Archive for March, 2009

Baby Steps in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism with tags , , , on March 29, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The Obama administration rolled out its revised approach to Afghanistan this past week. Most of it was leaked before the actual announcement, which seems to be the Obama style of making sure there are no major shock waves when formal announcement time occurs. The “strategy” it laid out was hardly surprising, shocking, or innovative. Rather, it looked like one more incremental step into the Afghan morass. As such, it pleased neither the advocates of the war, who would like more decisive additions, or to the opponents, who want the war ramped down, not up.What it proposed were in essence baby steps of escalation, which is eerily reminiscent of Vietnam.

The President essentially proposed three things. The first, and most significant, was to state unequivocally what the mission is: to “disrupt, dismantle, and destroy” Al Qaeda. All actions are tied to that goal. That meant, among other things, that Obama has abandoned to the pile of hoped-for-but-not-expected-or-required outcomes of the conflict producing a democratic Afghanistan (a staple part of the Bush goals). Since democratizing Afghanistan in any western sense has always been a chimera, that at least makes the approach a little more realistic. It is not, however, quite clear either what outcome the United States expects or will tolerate in the August Afghan elections, or how our actions will contribute to those ends. The goal of what David Petraeus called the “Af-Pak” strategy (ycch!), however, is clearly Al Qaeda. No one is likely to dissent from that goal; there is still plenty of room for disagreement about how to get there.

Presumably the United States seeks an outcome where Afghanistan and Pakistan will be hostile grounds for Al Qaeda–where they will no longer be able to find refuge. The second and third elements of the strategy are aimed at that end. The second is the dispatch of an additional 4,000 (beyond the 17,000 already ordered) Americans to Afghanistan, although in the role of trainers of the Afghan security forces (the Afghan National Army or ANA). The goal is to speed the development of the ANA to a point that it can take on increasing parts of its own self-defense. There was no mention about altering the tribal constitution of the ANA, a problem raised in an earlier post in this space. This goal is reminiscent of the parallel effort in Iraq (outcome in progress) and in Vietnam (outcome a failure).

The third element is to funnel additional economic and developmental funding into both Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially into the contested Pashtun areas (the strategy does not specifically identify the areas as Pashtun). This element of the strategy begs the questions both of where the money is supposed to come from and whether it will do measurable good. In the case of both additional troop numbers and aid levels, expect there to be additional requests. Petraeus hinted as much in his interview with John King today, saying Obama had not denied a single request for more yet and that we will all have to wait and see if this is enough (want to guess whether it is or not?).

These are all small, timid, baby steps reminiscent of how the United States got gradually deeper and deeper into Vietnam, and the fact that Obama has adopted this approach is puzzling, even troubling. His support base wants out of Afghanistan, but he has joined forces with the opposition who believes Afghanistan is too important to abandon. His supporters say we cannot win in Afghanistan; his opponents say Afghanistan is too important to lose. Something has convinced him that the latter argument has sufficient merit that he is turning his back at least part of the way on those who oppose the war and thought he would lead us out of it. In this confusing situation, he has chosen the least risky, politically safest route–that of incrementalism.

This strategy makes short term, tactical sense, but does it wash in the longer haul? Probably not. An extra 4,000 trainers and a few billion dollars is not going to transform Afghanistan from an environment hostile to the U.S. to one hostile to Al Qaeda. When it does not, there will be cries to do just a little more; we heard that in Vietnam and succumbed to it, and it was a losing strategy. Moreover, the longer we are there and the more effort we pour in, the more two contradictory things will happen. One is that war weariness will increase, and Obama’s popularity will decline. The other is that the sunk costs will continue to increase, and with each increment, it will become a little harder to disengage because of the investment already made. One force suggests it is better to get out while the getting is no worse; the other says stay because it is too expensive to leave. This sounds like a Hobson’s choice.

President Obama, in justifying his economic policies, chides those who would defer one or more elements with the accusation their calls for delay simply “kick the can” down the road for others to solve. But isn’t an incremental increase in the American commitment–baby steps–simply a way to kick the Afghan war down the road for some future time? It certainly looks that way to me.

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New Lines in the Palestinian Sand

Posted in Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2009 by whatafteriraq

With the addition of the 13-seat Labor party to its coalition, the Netanyahou government is basically in place. The accession of Labor–at the insistence of its leader, Ehud Barak–is controversial and may tear the former largest party in Israel apart, because it aligns pro-peace Labor with a Likud/Yisrael Beitenu coalition whose commitment to peace is, to put it politely, questionable. It also sets the basis for a more-or-less open confrontation between Israel and its most important supporter, the United States. The basis of that confrontation is, of course, the question of Palestinan statehood: the two-state solution. Likud/Yisrael oppose the two-state solution (although they do not openly say so in the present climate); the Obama administration clearly favors it. New lines are being drawn in the sand over Palestine. Who will prevail?

The mounting change in U.S.-Israeli relations could be both fundamental and traumatic. It is, of course, also part of a cyclical debate about that relationship. The two sides in the American debate have, roughly speaking, been between those who side decisively with Israel on Middle Eastern issues and those who propound a more balanced view of Israel and its Muslim neighbors. The pro-Israeli faction was in control under Bush, where American policy often appeared to be initiated in Tel Aviv (or Jersualem). The drivers of this policy position are what I called American Likud in a recent posting. The Obama administration represents a return to the more balanced position often associated historically with the old “Arabist” group in the State Department and last having official  influence under Clinton. The fact of fluctuation is, in and of itself, not unusual.

What is unusual and potentially incendiary is the combination of an American regime committed to a two-state solution and an Israeli government that opposes such a position. The last time that combination existed was in the latter 1990s, when Bill Clinton led an American government committed to the peace process and Bibi Netanyahou led a Likud government in Israel. In the 1990s, Netanyahou lost the confrontation and was replaced–admittedly for reasons going well beyond the confrontation with the U.S. over Palestine. Nonetheless, some precedent does exist, and it may help explain why Bibi is going to some length to appear more conciliatory on the Palestine issue than he really is.

There are two evidences of Bibi’s attempt to move toward the political middle on the two-state issue. One is the addition of Labor to the ruling coalition, since Labor has been one of the most prominent voices for peace in Israeli politics. Barak has said one of his motivations for joining the Netanyahou government was his hope of being able to influence the government toward peace. Whether the bargain he made toward that end will prove to be heroic, quixotic, or faustian remains to be seen. For Netanyahou, it is a win-win proposition: he hopefully gains credibility with the Americans, but is not committed to anything more than politiely listening to Labor entreaties, which he can ignore without endangering his governing majority.

The other evidence is Netanyahou’s attempt to portray his position as pro-peace, at least partially to help align himself more closely with the Americans. Obama this week declared that movement toward a Palestinian state is “critical” to ending what he describes as an “unsustainable” Palestinian situation: in other words, the two-state solution already endorsed by Hillary Clinton. There is nothing in Netanyahou’s past that suggests he agrees, but he does not want to appear to disagree. To that end, he declared yesterday that “the Palestinians should understnad that they have in our government a partner for peace, for security, and for rapid development of the Palestinian economy.” Peace, in other words, with no sovereign Palestinian state. That outcome is standard Likud party line, and because it means that continued settlement of the West Bank can fit under its conceptual umbrella, it also expressed Yisrael sentiment.

No matter how much lipstick one puts on the pig, however, it is still a porker. The simple fact is the Palestinians will accept no peace settlement that does not include a sovereign state. As noted in the last posting, Bibi’s “conciliatory” position is warmed-over 1990s stuff, a think coating of make-up for the pig. It does not fool the Palestinians, and it will not fool the Obama administration. If Obama and his emissaries are serious about peace in a way others have not been, there is confrontation in the future. How it plays outs and who wins will be an absolutely fascinating case in the real workings of international power politics, and I will be watching and reporting on  it.

Is Bibi Blinking?

Posted in Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The drama of creating a new Israeli government continues. Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahou has the votes to form a right-wing government of which his Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu would be the pillars surrounded by other small right-wing parties. To this point, Bibi is holding out against that option, trying instead to reach across the ideological divide to form a “unity government” that includes parties of the left. Is Bibi blinking?

One issue above all others divides the political right and left in Israel, and that is the peace process. As noted several times in this space, the major symbol of the peace process is the question of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The left (Kadima and Labor) places a high priority on progress in peace negotiations and is thus willing to negotiate on the settlements, up to and including dismantling some or all of them.The right (Likud and especially Yisrael) say they want peace, but are not willing to negotiate removal of the settlements. This is particularly true of Yisrael, many of whose supporters are settlers. Bibi, on the other hand, favors negotiations with the Palestinians based on economic development and security provisions rather than on emphasizing negotiation of a sovereign Palestinian state. There is not a lot of wiggle room between these two positions.

The approach of the Israeli right has two primary opponents. One, of course, is the Palestinians, who see the Israeli right as anti-Palestinian state and view Bibi’s negotiating stance as no more than a warmed over 1990s attempt to divert attention from the real demand for a sovereign state (which it largely is). The other opponent is the Obama administration which, as noted earlier here, believes a two-state solution to be “inevitable” (Hillary Clinton’s term). The position of the Israeli right precludes that outcome, thereby placing Bibi and the Americans on a collision course. For the Israelis, life was so much simpler when they had George Bush acting as Ariel Sharon’s poodle!

In this context, Bibi’s conciliatory stance toward the left makes sense. To cool off the Americans, he needs to reduce the apparent anti-peace position of the right, and coopting a peace-favoring left coalition partner is one way to do that. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has ruled out the possibility, sniffing that she will not provide a “fig leaf” for the anti-peace Likud-Yisrael right.

That leaves the Labor Party, which has fallen on hard times, as the candidate for the grand coalition. In the recent elections, Labor–once the largest Israeli party–fell to fourth, electing only 13 members (it placed behind Kadima, Likud, and Yisreal, in that order). Ehud Barak, its leader and a former Prime Minister, is entertaining the possibility of joining Likud as a way to regain some relevance for Labor. Under promises made public, Labor would get five cabinet portfolios, incldung the retention of defense by Barak.

Not all members of Labor accept this idea. Bibi has promised the foreign minister’s post to Lieberman, and his views are so internationally toxic that they would likely undermine any possibility of peace progress (imagine Lieberman sitting across the table from Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell!). Eitan Cabel, a Labor leader, argues that entering a coalition with the right would represent a faustian bargain that would “”spell death” for the future of Labor. This is clearly no done deal.

The wild card in all this is the Americans. Although this point was not always obvious during the Bush years, the Israelis need the Americans far worse than the other way around. During the last eight years, the Bush team acted as if it had nop choice but to accept the Israeli poisition on everything. That has clearly changed, and Bibi’s reluctance to plow ahead with a right-wing government on a collision course with his major supporter indicates he at least has some appreciation for the way things have changed.

Where is all this going? Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, has given Bibi some time to try to form a unity government, but the prospects are not that great, and the alternatives may be for him to form the right wing regime or to step aside and let the pro-peace left have a go at forming a cabinet. Stay tuned!

A Victory for American Likud?

Posted in Foreign policy and 2008 election, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 15, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The Obama administration had another proposed appointee remove his name from consideration this past week. That in and of itself hardly qualifies as news, and the incident was a one-day story in the national print media. Its implications, however, are wider than that.

The appointee who withdrew his name was Charles W. Freeman Jr., and the post from which he withdrew his name was that of chairman of the National Intelligence Council, a position for which he had been nominated by Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The chief public job of the chairman of NIC is the production of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which forms the basis for the daily briefing given the president on the state of the world every day (the so-called daily intelligence brief).  

Freeman’s nomination was criticized on two levels, both of which are troubling, if for different reasons. One reason was that Freeman had vested interests that might cause him to be prejudiced in forumlating the daily NIE. He has, for instance, ties to the regime in Beijing, both from his tenure as ambassador to China from 1989 to 1992 and for membership on the board of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Likewise, he has served as president of the Middle East Policy Council, a position he followed George McGovern in holding. The Council receives some of its funding from Saudi Arabia. He has also been an outspoken critic of the position of the Israeli government, adopting a stance quite similar to that taken in his space. More on that in a moment.

Freeman is both a very bright and controversial person. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, he entered the Foreign Service in 1965 and has had a distinguished career there, the kind of career that would commend it to an Obama administration that seems to prize bright people. On the other hand, the “no drama” Obama style suggests that someone like Freeman is an odd fit for the administration. It would appear to be another case of the puritanical vetting process of the new team breaking down; at least, however, he does appear to have paid his taxes.

It is the other aspect of Freeman’s rejection that is more troubling. Freeman himself once began an October 18, 2000 New York Times op-ed column (reproduced in the March 15, 2009 edition of the paper) with the comment, “No American politician ever lost an American election by speaking too fondly of Israel or too poorly of the Palestinians.” Freeman has broken with his own observation, making the anti-Likud argument that, among other things, the Israeli settlement policy is self-defeating and destroys the prospects of peace–especially the two-state solution that is official U.S. policy–and has even been so bold as to suggest that the failure to make progress is attributable both to Palestinian and–gasp!–Israeli actions. This position, of course, is in direct opposition to Likud policy in Israel, and thus to Likud supporters in the United States. Thus, Likud-on-the-Potomac went out to get Freeman, and they succeeded.

The political ambush has familiar roots. It is based in an observation made by Robert W. Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2001-2003) quoted in the March 12, 2009 Times story on th Freeman withdrawal, “The reality of Washington is that our political landscape finds it difficult to assimilate any criticism of any segment of the Israeli leadership.” Criticism came from Congressional Democrats like Charles Schumer of New York, who accused Freeman of an “irrational hatred of Israel” that Freeman would deny, and Representative Steve Israel, also of New York.

The most interesting criticism, however, came from a private source. It is interesting because, on the other side of the ledger, the accuser is easily as controversial and, in Schumer’s description of Freeman, “over the top” as the withdrawn nominee. That comment comes from Steven J. Rosen, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who was at one point  under federal indictment for passing U.S. secrets to Israel. Rosen is also one of the charter neo-conservatives so popular in the Bush administration. He said of Freeman’s views that they are “what you would expect in the Saudi Foreign Ministry,” which means they were anti-Likud. Presumably had Freeman’s views echoed those of the Israeli Foreign Ministry–as Bush policy did–he and other American Likudniks would have found his ideas more acceptable.

The purpose of these comments is not to advocate Charles Freeman for the post he has been denied. Probably, his history of ties with the Saudis and Chinese raised enough concerns that he should not have been nominated, which is a question of how much dissonance the “no drama” team wants to broach. Rather, the real concern is whether American foreign policy appointments should be effectively subject to veto on the basis of conformance or divergence from the Likud Party line. Governments, of course, interfere in the operation of other governments all the time, but it is generally in subtler ways than this. Is it time to to rein in the power of Likud in American politics? At the same time, conformance to Likud implies acceptance of Likud policies. If the analysis presented in this space and by Freeman make any sense, then such compliance runs directly counter to the offocial American policy on Middle Eastern peace. Did anyone think this through?

Charles Freeman has argued consistently that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are misguided and counterproductive. That is close to the exact argument I have made in this space. Thus, I find it troubling that its opponents are able to hammer dissent based on this position into submission. The reader may feel differently about the issues, but what about the process? Is this victory for American Likud a victory or a defeat for American democracy?

Making Nice with Iran?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2009 by whatafteriraq

In yet another example of the cascade of ways the Obama administration is abandoning the policies of its predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last week the willingness of the Obama administration to talk directly to representatives of Iran. The vehicle for this change of policy was offering an invitation for Iran to attend an American-sponsored conference on the future of Afghanistan.

The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since April 7, 1980, during the Iranian hostage crisis where the American embassy staff in Tehran were held hostage by Iranian “students”. The result is that any discussions between the two governments have been indirect, either through intermediaries or at the Iranian interest section in Washington or the Iranian mission at the United Nations in New York. Otherwise, the two countries do not exist for one another officially.

If the United States is going to reopen relations with Iran, the Afghanistan meeting is agood place to start a dialogue. For one thing, there is precedent in the region, where the Iranians have in fact cooperated with the United States on a number of matters of mutual interest regarding Iraq. The situation is parallel over Afghanistan: both the United States and Iran dislike the Taliban and want either to see it remain out of power or at least have its power muted. Both also want to see the flow of heroin from Afghanistan stemmed. It may not be a broad area of mutual interest, but it is enough to get talks started.

Both sides are, of course, inhibited in agreeing to talks. There is a presidential election campaign going on in Iran, and the incumbent president, Ahmadinejad, has made a career or America-bashing that he can hardly reverse without looking ridiculous. The hysterical tone of American policy toward Iran, based in the fear of Iran’s nascent nuclear weapons program, that was set by the Bush foreign policy team makes it hard to talk to the Iranians as well.

It is, of course, the Iranian nuclear program that forms the basis of why the Obama administration needs to talk to the Iranians. Those talks begin with a clear delineation of the state of that program by the Iranians and, to a degree rarely publicized in this country, firm promises by the United States that Iran has nothing to fear if it does not go forward with its program.

The discussions begin with why Iran has a nuclear program that could easily become a weapons program. As I have discussed elsewhere (see Chapter 8 of the new fourth edition of my Cases in International Relations text, “Pivotal States: Confronting and Accommodating Iran”), there are various reasons the Iranians may be unwilling to abandon the nuclear option. One is a question of prestige: some Iranians believe that nuclear weapons are the calling card of great powers and that the inheritors of the Persian Empire need the nuclear option to be able to claim that distinction.

There is, however, another and more basic reason: the belief that nuclear weapons may be necessary for Iranian self-defense. Some Iranians argue that nuclear weapons possession may be necessary to deter the United States, which has certainly muttered frequently(admittedly under Bush) that it might exercise military options. Those fearful of that possibility argue, quite correctly, that the United States has never attacked a nuclear possessor and that Saddam Hussein might still be alive and in control of Iraq had he not abandoned his program. The other nuclear threat some Iranians fear is from the region’s only nuclear power, Israel, which has also grumbled about an Iraq-style excising of the Iranian program. 

In the United States, of course, the acknowledged reasons for the Iranian program are much more ominous. They center on the belief the Iranians want these weapons to threaten and, in the extreme, to attack the United States or its allies. More indirectly, opponents of Iran argue the Iranians might make these weapons available to terrorists.

Both sides, of course, deny the validity of the other’s concerns. The United States denies any aggressive intent toward Iran and argues the Israelis are not a threat either as long as Iran does not try to become a nuclear power. The Iranians are skeptical. The Iranians, in turn, deny any aggressive, offensive intent and argue, quite plausibly, that the terrorist connection is ridiculous, since virtually all the important terrorist enemies of the West are Sunni. The United States remains suspicious of these denials.

Clearly, there is much to be gained and little to be lost by making nice with one another. The key to the “nuclearization” of Iran is convincing the Iranians that they do not need those weapons, which means reducing the animosity between the sides. In turn, Iran must convince the West that it presents no threat to them. If that hurdle can be overcome, the rest may become possible. And while it will likely not be easy to get talks started as the two sides circle one another like the proverbial two scorpions in the bottle, meetings about Afghanistan are at least a beginning.

The Coming U.S.-Israel Train Wreck

Posted in Diplomacy, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by whatafteriraq

As inevitably as two train engines heading toward one another on a single track, the new Obama administration and the forming Israeli government of Benyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahou are on a collision course over the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The stakes are extremely high: whether peace is possible between Jews and Muslims in the area, and whether a Jewish state of Israel can long persist are among its most obvious aspects.

Two events have brought the confrontation into the spotlight. The first was the recent Israeli election, the outcome of which is likely to produce a Likud-Yisreal Beytenu coalition government of the political right that is almost certainly opposed to a two-state solution (an independent Israel and Palestine) and to dismantling Israeli settlements on the West Bank as part of the necessary costs of such a solution. The second was the pronouncement by American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that a two-state solution was “inevitable,” followed yesterday by her denunciation of Israeli plans to raze Palestinian housing in the Israeli annexed or occupied (depending on one’s view) portion of East Jerusalem as “unhelpful.”

These positions place the two parties at absolute loggerheads on the most basic issues surrounding the peace process and, to the extent the Obama administration ties progress toward a solution as a primary criterion regarding U.S.-Israeli relations, the nature of ties between the United States and Israel.

The differences in position are stark. Any movement toward a two-state solution to the current impasse requires two things of the Israelis: an admission of the legitimacy of such a state and willingness to live side-by-side with a sovereign Palestinian entity; and the inclusion of considerable territory within the West Bank currently occupied by Israelis (the settlements) to Palestinian control. Secretary Clinton presumably understands these necessary dynamics and, by deeming the movement toward a two-state solution inevitable, embraces them.

Both Netanyahou and Avigdor Lieberman oppose these conditions. In a Newsweek interview in the March 9, 2009 issue, Bibi will go only so far as to say “any final settlement for peace would have to enable the Palestinians to govern themselves, except for a handful of powers that would threaten the state of Israel.” The limits on Palestinian sovereignty he proposes include the absence of a Palestinian army, a proposal that has been on the table for well over a decade (including his last tenure as prime minister during the 1990s), and it is absolutely unacceptable to the Palestinians. Although he downplays it, Netanyahou is a long-time supporter of the West Bank settlements, and his Likud Party receives no small part of their support from the settlers.

Lieberman ismuch more forthright in opposing the removal of the settlements. He is himself a settler who lives on the West Bank, and in the Newsweek interview, he dismisses the settlements as “only one part of the problem.” Support for his Yisreal Beytenu Party is strongest in the settlement area.

Something has to give. No two-state solution is possible without creating a fully sovereign Palestinian state with territory and boundaries acceptable to the Palestinians, and everyone knows that–Americans, Israelis (including Netanyahou and Lieberman), and Palestinians. Accepting those conditions is a necessary precondition for both sides without which no progress is possible. Conversely, denying those conditions is a de facto admission of opposition to a peace settlement based on the two-state model. America wants a two-state solution, which it sees as the only road to a durable peace. In electing Netanyahou andLieberman (admittedly by the slenderest of margins), the Israelis have in essence turned their backs on that outcome.

This outcome extends, as has been argued in this space before, to the future of the Jewish state. To reiterate, the only alternatives to a two-state solution are a continuing, perpetual occupation of the West Bank that pleases the settlers but insures global enmity toward the Israelis, and a one-state solution in the form of a union of the West Bank and Israel that encompasses both Jews and Muslims. An occupied West Bank is not a durable solution, and a single state can only remain Jewish by being an apartheid state that denies political rights to its Muslim majority. In either of these outcomes, Israel inevitably loses in the long run. Yet, this is the course Israel appears intent on pursuing.

What can the United States do in these circumstances? Cajoling the Israelis in public or private without threatening negative consequences of continuing Israeli intransigence will almost certainly yield no positive results, regardless of how persuasive George Mitchell is. The result is a major foreign policy defeat for the new administration that will be tough to swallow. Likud and Yisreal Beytenu are counting on their traditional allies in the American Jewish community to force this solution, however.

There is a radical solution that could allow a recovery after the train crash. The United States could, in the same manner that it rejected the ascension of Hamas in 1996 elections in Palestine, refuse to accept the new Israeli government and suspend relations with Israel until they have new elections that produce a government that will negotiate a two-state solution. That is precisely what the United States did to the Palestinians; why not give the Israelis a taste of the same medicine?

I do not, of course, believe for a second that such a ploy will be proposed or entertained by the new administration. The domestic American political consequences would be entirely too high, and although it would probably have wide support in the Muslim Middle East, that would not be enough to compensate for the domestic fallout. 

In some ways, the situation resembles a game of “chicken,” where the engineers of both trains (the American “Two-State Express” and the Likud-Yisrael “Greater Israel Limited”) are careening toward inevitable collision and destruction. There are only two ways to avoid it: for at least one of the parties to change its position (unlikely), or for one side to change engineers (also unlikely). At the moment, neither side seems predisposed to chicken out of the disastrous consequences.

Winning and Losing Counterinsurgencies

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq with tags , , , on March 1, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The current debate about President Obama’s decisions regarding troop levels and lengths of tenure in Afghanistan and Iraq have reopened the stunningly confusing and ill-conceived debate about whether the United States is “winning” or “losing” either or both of these conflicts. At one level, this debate is basically irrelevent; at another, it distorts what the key terms–synonyms for victory and defeat–mean in these kinds of wars.

The irrelevance comes from the recognition that it is the Iraqis and Afghans who will ultimately win or lose these wars, not the Americans. The side we back may prevail or be vanquished, and that may be conflated with victory or defeat for the United States, but that is a scorecard calculation. It is the Iraqis and Afghans, who will have to live with the outcomes and thus for whom winning and losing has real meaning. Ask yourself these questions: how will I, and by extrapolation, the American people be personally affected regardless of how either war comes out? how will the Afghans and Iraqis be affected by those outcomes? To the former question, the only positive answer has to be couched in terms of some heightened or lessened vulnerability to terrorist attacks that may or may not ever occur and which, if they do, may or may not be directly attributable to the wars’ outcomes. To the latter question, the answer can be a literal matter of life and death.

What constitutes victory or defeat is also a convoluted and confusing issue, but one with considerable emotional baggage that prejudices the debate. I know of nobody who, offered the alternatives, prefers defeat over victory. Thus, when any situation is described in those terms, it  automatically prejudices the debate toward those who wrap themselves in the cause of “winning.” As just discussed, it is helpful to understand who exactly is supposed to be winning. It is even more important to specify what winning means. In conditions of insurgency-counterinsurgency, that is not as easy as toting up how many runs a baseball teams has scored.

The current confusion most clearly surrounds Afghanistan, which is both clearly an insurgency (making the United States the counterinsurgents) and a contest where the U.S. is clearly not winning. The most recent purveyors of obfuscation about what that means include Senator John McCain and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Both agree that the United State is not winning and that in counterinsurgency, “if you are not winning, you are losing.” Huh?

Two things need to be said about this analysis of the Afghan situation. Both start from the recognition that indeed the United States is not winning by any measure and that, in any personal or even physical sense, the United States cannot win this war.

The first comment is that winning and losing in insurgent wars are primarily NOT military determinations. As Lyndon Johnson put it so well during the Vietnam conflict, the crucial “battle” in insurgent warfare is over the “hearts and minds” of the subject population, in this case the Afghan people. The battle for loyalty is overwhelmingly a POLITICAL contest about which side the people want to see prevail. The only military contributions that can be made are either convincing the people that your side is a “winner” who deserves support, or preventing the other side from trumping the discussion by imposing its will by force on an otherwise reluctant population. In this regard, outside, foreign troops acting as counterinsurgents may actually work against the likelihood of the side they favor prevailing, because they will be identified by parts of the population as foreign devils occupying the country. The insurgents, on the other hand, will gain support because they are attempting to expel the invaders. Anyone who does not believe this dynamic is present in Afghanistan has not studied much Afghan history.

The other comment is about who wins and loses. The only real objective the United States has in Afghanistan is whether the post-war country will serve as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda. We back a regime that opposes Al Qaeda, but it is not entirely clear the U.S. is backing a winner here. Afghans say they do not like the Taliban, but they also dislike the Americans. In turn, the Taliban gains some of its support because it supports the Americans. Who will rule Afghanistan, which is what the war is actually all about (at least if you are an Afghan), is an Afghan, not an American matter. The United State may be able to declare victory if the side we back prevails (however unlikely that may be), but what if the side we favor is not the side the Afghans prefer? Does that mean the Afghans could lose while we win? Is that winning?

In the end, the confusing assessments by McCain and Mullen amount to an admission that one loses in counterinsurgency if the battle for the hearts and minds goes to the opposition. That is certainly the interpetation most students of counterinsurgncy would attach to notions of winning and losing. If that is the case and we are losing, it means we are not winning the battle of loyalties.

Therein lies the rub and what makes counterinsurgency so sifficult and frustrating. Sir Robert Thompson, the British hero of the Malay counterinsurgency of the late 1940s, made the point that an insurgency can never be won by foreign troops, because only natives of the country in which it is occurring can win the crucial battle for hearts and minds. Foreigners will, to some extent, always make matters worse because they are aliens. Overcoming that conundrum has always been the sticking point in counterinsirgency doctrine, and it is not a problem that anyone has satisfactorily overcome. That includes the United State in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, who’s winning? Clearly not the United States, but that is not the point. It is the Afghans and Iraqis who ultimately must win or lose in both cases, and they will be the ones who pay the price depending on winners and losers. Furthermore, phrasing the whole thing in terms of the U.S. winning and losing simply raises emotional hackles for us (we don’t want to lose) that may make it more likely that the people for whom this really matters (the Iraqis and Afghans) will ultimately lose.  Then who wins and who loses? Senator McCain? Admital Mullen? Your answers?