Archive for the War on Terror Category

The U.S. and Pakistan after Bin Laden

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Global War on Terror, International Terrorism, Pakistan, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As the details of the stunning American Navy SEALS raid that killed Usama bin Laden last Sunday filter into the public view, one controversy seems to be brewing much more obviously and openly than any other. That concern is the role of Pakistan in providing the sanctuary in which bin Laden apparently existed for upwards of six years. What, excatly, did the government of Pakistan know about all this? And why did they keep secret what they did know?

As is well known by now, bin Laden lived in a walled compound in what is now referred to as the Islamabad “suburb” of Abbottabad, which was also where a number of retired Pakistani military officers resided. Although it is not clear that bin Laden ventured outside the high walls surrounding the several structures that constituted the compound, the dead terrorist was a tall, striking figure, and there have been reports that a number of people saw someone fitting bin Laden’s physical description wandering the grounds off and on. Someone, it seems, must have been suspicious enough to alert officials, but apparently nobody did (exactly how the United States first got wind of his location remains a carefully guarded secret). The simple fact, however, is that it strains credulity to maintain that no one anywhere within the Pakistani governmental structure had any idea that the world’s most wanted criminal was hiding rather openly under their noses, especially given Pakistan’s well-known penchant for security.

It is important to the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations tow determine who knew what in all this. Pakistan is not unimportant to the United States. It is a big country(the world’s six most populous), it has nuclear weapons and a history of conflict with nuclear-armed neighbor India (with whom it is engaged in a covert semi-war over Kashmir), it has been an ally in the “war” on terror, and it has been a partner of sorts with the United States on matters surrounding Afghanistan. None of these are inconsequential concerns, especially since they occur in a highly unstable Pakistani political system that has relied partially on assistance from the United States for its well-being. The relationship is, in other words, a two-way street.

All of this relationship is endangered by uncertainty about Pakistani complicity in bin Laden’s exile residence in their country. If hiding and protecting him was a matter of official Pakistani policy, the repercussions could be extensive: no American administration could openly condone close relations with a country that performed such perfidy. At the same time, concern about Pakistani sensibilities because of American violation of sovereign Pakistani air space to attack Taliban and Al Qaeda within Pakistan would vanish if the Pakistanis prove to be unworthy partners. An abrupt rupture of U.S. support for Pakistan internationally (in its relationship with India) or internally could further destabilize a Pakistan that already sits perilously close to the boundary between stable and failed states in the world. It is probably a good idea to look before we leap.

To say “Pakistan” must have known about bin Laden’s hideaway is not very helpful in assessing the situation. Pakistani politics have always been extraordinarily complex, compartmented, and adversarial. The Pakistani military has always had considerable influence and control (critics say excessively so), and they are at constant odds with and suspicious of basically secular democratic influences, such as that represented in the current Zardari government. For their part, those who support popular civilian government have been no great shakes, among other things being masters at the art of political corruption. The military distrusts the civilians, the civilians distrust the military, and both sides have ample justifications for their qualms.

The wild card in all this is Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This organization, which was configured in something like its present configuration by President Ayub Khan, is an aggregate of various domestic and foreign intelligence elements within the government. It is quite extensive, and it plays a number of roles, including serving as a conduit to Islamic radicals seeking to annex Kashmir to India. It is widely identified as having sired the Taliban as a way to keep Afghanistan weak and thus to maximize Pakistani influence in that country. It served as an instrument to help funnel foreign assistance to the mujahadin groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and its first associations with bin Laden probably date to that period, when bin Laden served as a recruiter of foregn fighters into Afghanistan. The exact relationship between the ISI and bin Laden after he formed Al Qaeda is a bit murky, but it is fair to say the two organizations knew one another. Further, the ISI has been active within Pakistan’s Pashtun minority community, and it has served as a trainer for what many consider terrorists going into Kashmir.

If any one part of the Pakistani government almost certainly knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts, it was almost certainly the ISI. In turn, however, the ISI has been cooperating with American intelligence in the effort to identify and take out Taliban and Al Qaeda assets in Pakistan. Exactly what kind of “double game” the ISI was playing in all this requires the imagination of the late Robert Ludlum to unravel, but if there are not ISI fingerprints on the situation when all is said and done, it would be one of the world’s great surprises.

The problem is how the United States should proceed with Pakistan. Almost certainly, there will be pressure on the administration for some kinds of sanctions against the Pakistani government to “fess up” to their involvement, but embarassing the civilian regime might well be counterproductive. If those who were complicit in hiding bin Laden are to be found and dealt with, it will take the mutual efforts of the civilians and the professional military bringing the ISI to heel, and that will be a monumental task that will not be assisted by American indignation, however well based, that Pakistan must have played a role in keeping bin Laden safe for so long. Pressure behind the scenes is certainly appropriate and is no doubt being applied “as we speak.” Beyond that, maybe the best thing for Americans to do is simply to bask in the satisfaction that bin Laden is dead, that Al Qaeda is now in the throes of a process to determine his successor that will likely leave it further diminished, and that the SEALS performed a job well done.

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Democracy, Islamism, the U.S., Egypt, and Israel

Posted in Egypt, Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Although the Libyan civil war is the current focus of most of the world’s (and certainly John McCain’s) attention, that blooldletting is a sideshow on the greater stage of the revolutionary movement that has swept across parts of the Middle East since January and which may spread even further in the upcoming months or years. The central stage of this drama is a two-act drama. The key element in that drama is the shape that post-uprising political systems in the region will take, and it is a contest widely portrayed in terms of democracy versus religious extremism (Islamism). The outcome of that contest may reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East region, and especially the critical triangular relationship between the United States, Egypt, and Israel that is a linchpin of American foreign policy in the region.

The common denominator of the Middle East revolutions has been popular uprisings against repressive, authoritarian regimes by suppressed peoples. These movements were virtually unanticipated in the West, which saw regimes like that of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak as pillars of stability in the region. That they were anti-democratic conflicted with the on-again-off-again U.S. policy of democracy promotion in the region, but that policy impulse (and it is hard to think of it as much more than that) always had as its alter ego the comfort of dealing with predictable regimes who cooperated with American policy emphases such as moderating anti-Israeli sentiments among Arab populations and participating in the American war on terrorism.

American policy toward Egypt demonstrated the American ambivalence on the subject particularly clearly. Everyone knew that Mubarak’s regime was nothing to be proud of in human rights or economic matters, but he was enduring (it lasted over 30 years, after all), and Mubarak was a staunch supporter of peace with Israel and a champion of anti-terrorist activities. But there was always an irony involved: the same prisons where he jailed and even tortured his political opponents were also available for the “rendition” (i.e. torture) of suspected terrorists captured by the United States and from whom the Americans wanted to extract information that it would be embarassing for us to obtain otherwise. Good old Hosni would take care of them for us. Gee, some of us may actually miss him.

Ambivalence about what is happening is, of course, rarely put this way. Rather, the great fear is that democratic movements in the countries undergoing upheavals may somehow be highjacked by radical Islamists, who will transform their societies into Iran-like clones and even, at worst, as havens for fanatical terrorists. This is a fear that beleaguered tyrants like Muammar Gadhafi have raised with particular vehemence (his charge that westerners and Al Qaeda–strange bedfellows–are responsible for Libya’s travail), and it raises a prospect that many others, but especially Israel, feels with particularly personal urgency.

But is this fear justified? It is too early to say with absolute certainty, but the early indications are that as democratic processes emerge, the Islamic extremists will not fare especially well. Egypt, which is the largest, most populous, and most strategically located of all the countries undergoing change, is the case in point. It is, of course, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, offshoots of which are active in virtually every other Arab country in the region, but all indications are that the Brotherhood will neither be the preeminent influence in a post-Mubarak political order nor will its influence be particularly radical. One can and should never say never about these prospects, but unless things change, the prospects seem manageable.

There are, however, two other possible, even probable, outcomes that are more troublesome for the West, and the United States and Israel in particular. One is that all of these movements are likely to contain fairly strong anti-American elements. In one way this is strange, since it is western inventiveness that has energized the movements (e.g. the Internet) and since the political freedom to which they aspire is distinctly western. At the same time, the peoples involved know that that west, and notably the United States, has been the primary supporter of discredited leaders like Mubarak–the source of the misery to which they have reacted. This dichotomy mainly reflects the schizophrenia of American policy that valued “stability” over our own democratic values in these places, and that it is coming home to roost is probably something we will have to endure and try to make the best of. But one thing is pretty clear, and that it that the United States will have less influence over whoever ascends to power in places like Egypt than it had before.

This recognition brings us to the other outcome, which is a more anti-Israeli stance from post-revolutionary governments. For better or worse reasons, public opinion in places like Egypt is much more pro-Palestinian and thus thus anti-Israeli than the policies of fallen leaders like Mubarak have reflected. In open and democratic settings, it will be impossible for successor governments not to reflect this opposition, and the trick for the United States will be to try to keep this sentiment from boiling over into the destruction of the Middle East peace process which, ironically, has been one of the triumphs of the American policy of supporting regional tyrants.

The Israelis, of course, are well aware of and consequently with this likely outcome of democratization. The process, however, also leaves Israel in something of a bind in terms of how to respond. One of the signal bases of Israeli appeal in the region has been that it is the only legitimate political democracy in the Middle East, and as such, it can hardly oppose the spread of democracy to its neighbors. At the same time, it is also aware of the anti-Israeli tone of democratic politics there, a sentiment largely born of Israel’s obdurate clinging to the West Bank and opposition to completing an agreement creating an independent state of Palestine. These contradictions are part of a lively political debate within Israel, but the Israelis have been very quiet internationally about how they feel. Privately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently strongly advocated muscular American actions to prop up Mubarak (coming out on the stability end of the stability-democracy argument), but that train has left the station, and the Israelis are hunkering down.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the great question that remains is what will become of the strategically triangular relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the United States. Under Mubarak, the three were united to keep the lid on the volatile region by maintaining at least the fiction of a lively peace process leading to some kind of solution acceptable to the Palestinians, but democratic expressions in places like Egypt could undercut that fiction. It is not clear how diminished American influence will be in this situation, but it will certainly be decreased somewhat. The result will be uncomfortable for Israel, because its current policy of expanding the status quo will come under increasingly withering criticism from unconstrained democratizing places like Egypt. How Israel responds to this change will go a long way toward defining the geopolitics of the democratizing Middle East.

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.

Blowback in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, War on Terror with tags , , on June 20, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Whenever official Washington, be it the White House, the Pentagon, or the military, describe what is happening in Afghanistan, it is always discussed in terms of “progress.” This creates the mental construct that whatever is going on must be forward moving–we hardly ever think that progress can be negative. So, when things go well in Afghanistan (which is not very often), that is a sign of “real progress.” When things have so obviously not gone well–or as planned–to the degree that no one can say real progress with a straight face (which is much more often the case), then progress is described as something like “slow.” But it is always progress.

What if this entire frame of reference is simply wrong? Is it not possible that what we are doing is not only not making things better (better for whom, of course, being another question), but is actually making things worse for us or the Afghans? No one with official status is going to admit this possibility, because to do so suggests they have been doing a lousy job, either of planning a mission that had no reasonable prospect of success, of executing a strategy to fulfill the political objectives of the strategy, or both. The evidence, however, is not so clear that progress is the correct paradigm to deny the possibility that its opposite might not be more realistic.

The key concept to questioning the current paradigm is “blowback,” the idea that the actions one takes in effect creates negative consequences. The June 21, 2010 edition of Newsweek elaborates this concept in an article fittingly titled “Blowback” by Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas. Part of the subtitle of the article is “how to battle Muslim extremists without creating more here at home.” The analysis suggests that it is possible to think of American efforts as creating more problems for the United States than it is solving–negative progress, in other words.

The whole idea of the American involvement (the political objective) is to refashion Afghanistan so that it will cease to be a source of terrorist action against the United States, and the military objective and strategy is to defeat the Taliban so that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven, training ground, or recruiting ground for terrorists who seek to penetrate and attack the United States. It has been the mantra of the entire effort that this is what we are doing and that this is both the intended and actual outcome of our effort.

But what if that analysis is simply wrong? What if the effect of U.S. efforts is a blowback that increases rather than decreases the number of terrorists bent on wreaking havoc on American soil? How could this happen? Blowback.

The Newsweek authors explain the basic idea. As they put it, “Any military action in a foreign country produces new incentives for the enemy.” In the case of American action in Afghanistan, the military action that has created animosities that have turned into the creation of new terrorists have been attacks against Afghan targets that have harmed Afghan civilians. The Newsweek article says, based on interviews with Afghan Jihadi sources that “the Taliban had no interest in attacking America directly–until the U.S. military started taking out their leaders (and sometimes their families).” They also quote an unnamed Taliban source, who says, “The Americans are attacking us in our country, our villages, and our houses, so why shouldn’t we attack them in their country?”

Pretty good question, and one that the U.S. military recognizes. General Stanley McChrystal has been emphatic about limiting so-called collateral damage–mainly civilian casualties–but mythology about precision weapons and the like notwithstanding, such events will always be part of war–Clausewitz’s “fog and friction.” It may be possible to limit the problem, but it is probably not possible to eliminate it altogether.

Killing people and destroying their things antagonizes people. We know that and have acted accordingly. The entire post-9/11 military effort by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan is, after all, blowback for the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda. Why would we be surprised that some Afghans feel the same way about what we are doing in their country?

To deny that there is some blowback factor attached to the Afghan effort is ridiculous,and anyone who says there is not is either a liar or hopelessly naive. The real question is whether the efforts the United States is taking in Afghanistan is suppressing more potential and actual terrorism than it is creating. In other words, if the United States were not doing what it is doing, would the Afghan terrorist threat be greater or lesser than it is today? Put yet another way, is progress positive or negative, or is progress the right word to describe the impact of what we are spending an awful lot of money on to create?

I do not know the answer to the equation: the suppression/blowback ratio, but neither does anyone else. If the answer were overwhelming positive and demonstrable (two quite different propositions), I cannot believe that we would not be shouting it from the rooftops as evidence of “progress.” That we are not suggests either that we have not asked the question (possibly because we fear the real answer), or that we have and cannot fit the answer we have found into the progress model. Since the whole effort appears to be making little progress, it would be nice to know though, wouldn’t it?

A Bump on the Road to Kandahar

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Global War on Terror, Uncategorized, War on Terror with tags , , , , , on June 13, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan would be laughable, the stuff of a Peter Sellers romp (“The Pink Panther” series, “The Mouse That Roared”) or black comedy (“Dr. Strangelove”) were the results not so deadly to American service members and the American treasury. The comedy of errors reached a new pinncale (or low point, take your pick) this past week, as the funny guys with the red noses and orange hair wearing green uniforms with stars on their shoulders announced (with straight faces) that it now looks like the proposed “libration” of Kandahar will have to be delayed until September. Why? Because the citizens of Kandahar, represented by our favorite Afghan, Hamid Karzai, and his evil brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai (the strongman leader of Kandahar and kleptocrat par excellence) , are not quite sure they want this stronghold of the Taliban liberated or not.

Where is Norman Lear when you really need him to turn this into a half-hour sitcom? Stan McChrystal, the Jay Leno of allied forces in Afghanistan, explained why the operation was now behind schedule. “When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” he deadpanned for the camera (one would expect him to be saying this while doing figure eights on a unicycle with a parasol in one hand). The rough translation of his statement, I think, is that it is harder to liberate people who don’t want liberating than people who do. What a revelation!

And why would the good citizens of Kandahar not want to be liberated? Well, possibly it is because they do not feel the need to be freed fom their current position and transformed into some other condition, such as the further imposition of the Kabul government over their lives. They already have one corrupt Karzai in their midst; why do they need a new swarm of kleptocrats? Moreover, while this notion appears too abstract for Americans to understand, it is not clear why or whether the people of Kandahar, who are currently ruled by Afghans (admittedly, ones WE don’t like) would feel they had been liberated (freed) by their conquest by foreigners (Americans). The United States may feel better if Kandahar is no longer under Taliban rule, but it is not at all obvious that the people of Kandahar agree. If anything, the evidence (the obvious lack of enthusiasm over the prospects) seems to be that they don’t want us to liberate them. So why don’t we get it?

I take no satisfaction lampooning the extraordinarily limited intellects that have gotten us into this mess and are apparently not bright enough to see their errors or how to rectify them. The death toll among American forces is up this month, and it is mostly Kandahar-related. To the extent we continue to press forward toward that city, the death toll is going to continue to rise, and will probably increase substantially, despite the fact that it is not clear that they want to be liberated, to paraphrase McChrystal. Yet, the more I think about this and the more I write about it, the more insane the entire enterprise appears.

Afghanistan is and has been a fool’s errand since the United States allowed Usama bin Laden to escape from the Tora Bora in December 2001. What we have been doing since, and particularly what we are doing now, has essentially nothing to do with the fight against Al Qaeda, the war on terrorism, or anything else that vaguely constitutes an adequate justification for expending American lives in that dreary land. It is time to declare the Aiken solution, and bring the troops home. NOW!

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!

Watching Karzai, Seeing Diem

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Diplomacy, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Historians warn us not to overgeneralize based on different events, citing the special circumstances that surround any particular event or complex of events. That warning in mind, the latest dustup between the Obama administration and its erstwhile Afgan ally (oops, “partner” according to White House spokesman David Gibbs) brings to mind a similar disagreement between the American government and its Vietnamese protege of the early 1960s, Ngo Dinh Diem. Let’s hope the analogy is inappropriate, but if it is at all accurate, it does not bode very well for the American future in Afghanistan.

For those who were not around to witness the tumultuous and ultimately disastrous relationship between the United States and Diem, a word of context may help. Diem became the president of South Vietnam after the Geneva Conference of 1954 temporarily partitioned Vietnam into a North and South Vietnam, with the 17th parallel (the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone) as its boundary. The stated (if not necessarily underlying geopolitical) intent was that the line would be temporary, a convenient way to allow the departing French to quit the country without being shot as they boarded the troop ships going home, following which unifying elections would be held. It was apparent that Ho Chi Minh would win such elections if fairly held, and since Ho was both the leading nationalist figure and a communist, the United States opposed actually holding the elections, citing North Vietamese fraud that was matched in the south. Diem, originally a transitional figure, emerged as the leader of an independent Republic of Vietnam with American backing. He was not at the time a particularly popular leader: he was, for instance, a Roman Catholic in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, and he was secretive, authoritarian, and corrupt. Moreover, he was repressive of anyone who opposed him, in the process effectively creating his own organized opposition in the form of the National Liberation Front, the military wing of which was the more familiar Viet Cong.

The United States, which opposed the communization of Vietnam, ended up adopting Diem as our ally in the anti-communist competition. It was an uneasy alliance, largely because Diem had an agenda quite different from that pursued by Washington. Most notably, he opposed land reform to transfer agricultural lands controlled by large land holders (of which the Catholic Church was a notable example). The United States realized this was the major issue that could lead to civil war and attempted to cajole or coerce Diem into initiating land and other reforms. This mostly took place behind closed doors in Saigon between Diem and American ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and the bottom line was that Diem basically ignored the requests/demands by the Americans. In late 1963, Diem was assassinated, and the rest is history.

Dial forward to today. Major American involvement in Afghanistan came in response to 9/11 ans the desire to root Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. In the process, the United States aided the victory of the Northern Alliance over the Taliban, and from this struggle, Hamid Karzai emerged as the president of the new Afghanistan. Karzai was the choice because he is a Pashtun (admittedly of the Durrani branch), and he was one of the most prominent Pashtuns in the Northern Alliance. Moreover, he was westernized, spoke excellent English and was a great public relations success in the United States (the Catholic Church helped orchestrate a campaign to establish the popularity of Diem in the United States as well).

Like Diem, Karzai brought some baggage with him. He was not a figure with whom the majority of Pashtuns identified, and his collaboration with the Northern Alliance made him suspicious as well. In the “grand” Afghan tradition, he has proven to be classically corrupt, instituting a kleptocracy in which members of his family have been notable beneficiaries. Corruption has, like land reform in Southeast Asia, been a major theme in Afghan opposition to Karzai, and the United States has publicly and privately implored him to clean up his regime’s act. Like Diem, he has issued pious rhetoric about attacking the problem but basically not done anything about it. As evidence, Americans seeking to liberate Helmand Province regularly report they fear corrupt Afghan officials as much or more than the Taliban.

Karzai has responded to pressure most recently by creating a confrontation with Washington, accusing “foreigners” (aka Americans) of causing all his problems, such as rigging the elections last year that returned him to office. You have to give the guy high marks for sheer chutzpah; could Karl Rove be acting as a consultant? Most recently, the U.S. has hinted at cancelling a state visit by Karzai to the White House in May because it is not clear there is anything to talk about; Karzai has responded that unless foreign harassment ends, he might join the Taliban himself. Yeah, right! 

  How will this end? In Vietnam, the U.S. government’s frustration led to a withdrawal of support for Diem, helping lead to his assassination (the U.S. quit paying Diem’s bodyguards, who left, paving the way to grabbing and killing him; American complicity remains debatable). The result was further destabilization, since there were no clear successors (Diem had killed or chased most alternatives into exile). Should the United States decide to dump Karzai (not an entirely bad idea prima facie), wuld the result be the same? Who knows? What is clear is that there is no obvious successor in a country that traditionally opposes central governmental control.

The analogy becomes scariest if one projects the two events into the future. Diem’s assassination was the Foreword to America’s until-then longest war (a distinction Afghanistan has already exceeded). At the time, some counselled using Diem’s fall as an excuse to wash our hands of Vietnam and come home, and they were ignored. In retrospect, that idea may have had more merit than was attributed to it at the time. The problem, of course, wasthat two arguments were used against withdrawal. One was that opposing the spread of communism was vital to America’s survival (replace communism with terrorism here). The second was that we already had so much investment that we could not walk away (no substitution needed).  Would the same thing happen if the U.S. jettisoned Hamid Karzai? The idea is certainly tempting.