Archive for December, 2009

It’s the Pashtuns, Stupid!

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , , , on December 27, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The December 28, 2009 edition of Newsweek features an interview of General David Petraeus by Fareed Zakaria. The principal topic is the war in Afghanistan, and while most of the interview competently covers familiar ground, there was one very glaring exchange that gets to the heart of American apparent lack of understanding or willful self-denial of the situation there. In the exchange, Zakaria asks Petraeus specifically about the Pashtuns and how American efforts affect them. It is a good and comprehensive question, and deserves to be quoted fully.

Zakaria: “When you look at what happened in Afghanistan, the complaint you hear from some people, like former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, is that you’ve dispossessed the Pashtuns.You’ve allowed the Northern Alliance to take over the country. Yes, President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, but that’s window dressing. If you look at the Afghan Army, its largely a Northern Alliance Army–in other words, a non-Pashtun army.”

This is a pretty good summary of the suspicions that have been expressed repeatedly in this space: basically, that the United States is essentially fighting an anti-Pashtun civil war in Afghanistan. If it is, it is bound to fail. History tells us that Afghanistan only exists with some relative level of tranquility under Pashtun (and not Karzai Pashtun) rule, and since the Pashtuns are the single largest ethnic group in the country, a war that is effectively against them bucks the numerical odds in the country. Put more simply, betting on the anti-Pashtuns is about like betting all your money on my PhD institution, Indiana University, winning the national championship in football next year.

Because of this, I looked anxiously for Petraeus’ response, which I assumed would be a spirited denial of all the premises in Zakaria’s assertion. I was wrong. Petraeus began his answer by saying, “I’m not sure I completely buy that.People are often drawn to single-factor explanations, because it’s concise, but it typically is not sufficient.” In the rest of his answer, he never mentions the Pashtuns at all, nor does he answer the charge (which is very serious, probably fatal, if true) that the Afghan National Army is largely North Alliance (which is to say non-Pashtun). If the latter is true about the ANA, the war is lost, and we might as well come home, because WE STAND NO CHANCE WHATSOEVER OF WINNING. If you read the entire Petraeus interview, he never once mentions the Pashtuns nor addresses the problems of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Force) composition.

Petraeus is, by all accounts, not stupid, although he certainly portrays himself as such in the interview. Reading what he says, one can only conclude he is either stunningly ignorant or in a state of willful self-denial. If one dismisses the former, that leaves the latter. But why self-delude? Is he being the good, loyal “can-do” Americaqn soldier? Is he serving or disserving his Commander-in-Chief?

Did General Petraeus tell the president, “It’s the Pashtuns, Stupid” (or words to that effect)? If what we are pursuing is indeed a strategy of opposing the Pashtuns because some of them are Taliban, we are going to lose. I had been assuming there was something else there that mitigated the apparent disaster, but after reading the General’s interview, I’m not so sure.

To repeat, you cannot attempt to defeat the Pashtuns and win in Afghanistan. It really is the Pashtuns, and denying that truism is indeed stupid.


Iranian Wishful Thinking–One More Time!

Posted in Iran, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , on December 22, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The ability of Americans to believe that Iran secretly wants to be just like us but is repressed by unrepresentative opponents never ceases to amaze me, and the dynamic is at work once again surrounding the funueral of “dissident” Grand Ayatollah Mir Hussein Montazeri.

Predictably, the death of one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s original associates who turned against the current ruling class has energized the persistent minority in Iran that seeks modernization and westernization, complete with massive urban demonstrations and repressive reactions by the theocracy that rules the country. Thanks to modern technology, the images are available to us all, and they bring sparks of hope among westernized Iranian expatriates and Americans who firmly want to believe Iranians are “just like us” and that maybe, just maybe, the result will be genuine reform this time–by which we mean the adoption by Iran of western-style democracy or something like it. As the New York Times gushed in today’s edition, reaction surrounding Montazeri’s death has raised “the possibility that the cleric’s death could serve as a catalyst for an opposition movement.”

The key word here, of course, is “possibility,” because the real prospect is no more than the most remote possibility of change toward westernizing Iran and thereby lessening the animosity between Iran and the United States that has dominated Iranian politics since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and has its roots back into the immediate post-World War II period.

The belief that some Iranians would like to become westernized is not entirely baseless, of course. The whole thrust of Shah Reza Pahlevi’s White Revolutionwas to transform the Peacock Empire into a modern, competitive (aka westernized) society as a way to restore Iran’s historic place in the world. In the proces, Iran did develop an urbanized, educated, and westernized class, and some of that group and its successor generations are still found in the cities and provide the nucleus of the dissident movement. They did not then and certainly do not now represent anything like a majority of the population or the government’s support base, which is based in the highly religious, Shiite rural masses who view the theocracy as their natural leaders and the urbanized sophisticates in the cities as apostate unbelievers who would undermine Islam. When the regime reacts to protests by turning loose the Basij militias to stomp on reformers, it does so with the tacit consent of a fairly large part of the population.

These dynamics have history behind them, in at least two ways. One is that westernization, which is nearly universally associated with the Satanic Americans, undercuts the traditional values of one of the most traditional peoples in the world–rural Iranian Shiites. Change threatens them, and they correspondingly have little sympathy with agents of a change they can only oppose. Second, the dissident middle class in Iran has, over the years, proven pitifully politically inept. They could not keep the democratically elected Mossadeqh regime in power in the 1950s in the face of a CIA-backed coup, and they failed miserably to seize control in 1979, when their leaders felt certain they could gain power over the “country bumpkin” Ayatollahs whom we have learned to know and love so well.

Despite all this, we in the west wax ebullient whenever Iranians take to the street. Anybody to the political left of Ahmedinejad is seen as a democratizing savior, whether he is or not. Have we so quickly forgotten the euphoria associated with the loud dissidence of Mir Hussein Moussavi protesting that the elections earlier in the year that returned Ahmedinejad to power were rigged? In that euphoria, we forgot that Moussavi had been approved as a candidate by the Supreme Council, an endorsement he would hardly have achieved were he truly anti-regime. Similarly, Montazeri spoke out against the regime, but he did not threaten the system. Had he, he would not have been allowed to stick around.

So off we go again, spinning the stuff of dreams about yet another round of “reform.” Like all the preceding rounds, this will die off in a few days, and things will return depressingly to normal in Iran. That may not be the way we would like it, but it is the way things are in Iran.

Iraqi Oil Contracts

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq War with tags , , , , , on December 15, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The announcement last week that the Iraqi government had awarded foreign contracts for the exploitation of a number of its oil fields created a remarkably mild, one-day reaction in the popular press. The gist of the awards, of course, was that virtually everybody, from the Russians and Chinese to the Malaysians and Angolans, were given contracts on one field or another, while American companies were essentially left holding the bag, with participation in a couple of relatively minor deals. This is not how this aspect of the Iraq war was supposed to work out, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s lame comment that it shows private enterprise is alive and well in Baghdad did little to assuage those who expected more for Uncle Sam.

Two not especially complimentary explanations have snuck forward into the public dialogue. One is that the Iraqi government of al-Maliki is simply snubbing its nose at the Americans and showing that if we expected any gratitude for invading, conquering, occupying, dismantling, then putting back together Iraq six and a half years after the fact, we can forget it. The other is that it shows the failure of what some believe to have been the primary underlying motivation for invading Iraq in the first place, which was to gain control–or at least influence–over Iraqi oil reserves for the future. The book after which this blog is named is among the places where this argument can be found. Defenders of the war even argue this demonstrates that oil was not the motive in the first place, or we would not be standing by so docilely as the Iraqis sell it to other people.

Does this prove that the United States has lost out? As someone who has believed all along that the war was all about oil, my answer is that it does not. The reason for this assertion is not that the United States failed to get in on the deals let; it is that the oil in which the United States is most interested is NOT the oil that was part of the deals. If anything, the pattern of dealing suggests a more sinister underpinning that has always been there, slightly below the surface.

The key here is the location of the oil. About half of Iraq’s oil is located in the south and southeast of Iraq, in the Shiite areas such as Rumalia, Majnoon,and Halfaya, and the other half is in Kurdistan in the north. The southern fields, because they are in Shiite territory, have never been the prize for Americans; it is the Kurdish fields that American oil companies and the government have coveted. The contracts were let on almost exclusively Shiite fields in the south and southeast where the American claim is weakest, as is likely American influence after we leave. The down side is that this is the oil easiest to access and get to market, whereas Kurdish oil is more remote and has less infrastructure supporting it. Kurdistan, however, is the part of Iraq where American interest and prestige is highest, and it is by no means beyond the range of possibilities that the eventual outcome of Iraq will be a bifurcated country with a wholly or largely independent Kurdistan. Such a country would almost certainly be friendlier to the United States than the rest of Iraq.

One major artifact of the war, after all, has been to encourage Kurdish autonomy that has some of the trappings of independence, and the United States bears no small amount of responsibility for that occurrence. Iraqi Shiites may feel no comraderie with the Americans and may revel in thumbing their noses at the United States; the Kurds, on the other hand, have every reason to be grateful to the United States.

One scenario to watch involves the letting of Kurdish oil fields somewhere down the road. The current reason not to do so is because the Kurdish region is volatile and unstable, which means the Kurdistan question has not been entirely resolved–will the fields be part of Iraq or Kurdistan? The brouhaha over electoral laws has this as an aspect–who wins that battle will be able to influence where oil revenues go and in what proportions, to Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. The Kurdish ace in the hole is secession.

If it comes down to Kurdish separatism, would the United States consider a deal whereby we support the establishment of a de facto or de jure Kurdistan in return for oil contracts there? It is by no means idle to think this could occur. Another way to look at last week’s blanking of the United States in the competition for southern oil fields is that we did not really compete, because that was not our objective anyway–Kurdistan was. Dick Cheney was  certainly capable of thinking about the situation in those terms (and probably did); will the Obama administration feel the same way?

Tempering Afghan Optimism

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Obama foreign policy, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The recent announcements and statements of support for President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan have left me a bit confused, and I wonder if readers can help me out here. Something just does not compute.

The rationale of the surge is, like Iraq, to improve conditions in Afghanistan enough to turn thcountry back over to the Afghans, notably the Afghan National Army (ANA) and police (ANP), sometimes collectively referred to as the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The idea is that while additional American forces conduct clear and hold operations to secure and maintain control of parts of the country still under Taliban rule, accelerated training of ANSF will yield anative force capable of fending for itself as the United States begins disengagement in 2011.

This whole plan sounds a great deal like Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization program (as Fareed Zakaria points out in this past week’s Newsweek) or possibly David Petraeus Iraqification program of 2007. It will be remembered, of course, that Vietnamization succeeded in providing cover for American withdrawal from Southeast Asia but did not, for a variety of reasons still being debated, result in the desired outcome of a non-communist South Vietnam. The outcome in Iraq, being heralded as a great triumph by some, remains up in the air. Iraqification has provided the cover behind which American withdrawal is occurring; what Iraq will look like after we are gone is a matter of pure conjecture. I am not sanguine we are going to like the final outcome, but that is simply one person’s opinion.

Is that all the additional 30,000 troops are about in Afghanistan? Admitting that President Obama inherited a virtually impossible domestic and international situation in Afghanistan (see my recent post “Obama: Damned If He Does…), this seems a very modest and questionable outcome. Precedent seems unpromising, so why do we think it will work?

The answer, which gets us to my original concern, is that things are different here than in Vietnam, where the parallel policy failed (other than getting us out). We are told that the major difference is that the Taliban, unlike the National Liberation Front (NLF)/Viet Cong (VC), who had widespread political support, the Taliban are almost universally hated in Afghanistan. One poll that is repeatedly cited suggests a mere 6 percent of Afghans support them. Moreover, the South Vietnamese government never had any real popular support, whereas the government of Hamid Karzai has at least the potential for such support. Hold on here!

If the Taliban are as hated as we now maintain, how have they not only kept going but expanded their power and control? Just a couple months ago, American officials were decrying the “almost inexhaustible” supply of potential Taliban recruits that made suppressing them impossible. What has changed? As best one can tell, very little has changed in terms of the basic structure of political loyalties in the country. The Taliban either does have support in the Afghan population (at least among Pashtuns), or it does not. If it lacks support, it may be possible to isolate and “degrade” it. If not, the likelihood of success of the surge is highly questionable, to put it kindly. Which is it?

The other element is the transformation of the ANSF. Developing a native force capable of defending itself from a threat that has been degraded was central to Vietnamization and Iraqification as well: make the task more manageable. It failed in Vietnam, and the outcome in Iraq is still a work in progress. Why should it work in Afghanistan? The official view is that the ANSFcan indeed be developed and that since Karzai himself is not known to be corrupt, maybe his government can gain legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans. The other side os this argument is that it is exactly the lack of popular support for the regime that has fueled the insurgency all along (as is normally the case in insurgencies). What has changed to make people move to support of the regime? That is not clear.

The current optimism over Afghanistanstarts from, it seems to me, some very shaky assessments about what is happening on the ground there. Three months ago, the Taliban appeared to be a virtually unstoppable juggernaut, and now they are a weak and hated canker sore to be excised. During the recent presidential election, the Afghan regime was a hopelessly corrupt bunch of thieves who could only succeed by stealing the election, and now they are a hopeful beacon for the future of Afghanistan. Is this all public relations? Or has something really changed? Help me out here.

Obama’s Wing and a Prayer

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Obama foreign policy, Pakistan with tags , , , on December 3, 2009 by whatafteriraq

On Tuesday night, President Obama announced his new “strategy” for Afghanistan. It held few surprises, just disappointments. The President’s rhetoric soared, as usual. The content did not. Instead, he sent the country down the road with a series of assumptions and plans that can be called, at best, a wing and a prayer.

For the President’s plan to have any chance whatsoever of succeeding, two things must happen in Afghanistan, and one in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the 30,000 additional American troops must prove capable of blunting the Taliban’s success in numerous parts of the country (mostly the Pashtun east and south) and change the war’s momentum away from the insurgents and toward the government. In addition, The Karzai government must, with U.S. assistance, rapidly expand an Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) capable of picking up the fight and succeeding. In Pakistan, the government must act to crush the Pakistani Taliban and assure that the Afghan Aaliban have no safe haven to which they can return. There is every reason to believe none of this will work, particularly in the 18-month time frame the President laid out as the exit point for the beginning of the removal of American forces.

The additional 30,000 U.S. troops will increase the physical American commitment to about 100,000, more or less the equivalent of Soviet strength in the 1980s. The idea is that additional troops will allow American to clear and hold areas, thereby increasing security and beginning the conversion of Afghans away from the Taliban. In current conditions, we have been able to clear but not hold, meaning efforts at conversion have been handicapped, since Afghans knew the Americans would leave and Taliban would return to punish collaborators. Secured areas can then be turned over to the ANSF.

What’s the problem here? It is, as pointed out repeatedly in this space, that foreign troops cannot perform the function of changing political loyalties away from the Taliban to the government. No matter how hard we try and how good we are at our mission, we are, and always be OUTSIDERS, and that means the ENEMY, to many we seek to “save.” That fact is fundamental and means the chances of success are very nearly zero on this count.

The second part is the rapid expansion of the ANSF with the infusion of additional American trainers. The development of the ANSF has been painfully slow and arguably ineffective for reasons that only partly have to do with the number of Americans doing the training. The real problems have included lack of support for the government, the belief the ANSF is basically an anti-Pashtun force, and the incredible corruption in the country, to say nothing of Taliban intimidation of recruits. More U.S. forces cannot improve that situation and suddenly turn a ramshackle process into a marvel of inefficiency. If anything, the rapid expansion of the ANSF will probably mean a lot of Taliban will join and act as spies against the ANSF’s operation, as happened in Vietnam with the ARVNs. If the ANSF cannot be enlargened and invigorated, there will be no one to hand the secured areas to.

Forcing the Pakistanis to alter their basic military efforts toward the Taliban (who, it must be remembered, they created in the first place) is similarly fraught with uncertainty and will, if early reactions are any indication, meet with resistance. Messing up or antagonizing the Pakistanis is not exactly what we have in mind in the region.

If clear and hold does not  change the political landscape in Afghanistan and the ANSF cannot be magically transformed into a force that can take care of the country themselves, then the whole strategy falls apart. The President acknowledged this possibility when he said that the military situation on the ground, and military commanders’ assessments of those conditions, would guide decisions regarding the July 2011 target to begin withdrawing American forces.

Let’s hope the President and his aides are right in their assessments and that the strategy is in fact more substantial and more likely to succeed than I have suggested here. From where I sit, however, it really does look like little more than a wing and a prayer.