Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan

Obama’s Mistakes Come Back to Haunt Him

President Obama sounded much tougher when he spoke at the United Nations last week than he has in a long time. But for anyone expecting the president to become a born-again hawk and repent of his earlier retreatism, the 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday should be chastening.

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President Obama sounded much tougher when he spoke at the United Nations last week than he has in a long time. But for anyone expecting the president to become a born-again hawk and repent of his earlier retreatism, the 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday should be chastening.

The headline-grabbing statement was the president blaming the intelligence community for underestimating ISIS and overestimating the capacity of the Iraqi army. And it’s true that Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence, did recently tell David Ignatius, “We underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army” although he also said that “his analysts had reported the group’s emergence and its ‘prowess and capability,’ as well as the ‘deficiencies’ of the Iraqi military.” So the president can take refuge in asserting that he was simply claiming Clapper’s own self-critique.

But I doubt that will seem very convincing to intelligence community personnel who will feel that the president is throwing them under the bus–hiding policy errors behind a front of supposed intelligence failures. Indeed, the New York Times today quotes one “senior American intelligence official” as saying: “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it. They were preoccupied with other crises. This just wasn’t a big priority.”

The reality is that it didn’t require any specialized intelligence apparatus to know that the threat from jihadists like ISIS would grow or that the capabilities of the Iraqi army would decline if we left Iraq and Syria alone, as we have largely done since 2011. I and many other analysts were noting at the time that the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq was a “tragedy” that would leave Iraqis ill-prepared to defend themselves and that the U.S. failure to help the moderate Syrian opposition would cede ground to “Sunnis extremists such as al Qaeda.” That Obama chose to ignore such warnings was not the fault of his intelligence personnel; it was his own fault for believing what he wanted to believe–namely that the U.S. could retreat from the Middle East without increasing the danger of our enemies gaining ground.

Such a belief was fantastic enough in 2011; it became utterly preposterous when in January of this year Fallujah and Ramadi fell to ISIS. Yet even then Obama did nothing for another nine months. It took the fall of Mosul in June to shake him out of his complacency–although not to get him off the golf course–and at last try to come up with some strategy to stop ISIS. Again, this isn’t the intelligence community’s fault. It’s Obama’s fault, and he would enhance his own credibility if he would accept some of the blame for this failure.

Instead he is once again pointing fingers, not only at the intelligence agencies but also at former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course,” Obama said. “And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country.”

True enough, but this analysis ignores the important role of Obama’s own administration in helping Maliki to win a second term in 2010 when he actually won fewer parliamentary seats than Ayad Allawi. It is also ignores the fact that those of us who were in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011 (and that includes senior U.S. military commanders on the ground) believed it was essentially in no small part to allow the U.S. to continue exerting pressure on Maliki to stay non-sectarian. That Maliki would unleash his inner sectarian as soon as we left was also utterly predictable and cannot be blamed on any intelligence failure.

Of course Obama won’t accept responsibility for pulling out of Iraq either–he blames that too on the Iraqis for failing to agree to grant U.S. troops legal immunity in a status of forces agreed ratified by their parliament. Yet it turns out this was a bogus issue all along. How do I know? Because Obama has now sent 1,600, and counting, U.S. troops to Iraq without any legal immunity or any Status of Forces Agreement ratified by parliament. If he’s doing it now, why couldn’t he do it in 2012? Simply because he didn’t want to–Iraqi leaders almost certainly would have acceded if Obama had shown the will to remain past 2011.

Rather than accepting blame for his own misjudgments, Obama stubbornly continues to defend his mistakes such as failing to arm moderate Syrian fighters in 2011-2012 as most of his security cabinet was urging him to do. “For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation. But we also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria,” Obama said.

Yet Obama’s own officials, including Robert Ford, his former ambassador to Damascus, have said that the U.S. has had the information for years that it needs to figure out who’s who among the Syrian rebels. It’s just that Obama refused to act on that information precisely because he refused to accept a “more significant role inside of Syria” even if such a role could have stopped the growth of ISIS.

If Obama is going to rebuild shattered confidence in his foreign policy, he needs to accept blame for what he did wrong before and act to correct those mistakes now instead of scapegoating others and taking refuge in half-measures such as his current air strikes without boots on the ground, which he characterized on 60 Minutes as a “counterterrorism operation” rather than “the sort of occupying armies that characterized the Iraq and Afghan war.”

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What Ashraf Ghani Needs from the U.S.

Hamid Karzai was no George Washington or Konrad Adenauer or Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. He was not, in short, a great nation builder who will be remembered fondly by generations of his countrymen. He had an opportunity to join the ranks of those great state builders but instead he will be remembered as a petty, paranoid, and mercurial leader who presided over massive corruption, governmental incapacity, and a growing insurgency. Not all this was his fault, to be sure, and not even George Washington could have transformed Afghanistan in a decade. But it’s fair to say that Karzai’s failures as a leader contributed to Afghanistan’s problems during his watch.

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Hamid Karzai was no George Washington or Konrad Adenauer or Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. He was not, in short, a great nation builder who will be remembered fondly by generations of his countrymen. He had an opportunity to join the ranks of those great state builders but instead he will be remembered as a petty, paranoid, and mercurial leader who presided over massive corruption, governmental incapacity, and a growing insurgency. Not all this was his fault, to be sure, and not even George Washington could have transformed Afghanistan in a decade. But it’s fair to say that Karzai’s failures as a leader contributed to Afghanistan’s problems during his watch.

In the end, nothing became Karzai better than the manner in which he left office–which is to say voluntarily. He did not try to hang on to power indefinitely as many feared he would. Nor did he try to install one of his brothers as his successor. On Monday he presided over the first peaceful transition of power from one elected leader to another in Afghanistan’s long history.

Now the problems that Karzai couldn’t handle are being handed to Ashraf Ghani. Ghani is a very smart man who has a long history of being an effective governmental analyst and reformer, including his stint as Afghanistan’s finance minister. If anyone is qualified to tackle Afghanistan’s problems, he is–even though his problems are in many ways greater than Karzai’s already because, in addition to everything else, Ghani has to deal with his defeated challenger Abdullah Abdullah. As the price of giving up his fight to contest the election results, Abdullah was promised a vague and extra-constitutional role as “chief executive” of the new government. Simply getting along with Abdullah will be a Herculean challenge for Ghani, in addition to trying to make the government more effective and more honest.

It would greatly help Ghani if President Obama were to rethink his dangerous pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2017. The Afghan security forces are simply not ready to go it alone against the still dangerous Taliban insurgency and they will not be ready by 2017 either. Simply removing the air cover that U.S. forces have provided to their Afghan allies–something that is scheduled to happen by the end of this year–will vastly increase the danger from the Taliban. Indeed just in recent days Afghan troops required “NATO air support” to retake a town in Ghazni province that had fallen into Taliban hands.

With a continuing U.S. troop presence, Ghani has a chance to manage Afghanistan’s problems. Without it, the outlook is hopelessly bleak.

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Obama, the Anti-Truman

There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

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There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

Then there is the classic Obama-is-disappointed-in-America-yet-again framing, which is not flattering to Obama but better than the truth. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post went this route. Here’s the Times: “President Obama acknowledged in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group.” And the Post: “The United States underestimated the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Obama said during an interview.”

If you’ve followed the events of the past year, you’ll notice that neither of those spin cycles is true and so there must be a third option. There is: the truth, which is that Barack Obama underestimated ISIS despite the intel community trying desperately to explain it to him since day one. And thus, tired of getting thrown under the bus, the intel community has pointed out to Eli Lake at the Daily Beast that what the president said is completely divorced from reality:

Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama’s senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move. In the beginning of 2014, ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, leading much of the U.S. intelligence community to assess they would try to take more of Iraq. …

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said.

Is the president reading his intelligence reports? He must be. The more likely explanation of the two is that Obama knows exactly what happened–he messed up, royally–and is blaming others because it’s unpalatable for him to admit that six years into his presidency, he’s older but no wiser.

The Times does carefully draw attention to this fact:

In citing Mr. Clapper, Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original Al Qaeda.

Right. Though “any misjudgment he may have made” actually refers to this particular misjudgment, which he’s blaming on others, that we know for sure he made.

Just as interesting is why he made that egregious mistake. Part of it, surely, is his utter lack of knowledge of world history and politics. But that’s not enough of a reason, especially considering the fact that the U.S. intel community has been trying to remedy that by laying it all out there for him. Knowledge has been accumulated and summarily dismissed by Obama as distinctly unimportant. What matters to him is his cloistered worldview and fealty to ideology.

Later in the interview, Obama said:

Now the good news is that the new [Iraqi] prime minister, Abadi, who I met with this week, so far at least has sent all the right signals. And that’s why it goes back to what I said before, Steve, we can’t do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it’s not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means.

One hopes the president isn’t holding his breath. Obama returns to this trope time and again: it’s a political solution that’s needed, not a military solution. But security, as always, must precede any political solution. And that doesn’t come about by telling the warring parties to “Think about what tolerance means.”

Here, for example, is the lede of the New York Times story on a truly momentous occasion out of Afghanistan: “Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank technocrat and prominent intellectual, on Monday became the first modern leader of Afghanistan to take office in a peaceful transfer of power.”

It was far from inevitable. The election Ghani won produced a bitter accusation of fraud and a threat to plunge the country into what would essentially be a new civil war. What made the difference? As our Max Boot has written, the crucial distinction between Afghanistan and other such conflicts in which the U.S. played a role is the fact that when John Kerry flew in to broker a solution to the crisis, there were tens of thousands of American troops in the country. “That,” Max wrote, “gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.”

President Obama doesn’t like to face up to the fact that his obsession with getting out of Iraq played a role in undermining the very “political solution” he hoped for. Now ISIS is collapsing borders and beheading Westerners, and they surely can’t be expected to “Think about what tolerance means.” The president made policy based on what he wanted to be true, in all likelihood knowing full well it wasn’t. He continues to be the anti-Truman, passing blame around when he deserves the lion’s share of it.

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Teaching U.S. Officials About Radical Islam

When American forces first began fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticisms abounded about the lack of troops’ cultural awareness when they entered the Middle East or South Asia. Some of the criticism was unfortunately true, although by the second or third years of fighting, American troops had a better sense of the region and religion than many of those lobbing cheap criticisms.

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When American forces first began fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticisms abounded about the lack of troops’ cultural awareness when they entered the Middle East or South Asia. Some of the criticism was unfortunately true, although by the second or third years of fighting, American troops had a better sense of the region and religion than many of those lobbing cheap criticisms.

But while deploying troops must sit through countless hours of cultural awareness training to learn about the region in which they will soon live and fight, many with whom I have talked over the years voice a common criticism about the programs: They are subject to basic, politically correct descriptions of Islam that seem detached from the reality of their missions. U.S. troops who have fought in Iraq and still fight in Afghanistan are fighting not peaceful Muslims who abide by the most benevolent Koranic interpretations, but rather radical jihadis who seek to disfigure and murder in the name of religion.

The same is too often true with Department of Justice training. After having been criticized by Islamist advocacy groups for focusing too much on radicalism, the Justice Department has largely sanitized its training. It avoids controversy by allowing groups like the Council on American and Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)–which embrace or apologize for some of the worst groups–to help set the bounds of permissible interpretation. Letting CAIR determine what can and cannot be taught about Islamist terrorism is like letting the Taliban have final say on the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manuals. To have ISNA have sway on how Muslim military chaplains are credentialed suggests a lack of seriousness about combating radicalism.

While no religion has a monopoly on terrorism, cultural equivalence also rings hollow: There is a far greater problem right now with Islamist terrorists operating across the globe and who use theological exegesis to motivate and justify their actions than with groups which root themselves in Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. To teach counter-terror analysts only about the “Five pillars of Islam,” commonalities between the Koran and the Old and New Testaments, and explain only the most sanitized interpretations of the Koran is simply policy malpractice made worse when questions regarding radicalism go unanswered.

Basic theology is not hard to understand. But if U.S. military officers and Department of Justice officials are truly going to understand the environments in which they serve and the adversary against whom they seek to protect the United States and all Americans, then it becomes essential that U.S. officials are able to understand and explain not only what the five pillars of Islam are, when the Prophet Muhammad was born, or what the 21st century definitions of Greater and Lesser Jihad are, but rather be able to discuss:

  • The passages of the Koran which extremists use to justify suicide bombing and precise theological arguments moderate clergy might use to refute those (beyond simply saying Islam forbids suicide).
  • The evolution of Islamic interpretation of the Koranic passages which promote beheading of prisoners.
  • They should also learn that, contrary to common rhetoric, the Koran is not always the same, either historically or in translation and interpretation.
  • All religions evolve. Few Christians would advocate publicly burning at the stake women who might publicly recite the Bible. After all, this is no longer the 14th century. Likewise, while it is important to understand contemporary interpretations of jihad, it is likewise important to recognize that the concept of jihad has evolved over time. That said, when militant groups seek to build a society based on their notion of how Islamic states might have acted 1,350 years ago, it behooves analysts to understand what theological interpretations predominated then.
  • The theology that Osama Bin Laden embraced and expounded, and that advanced by Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abubakr al-Baghdadi. If these men preach something un-Islamic, then an official with understanding should be able to explain why–not simply ignore their theology.

Teaching about radicalism is not Islamophobic nor should those who wish to protect or even advocate for Islam agitate against it. After all, the chief victims of radical Islamism are the moderates.

President Obama may have sought to project seriousness when he outlined a strategy to combat ISIS on September 10. But until the U.S. government—whether the Defense Department focused abroad or the Justice Department at home—refines its curriculum to address rather than avoid tough questions of theological interpretations, any officer or official participating in the fight will not only be entering it blind but, more damningly, will be entering it blind based on the political desire of their leadership. It’s time to equip those manning our front lines with real cultural awareness, not the religious equivalent of My Little Pony.

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Obama’s ISIS Policy: Committed to Victory?

We will have to wait until Wednesday to hear the president lay out in greater detail his plans for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but he and his aides have already said some things that should offer cause for both celebration and concern.

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We will have to wait until Wednesday to hear the president lay out in greater detail his plans for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but he and his aides have already said some things that should offer cause for both celebration and concern.

Start with the good news: Obama said on Meet the Press, “We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we’re going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them.” To which one can only say: About time. The threat from ISIS has been growing dangerously for many months. Now that ISIS has conquered an area the size of the United Kingdom, it is high time for the administration to commit to its defeat.

My concerns relate primarily to whether Obama will commit the resources needed to achieve this objective. Defense Department sources are leaking that the president envisions a three-year campaign against ISIS. The timeline may or may not be right, but why, in any case, is it being leaked? Did Franklin Roosevelt announce on December 8, 1941, that our goal was to defeat Germany and Japan within three years? He never did that. In fact Roosevelt was quite clear that our objective was the unconditional surrender of the enemy, no matter how much time it took. That is the proper way to rally the nation to go to war. Even if you have internal estimates of how long the campaign will take, why announce them? It can only give hope to the enemy that they can wait you out and dispirit allies because they fear that you are not committed to doing whatever is necessary to prevail. But Obama has become used to rolling out deadlines for military action, such as his 18-month timeline for the Afghan surge or his commitment to stay in Afghanistan after this year but to pull out before he leaves office in 2017. This is counterproductive.

So too is Obama’s habit of short-changing commanders on their troop requests. In Afghanistan, for example, the middle option presented by General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 was for 40,000 troops. Instead Obama sent only 30,000 and he imposed a hard cap of 100,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, which forced commanders to juggle units in and out so as to adhere to an artificial deadline rooted in politics not geo-strategy. Commanders were never given the resources or time that they needed to mount a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign and in fact Obama never embraced the word “counterinsurgency” even though that was what his commanders were doing with his full knowledge.

In the case of Iraq today, Obama has already made clear that he will not put any “boots on the ground,” thereby creating an artificial limit on the ability of our forces to achieve his primary objective–to destroy ISIS. All options should be on the table even if no one today contemplates sending large numbers of U.S. ground troops. At the very least, however, we will need an augmented force of advisers and Special Operations troops which, to be effective, would probably need to number at least 10,000 personnel once all the support elements are included. Will Obama sign up for such a commitment or will he try to achieve his objectives on the cheap by utilizing air power alone?

If he relies on airpower alone (the lowest risk option, at least from a force protection standpoint), it will be much harder to increase the effectiveness of the Sunni tribes, Iraqi security forces, Kurdish pesh merga, and the Free Syrian Army–the proxies we must count on to wage ground warfare in conjunction with U.S. air strikes. Their combat prowess will vastly increase if some American advisers and special operators can work alongside of them–and if the elite commandos of the Joint Special Operations Command are allowed to do the kind of network targeting of ISIS that they previously did to its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Moreover, to fight an organization like ISIS that sprawls across Syria and Iraq, the administration will need to sign up for military action on both sides of the virtually nonexistent Syria-Iraq border. Will Obama do so or will he be paralyzed by concerns about violating Bashar Assad’s “sovereignty” even though we no longer recognize him as the rightful ruler of Syria?

These are all causes for concern that we must hope Obama will address and allay on Wednesday. But given his track record of half-hearted military commitments from Libya to Afghanistan, I am worried that once again there will be a major disconnect between ends and means.

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Does Obama Want a Political Solution–Or a Talking Point?

Most presidents are stubborn and self-confident. They wouldn’t have gotten into office otherwise. In fact it takes an almost superhuman level of stubbornness and self-confidence for most aspirants to imagine they have what it takes to win the Oval Office. But, like with most good traits, if carried to extremes stubbornness and self-confidence can become self-destructive. We saw that with George W. Bush’s unwillingness to change course in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 when the situation was rapidly deteriorating. We are seeing it now with President Obama’s unwillingness to rethink his misbegotten timeline for pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.

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Most presidents are stubborn and self-confident. They wouldn’t have gotten into office otherwise. In fact it takes an almost superhuman level of stubbornness and self-confidence for most aspirants to imagine they have what it takes to win the Oval Office. But, like with most good traits, if carried to extremes stubbornness and self-confidence can become self-destructive. We saw that with George W. Bush’s unwillingness to change course in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 when the situation was rapidly deteriorating. We are seeing it now with President Obama’s unwillingness to rethink his misbegotten timeline for pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.

The disastrous situation in Iraq today shows what happens when U.S. forces leave prematurely from a fragile state. Yet the president appears to be sticking by his politically imposed timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. While he is willing to keep 10,000 troops next year (a bare minimum to meet military requirements), he will reduce U.S. forces by half, to just 5,000 troops, by the end of 2015 and pull them out altogether by the end of 2016.

The New York Times quotes an anonymous Obama aide saying: “People have said, ‘Doesn’t this [situation in Iraq] show that you should never take the troops out of Afghanistan?’ He said, ‘No, it actually points to the imperative of having political accommodation. There’s a limit to what we can achieve absent a political process.’ ”

Huh? The very reason why the U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan was so harmful was that it made it much harder for the political factions to pursue accommodation because they feared that, in the absence of U.S. troops, politics had become a winner-takes-all death match. Thus Nouri al-Maliki pursued a vendetta against Sunnis which created the soil for ISIS to spring up. By contrast, accommodation had been possible after the success of the surge in 2007-2008 which gave politicos some breathing room to compromise.

Has Obama truly learned nothing from history? Is he willing to let Afghanistan go down in flames as Iraq has been doing simply so that he can leave office bragging that he “ended” wars? If so, that goes beyond stubborness and into the realm of hubris for which, according to Greek mythology, there is inevitably a reckoning. That price will be paid in Obama’s historical reputation and, even worse, in the loss of American strategic objectives and the lives of Afghans who, like many Iraqis, foolishly trusted American promises of support.

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General Greene’s Death and the Afghan Mission

The death of Major General Harold Greene in Kabul is shocking on many levels. He is the most senior military officer killed in a war zone overseas since the Vietnam War and by all accounts a highly intelligent and competent officer who, ironically enough, had never served in combat before arriving in Afghanistan this year to take the No. 2 job at the command charged with training Afghan troops. Kabul is not particularly dangerous, especially not compared to Baghdad. I and many other visitors have been to the military academy where he was slain many times. Yet even in Kabul there can be terrorist attacks.

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The death of Major General Harold Greene in Kabul is shocking on many levels. He is the most senior military officer killed in a war zone overseas since the Vietnam War and by all accounts a highly intelligent and competent officer who, ironically enough, had never served in combat before arriving in Afghanistan this year to take the No. 2 job at the command charged with training Afghan troops. Kabul is not particularly dangerous, especially not compared to Baghdad. I and many other visitors have been to the military academy where he was slain many times. Yet even in Kabul there can be terrorist attacks.

The death of General Greene and the wounding of a number of other NATO personnel is all the more dismaying because the perpetrator was an Afghan soldier. Such incidents of “green on blue” violence have the potential to turn Americans against the entire Afghan endeavor. Why should we help them, many wonder, if even Afghan soldiers want to kill our troops?

A little perspective is in order. While there have been all too many “green on blue” attacks in Afghanistan, the number has actually dropped in the past year and it was never all that high to begin with. Very, very few Afghan soldiers have ever been driven to turn their weapons on their allies. As in, an infinitesimally small amount. We’re talking about a few dozen individuals out of a force more than 330,000 strong.

Remember that even the U.S. Armed Forces are hardly immune to these kinds of “insider” attacks. Fort Hood alone has seen two such attacks, one in 2009, another in April. The fact that Major Nidal Malik Hasan fatally shot 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009 is not and should not be taken as evidence that the U.S. Armed Forces are fundamentally disloyal. It was and should be seen as a freak occurrence by one disgruntled officer.

The shooting in Kabul should be seen in the same light. There is no larger problem of disloyalty among Afghan military units. They are not defecting to the enemy or refusing to fight. In fact they are fighting hard and suffering considerable casualties.

The “insider” threat in Afghanistan is real, but it is actually decreasing. The U.S. military is acutely conscious of this issue and has taken steps to mitigate the danger, for example by assigning troopers to act as “guardian angels” for other troopers when meeting with Afghan counterparts. Such steps have paid off. According to the Brookings Institution, there were 21 insider attacks in 2011, 41 in 2012, 9 in 2013, and just one this year prior to the attack on General Greene.

Moreover, while any death is tragic, it is important to keep in mind that U.S. fatalities overall are rapidly decreasing. According to the icasualties website, 39 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year–down from 127 in 2013, 310 in 2012, and 418 in 2011. Those figures will undoubtedly fall even more as U.S. personnel transition to an entirely advisory mission. What may happen is that, as the threat from IEDs and other types of attacks goes down, the percentage of fatalities caused by insider attacks goes up. But that should not mask the overall trend, which is that Afghanistan is getting safer for U.S. personnel.

Thus there is no reason to rethink the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan after this attack, no matter how shocking or tragic. Given General Greene’s lifetime of distinguished service–and the service of his family members as well–it is safe to assume that this is the last thing he would have wanted, for his death to lead to a pullout from Afghanistan that will undo all that he and so many other soldiers fought so hard to achieve.

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A Close Call, and a Warning, in Afghanistan

New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

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New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

If this had happened, it would have been a catastrophe of the first order. If Abdullah’s followers had resorted to force, it would have reignited the civil war that wrecked the country in the 1990s and provided an opening for the Taliban to seize power. Western aid would have been cut off and Afghanistan would have been on its own.

This dire outcome was only narrowly avoided by a timely phone call from President Obama to Abdullah and by Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparent success in defusing the crisis by negotiating a compromise that calls for all of the ballots to be recounted and for whoever loses the election to assume a new post as “chief executive” (i.e., prime minister) of the government led by the winning presidential candidate. The UN’s top representative in Kabul called it “not just a top-notch diplomatic achievement [but] close to a miracle.”

But the only reason that miracle occurred is that, with 30,000 troops still in Afghanistan and a commitment to keep 10,000 more after this year, the U.S. retains significant leverage to influence Afghan politics.

Imagine if this crisis had happened not in this presidential election but in the next one–in 2019. This is not much of a stretch since both this presidential election and the previous one, in 2009, were marred by accusations of fraud that threatened the foundation of Afghanistan’s fragile democracy. We can hope that no such crisis will occur next time around, but the reality is that the odds of such an imbroglio are high. Stable institutions in a country like Afghanistan, which has been wracked by nonstop conflict since 1979, take decades, not years, to develop.

It is, therefore, deeply unfortunate, and highly irresponsible, that President Obama has unilaterally pledged to give up America’s leverage in Afghanistan by removing our remaining troops by 2017. If he carries out this plan, and if it is not reversed by his successor (which will be hard to do: it’s always easier to maintain a troop commitment than to start a new one), the U.S. will have essentially no leverage on the conduct and aftermath of the 2019 election. In fact the U.S. would be consigning itself to the kind of spectator role it has assumed in Iraq since the pullout of U.S. troops at the end of 2011–and we know how that’s turned out.

It is imperative that Obama correct his blunder in pledging to remove troops by 2017. He should immediately announce that, should Afghanistan’s feuding politicos work out their difference and set up a government with widespread legitimacy that desired U.S. troops to continue serving in their country after 2017, he would accede to their request–or at least allow his successor to make the call. If the president doesn’t do that, he will be casting Afghanistan’s future into serious doubt.

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Obama and the New Global Instability

Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

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Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

A convergence of security crises is playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and reflecting a world in which U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous.

The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s, U.S. security strategists say, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, and Southeast Asia was reeling in the wake of the U.S. exit from Vietnam.

The story went on to say this:

In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.

Off center stage, but high on the minds of U.S. officials, are growing fears that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program could collapse this month, and that China is intensifying its territorial claims in East Asia.

The Journal story should be read along with this story from the New York Times published earlier this month that reports this:

Speaking at West Point in May, President Obama laid out a blueprint for fighting terrorism that relies less on American soldiers, like the cadets in his audience that day, and more on training troops in countries where those threats had taken root.

But this indirect approach, intended to avoid costly, bloody wars like the one the United States waged in Iraq, immediately collided with reality when a lethal jihadi insurgency swept across the same Iraqi battlefields where thousands of Americans had lost their lives.

The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.

While the militants from ISIS have moved swiftly to establish a caliphate from eastern Syria to central Iraq, the White House is struggling to repel them with measures that administration officials concede will take months or longer to be effective.

About these stories, I want to make several points, starting with this one: Mr. Obama said that if elected his approach would be characterized by “smart diplomacy.” The result would be that he would “remake the world” and “heal the planet.” And during the first summer of his presidency, Mr. Obama said his policies would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world and “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.”

Some new dawn.

President Obama has not only not achieved what he said he would; the world may well be, as Senator John McCain put it this weekend, “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.” Mr. Obama’s role in this turmoil depends on the particular case we’re talking about, but it’s certainly the case that (a) his policies have amplified and accelerated some of the problems around the world while failing to mitigate others and (b) measured against his own standards, the president has failed miserably.

Beyond that, though, his underlying philosophy–non-intervention, ending America’s involvement in wars instead of winning them, “leading from behind,” consciously making America a less powerful force in the world–has been tested in real time, against real circumstances. And it’s fair to say, I think, that not only has Mr. Obama failed (in part by being exceptionally incompetent at statecraft), but so has his left-leaning ideology, his worldview.

Finally, what Mr. Obama should have learned by now is that his confidence in his abilities were wildly exaggerated, based on nothing he had actually achieved. That the world is vastly more complicated than he ever imagined. And that being a successful diplomat is harder than being a community organizer. One might hope that Mr. Obama would be a wee bit chastened by now and learn something about modesty and his own limitations. But I rather doubt it, since he appears to me to be a man of startlingly little self-knowledge.

Every president learns that it’s easier to give speeches than to govern well, to criticize others than to help build a peaceful and ordered world. But no president I’m aware of has suffered from a wider gap between what he said and what he has been able to produce. We’ve entered a perilous moment in world affairs, and we have as chief executive a man who is wholly out of his depth. These are not good times for this exceptional nation.

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Kerry’s Afghanistan Breakthrough

It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

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It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

This is probably a bluff, but it’s a dangerous one because it threatens to reopen the deep fissures that fractured Afghanistan in the 1990s when Abdullah’s Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, fought a vicious civil war against the Taliban, whose ranks were (and are) made up of Pashtuns from the south and east. Ghani, who according to preliminary results won 56 percent of the vote, compared to Abdullah’s 44 percent, isn’t backing down either. He sees himself as the rightful next president of Afghanistan.

Enter Kerry. He flew into Kabul and in 12 hours of nonstop talks managed to get Abdullah and Ghani, both closeted in separate rooms of the U.S. Embassy along with their advisers, to agree on an internationally supervised procedure to audit all 8 million votes cast–a suspiciously high number, given that only 7 million or so voted in the first round of balloting.

If the process goes off as planned, and if it results in the seating of a government that is seen as legitimate (both admittedly big ifs), Kerry will have achieved a major diplomatic victory–one that could prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos. It will in fact be only his latest triumph in Afghanistan where he has had more luck than most American officials, even when he was still only a senator, in dealing with the difficult Hamid Karzai.

Why does Kerry seem more successful in Afghanistan than elsewhere–for example, in the Middle East, where he devoted so much energy to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” only to see another round of fighting break out between Israel and Hamas? Or in Ukraine where he has had little luck in getting the Russians to end their aggression by proxy?

The answers are pretty obvious but bear repeating. In Afghanistan Kerry has two advantages that he does not enjoy when negotiating with Iran or the Palestinian Authority or Russia: He has overwhelming American military force at his back and he has the luxury of dealing with actors who may have some differences but fundamentally share similar goals and outlooks.

Although their numbers are much reduced (and will fall further by the end of the year) the U.S. military still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, backed up by ample air power, making them the most formidable military force in the country. That gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.

Moreover, while Abdullah and Ghani bitterly disagree about which of them should be president, they are both widely seen as technocrats who want a democratic, Western-oriented, non-Taliban future for the country. That makes it possible, if not easy, for them to bridge their differences in the same way that union and corporate negotiators can do if led along by a skillful mediator.

Alas few if any of those preconditions exist elsewhere in the world, which makes it all the more mysterious that Kerry wants to expend so much energy on what are almost sure to be fruitless negotiations with adversaries who have no reason to reach agreement. He would be better advised to focus his efforts on mediating other disputes between relatively reasonable rivals, e.g., South Korea and Japan, rather than wasting his breathe trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program or the Palestinians to give up their dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

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Abdullah Jumps the Gun on Vote Fraud

The legend of the 1960 election is that Democratic bosses robbed Richard Nixon of critical votes in Texas and Illinois, giving those states to John F. Kennedy and thus ensuring his election. Nixon then refused to challenge the validity of the outcome–what was then the closest presidential election in U.S. history–because to do so would harm the national interest. Whether it happened exactly like that or not (and there is good cause for doubt as David Greenberg points out) the principle that Nixon claimed to be espousing was a good one: putting the nation’s interests above one’s own political ambitions.

That is a lesson that Abdullah Abdullah should keep in mind in Afghanistan. Abdullah was the front-runner in the first round of presidential voting, but even before all the ballots in the second round have been counted he is claiming fraud. This is an understandable but shortsighted reaction to early leaks which suggested that Abdullah was running a million votes behind Ashraf Ghani who had finished second in the initial round of balloting. Instead of waiting for a final vote count Abdullah has launched a preemptive strike. As the New York Times notes:

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The legend of the 1960 election is that Democratic bosses robbed Richard Nixon of critical votes in Texas and Illinois, giving those states to John F. Kennedy and thus ensuring his election. Nixon then refused to challenge the validity of the outcome–what was then the closest presidential election in U.S. history–because to do so would harm the national interest. Whether it happened exactly like that or not (and there is good cause for doubt as David Greenberg points out) the principle that Nixon claimed to be espousing was a good one: putting the nation’s interests above one’s own political ambitions.

That is a lesson that Abdullah Abdullah should keep in mind in Afghanistan. Abdullah was the front-runner in the first round of presidential voting, but even before all the ballots in the second round have been counted he is claiming fraud. This is an understandable but shortsighted reaction to early leaks which suggested that Abdullah was running a million votes behind Ashraf Ghani who had finished second in the initial round of balloting. Instead of waiting for a final vote count Abdullah has launched a preemptive strike. As the New York Times notes:

Rejecting the process laid out under Afghan electoral law, he called on the election commission to halt all vote-counting and immediately investigate any inflated ballot totals — steps that are designed to come after partial vote results are announced in the next few weeks. Mr. Abdullah also withdrew his election observers from the vote-counting and suspended his cooperation with the Independent Election Commission, which his campaign accuses of bias.

There has, in fact, been no evidence of widespread vote fraud yet presented. Perhaps fraud did occur on a large scale. If that’s the case Afghanistan has procedures for dealing with such a contingency–and the addition of international observers can help to ensure transparency.

But what Abdullah is doing is not constructive. He is unfairly throwing into doubt the legitimacy of the election and, should he lose, undermining the ability of Ghani to govern. That is not in Afghanistan’s interests–and ultimately not in Abdullah’s interests either if he wants to be seen as an elder statesman rather than a grasping politician.

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Could Jordan Fall?

I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

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I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

If ISIS is able to consolidate control, and given its ideological antipathy to nation-state borders, then it will likely turn its sights on Jordan. After all, while ISIS considers Jews, Christians, and Shi’ite Muslims to be heretics deserving of a slow and painful death, its main victims have always been Sunnis.

Security officials acknowledge that ISIS already has cells in Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan does himself no favors. Like Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia or Ayad Allawi in Iraq, Abdullah is far more popular abroad than he is at home. Indeed, when he assumed the throne upon the death of his father, Abdullah was fluent in English but stumbled through Arabic. His wife Rania might charm Western audiences and might be imagined to attract Palestinian support because of her own heritage, but her profligate spending and tin ear to the plight of ordinary people has antagonized many Jordanians.

Many tensions Jordan faces are not Abdullah’s fault: While Jordan has, more than any other Arab state, worked to integrate the Palestinian refugee population, it has also been hit by waves of refugees, first from Iraq and then from Syria. Those working among the Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan report that they have not previously seen such a radicalized population. Jordan also does not have the natural resources of some of its neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Iraq are oil-rich and Israel now has gas.

The left-of-center Center for American Progress last week released an excellent new report looking at the pressures Jordan faces as well as the Islamist landscape in the Kingdom. Anything by the Washington Institute’s David Schenker is also worth reading.

An element of blowback also exists. Speaking on the Chris Matthews Show almost a decade ago, King Abdullah II warned of a “Shi’ite crescent,” a specter he subsequently explained in this Middle East Quarterly interview. For those who see an Iranian hidden hand behind every Shi’ite community, Abdullah’s warning had resonance. For Arab Shi’ites, however, it was unrestrained bigotry. Abdullah was not simply content to warn, however. He transformed Jordan into a safe haven for Iraqi Sunni insurgents and spared little effort to undermine Iraqi stability. He, like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was too clever for his own good: By supporting those who justified violence against Shi’ites on sectarian grounds and by working for his own sectarian reasons to undercut Iraqi stability, he set the stage for the blowback which is on the horizon.

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What Does Mosul Mean for Afghanistan?

Over at AEI-Ideas, I spoke a bit about what al-Qaeda’s take-over of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and a town I visited earlier this year, means for Iraq. But it’s just as important to reflect on what it means for Afghanistan. The Washington Post quoted Osama Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab whose brother is governor of Mosul and who himself is speaker of Iraq’s parliament, as saying, “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists.”

In order to justify the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the White House repeatedly claimed that Iraqi forces were well-trained and ready. The generals who trained the new Iraqi army also exaggerated their prowess. For the more ambitious among them, acknowledging reality might mean losing some of the public relations luster those who sought the limelight craved.

When it came to rebuilding the army, Iraq was supposed to be the easy one. While many analysts criticize the Bush administration’s decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s army, the U.S. military immediately began building a new force from its ashes. In reality, Iraq was without an army for about three weeks. Afghanistan, however, was a different case. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, but it was only in May 1993 that the Defense Ministry went vacant and the Afghan army evaporated. After 9/11, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, it faced the Herculean task of rebuilding an army that had been gone not for weeks but for years.

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Over at AEI-Ideas, I spoke a bit about what al-Qaeda’s take-over of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and a town I visited earlier this year, means for Iraq. But it’s just as important to reflect on what it means for Afghanistan. The Washington Post quoted Osama Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab whose brother is governor of Mosul and who himself is speaker of Iraq’s parliament, as saying, “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists.”

In order to justify the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the White House repeatedly claimed that Iraqi forces were well-trained and ready. The generals who trained the new Iraqi army also exaggerated their prowess. For the more ambitious among them, acknowledging reality might mean losing some of the public relations luster those who sought the limelight craved.

When it came to rebuilding the army, Iraq was supposed to be the easy one. While many analysts criticize the Bush administration’s decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s army, the U.S. military immediately began building a new force from its ashes. In reality, Iraq was without an army for about three weeks. Afghanistan, however, was a different case. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, but it was only in May 1993 that the Defense Ministry went vacant and the Afghan army evaporated. After 9/11, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, it faced the Herculean task of rebuilding an army that had been gone not for weeks but for years.

As President Obama has moved forward with plans for a withdrawal based upon an arbitrary timeline, those under him seem to treat readiness figures with equal spuriousness. Initially, planners estimated that Afghanistan would require $6 billion in aid annually to support and subsidize a 352,000-man force. But as the U.S. sped up plans to withdrawal, suddenly it was determined that Afghanistan would only need a 250,000-man force. The question is whether those revised numbers provided by military planners were based on the fact that suddenly Afghanistan’s army became that much better or, more likely, that the White House recognized that it wouldn’t have the money and so it decided simply to fib.

The problem with lying, and the problem with basing national security on politics rather than actuality, is that eventually reality catches it. It did last night in Mosul, and it will again across Afghanistan if the Obama administration insists on replicating its same mistakes there.

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Kerry’s Implausible Antiterror Assurances

John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas. 

For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces). 

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John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas. 

For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces). 

The reasons for this forbearance are a bit mysterious–it’s not as if U.S. intelligence doesn’t have good actionable intelligence on the location inside Pakistan of senior Taliban commanders and it’s not as if those commanders aren’t plotting regular attacks on American forces. Most likely the U.S. has refrained from targeting them for fear of offending Pakistani sensitivities, because the Taliban are so closely linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. There is also undoubted concern about operating drones in urban areas where the Taliban hide and where the risk of civilian casualties is much greater.

Whatever the cause, it’s a fact that the U.S. has not tried to kill senior Taliban commanders such as those just released from Guantanamo as long as they have stayed out of Afghanistan. This is unlikely to change in the future, especially now that the U.S. is beginning its pullout from Afghanistan. So as long as the Taliban Five don’t infiltrate Afghanistan–as long as they stay in Pakistan, or even Qatar, to organize attacks–they are de facto freed of the threat of American retaliation. 

The Bergdahl swap may still be defensible on “leave no man behind” grounds. But Kerry and other senior administration officials need to level about the fact that our imperfect intelligence will not allow us to know as soon as the Taliban Five return to terrorism and our self-imposed limitations on the use of force in all likelihood will not allow us to kill them if they do.

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Thinking Through the Morality of the Bergdahl Deal

I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

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I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

In that context it’s worth noting that six former members of Sgt. Bergdahl’s platoon were interviewed by Fox’s Megyn Kelly, and to a person they opposed the Bergdahl deal. And it’s not simply based on how Bergdahl conducted himself. They made it clear they wouldn’t want or expect a similar deal for their return if they had been captured. In addition, according to this story in Time, the president’s actions overrode officials in the Pentagon and intelligence communities who had successfully fought off release of the five Taliban members in the past. So when the president says, as he did yesterday, that his actions simply reaffirm the “basic principle that we don’t leave anybody behind,” it may be that this principle isn’t as basic or self-evident as he thinks. What the president did to secure the release of Sgt. Bergdahl has rankled a lot of people in uniform, who presumably have some understanding of what their country owes those who are captured.

As a general matter, then, I believe that releasing experienced jihadist commanders in exchange for an American soldier is too high a price to pay, even as I understand why others would disagree with me.

This case, of course, is complicated–at least for some of us–by the fact that based on the publicly available evidence, including reported interviews with those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl seems to have been a deserter. If that’s the case, the moral question moves from swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier to swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier who betrayed his country. They are rather different things.

Citizenship isn’t simply what our nation owes us; it’s also what we owe our nation. There is reciprocity involved. The dictionary definition of citizenship is “the condition or status of a citizen, with its rights and duties.” [Emphasis added.] When an individual breaks faith with his country–when there are grave violations of duty–how his country views him and treats him ought to change. Mass murderers are citizens, too, but we rightly treat them differently than we do those who abide by the law. Under some circumstances we deny rights, including in some instances the right to life, to American citizens.

What makes this deal even more troubling for some of us is that several genuine American heroes may have died in order to free an individual who deserted them. If that’s the case, and more investigation has to occur before we know for sure, that has to be factored in as well. Mr. Obama spent a lot of time talking in moving terms about Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents. Perhaps someday he’ll find it within his heart to talk in equally moving terms about the parents and spouses and children of those who bore such a high cost trying to free Sgt. Bergdahl. The parents of a deserter have had the honor of standing next to the president in the Rose Garden. Will the parents of the heroes who tried to free him be accorded the same honor?

Let me now offer up a thought experiment. Assume for the sake of the argument that the five released terrorists return to the battlefield and as a result 50, or 500, or 5,000, or 50,000 Americans die as a result. Would those who favor this deal continue to defend it? If not, how many dead Americans tip the scales from supporting to opposing it?

My point is that this kind of decision often involves an element of ethical consequentialism. It’s not self-evident to me that if the result of winning the release of a man who deserted is the destruction of a large American city, securing that release is morally justifiable. To be clear: I’m not saying that the release of Sgt. Bergdahl will result in such an event; I’m simply saying that most of us would properly take into account what the consequences are. Yet some of those who defend the deal insist that what follows from it need not be taken into account.

Our nation has a special responsibility to those who put on the uniform, but they also a have special responsibility to our nation. They agree to uphold a code of conduct. By the accounts of those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl failed in his responsibilities. Which is why some of the strongest reaction against this deal comes from those in the military who have actually served our nation with honor and distinction; who felt summoned by a country whose voice (to paraphrase George Washington) they could never hear but with veneration and love. 

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Our Parade of Commanders in Afghanistan

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established in January 2002 as the headquarters to oversee U.S. and allied troop deployments in Afghanistan. That was about 12 1/2 years ago. In that period there have been 15 commanders of ISAF. Just since 2007 there have been six ISAF commanders (McNeill, McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen, Dunford). And now we are about to get another with the announcement that General Joe Dunford, who has led ISAF since February 2013, is about to leave to become the next commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. 

Dunford has done a great job in Afghanistan under very trying circumstances and he certainly deserves to become commandant. But what does it say about military priorities that he is being pulled out as commander of a theater in wartime—the only such in the entire U.S. military—to assume a job back in the Pentagon? What it says to me is that the problem that Bob Gates so often complained about still isn’t fixed—namely that while portions of the military are at war, a large part of the military establishment remains on a peacetime footing.

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The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established in January 2002 as the headquarters to oversee U.S. and allied troop deployments in Afghanistan. That was about 12 1/2 years ago. In that period there have been 15 commanders of ISAF. Just since 2007 there have been six ISAF commanders (McNeill, McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen, Dunford). And now we are about to get another with the announcement that General Joe Dunford, who has led ISAF since February 2013, is about to leave to become the next commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. 

Dunford has done a great job in Afghanistan under very trying circumstances and he certainly deserves to become commandant. But what does it say about military priorities that he is being pulled out as commander of a theater in wartime—the only such in the entire U.S. military—to assume a job back in the Pentagon? What it says to me is that the problem that Bob Gates so often complained about still isn’t fixed—namely that while portions of the military are at war, a large part of the military establishment remains on a peacetime footing.

Dwight Eisenhower did not return home to become army chief of staff until November 1945—until, that is, World War II was finished. It would have been unthinkable to bring him home while combat was still going on. And yet it is considered normal practice to bring home commanders from Afghanistan while the war continues to rage.

Granted the conflict in Afghanistan is a long-term struggle that, unlike World War II, will not have a definite endpoint anytime soon. But there is still a need for command continuity, all the more so because so much of what gets done in Afghanistan gets done via personal relationships. Every commander coming in has to build a new set of relationships with Afghans. The learning curve is steep and there is a price to be paid for shaking up the top tier so often. The willingness of the government to play musical chairs with our commanders bespeaks a fundamental lack of seriousness about winning this conflict.

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Obama’s Dishonorable Deal

Even I, a consistent and at times quite a harsh critic of President Obama, have been taken aback by the latest turn of events.

To recapitulate: Mr. Obama released five high-value, high-risk terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it appears was a deserter–and has been known to be a deserter for a couple of years. People who served with him are calling on the military to court martial Bergdahl. Media reports indicate that at least six Americans died  in their efforts to rescue him.

In de facto negotiating with the Taliban and acceding to their demands, the president violated a law he signed, requiring him to inform Congress 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo Bay. And the effect of this deal will be to incentivize the capture of more Americans, since it obviously pays dividends.

Yet the Obama administration took this humiliating accommodation and portrayed it as a victory of American values and purpose. The president held a Rose Garden event on Saturday extolling the deal. National Security Adviser Susan Rice referred to it as an “extraordinary day for America” that deserves to be “celebrated.” And Ms. Rice said of Sgt. Bergdahl, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.” 

Really, now? A deserter who, according to the New York Times, “left a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life,” is a person who served with “honor and distinction”? By what ethical calculus does she claim this to be so?

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Even I, a consistent and at times quite a harsh critic of President Obama, have been taken aback by the latest turn of events.

To recapitulate: Mr. Obama released five high-value, high-risk terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it appears was a deserter–and has been known to be a deserter for a couple of years. People who served with him are calling on the military to court martial Bergdahl. Media reports indicate that at least six Americans died  in their efforts to rescue him.

In de facto negotiating with the Taliban and acceding to their demands, the president violated a law he signed, requiring him to inform Congress 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo Bay. And the effect of this deal will be to incentivize the capture of more Americans, since it obviously pays dividends.

Yet the Obama administration took this humiliating accommodation and portrayed it as a victory of American values and purpose. The president held a Rose Garden event on Saturday extolling the deal. National Security Adviser Susan Rice referred to it as an “extraordinary day for America” that deserves to be “celebrated.” And Ms. Rice said of Sgt. Bergdahl, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.” 

Really, now? A deserter who, according to the New York Times, “left a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life,” is a person who served with “honor and distinction”? By what ethical calculus does she claim this to be so?

This illustrates quite well the fundamental differences the president and his aides and I have. My response to what has occurred is not just intellectual but visceral. I consider what occurred, when everything is taken into account, to be substantively indefensible and morally dishonorable. The president, in my estimation, has rendered a great service to our enemies, and they know it. (Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, hailed the release of the top five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo as a “great victory” for the mujahideen of Afghanistan.) The president’s decision may well endanger American lives down the road. And his administration has elevated an apparent deserter–one whose actions were reported on in the past (see this 2012 Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings) and who is responsible for the death of fellow soldiers who tried to rescue him–into a hero. 

This strikes me as morally grotesque. Yet for Mr. Obama and some of those in the progressive movement, the events of the last few days count as a fantastic achievement, one worth venerating and exalting.

Years ago John Gray wrote a book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In this case, it’s the president and I who occupy different worlds, including different moral worlds. Mr. Obama is proud of a series of acts that I would think he would, after careful reflection, feel regret for and even (when it comes to his administration lionizing Sgt. Bergdahl) some shame.

At times individuals interpret the same events at such different angles of vision that their actions are nearly incomprehensible one to another. I will confess that more than I ever imagined, I have that feeling with my president.

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Can the White House Be Trusted on Iran Deal?

President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

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President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

Given the detachment of the White House from reality, perhaps it’s time now to double down on the demand that the White House not be trusted to make a deal with Iran without Congress carefully vetting the terms of that deal. The United States and regional states will have to live with whatever Obama’s negotiators decide, but Obama’s team has clearly demonstrated that they have little sense of strategic consequences. Perhaps if there’s any lesson that can be learned from the Bergdahl debacle, it can be that it provides warning that Obama left to his own devices uses secrecy to shield himself from criticism, but is prone to damaging American credibility. What’s at stake with Iran’s nuclear program is simply too important to defer to Obama’s judgment alone.

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How Not to Handle a Prisoner Swap

Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

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Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

If only the president and his team showed as much passion about actually winning the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, it appears that the handling of this whole issue is symptomatic of the administration’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Their emphasis has always been on bringing the troops home, no matter the price, not on making sure that the troops accomplish their objectives.

In the case of Bergdahl the price includes encouraging the Taliban (and other Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda) to think that we are weak and can be rolled–to think that they can win American concessions if they take Americans hostage. This makes a mockery of our criticism of allies such as France, Italy, and South Korea, which have provided payoffs to get their hostages released. And it exposes our troops to greater danger down the line, once the Guantanamo releasees return to the fight–as they surely will, even if Qatar sticks by its pledge to keep them out of trouble for a year.

And what makes it all the more annoying is that Bergdahl is hardly a hero as he is now being portrayed. We still don’t have a definitive accounting of how he was captured, but members of his unit believe he was a deserter who walked off his guard post. And they’re angry about the whole situation–as former army officer Nathan Bradley Bethea writes in the Daily Beast

Bethea served in the same battalion as Bergdahl and participated in attempts to free him in the summer of 2009. Bethea is upset, and understandably so, because good men died trying to free Bergdahl–not only in the search itself but, he argues, indirectly, because the search pulled in so many intelligence and surveillance assets that other units were left exposed to Taliban attack. Bethea writes: “The truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

If those assertions are true, then Bergdahl, now that he’s freed, should be court-martialed, because desertion in the face of the enemy is a serious offense. Whatever his ultimate fate, Bergdahl deserves our sympathy for his ordeal. His parents deserve sympathy for what they have had to endure too. But he should not be canonized and the administration should not treat his release as a high point of its foreign policy. Because surely they must have some more worthy achievements to boast of. Right?

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Obama’s Fantasy World

In his speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama attempted to lay out his vision for America and the world in the years to come. 

The address was notable for several things, beginning with what is by now Mr. Obama’s almost comical use of straw men, with the president creating one imaginary critic and sham argument after another. (Max Boot recounts them here; the Washington Post does so here.) What was also apparent in this speech was another Obama trait: prickliness and pettiness, in this case using a military academy commencement ceremony to mock his critics. “Those who argue … that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president asserted. (More about that claim later.)

The West Point address also revealed an extraordinary category error by America’s commander in chief. Mr. Obama seems to think “winding down” a war is synonymous with success. They can actually be antonyms, as in Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama wants his legacy to be that he ended two wars. It may well be that his legacy is that he lost two wars.

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In his speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama attempted to lay out his vision for America and the world in the years to come. 

The address was notable for several things, beginning with what is by now Mr. Obama’s almost comical use of straw men, with the president creating one imaginary critic and sham argument after another. (Max Boot recounts them here; the Washington Post does so here.) What was also apparent in this speech was another Obama trait: prickliness and pettiness, in this case using a military academy commencement ceremony to mock his critics. “Those who argue … that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president asserted. (More about that claim later.)

The West Point address also revealed an extraordinary category error by America’s commander in chief. Mr. Obama seems to think “winding down” a war is synonymous with success. They can actually be antonyms, as in Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama wants his legacy to be that he ended two wars. It may well be that his legacy is that he lost two wars.

In his speech Mr. Obama could not defend his actual record, which is (perhaps with the exception of Burma) ruinous. So he opted for a “vision” speech. But the problem here is that the president didn’t lay out a vision so much as invoked a myth. He doesn’t seem to realize that false claims, repeated ad nauseam, don’t become more true. And what are the (related) false claims the president kept reciting like an incantation? Let the president speak for himself:

America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…. the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation…  The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead… Here’s my bottom line:  America must always lead on the world stage.

But of course during the Obama Era the United States has not led, and intentionally so. As an Obama adviser told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in 2011, the closest thing to a doctrine animating the Obama foreign policy is “leading from behind.” Here is the relevant paragraph from the Lizza story

Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

So there you have it. The Obama administration, by its own admission, believes the relative power of the U.S. is declining. There’s no word yet on when Mr. Obama will indict himself for either misreading history or engaging in partisan politics. 

America in decline has been the operating premise of the Obama administration from Day One; “leading from behind” is how they have sought to manage that decline. But the president, having been hammered for being both weak and inept, is now personally leading a PR campaign to twist things around. He wants you to believe that leading from behind is really leading from ahead. And if you are Barack Obama, post-modernist, facts are subordinated to “narrative.” Truth is not an objective account of the way things are; it is what proves most helpful in interpreting events. (See “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period.”) Which means the president thinks he can make things up–that he can reinvent reality–as he goes along. What he’s finding out is he can’t. In the end, reality catches up to all of us. Even Barack Obama.

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