 percent of Afghans would vote for American-backed president Hamid Karzai, even though 90 percent say they oppose the Taliban. It is not clear who, if anyone, they do favor. A majority, however, do agree they want the United States out of the country.

The other pillar of a successful policy of withdrawal in Afghanistan is the emergence of the ANA as a fource capable of imposing and enforcing the peace. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) could not do so, because it lacked popular support (among other things), and it is not clear whether Iraqi security forces will become adequately ethnically diverse to do the job in Iraq. If Iraqi security and armed forces remain the province of the Shiites, it is hard to see either the Sunnis or Kurds remaining quiescent.

This problem exists in spades for the ANA. The problem, as suggested earlier in this space, is ethnic composition. It is probably revealing that the Afghans, with apparent American acquiesence, have suppressed ethnic statistics about the ANA since about 2005. This suggests there may be something to hide, and that probably is the disproportionate participation of Tajiks in the armed forces, with consequent under-representation of the Pashtun plurality in the country. If the armed force of Afghanistan is considered internally as an anti-Pashtun force, its chances of serving as a stabilizing force approach zero and the ANA remains part of the problem, not of the solution.

Is Afghanistanization where U.S. policy is headed? It may prove the least worst solution. Military victory by foreigners in Afghanistan defies history, the status quo has produced the current desperation in which not even Kabul is secure, and it is not clear how much difference a few more Americans will make (especially if they replace departing NATO allies). The Aiken solution (declare victory, leave, and let those who remain figure out what victory means) is too cynical, and that leaves crafting a fig leaf policy behind which to leave under the least worst circumstances. It may not be much, but it may be the best one can do in a situation one should never have gotten into in the first place.

Russia’s Afghan Valentine Present

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Russia with tags , , , , , on February 17, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The McClatcheyNewspaper group released a story on February 14 (Jonathan Landay, “Is U.S. Repeating Mistakes Soviet Regime Made in Afghanistan?”) based on recently declassified Soviet documents regarding why Mikhail Gorbachev decided the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan was doomed to failure and thus concluded the need to withdraw. The reasons are eerily similar to the problems the Obama administration faces 20 years after the Soviet withdrawal. It is quite a Valentine’s Day present.

The report admits, of course, that the reasons for the Soviet and American interventions in Afghanistan were different. The Soviets invaded in December 1979 to try to prop up a communist regime theyhad helped install, whereas the United States intervened initially because of the Taliban’s refusal to turn over Al Qaeda after 9/11. In the process, the United States assisted in the rise to power of the Hamid Karzai regime, which faces reelection later this year.

There are chilling points of comparability in the 1989 and 2009 situations that should give the Obama administration pause as it contemplates its next moves in Afghanistan. In the Soviet case, these factors led the leadership to conclude their mission was futile and had to be terminated. Should the Obama administration reach the same conclusions?

The McClatchey reports lists four similarities that are worth noting. The first was the failure of the government being propped up by the intervening power to achieve legitimacy. The communist government supported by the Soviets never had any real support, and a combination of ineptitude and corruption has largely created the same problem for Karzai. Although the study does not add this dynamic, the fact that both regimes could be portrayed by their opponents as puppets of the unwanted interveners did not help their popularity. Both the Soviets then and the Americans now backed popular losers.

Second, thecounterinsurgency is not working. The McClatchey report quotes the late Soviet Armychief of Staff, Sergei Akhromeyev, on this point: “After seven years in Afghanistan, there is not one square killometer untouched by a boot of a Soviet soldier. But as soon as they leave a place, the enemy returns and restores it all back the way it used to be.” This, of course, is the classic dilemma of the counterinsurgent: providing security in hostile territory. The problem is that security is only possible if one is physically present to enforce it. That requires a very large force in a place the size of Texas (Afghanistan). The Soviets could not do it with 150,000 troops. If current proposals are implemented, NATO (2/3 American) forces will number about 90,000. Need more be said?

Third, part of the Soviet problem was the inability to seal the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taliban fighters ignored the border and went back and forth with impunity. As noted earlier in this space, they still do, since both sides of the border are Pashtun lands and the bulk of the Taliban are Pashtun. As the United States found after evicting the Taliban from power, chasing them out of the country is not the same thing as defeating them.

Fourth, the loss of goodwill between the occupiers and the population is the inevitable outcome of a prolonged occupation. Eduard Shevardnadze, then Soviet foreign minister (later president of Georgia), put it then, “Very little is left of the friendly feelings toward the Soviet people, which exised for decades.Very man people have died, and not all of them were bandits (guerrillas). Not a single problem was solved in favor of the peasants. In essence, we waged war against the peeasants.” Recent polls show that favorable opinions of Americans among Afghans is less than one-half, compared to two-thirds in 2007.   

These factors, along with a failing political system and economy, caused the Soviets to leave Afghanistan two decades ago. In essence, the Soviets concluded their quest was quixotic and unsustainable given their own national miseries. Is the situation really so different today?

The Israeli Election and the Peace Process

Posted in Diplomacy, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Perhaps George Mitchell, named two weeks ago to lead the Obama Administration’s effort to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians should put his travel plans on hold. Depending on what coalition emerges from the typically ambiguous outcome of the Israeli elections this past weekend, there may or may not be any peace process to negotiate. Right now, the prospects are not looking good for those who wish to see a long-term settlement.

Israelis, of course, are of two diametrically and irreconcilably different feelings about the peace process. Some believe that the process is largely illusory and that Israel should concentate on its physical security at all costs and should thus not negotiate an agreement with Palsetinians they do not trust. The lightning rod of this concern is disdain for the so-called two-state solution (a separate Israel and Palestine) except on territorial grounds the Palsetinians find unacceptable. The symbol of this position is advocacy, even expansion, of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The Israeli parties most attached to this position are Benyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahou’s Likud and, more recently, Avizdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Right now, they seem to hold the balance of power in terms of forming a new coalition government to rule the country.

The other position is that Israel cannot know true security until it reaches some permanant accord with the Palestinians. The only basis for such a peace is the two-state solution, and the negotiating problem is crafting two states the territory of which is acceptable to all. The lightning rod, once again, is the settlements: the Paelstinians will not accept any Palestine that does not include rolling back substantially the settlements, probably including a land swap in which the Israelis cede land to Palestine to compensate for settlement territory that Israel keeps. This position, of course, is anathema to the settlers and their supporters. It is a position associated with moderate to left political parties in Israel, notably Tzipi Livni’s Kadima and Ehud Barak’s Labor parties. Unless these two can form a coalition with some small parties of the right, which is illogical on the settlements question, they will not prevail and Netanyahou will become Israel’s prime minister once again (he held the position in the 1990s).

In terms of the pace process, the possible outcomes are stark. If Netanyahou and the political right prevail and form a government, there is no basis for a peace process. Netanyahou has long been a champion of “greater Israel” (an expansionist Israel incorporating more of the West Bank ), and Lieberman favors a loyalty oath for all Israelis–including Muslims–to the Jewish state, and has his political support base among former Soviet Jews (he is a Moldovan immigrant)and settlers, an overlapping pair of groups. If they prevail, the two-state solution is out the window, probably forever, and there is no basis for negotiations. George Mitchell can stay home, and the Obama administration will have suffered a major rebuff from its Israeli “allies.” If Livnibecomes prime minister, there is a Palestinian state to be discussed and negotating its nature and extent,the prime purpose of the Mitchell effort, can at least be carried on.

There is a third possibility, and that is the formation of a grand coalition party that includes Likud, Kadima, and Labor as its core. This government would be divided on the settlements question and thus probably indecisive enough to allow negotiations to go forward if not necessarily to succeed.

How should the United States react to these developments? It depends on how the Obama administration sees its role in dealing with Israel and its neighbors. The Bush administration saw itself primarily as the guardian of Israel and accepted with very little question however Israel sought to conduct its relations in the region. That position, of course, meant no progress toward peace, since the Palestinians and their supporters viewed the United States, not without reason, as the essential lackeys of the Israelis. Supporting Netanyahou would continue that position. The other position the administration can take is that peace–that includes a stable Israel–is the major U.S. interest. That position, of course, flies in the face of a Netanyahou victory and potentially puts the United States at direct odds with the Israelis. Clearly the pursuit of peace is the Obama administration’s preference, and if the Israelis form a government opposed to it, that would be a direct snub of the United States.

This issue will not simply go away. Particularly if Netanyahou is victorious, the Palestinians and their supporters are likely to react strongly, including violently. What do they have to lose? That, in turn, will seem to vindicate the Israelis’ distrust of the Palestinians and strengthen the hands of those who would like to take yet more draconian measures against the Palestinians. In the process, the door is likely to slam shut on any possibility of a two-state solution.

Is this analysis too pessimistic? Maybe, but it looks like the outcome of the Israeli election could define the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations and potentially U.S.-Israeli relations as well. If there is one piece of advice to be offered to George Mitchell, it is probably that he shouldn’t pack his bags quite yet.

What Do We Want in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, War on Terror with tags , , , , , on February 7, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama has declared the war in Afghanistan to be his biggest foreign policy priority. To emphasize his commitment to the area, he has appointed one of America’s ablest (if not necessarily most loved) diplomats, Richard Holbrooke, to spearhead the American effort there and in Pakistan. But what do we want to accomplish there? What is (or are) the political objectives we seek to attain from the war?

These questions and their answers are crucial. Knowing what we hope to achieve is critical to knowing if we are achieving it, but beyond that, it allows us to ask two other, underlying questions: are the goals worth the effort? and do we have a reasonable chance to realize them? The answers depend on the objectives and they are, unfortunately, not clear cut at all.

There are, as argued in this space, two reasons for being in Afghanistan. The original reason for intervening there in October 2001 was to eradicate Al Qaeda, and since we failed in that, it remains the primary goal of U.S. policy in the region. The other goal is to prevent the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The reasons are to prevent the country returning to its status as the provider of sanctuary for Al Qaeda (a role they played before they were overthrown with U.S. aid in 2001) and to prevent their reimposition of a strict Islamist rule to the country.

How do these objectives stand up as political objectives worthy of American continuing sacrifice? While we can disagree on each, it seems apparent that they are of differing vitality to the United States. A strong case can be made for destroying Al Qaeda, and no American would dispute that a world without the bin Laden group would be a better place in American terms. The objective is clearly worthy, but the question is what the war in Afghanistan has to do with achieving it.

Two points can be made. The first is that Al Qaeda is no longer physically in Afghanistan, which suggests that, in any direct sense, American military efforts there are irrelevant to the objective. How, for instance, does securing Kabul from the Taliban promote the destruction of Al Qaeda? The only answer is indirect: if the Taliban is deprived of power in Afghanistan, then Al Qaeda loses a potential sanctuary. This assessment leads to the second point, which is whether a war in Afghanistan is the best way to deny Al Qaeda access to the country. Ambassador Holbrooke recently headed a group that suggested a better tack may be to try to negotiate with those Taliban who do not support Al Qaeda (and many apparently don’t), thereby denying Al Qaeda support from the Pashtuns who make up the Taliban and whose code of hospitality (part of the code of Pashtunwali) has provided protection for Al Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A war in Afghanistan, in other words, may not only not be the best way to defeat Al Qaeda, it may not work.

The other objective is the defeat of the Taliban. This objective loses much of its importance if the United States can negotiate a deal with the Talibasn to deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda, leaving the prevention of a cruel, medieval rule of the Afghans as the reason for our effort. No one denies that the Taliban has a very different view of how to rule that most Americans and many Afghans find offensive. It is also true, however, that the current regime is not particularly great shakes, either. The Hamid Karzai government is rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt in the world, and the Taliban advertise honest rule. One picks one’s poison.

The point here revolves around whether the outcome of the internal struggle is important enough to warrant American military involvement. In terms of the Southern idiom, does the United States have a “dog in the fight” over whether Karzai or the Taliban control Afghanistan? If either would suppress Al Qaeda, it is pretty hard to make a convincing case that the internal outcome makes much difference to the United States. Would we like to see the reimposition of sharia law and Islamic extremism in Afghanistan? Of course not! Do we tolerate equivalent conditions in other places without intervening with military force? You bet we do (try Darfur, for a contemporary example). Moreover, is it clear that a continuing American military presence will cause the failure of the Taliban and the success of Karzai? None of the reports are very optimistic on this matter.

What can the United States expect to gain in Afghanistan, and is it worth turning it into Mr. Obama’s War? Answering those questions positively requires answering the questions about the importance of the objectives and the ability to realize them. Getting Al Qaeda is unquestionably important, but it is not clear fighting a war in Afghanistan will contribute much toward attaining the goal. Preventing the return of Taliban rule may (or may not) be the result of an American war in Afghanistan, but is it worth it?

Provincial Voting in Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iran and Iraq, Iraq War, Iraqi Oil on February 1, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Initial reports out of Iraq suggest that voting in provincial elections is going well, with a noticeable absence of sectarian violence, intimidation and acts of anti-democratic behavior by the Iraqis. Moreover, the elections are being held with Iraqis themselves largely in control of security surrounding the event. That is, of course, good news (certainly better than if there were major in cidents). But how good is the news?

The answer is that it depends on two things, neither of which is apparent at this juncture. The first is why these elections are proceeding as smoothly as they appear to be, and there are three possible answers. One is that they are, after all, provincial level elections, not elections to determine the national parliament and thus the direction of national policy. The stakes are thus different than they will be for the national elections scheduled for later this year. Just as voting for the Mississippi legislature does not provide a harbinger for the American national elections, the question of carryover is open. Moreover, since most of the provinces have completed the process of ethnic cleansing, theyare being held in by-and-large ethncially pure areas (that is, of course, not entirely true in areas, for instance, around Baghdad).

A second possibility is that the Iraqis are on their best behavior to make an impression on the Americans and the rest of the world. Most Iraqis very much want to see the American occupation end as quickly as possible, and demonstrating that they can carry out these primary manifestations of democratic process offers a demonstration they no longer need us, and success further makes that point for world public opinion, which also wants the Americans to leave. It thus reinforces President Obama’s 16-month timetable and undercuts the foot draggers who say we must stay longer. The third possibility is that democratic process has actually taken hold in the country, a maturation of the influences the United States has sought to inculcate all along.

Which of these is true? Not being there, it is impossible to know, but my guess is that there is some truth and thus contribution of each influence. More localized elections probably are less inflammatory, the Iraqis (and those who support them, notably the Iranians) certainly do not want these elections to serve as an excuse for a prolongation of the occupation, and at least some Iraqis undoubtedly now do “get it” about democracy.

The other, and more critical, question is whether this spirit will carry over into national voting later in the year. Since this has not yet happened and there is inadequate experience on which to gauge, this question cannot be answered, only speculated on. Those who want to leave will make a great deal out of Iraqi progress toward self-government, while skeptics will argue the jury is still out. Since one cannot know what connection there will be, it is almost certainthat these elections will be greeted by a cautious optimism but no important changes until they are reinforced (if they are) by the national elections.

The New York Times articles on the elections (Alisa J. Rubin, “Pointing to a New Era, U.S. Pulls Back as Iraqis Vote,” February 1, 2009, online) adds an interesting about the post-election environment and its relationship to Iraqi oil, a fequent subject in this space.  She says, “The United States exerts more influence here than in any other oil-producing country–and will be intent on continuing to do so. Iraq will be eager to demonstrate its independence….This promises considerable tension as each side redefines the relationship.”

This tension enters a source of ambivalence into the American view of the electoral scene in Iraq. The United States badly wants and needs success in democratization to demonstrate the success of its goals in that country and to provide the conditions for a “peace with honor” accompanying withdrawal. At the same time, the United States equally badly wants enought continuing influence in Iraq to ensure we are not cut off from Iraqi oil, as we were by Saddam Hussein.

Hopefully, a fully democratic Iraq will also be sufficiently pro-American to allow both goals to be realized. Unfortunately, recent history in places like Gaza and Lebanon suggest the possibilities of people voting to create unfriendly democracies (I discuss this at some length in Cases in International Relations, 4th edition, due in bookstores in March 2009). As it wends its way out of Iraq, it may be part of the diplomatic challenge on the Obama administration to try to be sure that the end result of democratization in Iraq is a friednly democracy–one that will allow us to tap into their oil. The provincial electionsare just the first step in that process.