Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghan army

Time for Our Allies to Ante Up in Funding Afghan Security Forces

It’s good to hear that the Afghan government and the international community are signing off on a plan to increase the size of the Afghan Security Forces from today’s level of 266,000 soldiers and police up to 378,000 by October 2012. Such an increase is vital if Afghan forces are to have any hope of controlling their own territory. A good rule of thumb, laid out in the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, is that it takes one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians to defeat an insurgency. Given that Afghanistan has a population of 30 million, that suggests the need for 600,000 security personnel — a milestone that Iraq has already passed.

Even with 378,000 personnel, the Afghan security forces will still fall short, but remember that there are also 140,000 foreign troops in the country. Their presence (assuming that current force levels don’t fall) will bring the total to 518,000 — within shooting distance of the benchmark. That should be more than enough, at least for the time being, considering that the insurgency is isolated among the Pashtuns, who make up less than 50 percent of the population. Of course, if foreign force levels fall by the fall of 2012, the anti-Taliban coalition will find itself  hard-pressed to continue recent battlefield gains, which is another reason why it’s important that the administration and its allies not reduce their forces prematurely.

The gains in the size and effectiveness of the Afghan Security Forces are in large measure a tribute to U.S. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell and his superb team at the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan. They have brought newfound vigor and skill to the “train and assist” mission that had been lagging, along with the rest of the war effort, in past years. Their work isn’t cheap, as the Times notes:

[T]he planned increase will mean billions more in spending to train and maintain the security forces, and 95 percent of that cost is borne by the United States. Between 2003 and 2009, the United States spent $20 billion to finance the Afghan Army and police. A growing force, pay increases that were intended to retain soldiers and police officers, and the costs of improved training and equipment drove the total to $9 billion in 2010, and $11.6 billion is budgeted for this year.

But that’s still a lot cheaper than sending more American troops into harm’s way. What irritates me about the whole situation is that it is the U.S. that has to pick up the tab. Our troops are already doing the bulk of the fighting. Why don’t our rich allies — e.g., Japan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Italy, Germany, Britain — pay for more of the cost of training? Some of those countries have made sizable troop contributions; others haven’t. But the U.S. has done more than any of them in terms of fighting the Taliban directly. Why do we have to do so much more than the rest of them in financing the Afghan Security Forces too?

I should note that their failure to ante up should not be an excuse for us to walk away. This is not an act of altruism; it is very much in America’s national-security interest to have a functional and effective security force in Afghanistan to prevent a Taliban/al-Qaeda takeover. Our security perimeter runs right through the Hindu Kush. But that is also true for many of our allies who would also face severe repercussions from a Taliban takeover. They should be doing more to avert that catastrophe.

It’s good to hear that the Afghan government and the international community are signing off on a plan to increase the size of the Afghan Security Forces from today’s level of 266,000 soldiers and police up to 378,000 by October 2012. Such an increase is vital if Afghan forces are to have any hope of controlling their own territory. A good rule of thumb, laid out in the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, is that it takes one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians to defeat an insurgency. Given that Afghanistan has a population of 30 million, that suggests the need for 600,000 security personnel — a milestone that Iraq has already passed.

Even with 378,000 personnel, the Afghan security forces will still fall short, but remember that there are also 140,000 foreign troops in the country. Their presence (assuming that current force levels don’t fall) will bring the total to 518,000 — within shooting distance of the benchmark. That should be more than enough, at least for the time being, considering that the insurgency is isolated among the Pashtuns, who make up less than 50 percent of the population. Of course, if foreign force levels fall by the fall of 2012, the anti-Taliban coalition will find itself  hard-pressed to continue recent battlefield gains, which is another reason why it’s important that the administration and its allies not reduce their forces prematurely.

The gains in the size and effectiveness of the Afghan Security Forces are in large measure a tribute to U.S. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell and his superb team at the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan. They have brought newfound vigor and skill to the “train and assist” mission that had been lagging, along with the rest of the war effort, in past years. Their work isn’t cheap, as the Times notes:

[T]he planned increase will mean billions more in spending to train and maintain the security forces, and 95 percent of that cost is borne by the United States. Between 2003 and 2009, the United States spent $20 billion to finance the Afghan Army and police. A growing force, pay increases that were intended to retain soldiers and police officers, and the costs of improved training and equipment drove the total to $9 billion in 2010, and $11.6 billion is budgeted for this year.

But that’s still a lot cheaper than sending more American troops into harm’s way. What irritates me about the whole situation is that it is the U.S. that has to pick up the tab. Our troops are already doing the bulk of the fighting. Why don’t our rich allies — e.g., Japan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Italy, Germany, Britain — pay for more of the cost of training? Some of those countries have made sizable troop contributions; others haven’t. But the U.S. has done more than any of them in terms of fighting the Taliban directly. Why do we have to do so much more than the rest of them in financing the Afghan Security Forces too?

I should note that their failure to ante up should not be an excuse for us to walk away. This is not an act of altruism; it is very much in America’s national-security interest to have a functional and effective security force in Afghanistan to prevent a Taliban/al-Qaeda takeover. Our security perimeter runs right through the Hindu Kush. But that is also true for many of our allies who would also face severe repercussions from a Taliban takeover. They should be doing more to avert that catastrophe.

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Shift in Momentum in Afghanistan

I am soon heading to Afghanistan to see for myself how the war effort is progressing, but in the meantime I note several news accounts that give a sense of cautious optimism. That doesn’t include the reports this morning that high-level negotiations with the Taliban are starting and are being facilitated by NATO forces. There have been stories along those lines for years, and they haven’t gone anywhere, because the Taliban have no serious incentive to negotiate until they see that they are losing the war on the ground.

In that connection, it is interesting to read the assessment of a French general that the situation has improved dramatically in his area of operations in eastern Afghanistan. He even claims that Afghan troops will be ready to take responsibility for this once-dangerous area by next summer. Is he right? Who knows? But it does indicate that things are moving in the right direction in at least one important area.

That is also the assessment of retired Gen. Jack Keane — one of the architects of the Iraq surge — who has just returned from Afghanistan and reports: “There are already some early signs of a beginning of a momentum shift in our favor.”

New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, a former Marine, also notes progress in training Afghan security forces:

Two main training sites — the Kabul Military Training Center, used principally by the Afghan Army, and the Central Training Center, used by the police — have become bustling bases, packed with trainers and recruits, and there is a sense among the officers that they are producing better soldiers than before.

The military center has been graduating 1,400 newly trained soldiers every two …. The ratio of instructors to students has gone from one for every 79 trainees in 2009 to one for every 29, officers at the center say, suggesting that the new police officers and soldiers are getting more attention than in years past. The soldiers are paid better and desert less often, officials say.

Another interesting data point comes from this report that coalition air strikes are up 172 percent: “Last month, NATO attack planes dropped their bombs and fired their guns on 700 separate missions, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. That’s more than double the 257 attack sorties they flew in September 2009, and one of the highest single-month totals of the entire nine-year Afghan campaign.” That should help allay the concerns of those who worry that U.S. forces are so handicapped by rules of engagement that they can’t take the fight to the enemy. In fact, tight rules are necessary to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties, but these statistics suggest that American airpower is still being used effectively to help win the fight. There has also been a less-publicized increase in Special Operations raids, which are taking a nightly toll on the Taliban’s leadership.

I would caution against reading too much into any of this. It’s still early days, the full complement of surge forces having arrived in Afghanistan only last month. There is much hard fighting ahead, and many setbacks are certain. But at least there is now a sense that the war may be moving, however haltingly and slowly, in the right direction.

I am soon heading to Afghanistan to see for myself how the war effort is progressing, but in the meantime I note several news accounts that give a sense of cautious optimism. That doesn’t include the reports this morning that high-level negotiations with the Taliban are starting and are being facilitated by NATO forces. There have been stories along those lines for years, and they haven’t gone anywhere, because the Taliban have no serious incentive to negotiate until they see that they are losing the war on the ground.

In that connection, it is interesting to read the assessment of a French general that the situation has improved dramatically in his area of operations in eastern Afghanistan. He even claims that Afghan troops will be ready to take responsibility for this once-dangerous area by next summer. Is he right? Who knows? But it does indicate that things are moving in the right direction in at least one important area.

That is also the assessment of retired Gen. Jack Keane — one of the architects of the Iraq surge — who has just returned from Afghanistan and reports: “There are already some early signs of a beginning of a momentum shift in our favor.”

New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, a former Marine, also notes progress in training Afghan security forces:

Two main training sites — the Kabul Military Training Center, used principally by the Afghan Army, and the Central Training Center, used by the police — have become bustling bases, packed with trainers and recruits, and there is a sense among the officers that they are producing better soldiers than before.

The military center has been graduating 1,400 newly trained soldiers every two …. The ratio of instructors to students has gone from one for every 79 trainees in 2009 to one for every 29, officers at the center say, suggesting that the new police officers and soldiers are getting more attention than in years past. The soldiers are paid better and desert less often, officials say.

Another interesting data point comes from this report that coalition air strikes are up 172 percent: “Last month, NATO attack planes dropped their bombs and fired their guns on 700 separate missions, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. That’s more than double the 257 attack sorties they flew in September 2009, and one of the highest single-month totals of the entire nine-year Afghan campaign.” That should help allay the concerns of those who worry that U.S. forces are so handicapped by rules of engagement that they can’t take the fight to the enemy. In fact, tight rules are necessary to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties, but these statistics suggest that American airpower is still being used effectively to help win the fight. There has also been a less-publicized increase in Special Operations raids, which are taking a nightly toll on the Taliban’s leadership.

I would caution against reading too much into any of this. It’s still early days, the full complement of surge forces having arrived in Afghanistan only last month. There is much hard fighting ahead, and many setbacks are certain. But at least there is now a sense that the war may be moving, however haltingly and slowly, in the right direction.

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The War in Afghanistan: Where We Are Now

We have reached a key juncture in the Afghanistan war. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have spent the last year getting the right “inputs” in place, meaning getting the structures right, putting the best leaders in charge, developing the right concepts, providing the authority and resources necessary, and so forth. We are now at the very early stages of the “output” phase, with a counterinsurgency (COIN) offensive in Helmand province that began in February and a forthcoming offensive in Kandahar. This campaign will unfold over the next 18 months or so and will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the war.

As we enter this new phase of the war — with, for the first time, a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy in place — it’s important to understand the situation on the ground, including public sentiment, which is a crucial component of a successful COIN strategy.

A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Shaping the War in Afghanistan: The Situation in the Spring of 2010,” provides useful information, much of it culled from other recent reports and surveys (like the Department of Defense’s April report on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan and an analysis of public opinion in Afghanistan conducted by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD).

Among the encouraging data points:

  • After steep declines in recent years there’s been a 30-point advance in views that the country is headed in the right direction; 70 percent now say so, the most since 2005. Afghans’ expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there’s been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.
  • Seventy (70) percent say living conditions are better now than they were under the Taliban.
  • Sixty-eight (68) percent of Afghans continue to support the presence of U.S. forces in their country – and nearly as many, 61 percent, favor the coming surge of Western troops initiated by President Obama.
  • There’s been a 14-point gain from last year, to 83 percent, in the view among Afghans that it was right for the United States to invade and overthrow the Taliban just more than eight years ago. And the number of Afghans who say attacking Western forces can be justified has dropped sharply, from 25 percent a year ago to 8 percent, a new low. (It jumps to 22 percent in the South – but that’s half of what it was there a year ago.)
  • President Karzai’s performance rating is only 40 percent in Helmand but 72 percent in the rest of the country – making him, by my count, more popular in Afghanistan than President Obama is in America.
  • Afghans confidence in their government reached a new high (since polling started in September 2008). Between September and March of 2009, Afghan confidence in the national administration increased by six percentage points to 45 percent, confidence in the provincial governor increased by five percentage points to 47 percent, and confidence in the district governors increased by six percentage points to 44 percent. When asked if the government was heading in the right direction, 59 percent of Afghans responded “yes.” This represents an increase of eight percent over the previous September 2009.
  • In March 2010, 30 percent of Afghans believed that the government was less corrupt than one year prior while 24 percent believed that it was more corrupt.

On the other side of the ledger:

  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)
  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.)
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)

It’s quite a mixed picture, then — but since the beginning of 2009, a low-water mark, we’ve seen an increase in the performance ratings of the Afghan army, the Afghan government, Hamid Karzai, and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The CSIS report also documents the rising intensity of the fighting, the increase in IED attacks, opium-poppy-cultivation trends, the growth in the (licit) GDP, and the growing strength of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (the ANA has largely exceeded its recruiting goals between 2009 and 2010 and now includes more than 112,000 Afghans; the ANP now counts more than 102,000 Afghans in its ranks). And according to the most recent Department of Defense report, 52 percent of Afghans believe insurgents are the greatest source of insecurity, while only 1 percent believes the National Army/Police are primarily to blame. In the words of the DoD report: “This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perception of the government.”

In the end, increasing the legitimacy of the government will be key as to whether the war has a successful outcome. Nobody understands this better than David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Stay tuned.

We have reached a key juncture in the Afghanistan war. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have spent the last year getting the right “inputs” in place, meaning getting the structures right, putting the best leaders in charge, developing the right concepts, providing the authority and resources necessary, and so forth. We are now at the very early stages of the “output” phase, with a counterinsurgency (COIN) offensive in Helmand province that began in February and a forthcoming offensive in Kandahar. This campaign will unfold over the next 18 months or so and will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the war.

As we enter this new phase of the war — with, for the first time, a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy in place — it’s important to understand the situation on the ground, including public sentiment, which is a crucial component of a successful COIN strategy.

A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Shaping the War in Afghanistan: The Situation in the Spring of 2010,” provides useful information, much of it culled from other recent reports and surveys (like the Department of Defense’s April report on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan and an analysis of public opinion in Afghanistan conducted by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD).

Among the encouraging data points:

  • After steep declines in recent years there’s been a 30-point advance in views that the country is headed in the right direction; 70 percent now say so, the most since 2005. Afghans’ expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there’s been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.
  • Seventy (70) percent say living conditions are better now than they were under the Taliban.
  • Sixty-eight (68) percent of Afghans continue to support the presence of U.S. forces in their country – and nearly as many, 61 percent, favor the coming surge of Western troops initiated by President Obama.
  • There’s been a 14-point gain from last year, to 83 percent, in the view among Afghans that it was right for the United States to invade and overthrow the Taliban just more than eight years ago. And the number of Afghans who say attacking Western forces can be justified has dropped sharply, from 25 percent a year ago to 8 percent, a new low. (It jumps to 22 percent in the South – but that’s half of what it was there a year ago.)
  • President Karzai’s performance rating is only 40 percent in Helmand but 72 percent in the rest of the country – making him, by my count, more popular in Afghanistan than President Obama is in America.
  • Afghans confidence in their government reached a new high (since polling started in September 2008). Between September and March of 2009, Afghan confidence in the national administration increased by six percentage points to 45 percent, confidence in the provincial governor increased by five percentage points to 47 percent, and confidence in the district governors increased by six percentage points to 44 percent. When asked if the government was heading in the right direction, 59 percent of Afghans responded “yes.” This represents an increase of eight percent over the previous September 2009.
  • In March 2010, 30 percent of Afghans believed that the government was less corrupt than one year prior while 24 percent believed that it was more corrupt.

On the other side of the ledger:

  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)
  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.)
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)

It’s quite a mixed picture, then — but since the beginning of 2009, a low-water mark, we’ve seen an increase in the performance ratings of the Afghan army, the Afghan government, Hamid Karzai, and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The CSIS report also documents the rising intensity of the fighting, the increase in IED attacks, opium-poppy-cultivation trends, the growth in the (licit) GDP, and the growing strength of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (the ANA has largely exceeded its recruiting goals between 2009 and 2010 and now includes more than 112,000 Afghans; the ANP now counts more than 102,000 Afghans in its ranks). And according to the most recent Department of Defense report, 52 percent of Afghans believe insurgents are the greatest source of insecurity, while only 1 percent believes the National Army/Police are primarily to blame. In the words of the DoD report: “This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perception of the government.”

In the end, increasing the legitimacy of the government will be key as to whether the war has a successful outcome. Nobody understands this better than David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Stay tuned.

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Soothing Karzai

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.

The worst thing the administration can do in response is to hit back in an unseemly public tit-for-tit. Better to work quietly behind the scenes with Karzai, trying, as General McChrystal is, to bolster his standing as a legitimate and popular war leader while also working to improve governance at the cabinet, provincial, and district levels. To some extent, Karzai is an obstacle to lower-level progress, especially when he keeps in power his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose notorious dealings in Kandahar are a major drawing card for the Taliban. But as Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan note, Karzai is not all bad:

Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.

The worst thing the administration can do in response is to hit back in an unseemly public tit-for-tit. Better to work quietly behind the scenes with Karzai, trying, as General McChrystal is, to bolster his standing as a legitimate and popular war leader while also working to improve governance at the cabinet, provincial, and district levels. To some extent, Karzai is an obstacle to lower-level progress, especially when he keeps in power his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose notorious dealings in Kandahar are a major drawing card for the Taliban. But as Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan note, Karzai is not all bad:

Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.

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Progress in Marjah

The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:

On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:

Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they’re just out of recruit training.  So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.

The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.

None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.

The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:

On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:

Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they’re just out of recruit training.  So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.

The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.

None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

A must-read new blog, Bad Rachel, is off with a bang, examining a study of Pashtun men in the Afghan army. “If through the good offices of our military—especially our women soldiers—we could help Afghani women unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.”

Obama doubles down on his George W. Bush buck-passing, repeating Eric Holder’s line that the Obama administration is treating terrorists just as its predecessor did. (No mention of the terrorists who were treated as combatants under Bush, and no word on why Obama’s not using the military-tribunal system put into place since many of the Bush-era terror cases.) Then the real double-talk starts: we got “actionable intelligence” from the Christmas Day bomber, the president says. But then why was he telling the American people that this was an “isolated extremist” in the days after the bombing? Something sure doesn’t add up.

Bill Kristol reminds us: “Robert Gibbs said to you right here at this desk, right here in snowy Washington, D.C., Chris, where you’re — you seem to have escaped from and enjoying nice weather there in Nashville — Gibbs said to you, what, two days after the Christmas bomber, ‘We got everything we needed from him.’ Do you remember that? There’s no — 50 minutes of interrogation with the FBI. That was great. Now — that was their spin then. Their spin now is, ‘Oh, it’s great. He’s talking again. He’s giving us lots of useful information.’ Which is it? Robert Gibbs was not telling the truth one of those two times. … When you have a White House that’s spinning constantly, they’re going to be criticized and they deserve to be criticized.”

Bill Sammon explains: “And Kit Bond was pretty direct, the senator saying the FBI director personally told him, ‘Look, the guy is talking to us again after five weeks but we got to keep that quiet. If that gets out, that could compromise national security.’ Because, of course, the intelligence that you’re getting from the guy is perishable. It’s actionable. And you don’t want to be blabbing to the world that the guy’s talking. So what happens? Twenty-four hours later, you have this unseemly spectacle of the White House press operation hurriedly summoning reporters to the West Wing to trumpet, ‘Guess what? He’s talking again! He’s talking again!’”

In case you thought it was very hard to get the federal budget under control: “Republican senator George LeMieux of Florida has done the math. If government spending were reduced to its 2007 level, we’d have a balanced budget (with a $163 billion surplus). Returning to the 2008 level of spending, the budget would be balanced in 2014 (a $133 billion surplus). And in both cases, that’s while keeping the Bush tax cuts across the board and indexing the loathed alternative minimum tax for inflation.”

Illinois Democrats had enough of this: “The ex-girlfriend who accused Democratic Lt. Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen of threatening her with a knife said Saturday she ‘does not believe he is fit to hold any public office.”” Only a week after the nomination: “Embattled Democratic Lieutenant Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen said Sunday night he’s dropping out of the race. ‘For the good of the people of [the] state of Illinois and the Democratic party I will resign,’ he said.”

Arlen Specter gets the endorsement of the  Pennsylvania Democratic party. But Democrats there don’t seem to like him all that much.

The Washington Post gives a blow-by-blow account of Sarah Palin’s appearance — her physical appearance, that is — at the Tea Party Convention. I can’t imagine them doing the same in the case of, say, Tim Pawlenty. One noteworthy observation: “In her lapel, a small pin with two flags — for Israel and the United States.”

Here’s a good bipartisan issue for conservatives to get behind: “The Obama administration is reaching out to business-friendly Democrats to win support for free-trade policies that divide the party. The effort is part of President Barack Obama’s push on trade that was launched with his State of the Union address. Obama said he wanted to double exports over the next five years as part of an effort to grow the U.S. economy.” If nothing else, it will annoy Big Labor.

A must-read new blog, Bad Rachel, is off with a bang, examining a study of Pashtun men in the Afghan army. “If through the good offices of our military—especially our women soldiers—we could help Afghani women unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.”

Obama doubles down on his George W. Bush buck-passing, repeating Eric Holder’s line that the Obama administration is treating terrorists just as its predecessor did. (No mention of the terrorists who were treated as combatants under Bush, and no word on why Obama’s not using the military-tribunal system put into place since many of the Bush-era terror cases.) Then the real double-talk starts: we got “actionable intelligence” from the Christmas Day bomber, the president says. But then why was he telling the American people that this was an “isolated extremist” in the days after the bombing? Something sure doesn’t add up.

Bill Kristol reminds us: “Robert Gibbs said to you right here at this desk, right here in snowy Washington, D.C., Chris, where you’re — you seem to have escaped from and enjoying nice weather there in Nashville — Gibbs said to you, what, two days after the Christmas bomber, ‘We got everything we needed from him.’ Do you remember that? There’s no — 50 minutes of interrogation with the FBI. That was great. Now — that was their spin then. Their spin now is, ‘Oh, it’s great. He’s talking again. He’s giving us lots of useful information.’ Which is it? Robert Gibbs was not telling the truth one of those two times. … When you have a White House that’s spinning constantly, they’re going to be criticized and they deserve to be criticized.”

Bill Sammon explains: “And Kit Bond was pretty direct, the senator saying the FBI director personally told him, ‘Look, the guy is talking to us again after five weeks but we got to keep that quiet. If that gets out, that could compromise national security.’ Because, of course, the intelligence that you’re getting from the guy is perishable. It’s actionable. And you don’t want to be blabbing to the world that the guy’s talking. So what happens? Twenty-four hours later, you have this unseemly spectacle of the White House press operation hurriedly summoning reporters to the West Wing to trumpet, ‘Guess what? He’s talking again! He’s talking again!’”

In case you thought it was very hard to get the federal budget under control: “Republican senator George LeMieux of Florida has done the math. If government spending were reduced to its 2007 level, we’d have a balanced budget (with a $163 billion surplus). Returning to the 2008 level of spending, the budget would be balanced in 2014 (a $133 billion surplus). And in both cases, that’s while keeping the Bush tax cuts across the board and indexing the loathed alternative minimum tax for inflation.”

Illinois Democrats had enough of this: “The ex-girlfriend who accused Democratic Lt. Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen of threatening her with a knife said Saturday she ‘does not believe he is fit to hold any public office.”” Only a week after the nomination: “Embattled Democratic Lieutenant Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen said Sunday night he’s dropping out of the race. ‘For the good of the people of [the] state of Illinois and the Democratic party I will resign,’ he said.”

Arlen Specter gets the endorsement of the  Pennsylvania Democratic party. But Democrats there don’t seem to like him all that much.

The Washington Post gives a blow-by-blow account of Sarah Palin’s appearance — her physical appearance, that is — at the Tea Party Convention. I can’t imagine them doing the same in the case of, say, Tim Pawlenty. One noteworthy observation: “In her lapel, a small pin with two flags — for Israel and the United States.”

Here’s a good bipartisan issue for conservatives to get behind: “The Obama administration is reaching out to business-friendly Democrats to win support for free-trade policies that divide the party. The effort is part of President Barack Obama’s push on trade that was launched with his State of the Union address. Obama said he wanted to double exports over the next five years as part of an effort to grow the U.S. economy.” If nothing else, it will annoy Big Labor.

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A Slice, and Only a Slice, of Reality in the Afghan National Army

YouTube has posted this clip about the Afghan army, which was made by Guardian Films, an affiliate of the ultra-left-wing Guardian newspaper in Britain. It is generating considerable chatter in the blogosphere because it presents a dire picture of the state of the Afghan National Army training as seen through the eyes of a Marine Embedded Training Team. As one Marine says: “You walk into a whole squad of ANA smoking hashish. They don’t understand that the use of drugs — it affects the way that they accomplish their mission. Soldiers come out without helmets, soldiers come out missing a lot of gear.” This has become, predictably, fodder for opponents of the war effort to claim that General McChrystal’s mission is hopeless.

A little perspective is in order. Similar videos could have been made about the Iraqi army a few years ago, or even certain Iraqi units today. Nevertheless the Iraqis have come a long way toward taking charge of their own security, and there is no reason the Afghans cannot make similar progress. In fact, some units of the Afghan National Army are already far along. Many of their soldiers show commendable courage in taking on the Taliban without the kind of equipment or support that U.S. troops take for granted. The unit featured in the video clip was undoubtedly suffering from lack of good leadership — a real problem but hardly unfixable. It simply requires time, training, and mentoring to improve the quality of the Afghan army.

It is also important that we not hold the Afghans to impossible standards. The Marines in the video are clearly disgusted by the idea of soldiers smoking hash before going on a combat patrol. They should realize that the current sobriety of the U.S. armed forces is the exception, not the norm. Throughout history — including American history — most soldiers have partaken of intoxicating spirits on campaign (remember the rum ration?), and no doubt many were drunk or half drunk or at any rate a little tipsy when going into battle. I imagine that, being Muslims, most of these ANA soldiers don’t drink; hash is their version of the rum ration.

It’s not ideal, but it’s not exactly unprecedented, and not a reason to write them off as hopeless. I would bet plenty of Taliban are stoned when they go into battle too; certainly that was true of many insurgents in Iraq. The difference is that they don’t allow Western journalists to film them toking up.

We can’t expect many Third World militaries to meet the standards of the 21st century U.S. armed forces. Heck, even many American soldiers don’t meet the high standards that are demanded of them. Anyone who has spent any time in the field knows that booze, while prohibited, is pretty common on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. So are other rules infractions, including those regarding “fraternization” (i.e., sexual relations). And while the average quality of American units is extraordinarily high, a few are deeply troubled and could be subject to a Guardian exposé of their own.

In sum, the Guardian clip presents a slice of reality, not all of reality. It should not be dismissed, nor should it be given the last word. Until now, the U.S. and its allies have not made a really intensive effort to improve the quality and size of the Afghan security forces — certainly not on the scale of our efforts in Iraq. Such an effort is just now getting under way. For instance, salaries are just now being raised to pay Afghan soldiers wages comparable to those of the Taliban. Let us reserve judgment for a few years and see how the Afghan army does then.

YouTube has posted this clip about the Afghan army, which was made by Guardian Films, an affiliate of the ultra-left-wing Guardian newspaper in Britain. It is generating considerable chatter in the blogosphere because it presents a dire picture of the state of the Afghan National Army training as seen through the eyes of a Marine Embedded Training Team. As one Marine says: “You walk into a whole squad of ANA smoking hashish. They don’t understand that the use of drugs — it affects the way that they accomplish their mission. Soldiers come out without helmets, soldiers come out missing a lot of gear.” This has become, predictably, fodder for opponents of the war effort to claim that General McChrystal’s mission is hopeless.

A little perspective is in order. Similar videos could have been made about the Iraqi army a few years ago, or even certain Iraqi units today. Nevertheless the Iraqis have come a long way toward taking charge of their own security, and there is no reason the Afghans cannot make similar progress. In fact, some units of the Afghan National Army are already far along. Many of their soldiers show commendable courage in taking on the Taliban without the kind of equipment or support that U.S. troops take for granted. The unit featured in the video clip was undoubtedly suffering from lack of good leadership — a real problem but hardly unfixable. It simply requires time, training, and mentoring to improve the quality of the Afghan army.

It is also important that we not hold the Afghans to impossible standards. The Marines in the video are clearly disgusted by the idea of soldiers smoking hash before going on a combat patrol. They should realize that the current sobriety of the U.S. armed forces is the exception, not the norm. Throughout history — including American history — most soldiers have partaken of intoxicating spirits on campaign (remember the rum ration?), and no doubt many were drunk or half drunk or at any rate a little tipsy when going into battle. I imagine that, being Muslims, most of these ANA soldiers don’t drink; hash is their version of the rum ration.

It’s not ideal, but it’s not exactly unprecedented, and not a reason to write them off as hopeless. I would bet plenty of Taliban are stoned when they go into battle too; certainly that was true of many insurgents in Iraq. The difference is that they don’t allow Western journalists to film them toking up.

We can’t expect many Third World militaries to meet the standards of the 21st century U.S. armed forces. Heck, even many American soldiers don’t meet the high standards that are demanded of them. Anyone who has spent any time in the field knows that booze, while prohibited, is pretty common on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. So are other rules infractions, including those regarding “fraternization” (i.e., sexual relations). And while the average quality of American units is extraordinarily high, a few are deeply troubled and could be subject to a Guardian exposé of their own.

In sum, the Guardian clip presents a slice of reality, not all of reality. It should not be dismissed, nor should it be given the last word. Until now, the U.S. and its allies have not made a really intensive effort to improve the quality and size of the Afghan security forces — certainly not on the scale of our efforts in Iraq. Such an effort is just now getting under way. For instance, salaries are just now being raised to pay Afghan soldiers wages comparable to those of the Taliban. Let us reserve judgment for a few years and see how the Afghan army does then.

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Get On with It

Jackson Diehl points out that the decision on an Afghanistan-war policy isn’t really as difficult as the Iraq challenge that George W. Bush faced when “there was no clear way forward.” For one thing, there was no precedent of an Iraq surge precedent to look at. But Obama has plenty of data, the experience of Iraq, and the best military team ever to wrestle with such issue already in place. For all the whining and protestations from the Obami that this is such a hard decision, it really isn’t. Diehl observes:

On Afghanistan, in contrast, there is unanimity in the Pentagon and considerable agreement in Congress and among the NATO allies. The consensus says that Afghanistan cannot be abandoned anytime soon; that efforts to build up the Afghan army and strengthen both national and local governance must be redoubled; that U.S. forces must aim to ensure security for the Afghan population, at least in the country’s biggest cities. Almost everyone agrees that accomplishing all those aims will require at least some additional American and NATO troops.

And really, are we to believe that Obama knows that the “right” number is 34,500 troops and not 40,000? We are down to quibbling about specific numbers, a matter on which the president possesses no particular expertise or insight. One comes away with the sense that either Obama’s arrogance knows no bounds (he alone can determine the precise number of troops) or he is incapable of firm decision-making and oblivious to his being perceived as a vacillator. As Diehl notes: “It’s an image that risks undermining any commitment Obama eventually makes. In the end, it’s not enough for a president to be seen as having thought through a decision to send more troops to war. Enemies, allies and the country also need to be convinced that he believes in it.” Right now, it’s hard to discern what Obama believes.

Jackson Diehl points out that the decision on an Afghanistan-war policy isn’t really as difficult as the Iraq challenge that George W. Bush faced when “there was no clear way forward.” For one thing, there was no precedent of an Iraq surge precedent to look at. But Obama has plenty of data, the experience of Iraq, and the best military team ever to wrestle with such issue already in place. For all the whining and protestations from the Obami that this is such a hard decision, it really isn’t. Diehl observes:

On Afghanistan, in contrast, there is unanimity in the Pentagon and considerable agreement in Congress and among the NATO allies. The consensus says that Afghanistan cannot be abandoned anytime soon; that efforts to build up the Afghan army and strengthen both national and local governance must be redoubled; that U.S. forces must aim to ensure security for the Afghan population, at least in the country’s biggest cities. Almost everyone agrees that accomplishing all those aims will require at least some additional American and NATO troops.

And really, are we to believe that Obama knows that the “right” number is 34,500 troops and not 40,000? We are down to quibbling about specific numbers, a matter on which the president possesses no particular expertise or insight. One comes away with the sense that either Obama’s arrogance knows no bounds (he alone can determine the precise number of troops) or he is incapable of firm decision-making and oblivious to his being perceived as a vacillator. As Diehl notes: “It’s an image that risks undermining any commitment Obama eventually makes. In the end, it’s not enough for a president to be seen as having thought through a decision to send more troops to war. Enemies, allies and the country also need to be convinced that he believes in it.” Right now, it’s hard to discern what Obama believes.

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