Archive for October, 2010

Afghanistan and the Election

Posted in Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War with tags , , , on October 31, 2010 by whatafteriraq

David Wood’s Politics Daily column today is worthy of the Halloween day 2010 in which it was published: a scary tale. In the column, Wood points out that among all the “issues” (such as they are) being debated in this off-year campaign, one is conspicuously missing: the war in Afghanistan. Despite public opinion polls that show a solid majority of Americans oppose continuing the contest and the fairly obvious lack of military progress against the Taliban, what to do about American presence in the mountainous Asian country long the grave yard of invaders does not seem to be an electoral matter at all.

Why not? At one level, it reflects simple political reality in this country. Americans may quietly oppose the war, but giving voice to that opposition is politically explosive, especially from the political right. If one supports ending the war, that person risks the wrath of the John McCain conservative wing of the GOP, which will scream appeasement, “cut-and-run,” and other incendiary epithets intended to raise serious questions about the opponent’s loyalty and patriotism–whether such criticism is justified or not. If one supports the war, libertarians likes the Pauls join hands with progressive Democrats to offer equally scathing invective about the futility of the war or minding our own business. A Democrat (Obama) can oppose the war, satisfy the party base, and be labeled a leftist pinko soft of terrorism. If the same Obama supports the war, the base is alienated and does not turn out on Tuesday. These are two losing hands to be dealt, and the politically prudent response has been to quietly fold, hope for the best in the nascent peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and continue a status quo that pleases no one but also does not create much electoral rancor, as the current apathy demonstrates.

This division as the basis for apathy is a kind of insider Washington basis and evades the more basic possible cause for voter indifference, and that is the detachment the American people have toward the war (which is the real gist of the Wood piece).

The simple fact is that Afghanistan is NOT the American people’s war. It is, in the increasingly bitter language of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (as quoted in the article), “a distinctly unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them (the public) personally.” And he is right. As Wood points out, less than one percent of Americans agree to do military service, and since no American has been compelled into involuntary military service since 1972 (when the selective service system of conscription was allowed to lapse), that means that over 99 percent of the public never faces the prospect of being forced to come to grips with the question of whether participation in that war is worth their personal prospect of possible death in the name of the cause. Moreover, Wood asserts that less than 12 members of Congress currently have children in the military, meaning they do not have to face the prospect that their support may entail sending their own progeny to their deaths on Rudyard Kipling’s “Afghan plain.”

Would the issue be more salient if Americans had the ultimate prospect of service in Afghanistan hanging over their heads? If the Vietnam memory has any salience, those most vulnerable to induction certainly would express an opinion: 18-24 year-old males were the only demographic category that opposedVietnam consistently during the war. College campuses were, of course, the hot bed of that opposition, and weekly anti-Vietnam rallies were an ongoing part of campus existence. Try to find or organize an anti-Afghanistan rally on a campus today, and the response will be massive numbers of stifled yawns. The students who provided the involuntary cannon fodder of previous wars know they are in no danger of being used in that role. So who cares?

This situation is, in my view, appalling. As argued consistently in this space, there are abundant good reasons for the United States to get out of Afghanistan. The lack of any realistic prospect of success and the killer economic burden of the war are the two most obvious, but neither of these have sufficient resonance politically to cause us to change course. Why? On one hand, the smallest imputation of opposition raises a bevy of self-styled patriots who will call the opponent every right-wing name in the book. On the other, the natural opposition–those who might be forced involuntarily to carry out the continuing madness–know they won’t be forced to make any sacrifice in the name of the cause.

Is there a way out of this? Possibly the Afghans, sick to death as they all seem to be with their American guests who are incapable of realizing they have overstayed their welcome, will agree to enough of a peace agreement to give the administration a graceful excuse to exit. The other possibility is American opinion rising in opposition. For that to happen, some means of personalizing the war must be found. The most obvious candidate is reviving the draft, but if one thinks opposing the war causes a political firestorm, trying grabbing the conscription tiger by the tail and see what happens.

The voters will speak on Tuesday. Unfortunately, they will have nothing to say about the war in Afghanistan. What a shame.

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Occupations and Terrorism

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, War on Terror with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2010 by whatafteriraq

A couple of articles appeared this week that caught my eye, because they both expressed a view of the terrorism problem that I have suspected for sometime has merit but which has never quite achieved manstream traction. The article were an op-ed column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times and a Foreign Policy online article by Robert Pape. Each expressed the hypothesis that the major motivation for terrorists attacking the United States may be a reaction to the continuing American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than the more conventionally held and “respectable” argument that the cause of anti-American and anti-Western terrorism is a fundamental jihadist trait of fundamentalist Islam that arises out of Islamic tradition and/or what Gorge W. Bush liked to see as their basic envy of Western life and prosperity.

The two articles are substantively quite different. Herbert’s article, unsurprisingly given he is a political columnist, is based on his personal analysis and what he views as the commonsensical reasoning that people generally resent military overlordship and are reacting in the only effective manner they have at their disposal, which happens to be terrorism. Pape’s argument is somewhat narrower and is based in his ongoing (and generally heralded) research on suicide terrorism. In his own words, “More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation.”

Both men reach a similar conclusion, which is that a major element in eliminating or reducing the current terrorism problem is to end the military occupations in which the United States is now involved, thereby undercutting the rationale for and appeal of terrorism directed against Americans.

I personally find this a not unreasonable argument and conclusion, although it is a hypothesis, not a scientific fact. The evidence in support of the hypothesis is only partly empirical: the strongest thread comes from what terrorists say. Bin Laden’s famous mid-1990s “Epistles” (in which he lays out the rationale for Al Qaeda’s campaign against the United States) begins from the grievance of a continuing military presence of the United States in the “holy lands”  (i.e. Saudi Arabia), a complaint he later augmented with a similar entreaty against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Further, proponents of this interpretation maintain that their contention simply stands to reason–nobody appreciates being militarily occupied, oppressed, and humiliated, and they will strike back in any way they can. How would we feel in similar circumstances?

This intepretation has always had a certain resonance with me as at the very least a plausible alternative to the demonization of terrorists implicit in the alternative argument, which is that terrorism is simply a part of global jihad imbedded in some Islamic thought that can only be combatted by harsh military methods. This interpretation also may be correct, although its adherents offer no more convincing empirical evidence than do those who argue against occupation. The primary supportive argument of those who oppose the occupation hypothesis essentially argument that terrorist-generated carnage and destruction makes their case. This evidence, of course, is tangible, but it is also a dependent variable (or consequence) of terrorism, the cause of which can support either view.

The Pape article has produced an absolute firestorm of angry responses on both sides of the issue. The attacks are especially vitriolic and arise, in most cases, from accepting the implications of the arguments for Israel, which has a long history now of both foreign occupation (as an occupier) and suicide terrorism against it. The implications of Pape’s analysis would seem to be that the antidote to suicide terrorism is to end military occupation of the West Bank (although he is talking directly about Afghanistan). Such an implication, of course, strikes at the heart of current Israeli policy regarding the West Bank, some of which (the fence separating the West Bank from Israel, for instance) has direct terrorist motivation and some of which is not so clearly based in the terrorist threat (e.g. the Israeli settlements on the West Bank).

The debate about these things reflects an important reality about current national security thinking both in Washington and Tel Aviv. One can make a plausible case for either hypothesis about the terrorist motivation, but which one is chosen has important policy differences. Accepting the jihadist argument means that current policy is the correct one, even if it has not produced a clear “solution” to the problem. What it has done, however, is keep the lid on a problem which, if it is correct, could and would become much worse if a change away from its policy consequences is tried. Since “worse” in this case means the possibility of considerably more violence, there is a natural tendency not to chance it. Accepting the occupation alternative, on the other hand, suggests major change, and while the outcome could be considerably superior to the ongoing situation, it could also be considerably worse if it is incorrect. Once, again, the possible negative outcomes militate toward not rocking the boat. Regardless of the merits, the odds are on the side of those who resist change.

All that said, the war on terrorism, if it is working at all, is doing so at a tremendous financial and physical cost. From an American vantage point, ending the occupation has greater attraction (and less potential negative consequences) than a similar act by the Israelis. Afghanistan, after all, is thousands of miles from the United States; the West Bank is adjacent to Israel. The U.S. is therefore in a much better place to try the experiment: if it fails, the likely consequences for us are not great. If it does work, however, the pressures for Israel to follow suit would certainly mount.

I happen to favor the occupation-as-cause argument, but unlike those who oppose it, I know that I may be right or wrong. The current policy in Afghanistan, in my view, is so flawed and certain of ultimate failure that I don’t see how ending the occupation (while reserving the right to attack Al Qaeda should it return from the air or possibly with special forces) can make matters worse. My perspective (and those of Mssrs. Herbert and Pape) may be wrong, but they certainly deserve a more dignified and thoughtful analysis than I read from the commentators to the Pape piece.

The Afghan Peace Process

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2010 by whatafteriraq

There was encouraging news out of Afghanistan this week–for a change. That news was that the Karzai government in Kabul and the Taliban leadership (which part or parts unspecified) have entered into preliminary discussions about meeting face-to-face to pursue a peace settlement to their civil war, in which the United States insinuated itself in 2001 and out of which it seems unable to extricate itself. After a midweek flurry of coverage in which the initial sticking point seemed to be finding a place to talk where the Taliban would feel safe from capture and bland U.S. assurances that the idea of Afghans talking to one another was okay with us, the discussions have gone appropriately subterranean. Now we wait and see.

This initiative may not go anywhere, but it does symbolize the kind of process that will probably eventually lead to a meaningful attempt to bring what passes for peace to Afghanistan. A process involving the internal parties but without a visible, overshadowing outsider (i.e. American) role is clearly preferable to one in which the U.S. is clearly prominent. For one thing, it can resemble the classic, loya jirga methodology by which warring Afghan tribal factions normally conduct their business, including cessation of warfare among them that is such a recurring part of Afghan history. Second, it is an Afghan process that is more likely to produce an outcome with which the Afghans themselves feel comfortable than one that the Americans “impose.” Third, if the United States does not like the outcome enough, we do not have to embrace it. Fourth and most importantly, an Afghan-negotiated peace represents the cleanest way for the United States publicly to wash its hands of the entire situation–arguing that we have done our job and that the rest is up to the Afghans itself. This, of course, is the ultimate goal of the United States–extrication from a situation in which there is no reasonable hope the U.S. can plausibly achieve anything that resembles “victory.” This is Afghanistanization in practice, the legacy of Vietnamization and Iraqification.

What might an agreement acceptable to all (or at least most of the primary) Afghan actors look like. It must have two bottom lines: the Karzai government in Kabul must remain at least officially in power (although probably part of some power-sharing regime with the Taliban) and with the non-Pashtun areas of the country not under Taliban control–the status quo from a government vantage point. It must also leave the Taliban in effective control of the rural Pashtun regions (those dominated by the Ghilzai Pashtuns who are its base) and along the border with Pakistan, to hasten a retreat if peace breaks down (always a possibility in Afghanistan). In addition, the Taliban will require some symbols of power, such as more than token representation in the Karzai cabinet. Brokering exactly what that might mean (which cabinet portfolios the Taliban gets) will prove to be tortuous, as the ongoing Iraqi situation is testimony. Also, no agreement is probably possible (at least not from a Taliban perspective) if it does not include for a rapid removal of NATO/American combat forces from the country.

This latter part of the equation is the tricky part, because, as we are already beginning to see in Iraq, American influence wanes directly in proportion to the reduction of American forces in the country. As in Iraq, the United States would always retain the formal ability to reassert itself, but everyone will know that once the Americans pull out, there is no way politically to send them back.

This presents the United States with its greatest risk in this process. The United States can live with a power-sharing political outcome in Afghanistan, IF it includes a provision that the new regime will not allow for an Al Qaeda return to an Afghan safe haven. Such an agreement will almost certainly be part of any peace outcome: the Karzai government certainly does not embrace Usama bin Laden and his supporters, and the Taliban is likely to abandon their Pashtunwali commitment of hospitality to Al Qaeda in return for getting rid of the Americans. The question is whether the new Afghan regime will–or be able to–live up to such a pledge. It is an imponderable, and a chance the Americans will have to take.

Will such an outcome guarantee peace and stability in Afghanistan? Of course not. For one thing, such an outcome would necessitate a strong central regime in Afghanistan, and that almost never happens in that country. The outcome will have to be a reversion to basic tribal autonomy, and such outcomes have never resulted in long-term stability. Afghanistan is simply not a very peaceful place, and that is unlikely to change. For another, it must be apparent to all concerned that the current situation is a stalemate unlikely to be resolved decisively in one direction or another and that the alternatives are indecisive war without end or at least a peace respite. Better something than nothing.

From an American (and especially administration) viewpoint, the outbreak of a peace process is a rare window of opportunity to get ourselves out of this mess in  a way parallel in structure (if hopefully not in ultimate outcome) to getting out of Vietnam and Iraq. The appearance of peace and a settlement where the interests we have backed at least have a plausible chance at success (if not a guarantee) was the kind of atmosphere in which we got out of Southeast Asia and Iraq, and it is also the best environment we can hope for here.

I personally hope the Obama administration has realized all this and has been working hard and successfully to bring about the peace process the tip of the iceberg of which we saw last week. It is no revelation that the elections in two weeks are not going to go well for Mr. Obama, that the 2012 presidential election campaign will kick off no later than the second week of November of this year, and that the administration needs a triumph and issue to energize a skittish base. Moreover, the federal deficit would certainly benefit from an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Republicans would, of course, howl about the dire consequences of getting out, but they are not going to vote for Obama regardless of what he does there. Beginning an accelerating process of extrication from the morass in Afghanistan could be just what the doctor ordered.

Killing Olive Trees–and Peace Prospects

Posted in Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , on October 9, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The essentially cadaverous Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” took another of its periodic turns away from any meaningful or likely movement in the direction of a peace settlement in the past week, after the equally ritualistic and doomed staging of another peace meeting in Washington last month between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) head Mohammed Abbas in Washington, presided over by President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and special emissary George Mitchell. Some things never change in basic dynamic; only the peripherals are different.

There were two symbolic events that submarined the latest episode in this geopolitical soap opera. First, the Israelis refused to bow to international pressure and extend the ten-month moratorium on new settlement construction on the West Bank. Instead, the Israelis quietly let the ban expire and thus opened the way for more new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Regardless of the position one might take on Israel’s “right” to build these additional Israeli enclaves in the disputed territories, there is no denying that doing so is an absolute deal breaker in terms of any progress in reaching a lasting accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The Palestinians, quite simply, will and politically never can accept this usurpation (in their minds) of parts of what they believe should be parts of the sovereign state of Palestine to Israeli control. Since the Netanyahu government bases critical parts of its continuing tenure on support from the settlers who want to expand their domain on the West Bank, the result is an impasse that cannot easily be overcome. More settlements=no peace agreement. It is really as simple as that.

The other event was described in a New York Times article on October 9, 2010, and it involved attacks on Palestinian olive trees (cutting off branches, cutting roots to kill the trees) by what are described as Israeli “extremists” from the settler community. The incident is not unique, apparently, but it does point to another factor that makes progress toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation all the more problematical: the dominant role of political extremists on both sides who are opposed to any peaceful settlement (one acceptable to both sides), who will act violently to stir up animosities as a way to preclude peace, and who are sufficiently powerful in both communities that neither government will (or can) rein them in.

The Palestinian extremists are better known in the West, because the Israelis and their allies have been more successful in bringing them to our attention. Hezbollah and Hamas have become synonymous with terrorism and acts of atrocity against the Israelis that harden Israeli opinion against the peace process, which is the intent of these actions. The Palestinian Authority has been unable or unwilling to suppress the activities of their extremists, fueling Israel’s position that the Palestinians cannot be trusted with a sovereign state. There is merit to this assertion.

What is less well publicized is Israel extremists. Most of these characters come from small, yet fanatical fringe groups, and they are totally and absolutely opposed to any accommodation with the Palestinians. The fact that many of them are settlers whose homes might be the subject of negotiations adds to their dedication and vitriol. In the past week, the olive tree incident was accompanied by another act, the desecration of a Mosque on the West Bank, including the burning of copies of the Quran by Israeli militants. The Israelis hardly lift a finger (despite pious denials of their indifference) in the face of such acts intended, quite simply, to destro the peace process; the Times story on the olive tree killing, for instance, states that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) brought to the scene simply implored the Israelis committing the acts to stop doing so.

The dynamics of Palestinian and Israeli extremism are remarkably similar. Israeli right-wing extremists want to preclude a movement toward peace, and their method–like that of Hamas or Hezbollah–is to create so much outrage in the Palestinian community that they cannot negotiate with the Israeli government. Like  the PA, the Israeli government is unwilling or unable to suppress their fanatics, partly because these provocateurs have some public support and partly because the ruling coalition depends on them to maintain power. Continuing extremist violence (on both sides)=no peace settlement. It is also as simple as that.

Where is Middle East peace headed? It is not evident that it is headed anywhere. As long as Israeli settlements proliferate on the West Bank and political extremists on both sides operate to effectively block progress, the process can go nowhere. Solving these problems may not be sufficient to move the situation forward, but doing so is clearly necessary for that result.