Archive for May, 2010

An Aiken Solution in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq and Vietnam, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , , , on May 30, 2010 by whatafteriraq

This week marked a dubious watershed in the U.S. military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the number of American forces in Afghanistan passed the troop total in Iraq. The Iraq side of the ledger is the result of the continuing withdrawal of American combat forces from that country, and Admiral Mike Mullen promised today on CNN that theschedule by which all American combat troops will be out in Augustis right on track (50,000 “support” troops will remain). The Afghan total, of course, reflects the buildup authorized earlier by the Obama White House to over 100,000.

These are developments of differing attraction. The Iraq total suggests the United States is following the spirit of the late RepublicanSenator from Vermont, George Aiken, and declaring victory in Iraq, leaving the final definition of what that means to the Iraqis themselves. At any rate, when the last American combat forces leave, the American direct military role will effectively be over, since no political leader lacking a highly developed suicidal streak would suggest reinserting troops in Iraq once they are out. Would that the situation be similar in Afghanistan.

As reported repeatedly here, the drums keep beating in Afghanistan, if the tune is uncertain. We will soon have over 100,000 troops there, are attempting to liberate Kandahar without hurting anybody or breaking anything, and are committed to the official notion that the Karzai kleptocracy has somehow seen the light and is reforming. It must be hard to see the sky in Kabul for all the flying pigs in the sky!

Maybe this is the time for an Aiken solution in Afghanistan as well. As will be recalled, the Vermonter suggested in 1966 that the United States declare military victory in Vietnam, because the enemy had largely quit the field and the United States controlled the physical ground. His reasoning was that the war could then return to being an internal political struggle between factions in Vietnam itself, allowing the United States to return home with some sort of pride intact. He favored the solution because he could not see any other way out. American historyof the late 20th century would cdertainly be a lot different had his advice been taken.

The situation in Afghanistanis not quite the same, of course, since the United States does not control the country physically. We might, however, simply declare that the situations is as stable as it can be and that only internal political discussions will move toward a lasting solution. This, of course, would be partly fictitious, since a permanent, stable situation is not one of the normal parts of Afghan existence, but if one could be maintained long enough for us to depart, it might be worth the twisted analogy.

An Aiken solution is a good idea if one assumes (as I do) that there is no truly favorable outcome for the United States in this conflict no matter how long we stay. If you believe that our staying will produce a “victory” over whatever our enemy is there, then you probably don’t want much to do with old George Aiken’s idea. But it sure is worth thinking about.

Onward to Kandahar

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on May 23, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The United States and its ISAF allies are inching closer to the next big battleground in Afghanistan–the assault on Kandahar City. Kandahar, of course, is both the hometown of Afghan President and sometimes U.S. buddy Hamid Karzai and the main urban redoubt of the Taliban. This juxaposition in itself creates the parameters for the mission and the controversy surrounding it. Put simply (some might say too simply), the U.S./ISAF wants to drive the Taliban out as part of pacifying the country and “winning the war”; Karzai is more concerned that the dislodging of the Taliban will alienate residents of Kandahar even more than they already are.

The result is a scenario worthy of Larry, Curley, and Mo. The Taliban are smart enough not to emulate General Hood in the fall of 1864, when he marched his defending Confederate army out of Atlanta where they could conveniently be slaughtered by Union forces. Instead, they are likely (gasp!) to remain in the city, imbedded with the population and offering sporadic resistance until the Americans weary of the whole operation and leave. The Americans will be faced with impossible tactical situations where they cannot secure parts of the city without leveling them (thereby driving more citizens into the arms of the opposition), and where anything they do that harms anybody or anything will likely be opposed by Karzai and his merry band of thieves. Anybody like to volunteer to organize or lead the “Cooperation in Kandahar” campaign?

The Kandahar campaign is now being trumpeted as fundamental to the entire American effort in Afghanistan: if we succeed here, the chances of success nationally are much improved. If we fail, well…. The problem is that this mission is almost certainly destined to fail. Does anybody hear much of anything about the last great thrust in Helmand province? Is Marja now a shining example of liberated freedom and prosperity? Does anybody seriously believe that a year from now, we will look back at Kandahar and say, “nice job?” Anyone who answers any of these questions positively should have his or her drinking water analyzed immediately.

Why are we doing this? Is it because we simply have no idea what else to do? Do leaders from Stan McChrystal on down understand this whole thing is a fool’s errand that cannot succeed under the best of circumstances?

Let me suggest a diabolical interpretation worthy of a political pot boiler. Assume that the leadership in the Obama White House does understand that we cannot win in Afghanistan but feels it cannot simply fold the tent and leave in the current political climate. That perception is certainly not a stretch. Assume further that they understand that cutting our losses and withdrawing is in the American best interest. Also not a very difficult assumption to make. Assume further that it needs to devise a way out that conforms to its stated goal of beginning the withdrawal next summer. Also not hard to imagine.

The question is how, and the feckless assault on Kandahar is the answer. It won’t work, and they know it. What it might do, however, is to create the public perception that we have tried our hardest, they do not appreciate our efforts, and so we are leaving them to their own devices. A pox on their houses! Karzai is almost certain to cooperate, whimpering for the home folks whenever a brick gets blown up during the operation. If it temporarily succeeds in a few places, the situation will almost certainly unravel quickly as the Americans turn over those parts of the city they liberate to the Afghans, who either bumble or steal away whatever temporary gains that were made. We can then throw our hands in the air and say, “We tried. Lord knows we tried,”and then pack our bags and leave.

Would such a solution please evertyone. Of course not–particularly in the current poisonous political atmosphere. But if it served to begin the withdrawal and even to be reflected in reduced spending that was coinciding with an improving economy, would it make political sense as the 2012 political season began to take shape?

The United States had a similar opportunity in 1963 after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam. At that point, some analysts who were spurned at the time but look much more prescient in retrospect, argued that this was the golden opportunity to cut the umbilical cord with Vietnam, basically on the same “mission impossible” grounds that exist in Afghanistan today. The United States blew the opportunity then. Are there cooler heads in the White House now who are ready to seize, rather than abandon, an opportunity? Stay tuned.

Shahzad’s Pashtun Connection

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, Uncategorized on May 16, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Why Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square attempted bomber, decided to mount the terrorist attack against his adopted country has been the subject of a great deal of speculation in the two weeks since it occurred. Most of the analysis has not been very helpful, filled with the kinds of platitudes that run through the terrorism literature on radicalization. When I saw the first identification of Shahzad as a Pakistani from the tribal areas, my question was, Is he a Pashtun? And if he is, what does that mean for the future of American efforts in Afghanistan.

The New York Times, in its May 15, 2005 online edition (Andrea Elliott, Sabrina Tavernise, and Anne Barnard, “For Car Bomb Suspect, a Long Road to Times Square”)  has run an extensive view of the process that turned an apparently highly westernized Pakistani from a naturalized American citizen to an Islamic terrorist. The article does not add anything to any affiliations Shahzad may have had with radical groups in Pakistan or the United States, but it does have two bits of information that may be relevant to how we think about him and his connection to our efforts in the area.

The first bit of information is the identification of Shahzad as a Pashtun. The reference is virtually offhand, as if everyone knew this and thus it needed no elaboration or confirmation. It struck me as slightly odd in the sense that no place else is this identification made. Does nobody but me think it is important that the radicalization of Pashtuns is important to the United States? The second bit of information was that Shahzad had apparently asked his father’s permission to join the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan last year (against, of course, his adopted countrymen). His father, a decorated retired Pakistani fighter pilot, apparently vetoed this idea. The important point here is that Shahzad made the request, suggesting that his Pashtun background led him to adopt an anti-U.S. position for which he was apparently willing to fight and possibly die.

Is the fact that this latest attack on the United States was committed by a member of the Afghan/Pakistani tribe that the U.S. must coopt to be successful in Afghanistan important? Too much,of course, can be made of a single instance, and thus one should be wary of overgeneralizing. At the same time, could the conversion of Mr. Shahzad be a harbinger of things to come?

This question gains context in the long-held justification of the war that “we are fighting the extremists in Afghanistan so we don’t have to fight them here.” Mr. Shahzad’s case seems to offer a different dynamic. Rather, it suggests the counter-dynamic that our efforts in Afghanistan may create the kinds of resentment that causes people in Afghanistan to come here and attack us, a motivation that they might not hold if we were not there roiling their politics. The levels of civilian casualties the U.S. military is trying to attenuate there may, in this view, actually be creating a resentment that manifests itself in radicalism and the conversion to terrorism that might not be present if we were not killing Afghan civilians, notably Pashtuns.

One case does not allow one to say that American efforts against the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns are creating a terrorist movement that will attempt to move to American soil. That said, two observations can be made to throw into the general discussion of Afghanistan policy. One is that U.S. actions may not be so obviously anti-terrorist as they seem, if their effect is to radicalize people (in this case Pashtuns) against us. I hope Faisal Shahzad is the only Pashtun sufficiently radicalized to follow such a path, but I (and the reader) cannot be sure. The second is more of a question: were the United States to remove itself as an irritant in Pashtun existence, might that not have a calming effect that might lessen, rather than increase, the U.S. terrorism problem?

Maybe, maybe not. It’s at least worth thinking about, however.

Missing the Mark in Arizona

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 8, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Arizona is in the midst of a huge controversy over its recent passage of legislation to try to control its problem with illegal immigrants and the deletorious effects they are having on the state and which they allege the federal government is unable or unwilling to do for them. The highlights of the new legislation seem to be the imposition on local police to detain suspected illegals and turn them over to federal authorities for deportation back to Mexico when appropriate. The controversy is over the conditions that will enable or force the police to initiate such action, which has created a maelstrom of criticism from outside the state and among some Arizona law officials who feel caught in the middle. Moreover, the Arizonans who support the legislation argue that much of the problem comes from the failure of the federal government to “secure” the border, which means something like sealing it.

The sentiment underlying the Arizona law is understandable if, as charged, it has resulted in an undue rise in crimes committed by illegals and an onerous pressure on social services to pay for their presence and demands. The exact extent of this part of the problem is contested and beyond my knowledge on which to comment. The identification of the source of the problem and the propriety of the solution, however, are not.

The illegal immigrant/border congtrolproblem in Arizona (as well as Texas, New Mexico and California) is really three different problems with different solutions, none of which are addressed by the Arizona law. First, it is an immigrant problem. Millions of Mexicans and other Central Americans have indeed migrated to the United States over the past decade, many of them illegally, and it is understandable to favor wanting that to stop. Part of the answer may be rounding up illegals and sending gthem back, hoping their example will deter others. Don’t count on it.

The solution to illegals entering the country is understanding and dealing with WHY they migrate here. Remember the Mexican-American border is the world’s only land border between a developed and a developing country, so that there will always be some economic lure for those in the poorer land. But that is not all of it. A good bit of the reason people migrate is out of desperation: many of the illegal immigrants are simply poor Mexican peasants who have been forced off their land and are simply seeking work to survive. At least part of the answer would seem to be to determine why they are so desperate, and the structure of NAFTA is certainly one of the villains, since it allows subsidies for American corn that can enter Mexico at lower prices than Mexican peasants can grow it. A lot of the migration problem, in fact, is attributable to policies that promote American agribusiness. Does the Arizona law address that?

The more egregious omission is that once the illegal immigrants reach the United States, their efforts are rewarded. There are jobs in the United States available to undocumented workers, who work for cash on a daily basis. It is against the law to hire such workers, but employers (including, I suspect, some of the most vocal backers of the Arizona law) willfully break those laws in the name of higher profits. When opponents of the illegals say the U.S. should enforce the laws we have on the books, those are the laws they should be talking about. Let’s start throwing  Arizona real estate developers or large growers who ignore these laws in the pokey and see what happens to illegal immigration. Does the Arizona law address this?

The second part of the problem is drugs. It is just my guess, but I suspect that most of the crime Arizonans attribute to illegal immigrants is actually committed by members of the drug cartels who neak across the border to do business. Why do they do so? Because our insatiable desire for illegal narcotics makes it  very profitable. Is rounding people up the answer to this, or is enforcement of the drug laws? Does the Arizona law address this?

Finally, there isthe question of terrorism. A legitimate national security basis for congtrolling the border is to keep terrorists out of the country. In fact, that is probably the most justifiable reason for a secure border. Is that addressed in the Arizona law?

The answer to all my admittedly rhetorical questions is, of course, “no!” I have no panacea for resolving the problem of illegal immigration into the United States, but rounding up illegal immigrants off the corner in Winslow, Arizona is treating the symptpm, not the cause. Come on Arizona, get serious about this problem!

A New Peace Dividend?

Posted in Global War on Terror, Iraq War, U.S. defense budget, U.S. military manpower, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy, War on Terror with tags , , , , on May 1, 2010 by whatafteriraq

One of the clear lessons political lessons (if there are any) of the “great recession” from which the country is slowly emerging is that the United States cannot afford everything, since unbridled spending in the absence of additional public revenues (taxes) means a burgeoning deficit that will be handed down to future generations. No one seems to find this prospect of kicking the fiscal can rhetorically acceptable, yet nobody seems to offer any serious plans for changing the ways and objects on which public money is spent.

Most of the proposals are laughably irresponsible and insincere. The Republicans want to lower taxes (at least they want to restore the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy), on the empirically shaky ground that doing so will stimulate private investment, which will produce jobs, which will produce more income because the incomes from these jobs can be taxed. The underlying premise is John Kennedy’s multiplier effect, which any honest economist will tell you only works in very special circumstances, such as pent-up needs to buy and consume, which clearly is not the case today. Trickle-down economics is a fiscally responsible approach to deficit spending only for the extremely cynical or intellectually impaired. When asked where spending can be cut, Republicans rally behind John McCain and eliminating earmarks. Never mind that these account for about $10 billion annually or that a great deal of these are sponsored by fellow Republicans (my former senator, Richard Shelby of Alabama, is probably King Pork).

Democrats don’t do much better. They correctly identified health care as the future’s budget buster, but ladeled enough extraneous spending into the health care bill to dilute its salutary effects. Thet also correctly identify current budget trends as ruinous, yet they have little to say about what to do about them. Entitlements are the burgeoning villain, but who is seriously willing to propose building Al Gore’s “lock box”around the social security fund or moving back the eligibility time frame for seniors? Not anyone standing for reelection.

This space is normally devoted to foreign and security topics, so what is a discussion of the current economic woes doing here? The answer is that national security spending run amok has been and continues to be one of the prime drivers of the deficits that are accumulating. Politicians on both sides have ruled subjecting defense spending to scrutiny to help reduce deficits is off-limits. My point here is that defense spending cuts must be part of any serious effort to return to something like national solvency. It may not endear me to many colleagues to say this, but anyone who tells you different is either lying or delusional. Or both. To set the ship of state right, we simply must have a new peace dividend.

Three examples of uncritical defense spending (“spend whatever is necessary regardless of the consequences”) stand out. The most obvious are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one truly knows–of if they do, will not admit–what these adventures have cost us to date, but it is certainly at least $2 trillion (a VERY conservative estimate), and it is almost certainly costing in the range of$500 billion a year to continue these efforts. Regardless of what one thinks of the geopolitical merits of either adventure, can anyone argue that even the most extravagantly positive outcome will come close to justifying this level of expenditure? Withdraw from both places and see how much you save.

There are two other smaller but not insignificant examples. One is the global war on terror (GWOT). No one, to my knowledge, has systematically cost accounted how much U.S. treasure has gone into this effort, but it is a lot (close to a trillion?). Usama bin Laden must be laughing up his sleeve at how he is undermining the American economy on the cheap in this “war.” Would it not be feasible instead to try something else to defuse the threat, liking leaving Afghanistan and Iraq (thereby undermining the argument we are there as imperialists) and retreat from our blanket endorsement of Israel (particularly in their relations with the Palestinians)? I’m not sure how much this these acts would reduce the threat and thus our expenses, but I am sure it would have a measurable impact.

The third example is the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), America’s professional armed force. The AVF has been in existence now for nearly four decades, and it has virtues. The military likes it, because it produces a highly motivated force (everybody who is there wants to be), and the pay is better. The politicians like it, because it removes the possibility that any of their constituents might be forced into involuntary service (drafted) and sent into combat in places they would almost certainly not tolerate their own sons and daughters being sent (Iraq and Afghanistan).

The AVF is also pernicious. For one thing, it is very expensive, since it must compete economically for the services of its members, and it is small, since only a limited number of people will volunteer under any circumstances. This latter dynamic means it must be augmented by using very expensive civilian contractors or by using socially expensive reserves. Moreover, the AVF may be too easy to use, since those contemplating employing American forces do not have to ask themselves the question, “will the American public buy into the prospect of their children being sent off to fight and die in (fill in the blank)?”

The defense budget cannot take all the hits necessary to recreate fiscal responsibility, but looking at the three areas raised could at least contribute. There is, for instance, no question that a substantial tax increase is necessary to right the ship of state, but proposing that requires a level of political courage not abundantly evident today. A new peace dividend is not the panacea, but it is a beginning. Let’s put defense spending  back on the chopping block!