Archive for Pakistan

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.


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.

Think Again: Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Like many other people who are opposed to the current waqr in Afghanistan, I am constantly amazed at some of the arguments used to justify our continued futility there. To try to reconcile these, I have decided to borrow the “Think Again” format from Foreign Policy to answer a few of the arguments supporters make. This material, I should add, was previewed during a talk I gave last week to the “Hilton Head for Peace” group on Hilton Head Island, SC.

1. We had to go into Afghanistan.

Well, yes, but! It is true that it was entirely justifiable in October 2001 to attack and eradicate Al Qaeda, a task at which we failed because of the inadequate commitment of resources that were withheld to help prepare for tthe idiotic invasion of Iraq. Since the Taliban was shielding Al Qaeda, one can even justify helping tip the ongoing civil war with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban to make our assault on Al Qaeda easier. Once that mission was accomplished/failed, however, the rationale for sticking around–especially for nine years and counting–to prop up the Karzai government is not only less compelling, but basically indefensible.

2. A favorable outcome is vital to American interests in Afghanistan and the region.

Well, that depends on which interests one is discussing, and since these possible interests tend to contradict one another, some distinction is necessary. If we are talking about interests in Afghanistan itself beyond keeping it from being an Al Qaeda refuge (which, given the worldwide dispersal of Al Qaeda, is a questionable goal), what interests? We also have interests in Pakistan (the world’s sixth most populous country–with nuclear weapons), and it isn’t clear how the war is helping there. And then there is Iran, which can only benefit from America being tied down in an increasingly unpopular war in the region.

A corollary assertion here is that the failure to remain in the country and “win” (see number four) is that we make the sacrifices of those who have died in Afghanistan meaningless if we do not stay. Does anyone but me remember Richard Rovere’s Vietnam book, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” named for an old Delta work song (“Waist deep in the big muddy, and the damned fool said to go on…”)? How the meaningless sacrifice of more American lives and treasure for no discernible benefits honors those who have already been sacrificed constitutes an argument that absolutely eludes me.

3. If we don’t stop the terrorists there, we will have to stop them here.

Absolute drivel and nonsense. What is the evidence to support this contention? The simple fact is there isn’t any and that this is just part of the right-wing scare tactic to get us to support this particular paranoid belief. Rather, one can make a much stronger case that our continued actions in Afghanistan makes attacks on the U.S. more, rather than les, likely, because they are motivating Afghans (who, up to now, have noticeably absent from terrorist ranks) to seek revenge against us for the damage and suffering we are (admittedly inadvertently) wreaking on Afghan civilians. Since they cannot seek direct retribution there, the argument increasingly heard is they feel we should be forced to suffer the same wrongs. This is really an argument for leaving, not staying.

4. If we persevere, we can win.

No we can’t. First, what do proponents mean by “win”? They generally won’t say, wither because they have no idea what winning there means (John McCain), or they realize that any objective definition is unobtainable. As I have said before in this space, outsiders do not win civil wars, which is what the war in Afghanistan is about. Last week’s Nation magazine listed four conditions that made the case in Afghanistan why we can’t prevail: 1) there are complex regional and ethnic differences we can’t overcome; 2) there is a long tradition of successful resistance to occupation there; 3) there is a tradition of decentralized tribal government that we can’t supplant; and 4) the country is susceptible to outside interference (by Iran, Pakistan, and India). The best we can hope for is a return to number 3), which is hardly what most of us would consider victory.

5. It is worth the cost.

You have to be kidding. The cost is astronomical (so much so that it is generally obfuscated), but can someone measure the benefits? I have never seen a serious accounting of the benefits of this war. Is it the mineral riches recently discovered under Afghanistan? If it is in reducing terrorism, the numbers are particularly hard to compute and are almost certainly negative. Countering terrorism is never cost-effective at the margins (the costs of countering terrorist initiatives can almost always be negated by the terrorists at substantially lower costs). This does not even address the very real questions of whether we can afford this war regardless of the benefits, given the state of the U.S. economy. Government economies that do not require participation by the defense/military establishment are pure sophistry.

6. If we leave the results will be disastrous.

Poppycock. I heard David Gergen, the quintessential pundit with no obvious foreign policy credentials, make this argument recently. The heart of it, familiarly enough, is that if we were to leave precipitously, it woud indelibly harm American prestige and the willingness of others to trust us in the future, and that Afghanistan would go to hell in a haybasket if we leave. This argument seems to ignore the counterargument that our totally feckless, quixotic current efforts are at least as damaging as admitting we can’t win and cutting our losses (as the Russians and British have been telling us for years), and it is not at all clear that the Taliban are not going to “take over” a loosely governed Afghanistan in the long run, regardless of what we do.

One could go on, but I will close with a thought borrowed from Mark Twain/Groucho Marx, both of whom have had attributed to them the quote, “I would’t belong to any organization that would have me as a member.” In the current international environment, a useful paraphrase for the U.S. government might be, “I wouldn’t intervene in any country that would invite me.”

Bombing Al Qaeda

Posted in Afghanistan, Global War on Terror, International Terrorism, Pakistan, Yemen with tags , , , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The contest against Al Qaeda (the “war on terror”) has moved to Yemen, where a franchise of the original organization, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has set up shop and is organizing and dispatching terrorist missions against the United States (Ft. Hood, the Christmas underwear bomber) and apparently Great Britain, resulting in their upgrading of their terrorist alert level to the American equialvent of an “orange” alert. The question is, what to do about it?

In one sense,as noted last week, this is not an entirely new problem: Al Qaeda has been present in Yemen for awhile, and the United States and others have been investing in helping the Yemenis to beef up their capability to deal with this sort of problem. They have done so without great apparent enthusiasm, since anti-Americanism is alive and quite healthy in the desert country. Moreover, Yemen is geographically one great big Badlands of deserts and barren mountains, both of which provide protection for AQAP activities.

The first reaction by some Americans, of course, has been to send in the Marines (or Army), but our forces are more than occupied in those other “fronts” of the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, so there really aren’t any spare troops just lying around waiting to be deployed. Sending assets to aid in Haitian relief only empties the availability of forces reservoir a bit more. Conterterrorism and antiterrorism efforts continue quietly by the intelligence and law enforcement assets of the U.S. (the CIA, FBI, and ICE), but those efforts are below the public radar. What can be done dramatically to address the situation?

The likely American response, in the U.S. tradition for half a  century or more, is to bomb them. Traditionally, of course, that meant dispatching the Air Force from friendly bases in the region (such as they exist) or launching airplanes or cruise missiles from aircraft carriers floating around the region. Increasingly, of course, the weapon of choice, available both to the military and the CIA, is the use of pilotless Predator drones armed with precision munitions.

Is this a good idea? Certainly, it has its attractions. For one thing, it is something we can do, and the simple fact of responding has a certain feel-good aspect to it. Second, it is an action that can be undertaken without engaging and thus further stressing American ground assets, who are not involved in such actions (other than the occasional use of Special Forces as spotters). Third, while overflying Yemen (or anywhere else) violates the sovereignty of the air space through which we fly, the violation is nowhere nearly as great as if ground forces are involved. Granted, the Pakistanis have complained so much that the United States no longer officially attacks Al Qaeda targets in the frontier areas any more, and the Yemenis have politely informed the U.S. not to send Predators over their soil, as they prefer attacking AQAP themselves (they would not mind being sold or given a few Predators of their own to do this). Nonetheless, the option is at least partially available. Finally, Predator air strikes are comparatively cheap, certainly more so than ground forces.

There are, however, some problems. First, it is not at all clear how effective these attacks are against the opponent. The United States has, after all, been trying to kill Usama bin Laden for nine years this way, and we have yet to succeed. Second, it is not clear that such attacks do not make matters worse rather than better. Whenever the U.S. has attacked supposed hostile targets in the region in the past (including Pakistan and Afghanistan), the result has been fairly considerable (depending on whose accounts one believes) collateral damage: the killing of innocent civilians who just happen to be in the area under attack.

The 2007 Counterinsurgency Manual (Army FM 3-24, Marine Warfighting Document 3-33.5) warns specifically about the problems this creates (Appendix E-5): “Bombing…can cause unintended civilian casualties. Effective leaders weight the benefits of every air strike against its risks. An air strike can cause collateral damage the turns people against the host-nation (HN) government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory.” In addition, the survivors of these attacks often become prime recruitment targets of the survivors. There is little reason to believe that aerial bombardment kills more Al Qaeda than the recruits it creates.

What to do about AQAP–and wherever the next Al Qaeda cell pops up–is not an easy task. “Bombing them back to the stone age,” in Curt LeMay’s charming entreaty, may sound macho and feel good, but it is not clear that it does not do more harm than it causes. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail as an anti-AQAP response is honed.

Obama’s Wing and a Prayer

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Obama foreign policy, Pakistan with tags , , , on December 3, 2009 by whatafteriraq

On Tuesday night, President Obama announced his new “strategy” for Afghanistan. It held few surprises, just disappointments. The President’s rhetoric soared, as usual. The content did not. Instead, he sent the country down the road with a series of assumptions and plans that can be called, at best, a wing and a prayer.

For the President’s plan to have any chance whatsoever of succeeding, two things must happen in Afghanistan, and one in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the 30,000 additional American troops must prove capable of blunting the Taliban’s success in numerous parts of the country (mostly the Pashtun east and south) and change the war’s momentum away from the insurgents and toward the government. In addition, The Karzai government must, with U.S. assistance, rapidly expand an Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) capable of picking up the fight and succeeding. In Pakistan, the government must act to crush the Pakistani Taliban and assure that the Afghan Aaliban have no safe haven to which they can return. There is every reason to believe none of this will work, particularly in the 18-month time frame the President laid out as the exit point for the beginning of the removal of American forces.

The additional 30,000 U.S. troops will increase the physical American commitment to about 100,000, more or less the equivalent of Soviet strength in the 1980s. The idea is that additional troops will allow American to clear and hold areas, thereby increasing security and beginning the conversion of Afghans away from the Taliban. In current conditions, we have been able to clear but not hold, meaning efforts at conversion have been handicapped, since Afghans knew the Americans would leave and Taliban would return to punish collaborators. Secured areas can then be turned over to the ANSF.

What’s the problem here? It is, as pointed out repeatedly in this space, that foreign troops cannot perform the function of changing political loyalties away from the Taliban to the government. No matter how hard we try and how good we are at our mission, we are, and always be OUTSIDERS, and that means the ENEMY, to many we seek to “save.” That fact is fundamental and means the chances of success are very nearly zero on this count.

The second part is the rapid expansion of the ANSF with the infusion of additional American trainers. The development of the ANSF has been painfully slow and arguably ineffective for reasons that only partly have to do with the number of Americans doing the training. The real problems have included lack of support for the government, the belief the ANSF is basically an anti-Pashtun force, and the incredible corruption in the country, to say nothing of Taliban intimidation of recruits. More U.S. forces cannot improve that situation and suddenly turn a ramshackle process into a marvel of inefficiency. If anything, the rapid expansion of the ANSF will probably mean a lot of Taliban will join and act as spies against the ANSF’s operation, as happened in Vietnam with the ARVNs. If the ANSF cannot be enlargened and invigorated, there will be no one to hand the secured areas to.

Forcing the Pakistanis to alter their basic military efforts toward the Taliban (who, it must be remembered, they created in the first place) is similarly fraught with uncertainty and will, if early reactions are any indication, meet with resistance. Messing up or antagonizing the Pakistanis is not exactly what we have in mind in the region.

If clear and hold does not  change the political landscape in Afghanistan and the ANSF cannot be magically transformed into a force that can take care of the country themselves, then the whole strategy falls apart. The President acknowledged this possibility when he said that the military situation on the ground, and military commanders’ assessments of those conditions, would guide decisions regarding the July 2011 target to begin withdrawing American forces.

Let’s hope the President and his aides are right in their assessments and that the strategy is in fact more substantial and more likely to succeed than I have suggested here. From where I sit, however, it really does look like little more than a wing and a prayer.

The Long Road Ahead in Afghanistan, II

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , , , on September 15, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The last posting opened with the question of what was between the United States and attaining its goals in Afghanistan. To pose and frame the question, a “formula” of sorts was put forward to describe the process and barriers to reaching the desired end (Goal Attainment=Successful COIN+Successful State-Building). In the first posting, questions were raised about whether the goals the United States (or any other outsider) and the indigenous population (the Afghans) might be incompatible, and why. It concluded that incompatibilities might exist and need to be reconciled. It left off with two dimensions of the goal question: whose goals are more important to them? and whose goals should prevail? This posting attempts to clarify those concerns.

In an internal war in which an outsider has intervened, there are almost certainly going to be three different sets od preferred outcomes, or Better States of the Peace (BSOP), as defined in Part I. The government against which the insurgency is aimed has one set of goals, paramount amongst which is its own survival (without which no other goal has much meaning). The insurgency has the opposite goal of toppling the government and replacing it with its own government. Like the government’s goal, this vision of the BSOP is generally quite singular and resistant to compromise: there can, at the end of the day, only be one government.

The third BSOP is that of the intervening third power. Part of its goal is the preservation of whichever side it assists (generally the government), but it may have other goals as well. In Vietnam, for instance, the United States wanted the South Vietnamese to prevail and maintain their control, but it also was acting out of a desire to stem the spread of communism in the world. The two were, of course, related, in that the success of the counterinsurgency in preventing a Norrth Vietnamese takeover would help stem the spread of communism. In Afghanistan, the other U.S. goal is the destruction of Al Qaeda, which a successful counterinsurgency will presumably facilitate by denying Al Qaeda an Afghan sanctuary.

The success of one or another set of goals is affected by the natural of insurgent war. Internal, civil wars are inherently desperate affairs for the internal sides. The outcome is almost always the victory of one side (government or insurgents) at the expense of the other, and the consequences for the losers are potentially very bleak, up to and including their own physical extinction.

The insurgents may have the advantage in this grim calculation of motivations. In some cases, the government is able to insulate itself from the potential deadly effects of losing by padding their own wealth, usually at the expense of the national treasury, so that they can flee into comfortable exile if their side loses. The top leaders in South Vietnam did this, and there are some indications that members of the Karzai regime may be looting the till to prepare for a similar exit. For the insurgents, there is a good chance that they will not be able to escape the country should their side lose (the possibility of the Taliban slinking back across the border into Pakistan is a partial exception).  At the level of supporters of both sides, the likelihood is great that they will have to endure whichever BSOP prevails, and the consequences of the wrong side winning can add to their desperation and their resolve to avoid an untoward outcome.

Civil wars, in other words, are total wars in the sense that the outcomes involve who rules and how, and this involves fundamental political questions. It also means that internal elements, and especially the insurgents, will take the whole affair very seriously, and will likely be willing to incur considerable hardhips and privations. In language used in From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond, their cost-tolerance (the willingness to endure privation to achieve ends) is likely to be quite high.

The situation is different for intervening parties. For outsiders, the situation is neither so desperate nor the outcomes so stark as they are for the indigenous parties. The internal losers will suffer the consequences of their loss personally; the intervening party will leave physically intact, and the major post-war impacts will be psychological in terms like national pride upheld or injured, depending on the outcome.

For the outsider, these wars are limited in the sense that the intervening party’s government will not be overthrown nor its society fundamentally disrupted regardless of the outcome. The United States supported the losing side in Vietnam and withdrew to watch its side lose. Vietnamese on our side left behind suffered greatly, but Americans did not. In Afghanistan, if the American side loses, the Al Qaeda problem may increase, but that will simply make that problem more difficult, not fundamentally different.

What this means is that an outside intervening party will almost always have a lower cost-tolerance than the indigenous sides, because the outcome is simply not as important to it as it is to the natives. Indigenous populations come to understand this imbalance of importance, and insurgents will seek to exploit it. Insurgents are almost always militarily weaker in a material sense than the interveners, but because of the desperate nature of their cause, their cost-tolerance is almost always higher. The secret is thus to find a way to exceed the intervening party’s cost-tolerance, and the way to do this is generally to convince the outsider that staying around and enduring pain and hardship is simply not worth it. More on this in the next segment.

This leaves the question of whose goals should prevail? It must start from the recognition that there is a profound internal disagreement within countries experiencing internal wars, or those wars would not exist. Insurgent movements do not prosper in conditions of good, fair, and popularly supported government. They do emerge when governments are tyrannical, incompetent, corrupt, and venal. Thus, the first element in determining who should win is who, based on the kind of governance it proposes or has been administering, deserves to win. This is often a difficult question to answer, since the government has a track record (probably bad) and the insurgents have not previously governed and are thus an unknown quantity (this is, of course, not true of the Taliban, who have their own record of mismanaging Afghanistan). Still, who should win is rarely a clearcut matter, although it will be depicted as such.

Outsiders, of course, will always portray the side they support as virtuous and the side they oppose as undesirable, at a minimum. Such depictions are almost always going to be oversimplifications of what are generally very complex, difficult assessments. One always looks for the “side of the angels” to support; it may be that there are more demons than angels on all sides.

This abstract discussion should indicate that figuring out what is the goal to be attained in a counterinsurgency is not a simple matter, since goals will contrast fundamentally. In the end, some side’s goals are almost certainly going to be served at the expense of someone else’s. The fact that the outcomes are very important to some participants and potentially less important to others will affect whose BSOP prevails.

The next element of the formula is the question of prevailing in the insurgency-counterinsurgency contest itself, and this question has both military and political dimensions, the discussion of which will begin in the next post.

NOTE: OBAMA the HERICLITEAN HISTORIAN. The September 15 New York Times contained a story in which President Obama dismissed comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan. He is quoted as saying: “Each historical moment is different. You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.” The quote is Hericlitean in the sense that it follows the Greek philosopher Hericlitus’ observation that change is constant: the river is never the same at two points in time, because different water is flowing through it. It is an historian’s observation that events are unique and that there is thus a limited ability to generalize from and apply lessons from one experience to another. Taken too literally, however, it suggests that we can learn nothing from history that can inform the present and future. Such an assumption denies the very basis of education, which is vicarious experience (learning from other’s experiences rather than having to learn everything from scratch by experiencing it personally). I doubt that the President taught that historical precedent is unimportant in constitutional law since the historical “river” in always different.

Running Start in the Middle East

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Diplomacy, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama is showing he clearly is a man full of surprises. His first week in office has proceeded with breath-taking speed across the board. Some of it–executive orders on stem-call research and new ethics standards, for instance–were fairly predictable, as has been his jawboning and arm twisting on the economic stimulus package.

Where he caught most of us off-guard was in his appearance at the State Department the second day of his tenure. Being there rather than the Pentagon as a first foreign affairs stop had obvious symbolic significance for a State Department that was widely ignored for the last eight years, and the staffers could hardly contain their ebullience at the sight of the Commander-in-Chief on their turf. The visit also sent very strong and positive vibes throughout the system about the elevated place of Secretary Clinton in the new order. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is on the record approving the reassertiveness of State in the foreign policy process; in all likelihood, a whole lot of “purple suit” colonels on the Joint Staff have been muttering their displeasure at this turn of events.

The real surprise, and source of hope, was the President’s announcement of a major initiative toward the Middle East with his appointment of former Senator George Mitchell to head the effort toward reaching an accord between Israel and the Palestinians and former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to head up efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both of these appointees are men of impeccable credentials and high stature; the fact that the President made this very public announcement on the second day in office elevates their importance in the Obama administration order of priority. President Obama is clearly serious about trying to do what his predecessors have been unable to do in Palestine/Israel and what has yet to be tried in Afghanistan and Pakistan: produce peace agreements to stabilize both areas.

Will their efforts succeed? It is, of course, too soon to tell, and past experience counsels caution. If either of these situations was easy to solve, they probably already would have been solved (even by the Bush administration). A few tentative comments are, however, possible.

The appointment of Mitchell changes the American face toward Israel and Palestine. For the last eight years, the Bush administration was the virtual shill of the Israeli government of the moment, meaning the Palestinians and their allies could not trust American efforts to bring about a balanced peace. Mitchell’s resume is broad and includes negotiation of the peace in Northern Ireland, making him a force to be reckoned with; the fact that his mother is Lebanese is likely to be a plus in reestablishing some sense of respect among the Islamic states. Israel can no longer count on the United States mimicking and promoting the Likud line. That in itself is a positive step if the goal is a durable peace–and particularly a last, desperate attempt at a two-state solution.

Although I am not privy to their deliberations, I would assume that the Likud supporters of Bibi Netanyahou must be less than ecstatic at this turn of events. With elections in Israel next month in which Netanyahou has been the presumptive favorite, the Likud advocacy of a Greater Israel–which operationally means populating more and more of the West Bank that is supposed to be the Palestinian state–is now in some jeopardy. As I have argued previously, a reversal of the settlement policy (contracting, not expanding the number of settlements and settlers) is a sine qua non for a two-state solution. Without it, the prospects are dead. Obama says he favors the two-state outcome: something has to give.

The appointment of Holbrooke is similarly momentous. Holbrooke is a very smart, skilled, and determined negotiator. He is not someone with whom one trifles without likely paying the price. While it is not certain how or where he may lead negotiations, one thing is absolutely clear. The sheer ego of Richard Holbrooke will insure that this is not a negotiation that will be allowed to slip into obscurity. Holbrooke has a well earned freputation for erascibility that may serve him very well in his current job. Whether it can lead to a reconciliation with the Pashtuns and Taliban against Al Qaeda (the ideal outcome) is open to question. Whether it will be relegated to the back burner is not; Holbrooke will not allow that to happen.

This is all exciting and unexpected territory for us all. Keep tuned.