Archive for Obama administration

If Israel Attacks Iran, Options Get Worse!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, Obama foreign policy with tags , , , on February 10, 2012 by whatafteriraq

Scenarios about the growing possibility that Israel will attack Iran in was would very likely be a feckless attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons program and more or less permanently to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability were discussed in this space earlier this week (“Israel, Iran, and the United States”) and generally concluded both that such anattack was becoming increasingly likely and that it does not serve U.S. interests. This column takes the analysis a step forward, with the purpose of trying to answer the hypothetical (at least for the moment) question of what happens after such an Israeli strike occurs. As the title suggests, the attractiveness of post-attack options for the United States are unpromising.

The heart of the speculation that follows is what does Iran do in response to an attack? In a literal sense, of course, we do not and cannot know in advance, and neither do the Iranians or the Israelis, which is why it is an exercise in speculation. The reader can disagree with the premises here, and I cannot refute them with facts not in hand; the same is true for my arguments against counter scenarios.

Two things seem safe to presume, however. First, if Israel attacks Iran, the Iranians will respond, almost certainly violently. They will have no choice for both domestic and international political reasons, and whatever they do will receive less criticism than their policy actions before such an attack occurs. Second, the nature, severity, and reactions to an Iranian counterattack will depend on the nature, extent, and effects of an Israeli raid. The more extensive and, presumably, effective an Israeli attack is, the larger the probable responses by the Iranians will likely be.

If it cannot restrain the Israelis in the first place (the fairly clear intent of the Obama administration), the United States will not have many options in dealing with Iranian responses. There will be international sympathy for the Iranians that does not exist now, because they will have been the victim of aggression under the provisions of the UN Charter, and the more dead Iranians (especially civilians) the raid produces, the more widespread sympathy will be, even among Arabs who the Israelis maintain actually approve of the general idea of punishing the Iranians and defanging their nuclear potential. The American post-attack position is thus conmpromised in that support for Israel in effect sanctions an illegal act of aggression that results in the deaths of innocent Iranians. The degree to which the United States will further be compromised depends on how complicit this country was in the attack in the first place: the more we were involved, the more we will fall within the blanket of condemnation. Possibly the most we can do is to warn eveyone–especially Iran–quietly that their retaliation cannot threaten Israeli existence. Doing so will not, of course, please either the Israelis or their more dogmatic supporters in the United States.

If an attack occurs, the Iranians will have several response options, depending on how extensive the attack was. The sronger the response, of course, the less it serves U.S. interests.

1. If the attack is small and the effects minor (in other words, if it fails from an Israeli viewpoint), they can simply complain about the act of aggression and use it as leverage to lift international sanctions against it. In the process, they will almost certainly blame the United States for helping to plan and execute the raid, with reminders of U.S. perfidy toward Iran in cases like Operation Ajax (the 1953 CIA operation that overthrew Iran’s only popularly elected government) and the shoot down of an unarmed Iranian commercial airliner in the late 1980s.

2. Since the Israeli attack is likely to be more successful than that (or the Israelis wouldn’t do it), then the responses begin to escalate. At a minimum, they would include additional resources to Hezballah in the form of additional rockets that will coming raining down on Israel. The Israelis will complain that these are unprovoked, and hardly anyone will believe them internationally (escept the political right in the U.S.). An Israeli raid equals more “terrorist” attacks against Israel.

3. Depending on the level of success the Israeli attack achieves, there are two additional actions the Iranians can contemplate. The first would be retaliatory air strikes against the Israelis. Such a response would possess symmetry to the Israeli raid, and given that they were responses to the original Israeli action, regimes that normally do not support Iran (such as Jordan) would likely not object to Iranian overflight to reach Israeli targets. The Israelis would, of course, object loudly both to the provisions of those rights and the attacks, raising the prospects of escalation to a broader conflict that could involve the region.

4. Ultimately, Iran could begin a retaliatory campaign intended or with the side effect of causing an escalation to general war in the Middle East against Israel. Hardly anyone wants to see this or argues it is very probable, but once the dogs of war are unleashed, they are sometimes hard to control.

None of these options, and counter responses to them, serve any visible U.S. interests. The cessation of the Iranian nuclear program would serve such an interest, but it is one of the most unlikely outcomes, and only becomes less implausible as the scale of the Israeli attack and thus the likely virulence of the Iranian response expands. The larger that response becomes, the more difficult the problem of U.S. responses becomes. Success on one objective makes other objectives (e.g. regional stability) more problematical.

Israel and many of its supporters seek to deny what Iran will (or may) do in reaction to an Israeli attack, and they may be right. No one can know for sure, but it is counterintuitive to believe that a chauvinistic, paranoid, authoritarian Iran will take an attack lying down. They will respond somehow, and one or more of the options suggested here seems reasonable. Each option puts the United States in an increasingly untenable position of defending Israel from a retaliation many around the world (including many who dislike Iran and oppose their nuclear weapons effort) will feel is either justified or understandable. In these circumstances, the U.S. can shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, or it can side with the rest of the world. It is not a happy set of options.

The only way to avoid something like these dynamics is to avoid and, to the extent possible, prevent an Israeli attack in the first place. That is what the Obama administration is doing, and the radical right is condemning this as limp-wristed and inadequately supportive of our ally Israel. They are wrong!

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Israel, Iran and the United States: All Options Are Bad!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on February 7, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The growing confrontation between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear weapons program is spinning perilously out of hand, and it has within it the seeds of the most potentially dangerous threat to international peace since the Cold War ended over 20 years ago. What we are witnessing is a verbal ran-up to a military conflict between the Middle East’s only nuclear power (Israel) and its most militant, populous state (Iran). It is a conflict that would serve no one’s interests, would only result in a worse situation–possibly catastrophically so–for all parties, and in which the extremely emotional basis of the conflict is driving all sides, including the United States, to consider essentially irresponsible acts that endanger the country’s national security interests in dangerous way. All of this is occurring in a presidential election year (probably no coincidence) in which cool analysis and action is undermined by hot electoral rhetoric aimed at grabbing votes at the possible endangerment of this country’s interests and safety. It needs to be stopped now, before it gets any worse.

Consider the situation in terms of three steps and their possible consequences. The steps are the pre-war confrontation, the Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (an event which, if it happens at all, will almost surely occur before the November election in the United States), and the Iranian response. All put the United States in an untenable, negative sum situation where, regardless of what we do, we will come out on the short end of the stick.

Start with the pre-war present. There are two salient features to consider. The first are Israeli threats that demand, in essence, that Iran stop and reverse its alleged weapons program (which, of course, the Iranians deny exists) before it proceeds any closer to a weapons outcome. The Israelis argue that if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, they will use it against Israel, making the threat a truly existential one against them. Their assessment may be right or wrong, but there can be no doubt that the Neyanyahu government believes this scenario to be the case and from that perspective, a preemptive strike against Iran can make sense. That its consequences could be dire to Israel matters less from this perspective because Israel will suffer in either case. An attack is essentially taking an eye for an expected eye, and national existence is the stake. No Masada this time; the Israelis will go down swinging, if they go down.

This puts the United States, as the protector and guarantor of Israel, in a terrible position that the campaign rhetoric is only making worse. The Obama administration says it is “working” with Israel to defuse the crisis, which effectively means they are trying everything they can think of to try to keep the attack from occurring, at least partly because they recognize that if the Israelis launch a raid, all regional bets are off and that the worst case is a general Middle Eastern war that serves no one’s interests, and especially not the interests of the United States. GOP presidential contenders, on the other hand, are falling all over themselves and one another courting the Jewish vote in the United States by favoring unrestricted support for whatever Israel  decides to do. The most extreme view is held by Newt Gingrich, who summons the Holocaust to argue that anything less would be immoral.

The U.S. has essentially three options if an Israeli attack decision is unavoidable. None of them is especially good. They are:

 1. Full support for any attack the Israelis carry out, which can include actions of differing severity. The U.S. can participate in the raid in varying ways, such as providing air cover for the Israeli bombers heading for Iranian nuclear sites; we can provide satellite reconnaisance (which we undoubtedly already do) for the Israelis, including warnings of Iranian countermeasures; we can supply special ordnance (deep penetrating bombs) to the Israelis to penetrate underground facilities (the Israelis do not themselves have such a capability); or, at the greatest extreme, we can participate with U.S. bombers dropping bombs. The more involved we are, of course, the more we will be caught up in the wake of international reactions to the attack.

2. We can acknowledge Israeli plans, say we understand but don’t fully support their actions on any of a variety of grounds, BUT warn sternly that we will not allow a response by Iran that would endanger Israeli existence. We would still be blamed for not preventing the attacks, but the criticism would be more muted, and we would uphold our pledge to guarantee Israeli existence. Critics, however, would argue that is not enough.

3. We can tell the Israelis, very publicly, that they are on their own if they attack, although we will protect them from an existential response. This option, regardless of its merits, would be political suicide in an election year (part of why the Israelis, who realize this, will probably act before the November election).

Options 1 and 2 are the only really domestically viable options, but both of them tie the U.S. to the Israeli attack, and that has consequences. Rationalizations notwithstanding, an Israeli strike would be an act of military aggression–an act of aggressive war–that is illegal under international law and the UN Charter, which Israel signed, making the action illegal under Israeli law as well. Calling it “preemptive” does not aid legality, because acts of preemption are only justifiable under IL when a hostile act that they prevent is imminent (e.g.an enemy’s army massing on your border); the Israeli attack does not rise to that level. Thus, the United States indirectly supports violating international law by supporting the Israelis. The U.S, has, of course, done so in the past–the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance–but the world will at least rhetorically line up against an aggression. Moreover, the Russians and Chinese will undoubtedly co-sponsor at Security Council condemnation of the aggression, and the U.S. will be left with the unpleasant choices of supporting Israel in the face of overwhelming global disapproval or, as it did in 1956 at the time of the Suez War, of condemning the action of a close ally. Once again, electoral politics may require thumbing our noses at the world. Moreover, if the Israelis do attack, they will not be able to take out the Iranian program entirely, instead only setting it back, while Israeli attacks will take its toll in civilian casualties (collateral damage) that will only add to condemnation of the attacks. Anyone who can see some good in this for United States interests beyond some votes in the presidential election, is seeing something this observer does not.

As if that was not enough, an Israeli attack will trigger some very violent form of Iranian counterattack with equally or even more dangeous potential consequences for the U.S. and the region. Those possibilities, none of which are desirable from a U.S. viewpoint, will be the subject of the next column. All the options are bad!

Happy Holidays from Baghdad!

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Depressingly, it has not taken long for things to begin to show signs of unravelling in Iraq. Less than a week after the last American combat vehicle passed the frontier into Kuwait, the first crisis has emerged. It is no surprise that things are coming undone, of course; this blog has been part of a chorus for some time arguing that things would turn bad in that country after the United States and regardless of when the United States leaves. The only surprise is how fast the fissures have reopened; one would have hoped the partisans would at least have waited until after the eggnog was drunk and the presents under the tree opened. But that clearly was not meant to be.

The source of the fissure has been the newest dispute between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s regime and the highest elected Sunni in the country,Tariq al-Hashemi, head of the al-Iraqiya party. The focus of the dispute is Shiite accusations that Hashemi and his associates engineered the murders of numerous Shiites, a charge that Hashemi says are both false and politically motivated, arguing that in making these accusations Maliki “pushes things in the direction of no return.” Not trusting the police and courts in Baghdad, Hashemi has taken refuge in Kurdistan, which has offered him effective asylum and which he uses as a platform from which to excoriate the Maliki government. His basic argument is that the charges are politically motivated, untrue, and that he could not receive a fair trial in Baghdad with its pro-Shiite, pro-Maliki courts that do not, in his words, offer adequate “transparency.”

This dispute highlights two of the most basic sources of division in Iraq that many of us have argued since before the 2003 invasion provided more than adequate reason not to invade in the first place. The heart of the disagreement is an entirely predictable confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, the basic religious divide in Islam. The net effect of 8 1/2 years of American involvement in Iraq has been to shift power from a tyrannical Sunni dictator to what is increasingly looking like a Shiite dictator–an absolutely predictable outcome of our insistence on one-man,one-vote “democracy” is a country that is over 60 percent Shiite. Now that whatever restraint our presence had on the competition has been removed, the Sunnis and Shiites are fighting again. What a surprise!

The other dimension is territorial, the division between the Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq along ethnic and territorial lines. Although supporters of the war were always loath to admit it, Iraqi Kurdistan has been a de facto independent states for several years now, with very little Baghdad jurisdiction over what goes on there. The fact that Hashemi would seek refuge in Kurdistan and that the government would feel the need to negotiate about the Kurds turning him over rather than simply arresting him in what is, after all, officially part of Iraq tells you everything you need to know about the territorial integrity of the country. Until some agreement is reached on the division of oil revenues in the country, this status quo will continue. It is probably true that the only reason Kurdistan has not declared formal independence is strong opposition from surrounding countries with contiguous Kurdish minorities who would probably move to join such a state. Turkey, with the area’s largest and most formidable armed forces heads the lists of opponents which could, unlike the government in Baghdad, establish its sway over the Kurdish region if adequately incited to do so.

All this is playing out without great notice in the United States. The crisis emerging over the holiday season probably explains part of this–as most of us are more concerned about old Saint Nick than we are about Iraq. Indeed, the Obama administration may have made sure all the troops were out before Christmas because it knew things would blow up and wanted that to occur when we were not paying attention.

The only American politician who seems to have noticed is John McCain, whose response has been entirely predictable, arguing that the fault lies with the Obama administration for removing all the troops when it did. His argument, which he seems to apply most everywhere, is that if we kept a military presence in Iraq, it would not be blowing up today. The same argument was used in Vietnam, but misses the point that regardless of how long we stay, the divisions are going to remain and will boil over whenever our departure occurs. The Iraqis, on the other hand, realize that now that we are gone, we are not coming back, so they can revert to form.

Anyone who can make a straight line projection of the current dust up to the final outcome in Iraq has either been drinking too much eggnog or eggnog spiked with illegal substances. The current brouhaha is, more likely, simply the opening chorus of a much longer and more traumatic outcome, the exact nature of which is impossible to predict. What is safe to suggest is that it will not work out the way that George Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, et. al. predicted back in the early summer of 2003.

Merry Baghdad to all, and to all a good night!

Goldilocks and Afghanistan: How Big a Withdrawal?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama’s stated promise to begin the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by July 2011, a commitment he made when he committed 30,000 additional troops to the war early in his presidency, is coming near. The major question is how large a withdrawal he will order, and what the consequences of whatever size drawdown he chooses, will be. He is, of course, suffering from no shortage of advice on what his decision should be, much of it tinged liberally with partisan political and iedological/strategic underpinnings. When one thinks about the prospects, an analogy between the situation and Goldilocks assessment of the three bears’ porridge may not be inappropriate.

What to do about Afghanistan has, unsurprisingly in this era of foreign policy hyper-partisanship, become a political fight that divides those who support continuing the war and those who do not (the latter being the preference of the majority of Americans in polling results). The arguments against the war–and thus for a large withdrawal that is the first step toward a total pullout (at least of ground combat forces)–tend to come from liberal Democrats, although parts of their arguments appeal more broadly. Supporters of the war and thus opponents of any substantial troop withdrawal tend to be conservative Republicans who believe either that the mission is too vital to be abandoned or compromised or who believe there has been adequate progress that a successful conclusion may be within reach. 

The two positions deserve at least some elaboration. The opponents, whose chief spokesman increasingly is Massachusetts senator John Kerry (chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic nominee for president in 2004), make at least three separate arguments for pulling back. The first is that the United States cannot afford to continue to drop $10 billion a month into Afghanistan given current economic conditions at home. The expenses are particularly odious because they are inflated by the costs of “nation-building” associated with the Petraeus strategy of counterinsurgency, a cost that could be reduced with a smaller commitment with smaller troop numbers. Second, they argue the situation can be handled with a more concentrated effort aimed at the remnants of Al Qaeda, which requires neither large numbers of “muddy boots” on the ground nor the levels of financial resources currently being expended. Third, the scaling back is further justified by the successful elimination of Usama bin Laden (and subsequently his heir apparent), leaving the terrorist organization is some level of disarray. Not so openly discussed are the further assumptions that the war is probably unwinnable under any circumstances and that the Karzai government does not really warrant continuing American support (part of the reason the war is unwinnable).

Supporters, of course, disagree with this assessment. Their arguments are most sharply made by active participants in the war itself, notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Petraeus. Both of these officials have argued that progress has been made but that it is, in a phrase first used by Petraeus but adopted by Gates, “fragile and reversible.” The heart of the argument is that real progress is being made and that a precipitous drawdown would endanger what has been accomplished. In Gates’ own words, “Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away kust as the enemy is on its back foot.” In an interview with 60 Minutes, Gates drew a football analogy, warning against abandoning the field when the U.S. was on the enemy’s “two-yard line.” Critics, of course, find these descriptions of progress to be overblown.

It may be instructive that neither Gates nor Petraeus will be in their positions as the decision, whatever it may be, is being implemented. Leon Panetta, the current Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), has already been nominated to replace Gates as Secretary of Defense, and when questioned by senators (notably John McCain) about whether he agreed with the Gates assessment in confirmation hearings, he was noticeably circumspect in his answers. Petraeus has been tapped to replace Panetta to head an agency that has historically had a more jaundiced view of the Afghan adventure; his appointment also takes the general off the hook as the commander of what may be a sinking ship.

So what will the president decide? As usual in the hyper-partisan atmosphere that dominates Washington, it is a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” set of choices. He cannot avoid withdrawals altogether, because to do so would be politically too injurious, reneging on a public promise and alienating his natural constituent base on the left. He cannot order a massive withdrawal, because doing do runs the risk of the entire enterprise going south before the 2012 election, and certainly inflaming the core of the GOP right. That leaves him with options inside the extremes, ranging from a token to a moderate to a sizable reduction. So what will the President choose to do?

The pressures are both strategic and political. Strategically, it boils down to a dichotomy that favors the extremes. If the war is important, progress is being made, and a favorable outcome is within reach (essentially the Gates argument), then it makes sense to continue and thus order only a token reduction (say 10,000 of the 30,000 added previously by Obama). If who governs Afghanistan is not important to the U.S., progress is not really being made, and the prospects are endlessly indecisive, then it makes equal sense to cut our losses and get out as fast as possible. Thus, a maximum withdrawal is the answer. The problem is that there is not great agreement on any of the conditions (importance, progress, end state), making a decisive strategic decision difficult to make.

The political pressures all point to the 2012 election. What decision will most help/least hurt the president’s reelection prospects? Since almost no one publicly argues the war will be over (especially favorably) between now and then, the question is what action today will have the least injurious effects on the election then? Since we cannot ramp up an instant victory, that means adopting an approach that will result in the smallest possible losses and, most critically, that insures the situation will not have visibly deteriorated between now and election day 2012. That suggests a moderate withdrawal–enough not to look entirely like a token, but not enough to throw the situation into peril. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a porridge that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. How does a reduction of 15-20,000 sound?

“Resetting” the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , on December 12, 2010 by whatafteriraq

It comes as no revelation to report that the efforts of the Obama administration to move the on-again, but mostly off-again peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is currently going nowhere. Cynicism and pessimism has set in on both sides of the equation suggesting that neither the Israelis or Palestinians are willing or able (or both) to make the kinds of concessions necessary to vitalize the talks (people like to talk about revitalizing them, but when were did they ever have real life?). Over sixty years after the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors (as they were originally designated, not as Israel and Palestine), both sides are deeply suspicious of the motives and sincerity of the other regarding meaningful and acceptable bargains. These perceptions are probably largely correct on both sides.

The Obama administration, with George Mitchell as the not very sharp tip of the spear, has been trying to move the situation toward the two-state solution in some form, with a cessation of additional building and the willingness to abandon some or all Israeli “settlements” on the West Bank as its centerpiece.

The problem is, and has been, that although majorities (smaller in Israel, except among Israeli Arabs) on both sides support a “two state for two peoples” solution, neither can agree on exactly what the parameters of such a deal would entail. The devil is decidedly in the details. Moreover, the political winds regarding solutions are shifting as well. In an article in the current edition (December 2010) of Current History, for instance, Tamar Hermann details these changes, which include a vast weakening of Israeli political parties and a movement to the political right generally among Israelis. The right, of course, has formed the basic opposition to movement toward a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, at least on terms the Palestinians are likely to accept. Within that has become an almost institutionalized atmosphere of distrust and cynicism on both sides, the result has been an enormous inertial force that the Obama administration has proven unable to start moving.

Inertia, of course, serves the purposes of those on the political right in Israel, at least in the short run. The electoral base of Igvador Lieberman’s Beit Yisreal is based on settler (especially immigrant settler) support, which opposes a Palestinian state and backs expanded settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares opposition to negotiating away the West Bank because, as Hermann puts it, “Israel’s control of the occupied territories is in Netanyahu’s view justified by two equally important arguments: the Jews’ historical claim to the promised landand the constant existential threats that faces them.” The validity of these arguments is almost beside the point; the point is that these positions are now the Israeli positions and ones from which the leadership is not likely to budge. The Americans (and certainly the Palestinians) may not like this,but there is little they can do short of threatening a breach of relations with Israel, a position that is politically untenable in the United States.

It is within this setting that a confident Netanyahu has suggested a “reset” of the terms of negotiation between the parties. This position starts from the premise that fundamental territorial adjustments (e.g. abandonment of all or most West Bank settlements) is no longer a viable basis for an agreement, and that some other basis (a “reset”) must form that basis. Neither the Obama administration or the Palestinians are exactly ecstatic about this position, but there it is.

Among the more innovative proponents of a reset has been Lieberman, the controversial Israeli foreign minister. He has suggested, for instance, the cessation of a small amount of occupied territory to the Palsetinians that would leave the larger and more prominent settlements intact. In particular, he suggests ceding an area near the old pre-1967 border within Palestine known as the Triangle and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jeruslaem into the Palestinian state. According to Sergio DellaPergola (also writing in the December 2010 Current History), the Triangle contains an Arab population of 300,000 and 275,000 Arabs live in East Jerusalem, thus adding nearly 600,000 Arabs to the Palestinian state.

Lieberman’s proposal has not gained great traction. Other Israelis consider the ceding of any part of Jerusalem unacceptable, and Palestinians counter that it still leaves much too much of the West Bank under Israeli occupation and control. It is probably as great a concession as the current Israeli government might be willing to make, and it looks like it is not enough.

There seem to be two realities at work here, neither of which bode well for progress toward peace. One is that the current framework for negotiations is not working, mostly because neither of the main proponents truly wants the framework to succeed (or is unwilling to take the steps to make it work, which in effect is the same thing). The other is that some alternative base–a “reset”–appears to be needed to get the talks moving, and nobody has found an acceptable reset button. The simplest and, applying the principle of Occam’s Razor, most likely reason is because neither side wants a permanent settlement worse than the present situation. Until that changes, pushing reset buttons will continue to be an exercise in futility.

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.

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.