Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan

Pakistan: Incubator of Evil

Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.

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Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.

It is hardly surprising, of course, that in both cases the perpetrators of these horrifying outrages were killing in the name of Islam. That is not because Islam is a religion uniquely conducive to this sort of evil. Recall that in the 17th century massacres every bit as vile were routinely carried out in Germany in the name of Christianity during the Thirty Years War. In more recent years Serb Orthodox extremists murdered Muslim Bosnians in similar fashion during the wars of Yugoslav succession in the early 1990s. And of course the most costly conflict of modern times, the civil war in Congo, has nothing to do with Islam–it is, rather, all about tribal antagonisms.

But there is no doubt that Islamism–not Islam, per se, but the extremist variant practiced by groups such as the Taliban and ISIS–has become the most important animating philosophy for terrorism today and Pakistan has established itself as one of the centers of this violent faith. For this development Pakistani leaders have no one to blame but themselves: They have been promoting violent Islamism as a state policy since the early 1980s when then-President Zia al Huq was supporting the most extreme elements of the Afghan mujahideen.

More recently Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency has emerged as one of the two leading state sponsors of terrorism in the world (the other being the Iranian Quds Force). It is directly responsible for a long string of atrocities carried out in Afghanistan and India by ISI proxies such as the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. In short, the Pakistani state has a lot of blood on its hands–not only Indian and Afghan blood but a lot of American blood too, because a lot of Americans have died in Pakistani-sponsored attacks in Afghanistan. And not just in Afghanistan: There is also good cause to think the ISI consciously gave Osama bin Laden shelter in Pakistan after he had to leave Afghanistan in a hurry.

Unfortunately for Pakistan it cannot control where extremists strike. The old adage holds that if you keep snakes in your backyard you can expect to be bitten. Pakistan proves how true that is–and now it has been bitten especially hard by monsters who deliberately set out to kill children. True, these particular monsters are from the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) which is not exactly the same group as the Afghan Taliban. But the two in fact share an ideology, among other things. Both, for instance, acknowledge Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader.

Sooner or later the Pakistani army must learn that it cannot fight some Islamist extremists while making common cause with others. My fear is that after decades of cooperation with these fanatics, the army itself may be so sympathetic to this extremist ideology that significant elements of it have essentially gone over to the enemy. Aside from an Iranian nuke, it is hard to imagine a scarier scenario in the world today than these Pakistani extremists-in-uniform getting access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

For too long America has tended to look away from the problem or pretended that Pakistan is really our friend. I don’t know what the solution is to this enormous menace, but at a minimum we need to stop lying to ourselves and recognize Pakistan for what it is: an incubator of evil.

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Obama’s ISIS Boasts Ring Hollow

President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

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President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

As our Max Boot wrote last month, the administration has only been taking small steps toward assembling the forces needed to defeat ISIS, let alone implanting a war-winning strategy. The few troops and air crew being used to hit ISIS may have done some hammering of the Islamists, but to date there is nothing indicating that either the U.S. or its allies in this battle are anywhere close to being able to start rolling back ISIS’s massive territorial gains of the past year.

The comparison between past American campaigns in both Kosovo and Afghanistan is apt. When those commitments began, the U.S. deployed the kind of force and began bombing the foe on a scale that soon crumpled the resistance of the Serbs and the Taliban respectively. Though the Afghan war continues to this day, the offensive to rout the Islamists out of control of most of the country was successful. But what the U.S. has done so far in the fight against ISIS are pinpricks by comparison. Given the vast territory it has gained on Obama’s watch, the notion that three months of combat have merely “blunted its momentum” is hardly comforting to those suffering under its murderous rule or neighboring countries that were hoping the U.S. would act decisively.

The president was dragged into this fight reluctantly after years of refusing to take action in Syria as the situation there worsened along with the options available to the U.S. The U.S. is paying a high price for Obama’s Hamlet-like dithering before the decision to fight ISIS was taken. But it is also going to be paying a price for the half-hearted nature of the efforts against ISIS going on now.

It’s not just that it is appalling that the world’s sole superpower finds itself either unable or unwilling to muster sufficient force to be able to defeat a group that Obama continues to speak of with contempt. Nor can he use the excuse that it is a guerrilla group hiding out in the mountains that can’t be defeated by the conventional military tactics and airpower that the U.S. military excels in using. ISIS has, in fact, conducted its own conventional war and has managed somehow to go on fighting on two fronts in two countries with no signs that it is cracking.

That was bad enough when the administration was still able to pretend that this wasn’t their fight. But once the beheadings of American citizens forced Obama to act, he has continued to treat this as a minor affair that the U.S. can conduct on the cheap. But wars fought on the cheap tend to be very expensive in the long run. So far, all this campaign has gotten Washington is a closer relationship with an equally dangerous Iranian regime and the loss of trust in American power on the part of its allies.

Though the temptation to speak is obvious, it is a mistake for the president to be running his mouth about desultory achievements that do more to highlight the shortcomings of his strategy than proving their value. So long as it stays in the field in control of the bulk of the territory of two countries while fighting the U.S., ISIS is winning and showing the people of the region that they would be fools not to back the “strong horse” that is standing up to the Americans. Until he can announce some real victories against ISIS, President Obama should stop drawing attention to his failures with foolish boasts that do more to undermine U.S. security than to enhance it.

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Why Is Military Morale Dropping?

One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.

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One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.

Back in 2009, when an average of 50,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan and 135,000 in Iraq, 91 percent of troops surveyed said their quality of life was good or excellent. Today only 56 percent say that and 70 percent believe their quality of life will decline in coming years. Some other findings: “73 percent of troops would recommend a military career to others, down from 85 percent in 2009. And troops reported a significant decline in their desire to re-enlist, with 63 percent citing an intention to do so, compared with 72 percent a few years ago.”

Troops are less willing to reenlist now than in the days when they were much more likely to be wounded or even killed in the line of duty? How could this be? Why aren’t troops embracing the Obamian paradise of unilateral withdrawal from war?

Part of the answer is provided by political scientist Peter Feaver, who is quoted pointing out “that the mission mattered more to the military than to the civilian. For the civilian world, it might have been easier to psychologically move on and say, ‘Well, we are cutting our losses.’ But the military feels very differently. Those losses have names and faces attached to [them].”

Few civilians can realize how deeply dispiriting it is for troops who fought for cities such as Fallujah and Al Qaim to see them fall to black-clad jihadist fanatics. Once troops served with a purpose–to avenge 9/11 and to defeat our nation’s enemies. Now, however, with an administration that makes withdrawal the highest priority, the military’s sense of mission and purpose is waning–with deleterious effects on morale. “Of those surveyed, 52 percent said they had become more pessimistic about the war in Afghanistan in recent years. Nearly 60 percent felt the war in Iraq was somewhat unsuccessful or not at all successful.”

This problem is aggravated by the severe budget cuts that the White House and Congress have collaborated to enact. The Military Times has a telling anecdote: “A Navy aviation machinist’s mate first class based in El Centro, California, said operational budget cuts left him and fellow sailors cannibalizing working parts from other aircraft entering phased maintenance so they could repair higher-priority broken jets. Even uniforms are in short supply, he said, as the Navy embarks on what could be a decade of scrimping under sequestration. ‘We are on the bare necessities and sometimes not even that. For example, I need new boots but they’ll ask me, ‘How long can you stretch that?’ ‘ he said.”

Another telling line: “A Navy fire controlman chief with 10 deployments said budget fears are contributing to a feeling of distrust and abandonment. ‘If sailors are worried about not getting paid, how am I supposed to do my job?’ he said. ‘I’m not an effective warfighter if I don’t have the backing of my government at home’.”

The U.S. military, to be sure, remains the most professional and capable force in the world. But it is suffering real damage and it would be nice if we had a president who recognized that was the case and sought to do something about it. Even a better secretary of defense, which Ash Carter promises to be, will have limited leverage to reverse crippling budget cuts or to implement plans for Afghanistan and Iraq that make military sense. Alas, the U.S. military appears to be in big trouble and help is still a couple years away at best.

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Why Chuck Hagel Became Expendable

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

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Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

Hagel was brought on because the media was still falling for the “team of rivals” narrative on the Obama administration. To recap: Obama brought into his administration Cabinet officials who had a high enough profile that they could have made trouble for his agenda outside the administration. He wanted to coopt their credibility and silence their dissent. Hillary Clinton, a senator who could have impacted Obama’s ability to get legislation through Congress, and Samantha Power, a loose cannon who likes to publicly accuse others of being terrible people, were prime examples of this.

Obama wanted Republicans too, so he kept Bob Gates on at Defense and eventually brought in Hagel there as well. The media bizarrely saw in this transparent ploy what they wanted to see: Obama the postpartisan hero, the modern Lincoln. It was not the press’s finest moment.

Hagel was a particularly interesting gamble for Obama. On the one hand, he is a decorated war veteran and Republican who had the credibility to carry out Obama’s sullen retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other, his ineptitude and intellectual limitations matched those of the White House he was joining, so it was clear from day one that nothing about the administration’s crumbling foreign policy would improve.

Obama wanted a yes-man in Hagel, and thought he was getting one. He and his increasingly insular inner circle, which at some point soon will be just the president and Valerie Jarrett, make policy, as Max noted earlier. He didn’t want different opinions, and he didn’t want a range of options. He wanted a droid. And unfortunately for him, as the New York Times points out, this was not the droid he was looking for:

He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Mr. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to General Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

That last sentence is key. Not only was Hagel–yes, Chuck Hagel–too hawkish for Obama on ISIS, but it was the administration still “struggling to define” the threat. You can say Hagel was a slow learner all you want; he was a faster learner than the president he served.

And some of the picture will be filled in when Hagel’s successor is determined. Here’s the Times on the rumors of Hagel’s replacement:

Even before the announcement of Mr. Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense; Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Reed is reportedly out. But Flournoy’s inclusion on this list is notable. When the president was last seeking a defense secretary, Flournoy’s name was floated repeatedly. She would be a “historic” choice, satisfying the administration’s obsession with identity politics. And she was highly respected all around. Plus, she was already working in the administration. So why wasn’t she chosen?

That question seemed to have been answered with the publication of the memoirs of Leon Panetta, Hagel’s predecessor at Defense. Panetta’s memoirs made a splash when part of the book was adapted for an early October TIME magazine piece criticizing Obama’s handling of the transition in Iraq. Some, including Panetta, told the president he should leave a residual force behind. Panetta writes:

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

If Flournoy was willing to be named publicly as someone who not only disagreed with Obama’s handling of Iraq but also essentially accused the president of acting against American interests, it’s easier to understand why she was not given the nod at Defense. If she’s named secretary of defense now, it casts some doubt on the Times’s speculation that Hagel’s disagreement with Obama on ISIS played as much a role in his ouster as is being reported.

The “team of rivals” narrative was debunked long ago. Hagel was there so his credibility on a particular policy could be coopted. After that, he was always expendable. The question now is whose credibility does the president need to coopt next?

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Is a National-Security Shakeup Coming?

So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

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So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

It is easy to see why Hagel has been jettisoned: the administration needs a scapegoat for the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy since the Carter administration. With ISIS and Putin on the march, while U.S. military capabilities deteriorate due to budget cuts, it has been pretty obvious for some time that the national-security team needed a dramatic overhaul. But firing Hagel is not going to fix the problems–not by a longshot. In fact the very reason he was so expendable was because he had so little influence: Unlike Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, or Valerie Jarrett, he was not a White House insider.

Instead Hagel (like General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was the good soldier, plodding ahead to carry out the president’s orders without question–no matter how little sense those orders made. As the New York Times noted: Hagel “spent his time on the job largely carrying out Mr. Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back American troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback.”

Indeed one of the few times that Hagel dared in public (or probably in private) to talk back to the president, he earned the ire of Obama and his loyalists for telling the truth. While Obama earlier this year was denigrating ISIS as the “JV team,” Hagel was calling them an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and saying “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” As the Times drily notes, “White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful”–Washington code words for the fact that Obama’s top aides were infuriated by Hagel’s truth-telling.

The immediate question is whether Obama will be able to stomach a stronger personality in the secretary of defense job–someone like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta. If so, Michele Flournoy or Ash Carter, both of whom served at the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration, could fill the job description. But if Obama were truly intent on a radical break with some of his failed policies he would opt for a true outsider like Joe Lieberman or David Petraeus or John Lehman.

Regardless of who fills the job at the Pentagon–or for that matter at State–the reality remains that in this administration all critical decisions are made in the White House by the president with a handful of loyalists who have little independent standing, knowledge, or credibility in national-security affairs. This has been a problem ever since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the point at which Obama stopped listening to independent advice and started acting on his own ideological worldview predicated on downsizing the American armed forces and retreating from the world.

If this were a parliamentary system, Obama would long ago have lost a vote of “no confidence” and been forced to step down. But because it’s a presidential system he will remain in power two more years. The firing of Hagel will be a positive step forward only if it signals a complete rethink of the president’s foreign policy a la Carter’s conversion to become a born-again hawk after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

The test of that will be to see how Obama deals with Iran now that nuclear talks have reached an impasse after a year. Will Obama allow the mullahs to drag out negotiations indefinitely while continuing to enjoy sanctions relief? Or will he clamp down with extra-tough sanctions and implement a plan to roll back Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen? My bet is that not much has changed in the president’s thinking beyond his desire to see a new, more credible face at the Pentagon, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

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Promise and Peril of Obama’s Triangulation

Bill Clinton was known as a master “triangulator” for his ability to come up with policies exactly equidistant between the extremes of left and right. Barack Obama has been pursuing a similar policy in foreign policy but with less success because national security is not a realm where half-measures tend to work. Yet that is what the president is constantly trying to do.

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Bill Clinton was known as a master “triangulator” for his ability to come up with policies exactly equidistant between the extremes of left and right. Barack Obama has been pursuing a similar policy in foreign policy but with less success because national security is not a realm where half-measures tend to work. Yet that is what the president is constantly trying to do.

He tripled the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan at the start of his administration, for example, but insisted on withdrawing surge troops within 18 months which undercut their effectiveness. He helped to topple Moammar Gaddafi but insisted on taking a backseat to the Europeans during the war and not doing anything to stabilize Libya afterward. More recently he has announced the dispatch of warplanes and 3,000 troops to Iraq to combat ISIS but the bombing campaign has been far more limited than previous U.S. air campaigns in Kosovo or Afghanistan and U.S. advisers have been prohibited from accompanying local troops into combat.

And now we see Obama triangulating in Afghanistan. Serious military analysts in and out of uniform thought we needed to leave at least 25,000-30,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014, whereas Obama’s political advisers and his vice president argued for leaving at most a couple of thousand troops. Obama compromised by keeping slightly fewer than 10,000 troops after the end of the year but promising that he would withdraw them by the end of 2016.

There then ensued within the administration a debate over what authorities would be granted to those troops–could they target the Taliban or just al-Qaeda remnants? Could they provide close air support if needed to the Afghan security forces? According to a New York Times leak, Obama has settled the debate for now by granting the kind of expansive authorities requested by the military but opposed by his political advisers: “Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.”

This is good news because the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other extremist elements are so intertwined that it makes no sense to target one without also targeting the others. But the actual combat operations carried out by U.S. forces will be highly limited–odds are that only a few Special Operations troops will come in direct contact with the enemy. Moreover, the number of U.S. troops left in Afghanistan is still going to be extremely small–the figure of under 10,000 troops was concocted by U.S. commanders to be palatable to the White House, not because they thought it was the optimal troop strength to accomplish the mission. And the withdrawal deadline of 2016 still looms even though there is no chance that the Pakistan-supported Taliban insurgency will be over by then.

We can only hope that Obama triangulates again to keep a substantial American troop contingent in Afghanistan past the end of his presidency–otherwise all that U.S. troops have sacrificed so much to achieve under his command risks being lost.

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George Will’s Dizzying Shift on the Iraq War

In his column today, George Will writes this:

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In his column today, George Will writes this:

The last eleven years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: America ”goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

On Iraq, he’s simply wrong. Because of the success of the surge, the Iraq war–unlike, say, the Vietnam War–was won. (For the record, the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War was around 58,000; in the Iraq War, it was around 4,500.) As Charles Krauthammer wrote:

Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

But as Krauthammer argues, President Obama blew it by failing to secure the SOFA; and in blowing it, Mr. Obama lost the war. That failure is not attributable to what happened in 2003; it’s attributable to what happened in 2011.

I do want to add a few more thoughts on George Will and the Iraq war. Prior to it, there was no more articulate advocate for the war. In an October 8, 2002 interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, for example, Will said:

I think the answer is that we believe, with reason, that democracy’s infectious. We’ve seen it. We saw it happen in Eastern Europe. It’s just — people reached a critical mass of mendacity under those regimes of the East block, and it exploded. And I do believe that you will see [in the Middle East] a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies . . . Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy. And there’s an enormous ahistorical error when people say, “Well, we can’t go into war with Iraq until we know what postwar Iraq’s going to look like.” In 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, did we have a clear idea what we were going to do with postwar Germany? With postwar Japan? Of course not. We made it up as we went along, and we did a very good job. . . .

Mr. Will applauded bringing “instability” to the Middle East and countries like Egypt. “What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?” he asked. And when asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.”

Will then said this about Afghanistan and nation-building:

[Afghanistan is], to put it mildly, a work in progress. The president, I think, admits this. This was part of his education as president, to say that his hostility to nation-building was radically revised when he saw what a failed nation, Afghanistan, a vacuum, gets filled with. Political nature abhors a vacuum, and when it fills up with the Taliban and the leakage of violence to these private groups, essentially, like al Qaeda, then you have to say, “Well, I’ve revised that. We’re going to have to get into the nation-building business.”

Will also distinguished between Afghanistan and Iraq when it comes to nation-building:

It’s different in Iraq because Iraq is a big, rich country with a middle class, with universities. . . .

He added:

But you know, regime change didn’t just arise as a subject recently. We did it in Grenada, Panama, Serbia. Would the world be better off if Milosevic were back in Serbia? Noriega in Panama? I don’t think so.

Mr. Will is a marvelous writer who helped shape my own political and philosophical views. I admire him, and it’s certainly fine for people to change their mind. But I do believe that now that he’s claiming Iraq is “the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history,” Will might want to admit from time to time that he believed, pre-Iraq war, it was a terrific and necessary idea.

Beyond that, it might be helpful, and it would certainly be interesting, for Mr. Will to explain his own fairly dramatic evolution on national security and foreign policy. He’s in a very different place philosophically than he was during the 1970s through the mid-2000s. (Let’s just say he was not then a member of the “John Quincy Adams faction” of the GOP.) Let me suggest, in a genuinely respectful way, that given his influential place in conservatism, Will owes us an explanation for these changes–and an explanation for why he now believes he got so much wrong then and why he’s so right now.

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Veterans Day and Excessive Self-Criticism

November 11–once know as Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of World War I, now known as Veterans Day–is always a solemn occasion on which we honor the men and women who have fought for our hard-won liberty. This year the occasion is more bittersweet than normal for many veterans of the Iraq War who have watched over the last year as many of the gains they sacrificed so much to achieve in places like Mosul and Fallujah and Al Qaim have evaporated. Towns that U.S. troops had wrested away from al-Qaeda in Iraq have now fallen to its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

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November 11–once know as Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of World War I, now known as Veterans Day–is always a solemn occasion on which we honor the men and women who have fought for our hard-won liberty. This year the occasion is more bittersweet than normal for many veterans of the Iraq War who have watched over the last year as many of the gains they sacrificed so much to achieve in places like Mosul and Fallujah and Al Qaim have evaporated. Towns that U.S. troops had wrested away from al-Qaeda in Iraq have now fallen to its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Many veterans are understandably bewildered and angry and wondering if their sacrifices were worth it. Some even suggest that the dismal outcome in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan is an indictment of the armed forces that fought there. This is a point that retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, makes in this New York Times op-ed, which previews a book he has written. He argues that the “surge” in Iraq never really worked, that it was only a short-term palliative, and then issues a withering indictment of the U.S. Armed Forces:

We did not understand the enemy, a guerrilla network embedded in a quarrelsome, suspicious civilian population. We didn’t understand our own forces, which are built for rapid, decisive conventional operations, not lingering, ill-defined counterinsurgencies. We’re made for Desert Storm, not Vietnam. As a general, I got it wrong. Like my peers, I argued to stay the course, to persist and persist, to “clear/hold/build” even as the “hold” stage stretched for months, and then years, with decades beckoning. We backed ourselves season by season into a long-term counterinsurgency in Iraq, then compounded it by doing likewise in Afghanistan. The American people had never signed up for that.

Self-criticism is always welcome and certainly to be preferred to generals who claim they never got anything wrong. But this self-criticism, I would argue, is excessive. It’s true that the U.S. military was not well prepared for the counterinsurgencies it encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan and that it went into those wars optimized for another Desert Storm. The U.S. military made countless blunders in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 which exacerbated the situation. But it’s also true that the U.S. military is a learning organization that improvised brilliantly under fire. Thanks to the acumen primarily of NCOs and junior officers–gradually followed by more senior officers–the U.S. military by now has become one of the most capable counterinsurgency forces in history.

And contrary to General Bolger’s assertions, the “surge” (which I’m told he opposed while working at Central Command for Adm. Fox Fallon) did work–it reduced violence by more than 90 percent. By 2009 both AQI and the Shiite militias such as the Mahdist Army had been decimated and Iraq was on the road to stability. No less than Vice President Biden publicly bragged in 2010 that a “stable” Iraq would be “one of the great achievements of this administration.” Then of course this administration pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, while doing nothing to stabilize Syria in the throes of its civil war. The result has been the rise of ISIS and the undoing of what U.S. troops fought to achieve.

That is demoralizing, to be sure, but Bolger is wrong to blame the military for this outcome. I agree with Bolger that the military can’t dodge blame for the disaster in Vietnam because Gen. William Westmoreland’s firepower-intensive approach did not defeat the Viet Cong and did exhaust American will. The U.S. military was on the verge of repeating the same mistake by 2006 but the surge really did rescue the operation even if it didn’t produce nirvana or magically solve all of Iraq’s underlying issues. No one–not even the most wild-eyed surge proponent–ever expected that it would.

There was always a widespread expectation among surge proponents that U.S. troops would have to stay for the long haul to guarantee Iraq’s stability just as they have stayed in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Kosovo, and other places. It is quite possible that if U.S. troops had been pulled out of Europe after 1945 a disaster would have ensued similar to the one that ensued after the removal of U.S. troops in 1919. But that would not have been the fault of Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower, and the other generals who won the war. Likewise it is not the fault of soldiers today that President Obama didn’t stay the course in Iraq and now threatens to also prematurely pull out of Afghanistan.

To be sure, the generals who failed to prepare the U.S. military for the demands of counterinsurgency before 2001 have much to answer for, as do the generals who implemented tragically misguided policies in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. But their blunders have been more than redeemed by the success that U.S. forces experienced in Iraq in 2007-2008 and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan in 2010-2011 (where troops were hobbled by Obama’s failure to send enough reinforcements and by his imposition of a counterproductive deadline for withdrawal).

Despite the dismal state of Iraq today and to a lesser extent of Afghanistan, America’s veterans can be proud of their achievements over the past 13 years. Not only did they fight bravely and for longer periods than any previous generation of soldiers, but they also adapted brilliantly to the demands of fighting the longest counterinsurgency campaigns in American history–a very different type of warfare than the one they trained for.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy After the Midterms

In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”

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In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”

He should, especially in national security which I am convinced was as important a factor in this election as it was in the 2006 midterm when, in the midst of Iraq War debacles, the Republicans lost control of the Senate. The president did himself incalculable damage when he set a “red line” for Syria last year but failed to enforce it. That created an image of weakness and indecision which has only gotten worse with the rise of ISIS and Putin’s expansionism in Ukraine.

The question now is whether the president will overcome his initial denials and squarely face the message that the voters were trying to send: He needs to change course. I will leave it to others to spell out what such a course change will mean in domestic policy, but when it comes to national-security policy he would do well to take all or some of the following steps:

  • Save the defense budget from the mindless cuts of sequestration, which are already hurting readiness and, if left unabated, risk another “hollow” military.
  • Impose tougher sanctions on Russia, freezing Russian companies entirely out of dollar-denominated transactions, while sending arms and trainers to Kiev and putting at least a Brigade Combat Team into each of the Baltic republics and Poland to signal that no more aggression from Putin will be tolerated.
  • Repeal the 2016 deadline for pulling troops out of Afghanistan and announce that any drawdown will be conditions based.
  • Increase the tempo of airstrikes against ISIS, and send a lot more troops to Iraq and Syria to work with indigenous groups–we need at least 15,000 personnel, not the 1,400 sent so far. This isn’t a call for U.S. ground combat troops, but we do need a lot more trainers, Special Operators, and support personnel, and they need to be free to work with forces in the field rather than being limited to working with brigade and division staffs in large bases far from the front lines.
  • Make clear that any deal with Iran will require the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities–not just a freeze that will leave it just short of nuclear weapons status.
  • End the rapprochement with Iran that has scared our closest allies in the Middle East, and make clear that the U.S. will continue its traditional, post-1979 role of containing Iranian power and siding with the likes of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE over Tehran. A good sign of such a commitment would be launching airstrikes on Iran’s proxy, Bashar al-Assad.
  • Get “fast track” authority from Congress and finish negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations.

Sadly, the odds are that Obama won’t do any of this except for TPP. That will leave a Republican Congress seething in frustration but its ability to compel presidential actions in foreign policy will be highly limited–even with the addition of knowledgeable lawmakers such as Senator Tom Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, and with Senator John McCain, the GOP’s leading foreign-policy voice, taking over the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Lawmakers can demand that Obama submit any deal with Iran for Senate approval as a treaty and, if he refuses, they can vote to keep sanctions in place that Obama will try to suspend unilaterally–but in practice achieving this outcome will be very difficult because it will require veto-proof majorities in both houses. Democrats are happy to talk tough about Iran, but will they vote against their own president on an issue where he is sure to lobby hard? Lawmakers can also push for increases in the defense budget but this will undoubtedly require a deal with the White House in which the GOP would have to swallow higher domestic spending and/or tax increases that will be a hard sell on the right.

In the end Obama will retain tremendous discretion as commander-in-chief. We can only hope he will use his authority to stop the dissipation of American power and prestige that has occurred in recent years. He would do well to borrow a page from Jimmy Carter who became a born-again hawk after the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But given Obama’s history of stubborn adherence to ideology, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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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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