Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan

Korea’s Lesson for Afghanistan

One of the more controversial issues in recent years when it comes to South Korea’s close relationship with the U.S. has been the transfer of wartime “operational command” of Korea’s armed forces to, well, Koreans. Ever since the establishment of a United Nations command, led by the United States, in the dark days of the Korean War, a U.S. four-star general has been appointed to lead both Korean and U.S. forces in wartime. Peacetime control of the Korean military returned to Seoul in 1994 and deadlines had been set–and regularly missed–to turn over wartime “opcon”: first in 2012, then in 2015.

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One of the more controversial issues in recent years when it comes to South Korea’s close relationship with the U.S. has been the transfer of wartime “operational command” of Korea’s armed forces to, well, Koreans. Ever since the establishment of a United Nations command, led by the United States, in the dark days of the Korean War, a U.S. four-star general has been appointed to lead both Korean and U.S. forces in wartime. Peacetime control of the Korean military returned to Seoul in 1994 and deadlines had been set–and regularly missed–to turn over wartime “opcon”: first in 2012, then in 2015.

Now, at the request of the South Koreans, the deadline has been lifted altogether for a “conditions based” approach that makes a lot more sense: in short, the U.S. will transfer opcon when the Koreans feel ready to assume it. South Korean officials have suggested that date won’t arrive until the mid-2020s. The Obama administration is to be commended for willing to allow the U.S. to play the lead military role on the peninsula until then.

Yet that raises an obvious question: if the U.S. stand-down in Korea is to be “conditions based,” why not in Afghanistan?

President Obama announced that he would reduce the U.S. force in Afghanistan to less than 10,000 by the end of this year and withdraw the troops altogether by the end of 2016. This is not conditions-based at all–it is based on a White House timeline that has nothing to do with on-the-ground reality.

The struggle against the Taliban continues to rage unabated. Just between March and August of this year, the Afghan National Security Forces lost more than 3,300 men–more than the U.S. has lost in 13 years of war. The Afghans are still able to hold off the Taliban, but only with continuing U.S. help. Withdraw the help, even as Pakistan continues its support for the Taliban, and the likely result will be a disintegration similar to what occurred in Iraq following the U.S. pullout in 2011.

President Obama can help Afghanistan to avoid this dire fate by extending to that country the same logic he has just applied to South Korea: namely, that U.S. troop drawdowns should be based on conditions on the ground, not on artificial deadlines dictated from Washington for political reasons.

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GOP’s Hawkish Turn Rewarded in the Polls

Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

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Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

That swing in public opinion could well deliver the Senate into GOP hands–and it will likely make the next presidential election anything but a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. But before gloating too much, Republicans should reflect that this swing in public opinion actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about President Obama’s mistakes, which are monumental. Naturally, as ISIS and Vladimir Putin run wild, the public has lost confidence in him and his party. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP is worthy of respect or that the newfound popularity of the Republicans will last long.

Happy Republicans should reflect on how decisively they lost their traditional edge, in particular, on national security issues during the bungled years of President Bush’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Luckily for both Bush and the country, he managed to oversee an impressive recovery in Iraq in 2007-2008 whose gains, unfortunately, have been dissipated by Obama’s pullout–for which the president is now paying a price in the polls.

To sustain public confidence in their national-security credentials it would be helpful for Republicans to have a unified line as they mostly did during the Cold War, at least since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft (the standard bearer of Midwestern isolationism) in 1952. That kind of unity has been in large part lacking since the Iraq War turned south, with some in the GOP advocating a more interventionist foreign policy while others preached non-interventionism.

The rise of ISIS has temporarily inspired a return to more hawkish attitudes even among neo-isolationists like Rand Paul. But it remains to be seen if this is a passing fad or whether leading Republicans are finally getting serious about embracing their Teddy Roosevelt-Ronald Reagan heritage of global leadership. If Republicans succumb once again to the non-interventionist temptation, as President Obama did, their newfound popularity will not last long. Because if the latest polls show anything, it is that the public demands strong leadership on national security even if it is uncertain about the particulars of this or that policy.

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Why Kobani Might Fall

At one level it might seem curious that the town of Kobani in northern Syria–a Kurdish enclave–is in danger of falling to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS even though the U.S. is now bombing them. It is not so hard to figure out why U.S. air strikes have been so ineffective if one compares them with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001–almost exactly 13 years ago–in Afghanistan.

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At one level it might seem curious that the town of Kobani in northern Syria–a Kurdish enclave–is in danger of falling to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS even though the U.S. is now bombing them. It is not so hard to figure out why U.S. air strikes have been so ineffective if one compares them with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001–almost exactly 13 years ago–in Afghanistan.

RAND’s Benjamin Lambeth summed up the Afghan air campaign as follows: “[D]uring the 75 days of bombing between October 7, when Enduring Freedom began, and December 23, when the first phase of the war ended after the collapse of the Taliban, some 6,500 strike sorties were flown by CENTCOM forces altogether, out of which approximately 17,500 munitions were dropped on more than 120 fixes targets, 400 vehicles and artillery pieces, and a profusion of concentrations of Taliban and al Qaeda combatants.”

Now compare with the statistics on the current U.S. aerial bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. According to Central Command, in the 59 days between August 8, when the campaign started, and October 6, the U.S. has conducted 360 strikes utilizing 955 munitions.

That’s a big difference between dropping 17,500 munitions in Afghanistan and 955 in Iraq/Syria. So rare are U.S. strikes today that Centcom has actually taken to issuing press releases to announce the dropping of two 500-pound bombs.

The bare numbers understate the actual difference, moreover, because the U.S. was dropping heavier bombs from heavier aircraft such as the B-52 in Afghanistan which have so far not been utilized in Iraq/Syria. Moreover, the effect of strikes in Iraq/Syria is not as great because Obama has refused U.S. Special Operations personnel permission to go out into the field alongside indigenous forces to call in airstrikes as they did so effectively alongside the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This is to say nothing of the fact that in neither Iraq nor Syria is there a ground force as effective and organized as the Northern Alliance capable of taking advantage of U.S. airstrikes to attack ISIS on the ground.

The lack of a ground force is a problem that will not be solved for a while because it will take time to train and organize fighters, although the process can be hastened by committing U.S. personnel as combat advisers. But even now there is nothing preventing the U.S. from mounting heavier air strikes as we did in Afghanistan. Nothing, that is, except the lack of will exhibited by the commander in chief who has claimed as his goal the eventual destruction of ISIS but refuses to commit the resources necessary to achieve that ambitious objective.

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Ashraf Ghani’s Good Week

Count me as among those who were skeptical about whether Ashraf Ghani–or for that matter any other mortal–would have what it takes to confront Afghanistan’s monumental problems. He’s been in office little more than a week so it’s too early to pass any judgment on his new administration, but in those few short days he has shown himself to be a bundle of energy who is making all the right moves to distinguish his presidency from that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

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Count me as among those who were skeptical about whether Ashraf Ghani–or for that matter any other mortal–would have what it takes to confront Afghanistan’s monumental problems. He’s been in office little more than a week so it’s too early to pass any judgment on his new administration, but in those few short days he has shown himself to be a bundle of energy who is making all the right moves to distinguish his presidency from that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

Ghani began by signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. that allows American troops to remain in Afghanistan after this year. Karzai had negotiated the accord but in a typical example of his maddening inaction, he refused to sign it, thus casting into doubt the future of the U.S. military mission. Ghani removed all doubt with a decisive stroke of his pen.

Ghani then reopened the investigation into the Bank of Kabul, a Ponzi scheme which collapsed in 2010 with an estimated $1 billion in losses. Some of its employees and owners have gone to jail but there is a widespread perception that many of the powerbrokers who benefitted from the bank’s crooked machinations have not been brought to justice. The fact that Ghani has reopened the investigation creates the potential to deliver justice and, most important of all, to undo the perception that rampant corruption will be tolerated by the government as it was in Karzai’s day. It is hard to overstate the importance of this issue: Governmental corruption has been the Taliban’s best recruiter.

When Prime Minister David Cameron visited Kabul, Ghani stood with him and delivered a moving tribute to British and other soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan–quite a contrast to the anti-American and anti-Western tirades Karzai had become known for.

Ghani also ventured out of his palace to visit Camp Commando where the Afghan National Army’s Special Operations Forces train. On his Twitter feed Ghani posted pictures of him bowing to the soldiers and hugging a wounded soldier. He wrote: “Today – I’ve visited our real heroes, the ANA. They’re paying sacrifices everyday for our protection. We salute them.” This might seem unexceptionable in an American context where we’re used to presidents paying tribute to the troops. But it was revolutionary in Afghanistan where Karzai refused to act like a wartime leader. He seldom if ever met with Afghan troops or voiced support for their sacrifice, preferring to issue calls for outreach to his “brothers” in the Taliban. The fact that Ghani is embracing the troops is a very welcome change.

Finally Ghani reversed Karzai’s order expelling New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg for having the temerity to report in August on a plot among some Afghan politicos affiliated with Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s rival for the presidency, to seize power regardless of the election outcome. The fact that Ghani has welcomed Rosenberg back is a positive sign that press freedom will be respected.

These are only small, symbolic steps, of course. Much remains to be done to tackle Afghanistan’s woes and Ghani will not have an easy time dealing either with warlords and other powerbrokers or with Abdullah who, as the price of giving up his challenge to the election results, was rewarded with the nebulous and extra-constitutional post of “chief executive.” But Ghani is off to a great start. If he continues making progress at this rate–and that of course is a big if–Afghanistan has the potential to take a decisive turn for the better.

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Will Afghanistan Turn the Tables on Pakistan?

Flying into Kabul earlier this week just before Afghanistan’s presidential inauguration, a number of embassy cars sat waiting to pick up VIPs and visitors from their respective nations. It was telling that the Pakistani embassy cars were the only ones not armored. After all, because Pakistan supports the Taliban and its terrorism, the visitors from Islamabad had about as much need for an armored car as Iranian diplomats would in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. Terrorism is not a random phenomenon.

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Flying into Kabul earlier this week just before Afghanistan’s presidential inauguration, a number of embassy cars sat waiting to pick up VIPs and visitors from their respective nations. It was telling that the Pakistani embassy cars were the only ones not armored. After all, because Pakistan supports the Taliban and its terrorism, the visitors from Islamabad had about as much need for an armored car as Iranian diplomats would in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. Terrorism is not a random phenomenon.

For many Americans, ancient history is anything more than a decade or two old. While a generation of American servicemen, diplomats, and journalists think about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, they think about it in terms of one-way infiltration: Pakistani-supported Taliban or other terrorists infiltrating into Pakistan in order to conduct terrorism. In this, they are not wrong. But if the broader sweep of history is considered, then much of the infiltration went the other way, with Afghan and Pashtun nationalists sneaking across the border into Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province. (I had summed up a lot of that history, here.)

As U.S. forces and America’s NATO partners prepare to withdraw upon an arbitrary political deadline, terrorism will surge inside Afghanistan but terrorism will not be limited to that country. Many Afghans believe—and they are perhaps not wrong—that diplomacy will never convince Pakistan to curtail its terror sponsorship. Pakistani officials do not take American diplomats seriously. Pakistani diplomats either lie shamelessly or purposely keep themselves ignorant of the actions and policies of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Instead, Afghans may increasingly turn to tit-for-tat terrorism, all with plausible deniability: A bomb goes off in Kabul? Well, then a bomb will go off in Islamabad. A Talib shoots an Afghan colonel? Well, then a Pakistani colonel will mysteriously suffer the same fate.

Pakistan has supported Islamist radicalism since at least 1971, when its defeat at the hands of Bangladeshi nationalists convinced the ISI and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that radical Islam could be the glue that held Pakistan together and protect it against the corrosiveness of ethnic nationalism. President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took that embrace of Islamism to a new level.

The Pakistani elite has not hesitated to use the Taliban and various Kashmiri and other jihadi and terrorist groups as a tool of what it perceives as Pakistani interests. Sitting within their elite bubble, they mistakenly believe that they can control these forces of radical Islamism. That Pakistan has suffered 50,000 deaths in its own fight against radicals suggests they are wrong. The blowback may only have just begun, however.

Pakistanis may believe that an American withdrawal will bring peace (on Pakistan’s terms) to Afghanistan, but they may soon learn the hard way that Afghanistan can be an independent actor; that not every official is under the control of, let alone easily intimidated by Pakistan; and that terrorism can go both ways. That is not to endorse terrorism—analysis is not advocacy—but simply a recognition that the regional reverberations of the forthcoming American and NATO drawdown will be far broader than perhaps both Washington and Islamabad consider.

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Afghanistan Heading Toward Meltdown

I spent the past week in Afghanistan to attend the Herat Security Dialogue, an opportunity to meet and debate with Iranians, Pakistanis, Taliban representatives, and senior Afghan government officials, all in Herat’s historic citadel.

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I spent the past week in Afghanistan to attend the Herat Security Dialogue, an opportunity to meet and debate with Iranians, Pakistanis, Taliban representatives, and senior Afghan government officials, all in Herat’s historic citadel.

I’ve been traveling back and forth to Afghanistan since 1997—I was in Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban first attacked the city—and also spent time in Jalalabad, Kabul, Ghazni, and Kandahar when the Taliban controlled those cities in the days before 9/11. I have returned several times since: to visit my wife who worked as a military contractor in Kabul, see Afghan friends, conduct interviews while writing my recent book chapter on U.S.-Taliban diplomacy, and now attend Afghanistan’s premier strategic forum. Because I’m not a guest of the U.S. Embassy or military in Afghanistan, I’ve been able to avoid their security bubble.

The progress I’ve seen over the past 17 years has been remarkable. Flying into Herat is to fly into a bustling and vibrant city; Kabul now has the beginnings of a real skyline. Anyone caught in Kabul traffic would not believe the quiet of the place 14 years ago when cars were scarce. In both Herat and Kabul—the two cities I visited this past week—kites dipped and darted by the dozens, a sport which the Taliban banned. Women in Herat were outspoken about their refusal to go back to the segregation and, indeed, isolation they felt under the Taliban’s s Islamic Emirate. I had the pleasure to sit on a panel with Habiba Sarobi, a former governor of Bamiyan and the first woman ever to serve as an Afghan governor. On Monday, Afghanistan witnessed its first peaceful transfer of power in its history (or at least the first time a living ruler retired peacefully).

Alas, while it may be hard to imagine Afghanistan returning to the totalitarianism of the Taliban or the violence of the civil war years, many Afghans appear to be preparing for the worst. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the power-sharing accord which convinced former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah to cease contesting his second wrong loss and acquiesce to Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration. Abdullah will become a de facto prime minister. On paper, this looks like hard-won, creative diplomacy. In reality, it’s a recipe for disaster. Diplomats love power-sharing coalitions, the broader the better. In reality, these never work. John Bolton and Samantha Power would probably not work well together; neither would Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders. Healthy governance requires a strong opposition, not a broad tent with no one outside. Big tents are less about governance and more about patronage, the polite way of saying bribery.

While Kerry’s agreement allowed the inauguration to go ahead, neither Abdullah nor Ghani has been able to agree on ministerial posts. Afghans said that there are well over a dozen candidates for each post. Analysts criticize former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for monopolizing the interior and defense ministry posts, but in Afghanistan there is a government with far more posts—and all key posts—vacant.

Nor are Afghans optimistic that filling these posts will resolve problems. Most of Karzai’s ministers—or at least their close family members—appear to have made millions during their tenures. They did so against the backdrop of seemingly endless international assistance. Those days are fast coming to an end, which means that new ministers will likely look to accumulate as much money as possible before international troops depart and, with them, international aid.

That brings us to Afghanistan’s illicit economy. International eradication efforts have failed. Opium production is booming, and is only going to get worse. As international assistance dries up, Afghans are not going to sit idle; they are going to harvest and manufacture poppies. The whole reason why NATO has sought to combat poppy cultivation is because opium production funds insurgency, terrorism, and violence. So it stands to reason that Afghanistan is going to become more violent, suffer greater insurgency, and export more terrorism.

Hamid Karzai was a flawed individual, and not always a good leader. How sad it is that Afghans will someday look back on his corrupt rule as “the good old days.”

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Déjà Vu? Public Opinion on Obama’s ISIS Plan Starting to Look Familiar

The Washington Post has some relatively good news for the president–relatively being the key word there. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds 50-percent approval for Obama’s handling of the threat from ISIS after announcing and commencing air strikes in Syria. Only 44 percent disapprove. Before Syria was involved, only 42 percent approved of his handling of this one issue. But there is reason for any optimism to be tempered with caution.

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The Washington Post has some relatively good news for the president–relatively being the key word there. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds 50-percent approval for Obama’s handling of the threat from ISIS after announcing and commencing air strikes in Syria. Only 44 percent disapprove. Before Syria was involved, only 42 percent approved of his handling of this one issue. But there is reason for any optimism to be tempered with caution.

As Aaron Blake notes, “It has been eight months since Obama last cracked half the American public on any given issue — foreign policy or otherwise — in Washington Post/ABC News polling.” That should be encouraging for the president, as it means the numbers are moving in the right direction. But as Ed Morrissey points out, that 50 percent is actually noticeably lower than the percent of the public who had earlier said they would support this particular strategy. Morrissey writes, correctly:

Getting to 50% approval on a plan which 68% of Americans wanted three weeks ago isn’t really much of an accomplishment. In fact, it looks a little like — how to say it? – leading from behind.

Additionally, he writes that the boost in support is coming in part from Republicans, who are more likely to support hawkish policies. That’s not new, and it’s not really expanding Obama’s base of support–at least not in a way that could overflow onto other issues. (Republicans are unlikely to approve of Obama’s handling of health care or the economy no matter how successful are the anti-ISIS strikes.)

And in fact, we have precedent for warning the president of this effect. Let’s turn the clock back a few years to 2009, when we saw a very similar pattern on a very similar issue.

On December 1, 2009, Obama announced a surge for Afghanistan of an additional 30,000 troops. On the eve of that announcement, Gallup found his approval rating on his prosecution of the Afghanistan war was slipping, from 56 percent in July of that year to 49 percent in September and finally 35 percent just before the speech. After the announcement, Gallup found 51 percent approved of the Afghan surge, including a majority of Republicans and Democrats. Quinnipiac found even higher support for the plan, plus this, as Bloomberg explained: “Also, 57 percent said fighting in Afghanistan was the right course of action, up 9 points from a similar survey released Nov. 18.”

That latter nugget was arguably more important, because it showed that–as is the case with the president’s plan to fight ISIS–Americans approved of the idea behind the strategy. That is, they still wanted to fight, and Obama’s plan matched up to those preferences. Bloomberg added that it was an improvement on “Obama’s handling of the Afghan war, with 45 percent supporting him and 45 percent opposing him. That was a 7-point gain for the president.”

Gallup found Obama’s overall job approval got a bit of a bump too, reaching 52 percent after the announcement. But that dropped a few days later to 47 percent, which represented (at the time) a new low for the administration (though the administration was less than a year old).

Signs of trouble appeared even among the good news back then. For example, not even a majority of Americans believed the goals of the Afghanistan policy they supported would be met.

Which brings us back to ISIS. Obama said he “will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” instead favoring air strikes. But a Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg poll published over the weekend found the public wasn’t buying it: “72 percent of Americans believe the United States will still use its ground troops anyway against ISIS, versus just 20 percent who think it won’t.”

So there’s skepticism on the feasibility of Obama’s plan from the beginning. That doesn’t necessarily doom it in the eyes of the public: according to that same poll, a plurality (45 percent) support using ground troops if military commanders want them, with 37 percent opposed.

You can see what makes this particular issue so dicey for the president. The public seems ahead of him not only on the need to destroy ISIS but also on the possibility of using ground troops. So he could find that while the public isn’t exactly clamoring for another land war, they’re not enamored of too much restraint either. It looks less like a formula for presidential success and more like a formula to run afoul of virtually everyone’s expectations. Such are the perils of leading from behind a fickle public.

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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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