Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghan Security Forces

Partisan Gridlock Could “Devastate” Troops

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”

And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.

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Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”

And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.

Moreover, the contingency funds are also used to support Afghan security forces. A 15 percent cut in their ranks—soon to be 350,000—could result in the layoff of 52,000 soldiers and police. That is a huge number and could tilt the balance of power in favor of the Taliban in critical areas even as Afghan security forces are being asked to step into the lead. One consequence would be that the remaining U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would be in greater danger and could suffer higher casualties.

It is hard to imagine a more ill-advised idea than cutting funds for troops in combat—yet that is what will happen unless Congress can somehow agree on an alternative before Dec. 31. That seems increasingly unlikely to happen, however, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems intent on extracting big tax increases from Republicans in return for turning off the sequester. Partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, therefore, has the potential to “devastate” our fighting men and women even as they are on the frontlines.

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Attacks in Kabul Show Taliban’s Weakness

“This is our new tactic and is indicative of our strength.”

So said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid about Sunday’s insurgent attacks in Kabul and several other locations around Afghanistan. He was more right than he intended, for the attacks showed the Taliban’s weakness rather than their strength. For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible.

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“This is our new tactic and is indicative of our strength.”

So said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid about Sunday’s insurgent attacks in Kabul and several other locations around Afghanistan. He was more right than he intended, for the attacks showed the Taliban’s weakness rather than their strength. For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible.

Just look at the casualty count: Apparently two Afghan police officers were killed in the attacks and 14 injured along with some 30 civilians. There were no reports of any serious casualties to Americans or other international forces. The attackers failed to gain possession of the Parliament building or any other target, and they were swiftly defeated by Afghan Security Forces who needed minimal assistance from coalition forces. Gen. John Allen, the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan, said: “I am enormously proud of how quickly Afghan security forces responded to today’s attacks in Kabul. They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained.”

Any imputation that the insurgents are on the verge of taking Kabul–or even seriously destabilizing it–is far off the mark. I visited the capital two weeks ago and found, as I have previously noted, that the streets are thronged with people: hardly the sign of a city under siege. I remember Baghdad in the dark days of 2006-2007 when entire neighborhoods were ghost towns. There is nothing like that going on in Kabul. That is not to deny the seriousness of the insurgency but simply to note that it is not a major, ongoing threat in Kabul. Otherwise, the residents of the capital would not feel safe to move around as freely as they do. There has not been a major insurgent attack in the capital in half a year. If this is the best the Haqqanis could do for a comeback, their efforts are indicative of the growing weakness of the insurgency and the growing strength of the security forces.

That is not to say that a positive outcome in Afghanistan is inevitable–it is anything but. However, it does indicate that if we lose, it will be because of our ardent desire to pull out–not because the Taliban have the capacity to evict us or to defeat our Afghan allies. This is so as long as they receive a reasonable amount of aid to counterbalance the aid the insurgents receive from Pakistan.

 

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Afghan Security Forces Cuts Likely to be “Catastrophic,” Warns General

Maybe it’s only because of the holiday weekend (Happy Birthday Abe! You too, George!), but this front-page article from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has caused curiously little comment. It reveals that the U.S. is developing plans to cut the Afghan Security Forces from 352,000 men today to just 230,000 in 2014 in order to save a few billion dollars in a federal budget of almost $4 trillion. The Afghan Security Forces budget, almost all of it paid for by the U.S., is currently more than $11 billion; the administration would like to reduce that figure to $4.1 billion. While the administration’s desire for cost savings is admirable (were that it extended to domestic programs!), the consequences of this decision, if it’s finalized, are likely to be “catastrophic,” as Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak warns.

Keep in mind the Obama administration is also rapidly cutting the number of U.S. troops–32,000 will be withdrawn by September, faster than commanders had recommended. That will leave 68,000 U.S. troops barring further cuts–but more such cuts are likely. The administration appears determined to withdraw all or almost all of the troops by 2014. That places a great burden on the Afghan Security Forces which are still in the process of being stood up. The current figure, of roughly 352,000, is the minimum necessary to police a country of 30 million; Afghanistan would actually be more secure if it had a force the size of the one in Iraq, where the security forces are over 600,0000.

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Maybe it’s only because of the holiday weekend (Happy Birthday Abe! You too, George!), but this front-page article from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has caused curiously little comment. It reveals that the U.S. is developing plans to cut the Afghan Security Forces from 352,000 men today to just 230,000 in 2014 in order to save a few billion dollars in a federal budget of almost $4 trillion. The Afghan Security Forces budget, almost all of it paid for by the U.S., is currently more than $11 billion; the administration would like to reduce that figure to $4.1 billion. While the administration’s desire for cost savings is admirable (were that it extended to domestic programs!), the consequences of this decision, if it’s finalized, are likely to be “catastrophic,” as Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak warns.

Keep in mind the Obama administration is also rapidly cutting the number of U.S. troops–32,000 will be withdrawn by September, faster than commanders had recommended. That will leave 68,000 U.S. troops barring further cuts–but more such cuts are likely. The administration appears determined to withdraw all or almost all of the troops by 2014. That places a great burden on the Afghan Security Forces which are still in the process of being stood up. The current figure, of roughly 352,000, is the minimum necessary to police a country of 30 million; Afghanistan would actually be more secure if it had a force the size of the one in Iraq, where the security forces are over 600,0000.

To then cut the already barely adequate number of troops and police will make it essentially impossible for the Afghan government to control its own territory barring some miraculous decision by the Taliban and Haqqani Network to discontinue their war. But why should they stop fighting when they know that in a few years most U.S. troops will be withdrawn and the Afghan Security Forces will downsize as well?

Moreover, the fighting quality and morale of the remaining Afghan forces, after what is essentially their abandonment by the West, is to be highly doubted. Add in the fact that under this plan the government of Afghanistan will have to lay off 130,000 trained security personnel. Where will they find employment in an economy that is already in rapid decline because of the loss of foreign aid? Many, it seems safe to surmise, may join the other side.

In short, Minister Wardak is not being hyperbolic in warning of catastrophe. Does anyone in Washington notice or care? The answer seems to be no. The political class, led by the president, is so bent on withdrawing from Afghanistan and reducing defense spending that no one seems to be particularly exercised by the fact that this could result in the collapse of all that U.S. troops have fought so hard to accomplish during the past decade, at such great cost to life and limb. I doubt that Lincoln and Washington, who persevered through far costlier and more politically divisive conflicts, would have approved.

 

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‘Conversing’ About Afghanistan

I had not previously suspected that Grover Norquist has quite the sense of humor. I had thought of him as a dour ideologue, but he shows hidden strains of mirth in responding to my blog post expressing skepticism about his attempts to rally a “center-right” coalition against the Afghan war. The Daily Caller quotes him as follows:

Norquist said Boot’s comments underscore the need for a real debate on America’s strategy in the Af-Pak theatre. “OK, people for whom everything is World War II haven’t read much history. Because they have no other analogies other than things they have seen from World War II movies,” he told me. “There’s got to be a better case for what we’re doing in Afghanistan than Max Boot’s. Somewhere. ‘Shut up’, he argued. It’s, you know, it’s embarrassing.”

At the same time, Norquist insisted that he is not calling for America to pull out of the war — at least not yet. “I see enough to say that I think about it, and that’s what I’ve tossed out there,” he said. “There are guys who do this for a living, and they’re focused on it, who have strong criticisms of the status quo in different places. I’m very comfortable saying this is not for free and that the benefits are not clear to me. Could we have a conversation about the cost, and please make the benefits clear to me and others?”

“When somebody says ‘I don’t want to have a conversation about [what] this costs, I don’t want to have a conversation about what the benefits are, I surely don’t want to be asked what the point of this is’. … I think they have a weak case, because I do other things in life, right? But [proponents of the war] are focused on this all day. They think they have a weak case, and that’s scary, that’s frightening. I just think we ought to have a conversation.”

I will bypass his jape about not reading “much history,” which as it happens is what I do pretty much all day, every day — it’s necessary to read a lot of history to write your own works of history, which is what I spend most of my time doing.

I am more amused by his attempt to walk away from his viewpoint. As Alana pointed out earlier, he’s not really suggesting getting out of Afghanistan, he claims; he just wants to have a “conversation” about it. As if we had not debated it before, ad nauseum. Grover may not have noticed while he was doing “other things in life,” but this conversation has been going on for quite some time, both inside and outside the administration. I am hardly “embarrassed” to debate the merits of the war effort. If he is interested in my explanation of why we can win and why we must do so, he might start by reading two COMMENTARY articles I wrote — here and here.

I am hard put to see, however, why we must revive the debate now on Norquist’s say-so. President Obama — hardly a hawk — oversaw a fairly intensive debate within the administration in the fall of 2009. The surge strategy he approved then is only now being implemented. It makes sense to wait until we see how it plays out before starting a “conversation” about a pullout. Read More

I had not previously suspected that Grover Norquist has quite the sense of humor. I had thought of him as a dour ideologue, but he shows hidden strains of mirth in responding to my blog post expressing skepticism about his attempts to rally a “center-right” coalition against the Afghan war. The Daily Caller quotes him as follows:

Norquist said Boot’s comments underscore the need for a real debate on America’s strategy in the Af-Pak theatre. “OK, people for whom everything is World War II haven’t read much history. Because they have no other analogies other than things they have seen from World War II movies,” he told me. “There’s got to be a better case for what we’re doing in Afghanistan than Max Boot’s. Somewhere. ‘Shut up’, he argued. It’s, you know, it’s embarrassing.”

At the same time, Norquist insisted that he is not calling for America to pull out of the war — at least not yet. “I see enough to say that I think about it, and that’s what I’ve tossed out there,” he said. “There are guys who do this for a living, and they’re focused on it, who have strong criticisms of the status quo in different places. I’m very comfortable saying this is not for free and that the benefits are not clear to me. Could we have a conversation about the cost, and please make the benefits clear to me and others?”

“When somebody says ‘I don’t want to have a conversation about [what] this costs, I don’t want to have a conversation about what the benefits are, I surely don’t want to be asked what the point of this is’. … I think they have a weak case, because I do other things in life, right? But [proponents of the war] are focused on this all day. They think they have a weak case, and that’s scary, that’s frightening. I just think we ought to have a conversation.”

I will bypass his jape about not reading “much history,” which as it happens is what I do pretty much all day, every day — it’s necessary to read a lot of history to write your own works of history, which is what I spend most of my time doing.

I am more amused by his attempt to walk away from his viewpoint. As Alana pointed out earlier, he’s not really suggesting getting out of Afghanistan, he claims; he just wants to have a “conversation” about it. As if we had not debated it before, ad nauseum. Grover may not have noticed while he was doing “other things in life,” but this conversation has been going on for quite some time, both inside and outside the administration. I am hardly “embarrassed” to debate the merits of the war effort. If he is interested in my explanation of why we can win and why we must do so, he might start by reading two COMMENTARY articles I wrote — here and here.

I am hard put to see, however, why we must revive the debate now on Norquist’s say-so. President Obama — hardly a hawk — oversaw a fairly intensive debate within the administration in the fall of 2009. The surge strategy he approved then is only now being implemented. It makes sense to wait until we see how it plays out before starting a “conversation” about a pullout.

Or is the war of such urgent fiscal concern that we need to pull out tomorrow? Hardly. We are spending roughly $100 billion a year in Afghanistan. Our budget deficit last year was $1.29 trillion. So even if we suddenly stopped all spending on Afghanistan, that would reduce the deficit by less than 8 percent. But of course, not even most advocates of a troop drawdown suggest that we should abandon Afghanistan entirely. Most agree we need to keep Special Operations forces there, keep trainers there to help the Afghan Security Forces, etc. So our actual savings would be considerably less than that. There are many reasons for opposing the war effort, but Norquist’s chosen argument — calling for fiscal rectitude by withdrawing — is not terribly compelling.

Nor am I convinced by a poll sponsored by the liberal New America Foundation, with which Norquist has affiliated himself, claiming that most conservatives favor drawing down our troop numbers now. I suspect this is typical of the partisan “polls” that Washington operatives like Norquist put together to make their cause du jour appear more popular than it actually is. In reality, Republicans in Congress are solidly behind the war effort; I rather doubt they do so in the face of adamant opposition from their conservative constituents. In any case, I have not seen much sign of conservative opposition to the Afghan war effort — which is why Norquist is working with the New America Foundation, not, say, the Heritage Foundation.

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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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How Afghans View Their Country Now

Is Afghanistan a lost cause? Many Americans think so. In fact, on Wednesday night in New York, I’ll be debating the motion “Resolved: Afghanistan is a lost cause” as part of the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series. (Tickets still available — see the website.) Obviously, I’ll have more to say on this subject then, but for now it’s worth noting that the Asia Foundation has just released a survey of 6,467 Afghans — and they don’t view their country as a lost cause.

Here is the survey’s major finding: “In 2010, 47% of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction. This figure has been increasing since 2008 (38%) and 2009 (42%).” By contrast, only 27% think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Insecurity remains the biggest source of concern for Afghans — cited by 44% of those who think their country is going in the wrong direction. But Afghans are happy with improvements in their economic situation: “More Afghans say they are better off now than a year ago in all domains, particularly in terms of the financial wellbeing of their household.”

Another major source of satisfaction for those who think Afghanistan is moving in the right direction is the performance of their government:

Satisfaction with the performance of the national government has risen steadily over the last three years (from 67% in 2008 to 71% in 2009 and 73% in 2010). The 2010 survey records the highest levels of positive assessments of national government performance since 2007 in almost all regions.

That may seem illogical to Americans who are used to focusing on the shortcomings of Hamid Karzai, but obviously Afghans — with experience of decades of war and oppression — have a different metric by which they measure governmental performance. In the West, we are concerned over the problems with Afghan elections. But Afghans are happy just to be holding elections: “Around three quarters (74%) of respondents say they think elections have improved the country.”

That doesn’t mean Afghans are blind to the flaws of their government — “Fifty-five percent say corruption is a major problem in their daily lives.” But they also see improvements that we tend to ignore. For instance, there has been much reporting on the deficiencies of the Afghan Security Forces. But more than 90% of respondents said that the Afghan National Army is “honest and fair with the Afghan people.” However, that doesn’t mean Afghans think their security forces can go it alone. Some 70% think the ANA still needs the support of foreign troops.

That is a level of nuance and realism that, alas, is all too often lacking in Western assessments of the situation.

Is Afghanistan a lost cause? Many Americans think so. In fact, on Wednesday night in New York, I’ll be debating the motion “Resolved: Afghanistan is a lost cause” as part of the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series. (Tickets still available — see the website.) Obviously, I’ll have more to say on this subject then, but for now it’s worth noting that the Asia Foundation has just released a survey of 6,467 Afghans — and they don’t view their country as a lost cause.

Here is the survey’s major finding: “In 2010, 47% of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction. This figure has been increasing since 2008 (38%) and 2009 (42%).” By contrast, only 27% think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Insecurity remains the biggest source of concern for Afghans — cited by 44% of those who think their country is going in the wrong direction. But Afghans are happy with improvements in their economic situation: “More Afghans say they are better off now than a year ago in all domains, particularly in terms of the financial wellbeing of their household.”

Another major source of satisfaction for those who think Afghanistan is moving in the right direction is the performance of their government:

Satisfaction with the performance of the national government has risen steadily over the last three years (from 67% in 2008 to 71% in 2009 and 73% in 2010). The 2010 survey records the highest levels of positive assessments of national government performance since 2007 in almost all regions.

That may seem illogical to Americans who are used to focusing on the shortcomings of Hamid Karzai, but obviously Afghans — with experience of decades of war and oppression — have a different metric by which they measure governmental performance. In the West, we are concerned over the problems with Afghan elections. But Afghans are happy just to be holding elections: “Around three quarters (74%) of respondents say they think elections have improved the country.”

That doesn’t mean Afghans are blind to the flaws of their government — “Fifty-five percent say corruption is a major problem in their daily lives.” But they also see improvements that we tend to ignore. For instance, there has been much reporting on the deficiencies of the Afghan Security Forces. But more than 90% of respondents said that the Afghan National Army is “honest and fair with the Afghan people.” However, that doesn’t mean Afghans think their security forces can go it alone. Some 70% think the ANA still needs the support of foreign troops.

That is a level of nuance and realism that, alas, is all too often lacking in Western assessments of the situation.

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A Counter View to Fouad Ajami’s Skepticism Regarding Afghanistan

Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

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Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

The problem is that in carrying out this mission we must work with wholly imperfect allies. Karzai is no angel. But then neither is Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq — a leader whom Ajami presciently championed even when others scoffed at his potential to rise above his sectarian roots. In many ways, Maliki has been an even more troubling ally than Karzai. For all his faults, Karzai is not known to be personally sympathetic to the Taliban, who killed his father. By contrast, Maliki had a lot of sympathy for Shiite sectarianism. He has been surrounded by Iranian agents and Shiite extremists, who were deeply implicated in the work of the death squads that were killing hundreds of Sunnis every night in 2006-2007. It may be discouraging to hear that Karzai accepts a couple of million dollars in cash from Iran but is there any doubt that Maliki has taken far more money from Tehran? And not just money. As this article noted, Iran actually provided Maliki with his presidential jet, complete with Iranian pilots. Say what you will about Karzai, but at least he doesn’t routinely entrust his life to an Iranian aircraft.

Moreover, Maliki has been as notorious as Karzai for showing a lack of gratitude toward American efforts to save his county. As I noted in this 2008 op-ed, Maliki has had a pattern of dismissing the American contribution to Iraqi security, saying, for instance, in May 2006, that “[Iraqi] forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.” Maliki opposed the surge, which saved his country in 2007 and even when it succeeded refused to give us credit. As I noted:

In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned “many factors,” including “the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve,” “the progress being made by our security forces,” “the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias,” and “the economic recovery.” No mention of the surge.

Yet for all of Maliki’s maddening imperfections — which stand in high relief now as he ruthlessly maneuvers for another term — he showed ability to rise above his sectarian origins. He displayed real political courage in ordering his forces to attack the Sadrists in Basra and Sadr City in 2008. Now, of course, he is cutting deals with those same Sadrists. That, alas, is how the political game is played in unstable countries like Iraq — or Afghanistan. That should not cause us to despair of either country’s future.

If we could work with Maliki, we can certainly work with Karzai. The former, after all, does not speak English and spent years of exile living in Syria and Iran, two of the most anti-American states in the world. Karzai, by contrast, is a fluent English-speaker with several brothers who have lived in the U.S. for years and even hold U.S. citizenship. He is, in many ways, a more natural fit as an ally than Maliki. There is little doubt that he and his brothers are implicated in the corruption of Afghani politics, but at least, unlike Maliki, they are not cozying up to Iranian-backed death squads. To the extent that Karzai has cozied up to Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, it has been as a hedge against a precipitous American pullout. But Karzai also knows that the Iranians are double-dealing — they are supporting the Taliban too — which can give Karzai little confidence that Iran would be a reliable ally. At the end of the day, Karzai knows that his future and his country’s rests with the United States and NATO; that we are all that is keeping him from death or exile.

It would be nice if Karzai showed more political courage in working with us and refrained from denouncing us, but some of his denunciations have, alas, the ring of truth — and some of his actions are actually well intentioned. Take his attempts to close down private security companies that are terrorizing ordinary Afghanis and driving them into the arms of the Taliban. Most of these companies are, in fact, directly or indirectly, funded by American taxpayers — just as Karzai alleges. Many of them are also run by Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and by others linked to the Karzai clan. (See this report from the Institute for the Study of War for details.) So by closing down these firms, Karzai seems to be moving against his family’s economic interests. If he were simply interested in continuing to exploit this lucrative economic niche, he would leave the existing situation alone.

I don’t know what motivates Karzai but I suspect that, like most people, he is moved by a combination of noble and ignoble impulses — idealism and selfishness, self-interest and the public interest. He is no Adenaeur or De Gaulle or Ataturk or Washington — but then neither is Maliki. He is deeply imperfect, but he is the president of Afghanistan, and I do believe it is possible to work with him. Luckily, we have in Kabul the same general — David Petraeus — who skillfully worked with Maliki at a time when many Americans wrote him off as incorrigible. Already Petreaus has shown a similar ability to get useful concessions out of Karzai, for instance winning the president’s approval for setting up the Afghan Local Police, an initiative to supplement the Afghan Security Forces, which Karzai initially opposed.

Running through Ajami’s article is a deep skepticism not only about Karzai but also about Barack Obama. He criticizes Obama, rightly, for displaying irresolution. I too have been dismayed by the deadline Obama laid out for our withdrawal from Afghanistan — but I have been cheered to see, as I have noted in previous posts, that Obama is backing off that deadline. What foes for Karzai also goes for Obama: you go to war with the leaders you have — not the ones you would like to have. But I don’t believe that either Karzai or Obama is so flawed that it is impossible to prevail in Afghanistan — especially not when we have so many outstanding troops on the ground led by our greatest general.

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On Bob Woodward’s Revelations

I haven’t read Bob Woodward’s new book yet (apparently, it hasn’t been released yet), so I will reserve final judgment until I do. But based on the excerpts published so far in the New York Times and Washington Post, I am less exercised than some colleagues about what it reveals.

The book’s most explosive revelation is said to be a quote from Obama: “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever … we absorbed it and we are stronger.” This is a gaffe in the Michael Kinsley sense, defined as what happens when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. Would it have been better if Obama said we couldn’t survive a terrorist attack? Probably it would have been preferable if he had said nothing at all, because his nonchalant way of talking seems to slight the pain incurred by 9/11 casualties and their families. Moreover, his comment might be interpreted as though he didn’t care much about terrorism. I doubt that’s true or fair, and, in fact, there is a case to be made for advertising our ability not only to defend against, but also to absorb terrorist attacks, based on the theory that this may deter potential attacks.

Most of the other excerpts concern infighting among Obama’s aides over Afghanistan policy (this is a surprise?) and Obama’s desire to create an exit strategy — also, not exactly news. “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling his aides. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”

On the contrary, I believe the plan in Afghanistan needs to be about how to achieve victory — not about how to leave early. Obama’s emphasis on an eventual pullout, which led him to announce a timeline for withdrawal, is, I believe, deeply misguided and actually makes it harder for us to leave by making it harder for Afghans to trust us.

But I judge a president more by his actions than by his words. For all of Obama’s talk about an exit strategy, the fact remains that he has consistently stiffed those in his administration who favored a precipitous pullout. Now all the signals emanating from the administration suggest that the vaunted December policy review won’t amount to much and that we are unlikely to see a major drawdown next summer. Obama may talk exit strategies but his actions support General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy.

The most interesting news in the Woodward excerpts concerns the CIA’s private army – 3,000-strong Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. It is common knowledge that the CIA has been running black ops in Afghanistan but Woodward sheds light on the strength of its forces and suggests that they have penetrated into Pakistan as well — apparently only for intelligence gathering and not actual fighting, though who knows?

On one level, this is encouraging news, which shows how our presence in Afghanistan can be a strategic asset to deal with terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. On the other hand, this raises all sorts of troubling questions about what the teams’ impact is on our overall counterinsurgency strategy. The CIA has a tendency to strike deals with warlords who produce gunmen. Problem is, these warlords tend to be deeply corrupt, often complicit in the drug trade, and their conduct undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government and drives ordinary people into the arms of the Taliban.

I don’t doubt that that CIA’s paramilitaries are effective and well-paid, but their existence also serves to siphon away top-tier fighters from the Afghan Security Forces. Their operations are probably not well integrated with US military operations, either, since the CIA doesn’t report to the military chain of command. The CIA’s resort to its own paramilitaries may still be useful but it made a lot more sense back in the early days of the war, when there were few American forces in the country, than it does today when there are 100,000 U.S. troops (and 40,000 allies) in Afghanistan.

I haven’t read Bob Woodward’s new book yet (apparently, it hasn’t been released yet), so I will reserve final judgment until I do. But based on the excerpts published so far in the New York Times and Washington Post, I am less exercised than some colleagues about what it reveals.

The book’s most explosive revelation is said to be a quote from Obama: “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever … we absorbed it and we are stronger.” This is a gaffe in the Michael Kinsley sense, defined as what happens when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. Would it have been better if Obama said we couldn’t survive a terrorist attack? Probably it would have been preferable if he had said nothing at all, because his nonchalant way of talking seems to slight the pain incurred by 9/11 casualties and their families. Moreover, his comment might be interpreted as though he didn’t care much about terrorism. I doubt that’s true or fair, and, in fact, there is a case to be made for advertising our ability not only to defend against, but also to absorb terrorist attacks, based on the theory that this may deter potential attacks.

Most of the other excerpts concern infighting among Obama’s aides over Afghanistan policy (this is a surprise?) and Obama’s desire to create an exit strategy — also, not exactly news. “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling his aides. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”

On the contrary, I believe the plan in Afghanistan needs to be about how to achieve victory — not about how to leave early. Obama’s emphasis on an eventual pullout, which led him to announce a timeline for withdrawal, is, I believe, deeply misguided and actually makes it harder for us to leave by making it harder for Afghans to trust us.

But I judge a president more by his actions than by his words. For all of Obama’s talk about an exit strategy, the fact remains that he has consistently stiffed those in his administration who favored a precipitous pullout. Now all the signals emanating from the administration suggest that the vaunted December policy review won’t amount to much and that we are unlikely to see a major drawdown next summer. Obama may talk exit strategies but his actions support General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy.

The most interesting news in the Woodward excerpts concerns the CIA’s private army – 3,000-strong Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. It is common knowledge that the CIA has been running black ops in Afghanistan but Woodward sheds light on the strength of its forces and suggests that they have penetrated into Pakistan as well — apparently only for intelligence gathering and not actual fighting, though who knows?

On one level, this is encouraging news, which shows how our presence in Afghanistan can be a strategic asset to deal with terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. On the other hand, this raises all sorts of troubling questions about what the teams’ impact is on our overall counterinsurgency strategy. The CIA has a tendency to strike deals with warlords who produce gunmen. Problem is, these warlords tend to be deeply corrupt, often complicit in the drug trade, and their conduct undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government and drives ordinary people into the arms of the Taliban.

I don’t doubt that that CIA’s paramilitaries are effective and well-paid, but their existence also serves to siphon away top-tier fighters from the Afghan Security Forces. Their operations are probably not well integrated with US military operations, either, since the CIA doesn’t report to the military chain of command. The CIA’s resort to its own paramilitaries may still be useful but it made a lot more sense back in the early days of the war, when there were few American forces in the country, than it does today when there are 100,000 U.S. troops (and 40,000 allies) in Afghanistan.

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Deadlines

Obama from last night on Iraq:

Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.

And on Afghanistan:

But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s. [emphasis added]

Obama, as many of us discussed at the time, did great damage to his own Afghanistan war strategy — which properly centered on an infusion of 30,000 troops — by imposing a deadline. His secretaries of state and defense have struggled mightily to blur it and redefine it. But it still stands and is, as the outgoing commandant of the Marines, John McCain, and many others have argued, a hindrance to our mission.

Less widely discussed (and kudos to the New York Post editors for picking this up) was the statement on Iraq. A number of distinguished supporters of the war, including former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, have cautioned that should the Iraqis request an extension of the Strategic Framework Agreement, we should respond positively. Paul Wolfowitz, likewise, advised:

Our commitment must also include continued material support, particularly in the form of military and technical assistance. And though we have agreed to withdraw all our troops by the end of next year — a pledge that we must honor if the Iraqi government so desires — we need to remain open to the possibility of a mutually agreed longer-term security commitment or military presence for deterrence and support.

And earlier this year, Fred and Kim Kagan warned:

The U.S. has steadfastly refused to discuss a long-term military partnership with Iraq beyond 2011, despite the fact that the Iraqi military will not be able to defend Iraq on its own by then. It has refused fully to increase civilian efforts in order to accomplish tasks that had been performed by military forces now withdrawing. It has reduced funding for the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which allows the military to provide “urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction” projects, as well as for other forms of humanitarian and security assistance.

But Obama is, at least for now, saying, in effect “We are out of here.” What if the situation deteriorates? What if conditions on the ground worsen? His statement hints at no wiggle room.

Deadlines, especially in wars against ideologically minded foes, are nearly always a bad idea. It is why George W. Bush, who understood well the nature of the war against jihadists, took such a firm stance against them. He was right, as are Crocker, Wolfowitz, and the Kagans: we should, in fact, be leaving the door open to the the extension of our military presence.

Presidential statements carry immense weight and we should be candid about what is said and why it is problematic. Those who root for success in Iraq owe the president the benefit of their counsel on the danger of deadlines.

Obama from last night on Iraq:

Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.

And on Afghanistan:

But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s. [emphasis added]

Obama, as many of us discussed at the time, did great damage to his own Afghanistan war strategy — which properly centered on an infusion of 30,000 troops — by imposing a deadline. His secretaries of state and defense have struggled mightily to blur it and redefine it. But it still stands and is, as the outgoing commandant of the Marines, John McCain, and many others have argued, a hindrance to our mission.

Less widely discussed (and kudos to the New York Post editors for picking this up) was the statement on Iraq. A number of distinguished supporters of the war, including former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, have cautioned that should the Iraqis request an extension of the Strategic Framework Agreement, we should respond positively. Paul Wolfowitz, likewise, advised:

Our commitment must also include continued material support, particularly in the form of military and technical assistance. And though we have agreed to withdraw all our troops by the end of next year — a pledge that we must honor if the Iraqi government so desires — we need to remain open to the possibility of a mutually agreed longer-term security commitment or military presence for deterrence and support.

And earlier this year, Fred and Kim Kagan warned:

The U.S. has steadfastly refused to discuss a long-term military partnership with Iraq beyond 2011, despite the fact that the Iraqi military will not be able to defend Iraq on its own by then. It has refused fully to increase civilian efforts in order to accomplish tasks that had been performed by military forces now withdrawing. It has reduced funding for the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which allows the military to provide “urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction” projects, as well as for other forms of humanitarian and security assistance.

But Obama is, at least for now, saying, in effect “We are out of here.” What if the situation deteriorates? What if conditions on the ground worsen? His statement hints at no wiggle room.

Deadlines, especially in wars against ideologically minded foes, are nearly always a bad idea. It is why George W. Bush, who understood well the nature of the war against jihadists, took such a firm stance against them. He was right, as are Crocker, Wolfowitz, and the Kagans: we should, in fact, be leaving the door open to the the extension of our military presence.

Presidential statements carry immense weight and we should be candid about what is said and why it is problematic. Those who root for success in Iraq owe the president the benefit of their counsel on the danger of deadlines.

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Some Thoughts About Last Night’s Speech

1. The most Obama could say about George W. Bush is that “no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.” That’s correct; no one could doubt it, which is why there was no need to say it.

The real issue was whether Obama would praise Bush for the surge — one of the most courageous and wise presidential decisions in the modern era and one Bush pushed through over fierce, widespread opposition, including from Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden. But for Obama to praise Bush for the surge would be to admit his own massive error in judgment in opposing it — and a man of Obama’s vanity could not bring himself to do that. So Obama could only say that Bush was well-intentioned rather than right.

As for his own record on Iraq, the Obama administration is now trying to corrupt the historical record, with press secretary Robert Gibbs making assertions that are not only wrong but the opposite of the truth. Read More

1. The most Obama could say about George W. Bush is that “no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.” That’s correct; no one could doubt it, which is why there was no need to say it.

The real issue was whether Obama would praise Bush for the surge — one of the most courageous and wise presidential decisions in the modern era and one Bush pushed through over fierce, widespread opposition, including from Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden. But for Obama to praise Bush for the surge would be to admit his own massive error in judgment in opposing it — and a man of Obama’s vanity could not bring himself to do that. So Obama could only say that Bush was well-intentioned rather than right.

As for his own record on Iraq, the Obama administration is now trying to corrupt the historical record, with press secretary Robert Gibbs making assertions that are not only wrong but the opposite of the truth.

2. On Iraq, Obama did say that while our combat mission is ending, “our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.” But you could be forgiven for believing, amid all the talk of page-turning and missions ended and over, that Obama has detached himself from a war he opposed and wants to have nothing more to do with it. He clearly considers it a distraction from his larger ambitions to transform America here at home.

What was also notable in the speech is how Obama — apart from one perfunctory paragraph (he devoted four to the economy) — failed to appropriately acknowledge many of the estimable things that have been achieved by the Iraq war, including deposing a malevolent and aggressive dictator, helping plant a representative (if imperfect) democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and administering a military defeat to al-Qaeda on the ground of its own choosing. Obama hinted at some of this, but it was said without passion or conviction. And we all know why: for Obama, this was a war without purpose, a nihilistic misadventure whose only good result is its end. This is not only wrong; it is a disfigurement of history and a failure to acknowledge what a remarkable thing our combat troops in Iraq achieved.

3. On the most important matter before us, Afghanistan, Obama did substantial damage. The reason can be found in this paragraph:

Within Afghanistan, I have ordered the deployment of additional troops who-under the command of General David Petraeus -are fighting to break the Taliban’s momentum. As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future. But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.

What Obama did here was not simply to repeat his commitment to the (arbitrary) summer 2011 drawdown date; he underscored and deepened it. The president’s declaration that the pace of troop reductions “will be determined by conditions on the ground” was overwhelmed by Obama’s declaring that our forces will be in place for “a limited time” and that we should “make no mistake: this transition will begin because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

This statement occurred within a particular context. In his December 2009 address at West Point, Obama made essentially the same argument — though less emphatically than he did last night.

Many people (including me) underestimated just how harmful was Obama’s declaration that we would begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Mentioning that it would be conditions-based was almost completely overlooked by both our friends and our enemies. The message they believed was sent, and which they received, is that America’s commitment is limited and we will leave on time and on schedule, come what may.

Don’t take my word for it; here is what Marine Commandant General James Conway said a week ago about the 2011 deadline: “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself … ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’” Conway buttressed his claim by saying that intelligence intercepts suggest that Taliban fighters have been encouraged by the talk of the U.S. beginning to withdraw troops next year.

Knowing all this, Obama not only didn’t attempt to undo his previous error; he doubled down on it. This was an injurious message to send.

The Democratic Party can count several great wartime leaders among its ranks, including Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. John F. Kennedy, while denied the time and opportunities that FDR and Truman had, understood the stakes of the Cold War struggle and spoke with force and eloquence about America’s role in the world. These were admirable leaders, presidents whom our allies could count on and our enemies respected and feared.

In Barack Obama, we have someone very different — a president who is at times more eager to apologize for America than to defend her. He is a man not yet comfortable with his role as commander in chief. Obama views war not in terms of victory; he is above all committed to finding exit ramps.

President Obama has already inflicted enormous damage to our nation; last night he added to the wreckage.

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Obama from the Oval Office

First, a visual observation: he looked scrawny and ill-at-ease at the large, empty desk. There were no funny hand gestures this time, as there was for the Oil Spill address. This speech did have some good moments, which I will start with.

First, he clearly debunked the notion that we are bugging out of Iraq:

Going forward, a transitional force of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq with a different mission: advising and assisting Iraq’s Security Forces; supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our civilians. Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year. As our military draws down, our dedicated civilians — diplomats, aid workers, and advisors — are moving into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds ties with the region and the world. And that is a message that Vice President Biden is delivering to the Iraqi people through his visit there today.

This new approach reflects our long-term partnership with Iraq — one based upon mutual interests, and mutual respect. Of course, violence will not end with our combat mission. Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife. But ultimately, these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals. Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction. They understand that, in the end, only Iraqis can resolve their differences and police their streets. Only Iraqis can build a democracy within their borders. What America can do, and will do, is provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner.

And he put forth a positive statement on the Afghanistan war:

As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense. In fact, over the last 19 months, nearly a dozen al Qaeda leaders –and hundreds of Al Qaeda’s extremist allies–have been killed or captured around the world.

Within Afghanistan, I have ordered the deployment of additional troops who — under the command of General David Petraeus — are fighting to break the Taliban’s momentum. As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future.

But those comments were, regrettably, far outweighed by a number of unhelpful, ungracious, and downright inaccurate moments.

First, in his recap and praise of George W. Bush’s administration, he never explained how it was that we succeeded in Iraq. It was of course that same surge that we are now using in Afghanistan. He said this about Bush:

This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush. It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hope for Iraq’s future.

But Mr. President, Bush was not just a great guy — he was right. It was one more instance of the lack of introspection and grace that has characterized Obama’s entire presidency.

Next, he reiterated the Afghanistan deadline, trying to fuzz it up rather than revoke it:

[A]s was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.

You see, Obama’s not into open-ended commitment. This is the same counterproductive claptrap that has been roundly criticized and that reveals him to be fundamentally disinterested in foreign policy. It is also why both friends and enemies doubt our staying power.

But most of all, the bulk of the speech had nothing to do with either Iraq or Afghanistan — it was a pep talk for his domestic agenda. This cements the sense that he simply wants out of messy foreign commitments. He also repeated a number of domestic policy canards. This was among the worst, blaming our debt on wars rather than on domestic fiscal gluttony: “We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform.”

He is arguing for more spending.

Obama is still candidate Obama, never tiring of reminding us that he kept his campaign pledge and ever eager to push aside foreign policy challenges so he can get on with the business of remaking America. All in all, it was what we were promised it would not be — self-serving, disingenuous, ungracious, and unreassuring.

UPDATE: COMMENTARY contributor Jonah Goldberg’s smart take is here.

UPDATE II: Charles Krauthammer’s reaction is here.

First, a visual observation: he looked scrawny and ill-at-ease at the large, empty desk. There were no funny hand gestures this time, as there was for the Oil Spill address. This speech did have some good moments, which I will start with.

First, he clearly debunked the notion that we are bugging out of Iraq:

Going forward, a transitional force of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq with a different mission: advising and assisting Iraq’s Security Forces; supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our civilians. Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year. As our military draws down, our dedicated civilians — diplomats, aid workers, and advisors — are moving into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds ties with the region and the world. And that is a message that Vice President Biden is delivering to the Iraqi people through his visit there today.

This new approach reflects our long-term partnership with Iraq — one based upon mutual interests, and mutual respect. Of course, violence will not end with our combat mission. Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife. But ultimately, these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals. Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction. They understand that, in the end, only Iraqis can resolve their differences and police their streets. Only Iraqis can build a democracy within their borders. What America can do, and will do, is provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner.

And he put forth a positive statement on the Afghanistan war:

As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense. In fact, over the last 19 months, nearly a dozen al Qaeda leaders –and hundreds of Al Qaeda’s extremist allies–have been killed or captured around the world.

Within Afghanistan, I have ordered the deployment of additional troops who — under the command of General David Petraeus — are fighting to break the Taliban’s momentum. As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future.

But those comments were, regrettably, far outweighed by a number of unhelpful, ungracious, and downright inaccurate moments.

First, in his recap and praise of George W. Bush’s administration, he never explained how it was that we succeeded in Iraq. It was of course that same surge that we are now using in Afghanistan. He said this about Bush:

This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush. It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hope for Iraq’s future.

But Mr. President, Bush was not just a great guy — he was right. It was one more instance of the lack of introspection and grace that has characterized Obama’s entire presidency.

Next, he reiterated the Afghanistan deadline, trying to fuzz it up rather than revoke it:

[A]s was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.

You see, Obama’s not into open-ended commitment. This is the same counterproductive claptrap that has been roundly criticized and that reveals him to be fundamentally disinterested in foreign policy. It is also why both friends and enemies doubt our staying power.

But most of all, the bulk of the speech had nothing to do with either Iraq or Afghanistan — it was a pep talk for his domestic agenda. This cements the sense that he simply wants out of messy foreign commitments. He also repeated a number of domestic policy canards. This was among the worst, blaming our debt on wars rather than on domestic fiscal gluttony: “We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform.”

He is arguing for more spending.

Obama is still candidate Obama, never tiring of reminding us that he kept his campaign pledge and ever eager to push aside foreign policy challenges so he can get on with the business of remaking America. All in all, it was what we were promised it would not be — self-serving, disingenuous, ungracious, and unreassuring.

UPDATE: COMMENTARY contributor Jonah Goldberg’s smart take is here.

UPDATE II: Charles Krauthammer’s reaction is here.

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Foreign Policy AWOL in SOTU

I realize that Barack Obama, like most of his predecessors, came to the Oval Office primarily focused on his domestic agenda, not foreign policy, but I nevertheless find it stunning how little coverage national-security affairs received in this State of the Union. By my count, in a speech of 7,077 words, only 932 — 13 percent — were devoted to America’s role abroad, despite the fact that Obama’s most important responsibility is to act as commander in chief in wartime.

Not surprisingly, given how little room he devoted to foreign affairs, the State of the Union address was more remarkable for what he didn’t say than for what he did. This was his message on Afghanistan: “We are increasing our troops and training Afghan Security Forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.” Really? That’s why he sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing our troop total eventually to some 100,000 — so they can come home? If that was the goal, why not keep them in the United States? Obviously there are pressing reasons why the lives of these soldiers are being risked in combat, but Obama did not spell them out. He should have, because his West Point address raised more questions than it answered about what end-state the U.S. is seeking and what specific policies should be enacted to achieve it. But he did nothing to dispel that confusion, which is prevalent among U.S. commanders on the ground, as well as among both our allies and enemies in the region.

Nor, predictably, did he offer any objective in Iraq beyond “responsibly leaving Iraq to its people.” He did say something commendable — “We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity.” But he said nothing more about the promise of Iraqi democracy, which so many Americans and Iraqis have sacrificed so much to bring about. Instead he reiterated his top objective, which is heading for the exits: “But make no mistake: this war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.”

He then went on to plug his pet project — the utopian goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. He claimed without any evidence that “these diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of these weapons.” He suggested that North Korea “now faces increased isolation” — hard to imagine given that, if Pyongyang were any more isolated from the rest of the world, it would be located on the moon. He also claimed that Iran is getting “more isolated” and will face “growing consequences” that remain unspecified. The Green Movement in Iran, which offers the best chance of ending Iran’s nuclear program by overthrowing its despotic regime, got barely a mention — squeezed in between the (praiseworthy) effort to help Haiti and a puzzling reference to American advocacy on behalf of “the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea.” Is corruption in Guinea really on a par as an American foreign-policy priority with Tehran’s repression of human rights and support for terrorism and nuclear proliferation?

Rather than offer any specific support for Iranian democrats or call for the overthrow of their oppressors, Obama devoted far more time to promoting “our incredible diversity” at home — including an effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which may make sense but is sure to bring him into conflict with substantial numbers of the soldiers under his command.

I would have thought that by now Obama, like most presidents, would have made the pivot toward foreign policy — that he would have realized he needs to focus more on dealing with real crises abroad rather than manufactured crises, such as health care, at home. Judging by this State of the Union, that hasn’t happened yet.

I realize that Barack Obama, like most of his predecessors, came to the Oval Office primarily focused on his domestic agenda, not foreign policy, but I nevertheless find it stunning how little coverage national-security affairs received in this State of the Union. By my count, in a speech of 7,077 words, only 932 — 13 percent — were devoted to America’s role abroad, despite the fact that Obama’s most important responsibility is to act as commander in chief in wartime.

Not surprisingly, given how little room he devoted to foreign affairs, the State of the Union address was more remarkable for what he didn’t say than for what he did. This was his message on Afghanistan: “We are increasing our troops and training Afghan Security Forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.” Really? That’s why he sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing our troop total eventually to some 100,000 — so they can come home? If that was the goal, why not keep them in the United States? Obviously there are pressing reasons why the lives of these soldiers are being risked in combat, but Obama did not spell them out. He should have, because his West Point address raised more questions than it answered about what end-state the U.S. is seeking and what specific policies should be enacted to achieve it. But he did nothing to dispel that confusion, which is prevalent among U.S. commanders on the ground, as well as among both our allies and enemies in the region.

Nor, predictably, did he offer any objective in Iraq beyond “responsibly leaving Iraq to its people.” He did say something commendable — “We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity.” But he said nothing more about the promise of Iraqi democracy, which so many Americans and Iraqis have sacrificed so much to bring about. Instead he reiterated his top objective, which is heading for the exits: “But make no mistake: this war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.”

He then went on to plug his pet project — the utopian goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. He claimed without any evidence that “these diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of these weapons.” He suggested that North Korea “now faces increased isolation” — hard to imagine given that, if Pyongyang were any more isolated from the rest of the world, it would be located on the moon. He also claimed that Iran is getting “more isolated” and will face “growing consequences” that remain unspecified. The Green Movement in Iran, which offers the best chance of ending Iran’s nuclear program by overthrowing its despotic regime, got barely a mention — squeezed in between the (praiseworthy) effort to help Haiti and a puzzling reference to American advocacy on behalf of “the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea.” Is corruption in Guinea really on a par as an American foreign-policy priority with Tehran’s repression of human rights and support for terrorism and nuclear proliferation?

Rather than offer any specific support for Iranian democrats or call for the overthrow of their oppressors, Obama devoted far more time to promoting “our incredible diversity” at home — including an effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which may make sense but is sure to bring him into conflict with substantial numbers of the soldiers under his command.

I would have thought that by now Obama, like most presidents, would have made the pivot toward foreign policy — that he would have realized he needs to focus more on dealing with real crises abroad rather than manufactured crises, such as health care, at home. Judging by this State of the Union, that hasn’t happened yet.

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LIVE BLOG: What Matters

The heart of what Obama has to say is what we are about to do:

We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

We will meet these objectives in three ways.  First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months.

The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 – the fastest pace possible – so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

Despite much of the unnecessary and self-indulgent rhetoric, this is a critical statement of determination. And the “exit ramp”? Well, it is perhaps not as bad as advertised. “The days of providing a blank check are over, ” he says. And yes, he talks about “hastening the day when our troops will leave.” But he is not talking about a date certain for departure. We can be grateful for that.

The heart of what Obama has to say is what we are about to do:

We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

We will meet these objectives in three ways.  First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months.

The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 – the fastest pace possible – so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

Despite much of the unnecessary and self-indulgent rhetoric, this is a critical statement of determination. And the “exit ramp”? Well, it is perhaps not as bad as advertised. “The days of providing a blank check are over, ” he says. And yes, he talks about “hastening the day when our troops will leave.” But he is not talking about a date certain for departure. We can be grateful for that.

Read Less




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