Archive for November, 2010

Inspector Clousteau, the Experts, and Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Pakistan, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by whatafteriraq

At the considerable danger of defaming one of movies’ greatest characters (the legendary Inspector Clousteau of the Pink Panthers series) and its incomparable star (the late Peter Sellers), U.S (and allied) policy is beginning to look like one of the bumbling French gendarmie’s most memorable adventures. The latest example of this remark, of course, is the revelation last week that talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government sponsored and facilitated by the United States were actually between the Afghan government and a clever Pashtun shopkeeper from Pakistan who presumably walked away from the process sniggering into the sleeve of his robe while holding tightly to a sizable wad of U.S. cash (no one seems to want to talk about that part–wonder why). Could it be that this enterprising native is the real Pink Panther?

Everyone, of course, is denying everything as they lift up the corner of the rug and sweep the whole thing into a lumpy pile under a corner. The Taliban have maintained all along they were not in negotiations with anybody, which everyone has assumed was a subterfuge to cover their participation in talks. Turns about they might have been telling the truth. The Karzai government is showing predictable 20/20 hindsight and saying they never did believe this guy and weren’t really talking to him. Instead, they maintain the British foisted him off as the real deal. The American explanation: well, we don’t really have one.

How in the world did this–or could this–happen. The answer, I suspect, lies in our legendary lack of expertise in, and understanding of–Afghanistan. The experts on whom we seem to be relying, it turns out, appear not to be so expert. One evidence was an “explanation” last week of how the phony baloney managed to trick everybody into believing he was the Taliban’s second in command: since we have nobody who has ever met any of these characters face-to-face, we don’t really know who they are or what the look like. Since, presumably, all Afghans (or at least Pashtuns) look alike, it was a natural mistake.

This gets at the heart of the matter. I have argued repeatedly that the fatal flaw in U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that it is an absolute no-win situation, which even the casual observer can figure out. But we decided to go in anyway. Where were the experts, who almost certainly would have said, “Wait a minute here!”?

One of two things, in seems to me, offers an explanation. One is that we really have no experts, apart from members of the small Afghan expatriate community. Expatriates, however, tend to have axes to grind or personal agendas and are not the best possible sources of objective analysis. The number of academic experts is also pretty small, due to a lack of market historically for Afghan experts. The second is that the experts that do exist have been ignored or shunned. Real experts almost certainly counselled non-involvement in the civil war, and once it was engaged, argued for getting out as quickly and cheaply as possible. Here the principle of “shooting the messenger” comes in: if these people were consulted and told the truth, they were undoubtedly exorcised because they provided the wrong answers to blissfully ignorant advocates of the American presence. Off with their heads (or at least banishment to policy purgatory)! This well established practice has roots in Vietnam and Iraq and seems so ingrained that it is hard to imagine why anybody with actual expertise would offer advice tha contradicts what policy makers wsant to believe.

So here we are, blisfully, in Thomas Friedman’s word, dropping “dropping $190 million a day to bring corrupt warlords from the 15th to the 19th century,” with big smiles on our faces and a dogged determination we are “doing good” (or at least avoiding “bad”). That number, which adds up to about $70 billion a year and is almost certainly a low-ball estimate, keeps hemorrhaging along as the federal deficit soars. But, we may be getting our money’s worth: this is clearly the stuff of another revival of the Inspector Clousteau series. The only questions will be if Steve Martin or someone else plays the good detective and who the next Pink Panther may be.

Afghan Withdrawal by 2014

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, U.S. defense budget, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 21, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The NATO summit occurred this past week in Lisbon, and the major news that came out of it was that NATO ministers agreed to continue the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, the technical name of the mission there). According to the comminique at the end of the meeting, the focus of the agreement was to continue the commitment of declining numbers (unspecified) into 2014, when all combat tasks will have been turned over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), leaving only a residue of NATO noncombatants (including American troops) behind. In other words, an Iraq-style drawdown and post-combat situation whre the U.S. is out but not out simultaneously.

This settlement, as it is chewed upon, regurgitated, and swallowed, is likely to please nobody, most of all the Afghans themselves (the Taliban has already called the decision “irrational”). People (myself included) who believe the active involvement of the United States should end much faster, are going to maintain that leaving NATO forces on the front lines will accomplish little substantively and simply represent greater human and material sacrifice for the troops and the Afghans themselves while not materially improving the prospects for the post-war peace. If one believes the war is unwinnable, as I do, three or more years of combat is a tragic waste. The NATO conferees anticipated this reaction (which will be more pronounced in other NATO countries than in the U.S.) and offered the bone that “if circumstances agree, it (withdrawal of combat troops) could be sooner.” How about tomorrow?

Critics on the other end of the spectrum will also be unhappy because of the simple fact of establishing any kind of deadline. Their consistent refrain about such deadlines (in Iraq, for instance) is that they simply encourage the opponent to wait out whatever the deadline is, wait for us to leave, then seize the moment. In their minds, setting a deadline is little more than a deferred form of surrender. 2014 is sufficiently far enough away so this objection will not be loudly raised at this point, but as the date grows nearer, it will. This criticism, of course, is only valid if one accepts the proposition that the war is in fact winnable in some sense, if one is perseverant enough to pursue it long enough. We are, after all, still hearing this argument about Vietnam, which has been over for 35 years.

The designation of 2014 also must be viewed through the lens of 2012–the next presidential year. It is a curious choice that, like so many the Obama administration has made recently, appeals neither to his core constituency or probably to the independent middle. Obama supporters on the left are pretty uniformly disappointed in Obama’s Afghan policy and want out now. The “shallow” withdrawals that NATO describes for 2011 are going to make them unhappier than they already are. It will not drive them into the arms of the Tea/GOP candidate, who is likely to adopt a “stay the course” position on Afghanistan, but it could make them less enthusiastic supporters of the campaign or even, at worst, cause them to sit out the election. The date is also unlikely to win any support from the right, which opposes any specification of withdrawal dates and would not vote for Obama if he promised to stay in Afghanistan for another 50 years.

That leaves the swing vote in the middle. They voted for Obama in 2008 and against him in 2010. Nobody seems to want to court them very badly. They are almost certainly going to be repelled by the Libertarian nut jobs the Tea Party has foisted upon the Congress, and they are generally less than enthusiastic about the deficits the administration is running up–part of which, of course, are powered by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Which way they go in 2012 will determine who enters or stays in the Oval Office in 2013. The shape of the economy (and especially the unemployment rate) will likely determine who they vote for, but Afghanistan will play a part as well, on two grounds. First, budget cutting/balancing is going to be a major part of the 2012 campaign, and by then, the public may well have figured out that anything like a balanced budget is impossible without a major defense contribution. But where does that contribution come from? Since Americans also overwhelmingly say they favor a robust defense, they will not support major cuts in ongoing defense expenditures. If that is true, where can one look for cuts? Afghanistan virtually jumps off the page of candidates. Second, if the war continues to go poorly (as it likely will), the middle may decide overwhelmingly that they want it to end. Would Obama buck such sentiment?

The most hopeful interpretation of the 2014 deadline is that those who chose it did so because they know they are going to exceed it. The Afghans fairly clearly do not want us around for three more years, and most of the NATO allies join American public opinion in that assessment. A 2014 withdrawal date is dismal news–the worst case–and if we can exceed that expectation and bring the troops home sooner, wouldn’t that be grand? And wouldn’t we be grateful when we enter the voting place (assuming much of this happens before November 2012)? Does this all sound kind of cynical? Yes it does, but given the mess we are in right now, any shard of hope is to be grasped.

Karzai to U.S.: ‘Bug Off!’

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Uncategorized, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , on November 14, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Afghan President Hamid Karzai met this past week with interviewers from the Washington Post in his Kabul offices, the “highlights” of which were published in today’s (Nov. 13, 2010) editions. The message he delivered was short and to the point:  U.S.military operation in Afghanistan are doing more harm than good and must be stopped. Moreover, the Afghan people increasingly resent not only the American physical presence but the attempts by the Americans to attrite the Taliban using Special Forces to go after and eliminate their leadership. To summarize, his message to the U.S. government and population is clear: “We neither want you nor need you–bug off!”

This is an invitation that should be hard to ignore. If my ruminations in this space have been at all cogent, it is really the kind of opportunity the United States (at least the Obama administration) has been looking for–a way to extricate ourselves from an impossible situation while still claiming some shard of self-respect about having done so. Can we achieve a Nixonian “peace with honor” (his rhetorical goal while sneaking the country out of Vietnam) by saying sayonara to Karzai and the Afghans? Karzai certainly appears to be offering that opportunity. And there are certainly copious reasons to taker him up on the offer.

Why should the United States “cut and run” in Afghanistan and “abandon” our erstwhile allies? There have always been several good reasons to do so, and Karzai has added another: we are unwanted and unappreciated. At this risk of some redundancy, however, allow me to reitrate the case for taking Karzai up on his generous offer.

1. The United States is not and cannot “win” this war in any definable geo-political sense. Militarily, the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that General Petraeus helped to author and is trying to apply is not working, partly because it is inadequate conceptually (it only works when the target population is amenable to its success) and partly because there are nowhere near enough U.S. forces there to give it a chance. For COIN to work, the first and major requisite is providing security on an ongoing basis; the U.S. and its allies cannot do this amidst a hostile population (hostile at least partly, according to Karzai, because of its presence) with a force of 150,000 in a country the size of Texas. Politically, Afghanistan will never evolve a strong, representative central government, which is the political goal of our involvement: they never have had one, and nobody in the country is powerful enough to impose one. The effort, in other words, is Quixotic.

2. If even we could win, it would not be worth it. Other than keeping the Taliban from allowing Al Qaeda back in the country, what U.S. interests did the United States ever have in Afghanistan? Prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979 (which we had some small interest in opposing) and the birth of Al Qaeda, the answer was essentially none; other than Al Qaeda, that has not changed. Since Al Qaeda has now set up shop around the world, Afghan sanctuaries are no longer that big a deal, and the Taliban would almost certainly sell Al Qaeda down the river in return for an American withdrawal. If Al Qaeda is no longer an adequate reason for being there, why are we? Good question with no apparent positive answer. Even if Al Qaeda returns, is it worth our cost in blood and treasure? My answer is that is not unless one disinvents aircraft that can overfly Afghanistan and harass any Al Qaeda presence there.

3. The United States cannot afford its Quixotic, interest-deficient quest. Stupid extravagances are for the idle, more-money-than-brains rich, which the United States no longer is. The U.S. military needs some respite from ten consecutive years of deployment in harm’s way, and only our removal from Afghanistan can adequately provide for the necessary R&R. Moreover, the United States is pumping enormous amounts of monetary resources into the abyss at a time when spending less is the rhetorical goal of virtually every American politician across the ideological spectrum. Papa Bear and Baby Bear Paul are not right about much; they are right about this issue. Afghanistan is a money pit (and casualty pit) that we simply can no longer afford–especially since in the end, we are unlikely to get much (if anything) in return.

I am sure much of the political reaction to Karzai’s interview will be either to brush it aside (“even the best of friends have some disagreements”) or to use it to bolster U.S. efforts (“this just shows the need for redoubled efforts”), and only the political left (which wants us out) will embrace the interview. Karzai may have said these things out of personal conviction or because they were necessary positions for his government with the Taliban; it’s hard to say.

But who cares? The Karzai statements should be the basis for rejoicing in the United States, because he has provided us the cover we need to start our withdrawal. When your hosts tell you it’s time to pack up your bags and leave, it is boorish to stick around and outwear your welcome. Instead, Hamid is giving us a great opportunity to salute crisply, yell “HUA” (heard, understood, acknowledged), proclaim :mission accomplished” and get the hell out. Thank you for your suggestion, President Karzai!

Baghdad Bombings and Afghan Peace

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , on November 7, 2010 by whatafteriraq

There is a curious peace process going on in Kabul. It is curious partly because it is so low key and private. Of course, diplomatic processes are supposed to be held behind the curtain, so that the participants can negotiate freely and reach compromise outcomes that could look like, and be exploited by, opponents as defeats if one knew negotiating postures in advance. While that is actually a sign of the health of the process, it is still curious in an electronic age where secrets of any kind are increasingly impossible to keep. Hopefully someone involved will tell the rest of us how they did it after the process is over–at least unless the process included draconian mutilations of attempted leakers.

Another source of curiosity is the American role. When the talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban began, the American role providing security for and ferrying Taliban negotiators to Kabul was widely publicized for a couple days, but since, there has been not a word about that continuing role–and it certainly does continue. What is interesting about this aspect of the process is that the Taliban actually trusts the United States to act in that capacity. What is more interesting is what this willingness says about the United States and its attitude. What it says to me is that the United States desperately wants to find a way out of Afghanistan and will do virtually anything short of a unilateral withdrawal to find a way out.

A third source of curiosity is exactly what role outsiders are playing in whatever talks are ongoing. The American role is especially veiled: what outcomes does the United States want? What is it willing to accept short of what it wants? And what leverage does it have to move the process toward what it wants out?

One can offer tentative answers to these questions. The answer to the first (what do we want?) is that the United States wants out, but in a way that we can plausibly argue victory (at least in some vague way) or, more minimally, the absence of defeat. That translates into a post-agreement Afghanistan that is non-Taliban and has a strong, stable government. This latter requirement is almost certainly unattainable (Afghanistan never has a strong stable government, and there is really no party that can lead a plausible attempt to create one). That leads to the second question (what, short of our preferred outcome, will we accept?).

The answer to that question is crucial, and it depends on two calculations. The first is domestic in the United States. Like it or not, Barack Obama’s reelection campaign for 2012 is in full motion, and the critical Afghanistan question it faces is, what about Afghanistan will do the president the most good (or create the least harm)? The answer again seems two-fold. By a healthy majority, the American people want out of Afghanistan, an outcome with the secondary benefit of possibly saving money and thus appearing fiscally responsible. Thus, getting us out or well on our way out before 2012 makes political sense. However, there is a second part of the answer: to make the political right, who believe Afghanistan is a righteous cause, the withdrawal has to look like it is done on American terms: there must be an appearance of victory/lack of defeat. An outcome that does this will not gain the support of the right for Obama, but it will make their opposition less convincing and maybe even less shrill (picture Mama Grizzly here). The other consideration is what the parties themselves will accept. It is gradually being recognized (and I suspect we will find later is the real joint interest that created the possibility of talks) that what virtually all Afghans want is for the Americans and their allies to be gone: Karzai so we will quit hectoring him about honest government, the Taliban so we will stop shooting them. If that is the case, they have reason to accede in a peace process wherein the Americans can declare “mission accomplished” and depart.

This brings us to the Baghdad bombings. In the past week or so, what had been passing for tranquility in Baghdad has been shattered by a string of bombings by dissatisfied Iraqis. The process that has just been described for Afghanistan is indeed essentially what happened in Iraq for the past couple years, and what is now going on in Baghdad is its net result. The Americans came, stayed, and seemed intent on staying indefinitely. Faced with that distasteful prospects, the Iraqi factions came together and negotiated enough of a peace agreement to make it look enough like peace had broken out so the Americans, anxious to go, could conclude an arguably accomplished mission, and withdraw combat forces.

Everybody who knew anything about Iraq knew the peace would not hold, and the bombings are just the tip of the iceberg of lingering Iraqi instability. Peace has not taken hold in Iraq, and it will not for a while–but with a difference. The United States retains a physical presence, but we have withdrawn in a psychological, political sense. Nothing likely to happen in Iraq will affect the 2012 election. In answer to the third question about Afghanistan (what is American leverage?), the answer is close to zero, and no amount of proposed American postwar assistance (which we will probably welsh on anyway) will affect that much.

Will the same thing happen in Afghanistan? Almost certainly. The peace process will, in due time, produce what both sides and the United States can agree is an honorable, stable peace. No one involved will really believe that, but it is a necessary kabuki dance to a) get rid of the Americans and b) remove Afghanistan from the 2012 election campaign. Will the peace hold? The answer is about as well as it has done in Iraq, but like Iraq, if we have managed to establish a psycho-political distance from Afghanistan, who cares?