Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan

Thinking Through the Morality of the Bergdahl Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Parade of Commanders in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Dishonorable Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can the White House Be Trusted on Iran Deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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How Not to Handle a Prisoner Swap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Fantasy World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Obama Foreign-Policy “Successes”

President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

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President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

Yes, Obama has removed U.S. troops from Iraq–but the consequences have been disastrous. Violence is back up to 2008 levels and al-Qaeda in Iraq, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is back in control of major chunks of Anbar Province. Its fighters are now advancing on Baghdad where they regularly set off car bombs while Iranian-backed militias are committing their own atrocities in retaliation.

Yes, Obama is “winding down our war in Afghanistan”–but “their” war goes on unabated. Sure, the president can pull U.S. troops out by the end of his presidency, but that doesn’t mean that the conflict will end. The more likely outcome is that, as in Iraq, our pullout will embolden our enemies and lead to greater levels of fighting.

Yes, “Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated” and Osama bin Laden killed, but in many ways al-Qaeda itself is stronger than ever. Its affiliates have spread to Mali, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and, above all, Syria, which U.S. intelligence officials warn is now as dangerous to the United States as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.

I applaud the ingenuity of the president’s speechwriters who managed to put forward their claims in a way that is technically true–but they are presenting a misleading impression and everyone who doesn’t work in the West Wing of the White House knows it.

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Obama’s Split-the-Difference Foreign Policy

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

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Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

At first blush this is a welcome signal of strength from the White House. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with prior administration decisions, the details of the president’s policies can often undermine their stated purpose. So it is again with Afghanistan where, the Washington Post tells us, “The 9,800 troops will be based around Afghanistan until the end of 2015, after which they will be reduced by roughly half and consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram airfield north of the capital. At the end of 2016, most of those remaining troops will be withdrawn and the U.S. military presence will be confined to a defense group at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Keeping around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post 2014 makes sense (although it would be even better to keep more troops to provide a greater margin of safety). Announcing in advance that we will reduce their numbers to 5,000 within a year and remove them altogether within two years–no matter the conditions on the ground–makes no sense.

Has the administration learned no lesson from the Afghan surge whose effectiveness was vitiated by the 18-month timeline imposed on the troops’ deployment, thus encouraging the Taliban to wait us out? Obama is making the same mistake again. What he should be doing is announcing that we will keep U.S. advisers in Afghanistan in unspecified numbers as long as the government of Afghanistan requests their presence and as long as the U.S. government judges that they are needed to prevent the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists from making major inroads. Such an announcement will drain the Taliban of hope and fill hard-pressed Afghan security forces with newfound confidence.

In contrast, Obama’s announcement is so half-hearted that the Taliban will still have good cause to think that they can wait us out. Kudos to Obama for not sending only 5,000 troops next year, as some earlier leaks had indicated might be the case. But while maintaining 10,000 troops is much better, imposing a timeline on them is a serious mistake–one that cannot be explained by references to objective conditions in Afghanistan and which makes sense only as a split-the-difference compromise between administration hawks and doves. The president should have learned by now that splitting the difference in foreign policy and especially in matters of troop deployments doesn’t work.

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Intel and Military Presence Go Hand in Hand

One of the less appreciated consequences of a U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is that it also necessitates an intelligence drawdown. The armed forces and the CIA are apparently at loggerheads because the CIA is busy closing its bases around Afghanistan and laying off its militias (known as Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams) just as the summer fighting season begins. This raises the danger to U.S. troops who will remain through at least the fall.

It obviously makes sense for the CIA to delay its drawdown and to synchronize more closely with the military. It is especially stupid to lay off thousands of armed fighters without a plan for the Afghan National Security Forces to absorb them–it is a virtual invitation for them to seek employment with drug lords or the Taliban. 

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One of the less appreciated consequences of a U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is that it also necessitates an intelligence drawdown. The armed forces and the CIA are apparently at loggerheads because the CIA is busy closing its bases around Afghanistan and laying off its militias (known as Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams) just as the summer fighting season begins. This raises the danger to U.S. troops who will remain through at least the fall.

It obviously makes sense for the CIA to delay its drawdown and to synchronize more closely with the military. It is especially stupid to lay off thousands of armed fighters without a plan for the Afghan National Security Forces to absorb them–it is a virtual invitation for them to seek employment with drug lords or the Taliban. 

But no matter what happens this year the larger issue remains: what kind of military and intelligence footprint will the U.S. have in Afghanistan post-2014? The two are more intimately connected than proponents of a military drawdown find it comfortable to acknowledge. Many of those opposed to keeping at least 10,000 U.S. troops after this year, as recommended by General Joe Dunford, imagine that we could keep a smaller Special Operations force solely to chase al-Qaeda’s remnants.

Leave aside the issue of whether we can afford to focus on al-Qaeda alone when other jihadist groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban present just as big a threat to American interests. The point I want to emphasize here is that there is no way to maintain the intelligence networks we need to effectively target terrorists (whether al-Qaeda or Haqqani or Taliban) unless there is a substantial military presence in place to provide logistics and security. The Los Angeles Times quotes one “former CIA operator who has spoken to current officers about the pullback” as saying: “There is no stomach in the building for going out there on our own. We are not putting our people out there without U.S. forces.”

So if we want to maintain “situational awareness” of terrorist plots emanating not just from Afghanistan but also from Pakistan, then we need to keep at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in order to support intelligence personnel who can generate “actionable” intelligence and Special Operations Forces who can act on it. If President Obama keeps fewer than 10,000 troops, the military will pull back to Kabul and Bagram Air Base just north of it, dramatically decreasing our ability to uncover and disrupt terrorist machinations in other parts of the country–especially in the still-volatile east and south.

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Boko Haram and the Isolationists

When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

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When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

The story of the abducted girls of Nigeria seized our attention because of the enormity of this crime, the brazen nature of the criminals who openly brag of their “right” to kidnap and abuse girls, and, as our Michael Rubin aptly pointed out yesterday, the religious motivation behind their crime. It is also a neatly contained sort of tale that allows television news to do what it does best: pull on our heartstrings with a human-interest story. After all, Americans weren’t particularly bothered by Boko Haram’s reign of terror in part of Nigeria that had taken the lives of thousands of people, including children before this week. But since this lurid crime is more easily understood than Boko Haram’s previous depredations or the complexities of the Syrian civil war, everyone, including those who are generally opposed to any sort of U.S. involvement in foreign squabbles, is prepared to use the full power of the Pentagon to save these children.

This tells us a lot about how easily manipulated we are by images but it also ought to make us think twice of the implications of a rising tide of isolationist spirit that has influenced American decision making in recent years. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have drained the public of its appetite for foreign adventures, especially in the Middle East.

But let’s say that we accept, even though we shouldn’t, President Obama’s cowardly excuses that he is doing the best he can and that after prevaricating for so long on Syria, there’s nothing that can be done now. Let’s pose another not entirely hypothetical question: What will be the American public’s attitude if, in the coming years after the last American troops have left Afghanistan, the Taliban sweeps to victory and returns to power in Kabul in an orgy not just of murder but of rape in which women and girls are once again the particular objects of their hostility? If Afghan girls are once again being imprisoned in their homes or sold into slavery, will the same people who are today calling out the Marines on behalf of the Nigerian kidnapping victims be crying out for America not to stand by in silence? Don’t bet on it.

Perhaps it is too much to ask people to be consistent. But the isolationists who want no part of the global war being waged on the West by Islamist terrorists need to remember that the consequences of our indifference to their crimes are serious. The U.S. may not be able to solve every problem in the world or be its policeman. Yet neither can we pretend that the horrors perpetrated by these Islamists have nothing to do with us. Anyone expressing outrage about Nigeria should remember that the U.S. has made a conscious decision to ignore crimes just as bad in Syria and have set in motion a train of events that may lead to even worse in Afghanistan.

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Address, Don’t Deny Religious Component to Boko Haram

News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

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News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

The same was true with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The notion that the Central Intelligence Agency created the Taliban is silly, the product of anachronistic and lazy analysis. Some Afghans embraced the Taliban in the years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan because the group promised security, but the group itself was quickly co-opted by Pakistan. Ever since the loss of East Pakistan and its subsequent independence as Bangladesh in 1971, leaders in West Pakistan—or simply Pakistan as it became—embraced religious radicalism as a glue to hold their fissiparous country together. While more than a decade of war has conditioned Americans to see infiltration across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as one way from Pakistan into Afghanistan, throughout much of the last century, Afghan irregulars were infiltrating—if not outright invading—Pakistan.

Because the ethnic fault lines in Pakistan are seldom far beneath the surface of society, sponsoring the Taliban—and thereby prioritizing religion over Pashto identity—was meant to immunize the Northwest Frontier Province from the attractiveness of Pashto nationalism. That it came upon the blood and repression of Afghan women was a price the Pakistani leadership was willing to bear. The shear brutality of the Taliban shocked the world, even though the State Department was more than willing to normalize ties with the group. The Taliban really were a throwback to the twelfth century, albeit harboring a twentieth and now twenty-first century technology to kill.

Any number of other religious radicals has reinterpreted faith to justify horror. The Muslim Brotherhood has justified the murder of those who do not share their vision, and some Brotherhood theologians have contributed directly to the vision embraced by al-Qaeda.

There is a tendency among many to deny the religious component to much modern terrorism. That is what drives, for example, UN bodies to try to criminalize so-called Islamophobia, and also drives local groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to stigmatize and punish free speech and open debate. To do so is a mistake, and to deny that those from Boko Haram’s leaders to 9/11 hijackers to the Beslan child murders were not motivated by Islam, however twisted and irregular an interpretation, is disingenuous.

Too many who deny the role of religion say that Islam is misunderstood. Jihad, for example, means not Holy War but an internal struggle to improve oneself. While it is true that a 21st century interpretation of jihad prioritizes internal struggle or defensive fighting, there is a logical flaw inherent in embracing only the most evolved interpretation of jihad. Islamist radicals dismiss 21st century society as a perversion, corrupted by Western thought and liberalism. They uphold instead an interpretation of centuries past as the golden age of Islamic civilization and so strip away centuries of religious interpretation as illegitimate and corrupt. Just as zealous Christians might have burned a woman at the stake 500 years ago for the sin of publicly reading the Bible, the manner in which Boko Haram treats local girls and women is rooted in an interpretation of Islam that it seeks to revive from the past.

While I fully support the separation of church and state that the U.S. Constitution demands (although I agree with Jonathan’s interpretation here), too many American policymakers use that separation to paralyze the American policy response on the global stage. American diplomats and officials should not promote religion but they cannot ignore it either, as it plays a far greater place in the world than perhaps it does in the fairly elite schools from which many diplomats come. Peoples from Afghanistan to Iran to Nigeria are engaged in a battle of religious interpretation. Those who would deny a relationship between Islam on one hand, at least as practiced by the Taliban and Boko Haram, and terrorism and misogyny on the other simply surrender the battlefield to those promoting extreme interpretations.

Too often, American officials and religious activists, whether out of excessive political correctness or some other motive, dismiss religious motivation to terrorism by decreeing that the actions of those radicals—Taliban stoning women in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda hijacking planes in America, or Boko Haram kidnapping and selling girls in Nigeria—do not represent true Islam. Make no mistake: It is not the job of any American official—from the president on down—to determine what true religion is. We have to accept that religion is what its practitioners believe it to be in any time and place; what the president says, an ambassador says, or a professor of theology says is simply academic.

Denying horror won’t make it go away. Nor is it the place of the United States to preach. But just as radicals in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere promote these horrific groups—the Turkish government has apparently supplied Boko Haram—it behooves the United States to support those seeking to roll them back, be they Egyptian generals, Indonesian Sufis, or Moroccan mourchidat. While America promotes and encourages religious tolerance and seeks to strengthen liberal and moderate interpretations of Islam, those who feed and justify Boko Haram’s ideological hate—even if American allies—must be recognized for what they are: culpable in terrorism.

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Voice of America Needs a Strategy

Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”

VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

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Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”

VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

The Pashto service isn’t alone. Many Iranians have questioned why VOA’s Persian Service and Radio Farda have in the past (I haven’t followed it in recent years) seemed so sympathetic to pro-regime reformists. Indeed, many mocked them as “Radio Khatami.” While diplomats might understandably think more favorably toward Iranian reformists than Iranian hardliners, the fact of the matter is that neither represents the broad array of Iranians who are, at best, overwhelmingly apathetic toward the regime imposed upon them, if not actively hostile to it.

It’s clear that VOA should not be simply an ordinary news service. The private sector handles that better, and CNN, CNBC, and even Fox are increasingly available abroad. Even in autocratic countries like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, residents can access a plethora of satellite stations, even when such access isn’t really legal.

So, here’s a modest proposal: The Broadcasting Board of Governors should identify in each country hostile to the United States or behind an iron curtain what journalists in that country aren’t allowed to pursue. In Iran, it could be stories about the leaders’ moral and financial corruption, strong women, or the arguments of dissident religious leaders. In Turkey, journalists are not able to cover fully Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s corruption and that of his cronies, or explore fully Kurdish issues.

In Algeria, it could be interviews with refugees who have escaped their captivity in the Tindouf refugee camps or the plight of the Berbers; and in North Korea and Eritrea, it could be just about anything. Given limited resources, VOA broadcasting to that country should focus on those banned subjects. That would guarantee relevance, an audience, and invariably bolster American interests as well.

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The Benghazi Distraction

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

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The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Granted, those early talking points were off base. I will even grant that they may have been off-base for political rather than policy reasons: With an election two months away, and Obama doing his utmost to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden and finishing off al-Qaeda, the White House did not want to be blamed for a major terrorist attack. But this is not Watergate. It’s not even Iran-Contra. Unless something radically new emerges, it looks to me like the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in–a bit reminiscent of Bush administration denials in the summer of 2003 that Iraq faced a growing insurgency. 

If you listened to Bush spokesmen, you would have been told that Iraq only faced a few random attacks from “dead-enders” and they were of little broader concern. This was not just a question of PR–it was also a policy misjudgment with serious consequences because the Bush administration failed to adequately respond to a growing insurgency. But it wasn’t an impeachable offense and neither are the far less consequential Benghazi talking points. 

Republicans should focus on the shameful failures of Obama’s defense and foreign policy but Benghazi, in my view, is a distraction from the real issues–and it’s not even likely to help Republicans politically. It certainly did little good for Mitt Romney and I suspect Republicans are now dreaming if they think it will help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see much evidence that most Americans–as opposed to Fox News Channel viewers–are focused on, or care about, this issue. Republicans would be better advised to focus on the bigger issues and rebuild their tattered foreign policy credibility, which is being damaged by the isolationist pronouncements of Rand Paul and his ilk.

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The Iraqi Military’s Downward Spiral

The best article on Afghanistan that I have read recently is an article about Iraq. Specifically, this article in the Wall Street Journal on the travails of the Iraqi military in facing an insurgency spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq is now called). 

The “nut” graph: “More than two years after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, as the country prepares for its first post-occupation parliamentary elections on Wednesday, its demoralized, underequipped military is losing the fight against Islamist militants, who are better armed, better trained, and better motivated, according to Iraqi and American generals, politicians and analysts.”

Further down, reporters Matt Bradley and Ali Nabhan expand on some of the Iraqi security forces’ problems. They write:

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The best article on Afghanistan that I have read recently is an article about Iraq. Specifically, this article in the Wall Street Journal on the travails of the Iraqi military in facing an insurgency spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq is now called). 

The “nut” graph: “More than two years after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, as the country prepares for its first post-occupation parliamentary elections on Wednesday, its demoralized, underequipped military is losing the fight against Islamist militants, who are better armed, better trained, and better motivated, according to Iraqi and American generals, politicians and analysts.”

Further down, reporters Matt Bradley and Ali Nabhan expand on some of the Iraqi security forces’ problems. They write:

Even the most basic maneuvers can stymie the Iraqi military. Regional commanders who lack basic knowledge of military logistics often are clumsy when transporting food for soldiers on the move, leaving many enlistees to scrounge for themselves or go hungry, say officers and observers. 

Without meals, some soldiers simply leave. Though there are no official statistics, military personnel cite desertion as a persistent and growing problem, particularly for troops deployed in Anbar and other areas to the north where ISIS is active.

This is dismaying considering how much time and effort the United States spent in standing up the Iraqi security forces. By the time that U.S. troops pulled out at the end of 2011, the Iraqi security forces numbered more than 600,000 and appeared, at least on paper, to be more than capable of safeguarding their country.

Appearances, it turned out, were illusory. The Iraqi troops are perfectly capable of fighting if well-supplied, -supported, and -led. But supplying them–much less planning their operations and providing the kind of integrated intelligence and fire support they need–is beyond the rudimentary abilities of the Iraqi military. U.S. advisers filled in the gaps, but now they are gone and Iraq is spiraling downward.

This is a warning of what could happen in Afghanistan. As I learned on a visit to Kabul and Kandahar last week, the Afghan Security Forces, which now number 370,000 (counting the local police), are more capable than ever. They can take the fight to the Taliban but they lack the ability to execute their own logistics, planning, budgeting, intelligence, and other important tasks. Those gaps are currently being filled by American advisers, but no one knows what will happen after this year. 

Both the leading candidates for president–Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani–have pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Accord, which would allow U.S. forces to remain. But it is far from clear how many troops we are willing to leave behind. U.S. commanders want at least 10,000, but the White House is leaking figures of 5,000 or fewer. 

As I note in the Wall Street Journal today, it would be disastrous to leave fewer than 10,000 behind. However solid the Afghan National Security Forces look today, coming off their safeguarding of the first round of presidential balloting, the experience of Iraq shows how quickly even a much bigger army can crumble if American support is withdrawn.

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The Challenge for Afghanistan’s Next Leader

Afghanistan’s election Saturday was a triumph–but we should not exaggerate its likely impact. Granted, it was inspiring to see so many Afghans, an estimated 7 million of them, braving the threats of the Taliban to exercise the franchise. This was a grassroots endorsement of democracy and a rebuke to anyone who thinks people in Afghanistan or other poor countries are indifferent to how their government is selected. To the contrary, Afghans desperately want a say in selecting their leaders–as the election so powerfully demonstrated. 

That the Taliban failed to disrupt voting, moreover, was a tribute to the Afghan security forces, 350,000 strong. They had the lead role in protecting ballot booths and they seemed to have performed very capably.

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Afghanistan’s election Saturday was a triumph–but we should not exaggerate its likely impact. Granted, it was inspiring to see so many Afghans, an estimated 7 million of them, braving the threats of the Taliban to exercise the franchise. This was a grassroots endorsement of democracy and a rebuke to anyone who thinks people in Afghanistan or other poor countries are indifferent to how their government is selected. To the contrary, Afghans desperately want a say in selecting their leaders–as the election so powerfully demonstrated. 

That the Taliban failed to disrupt voting, moreover, was a tribute to the Afghan security forces, 350,000 strong. They had the lead role in protecting ballot booths and they seemed to have performed very capably.

But let’s not get overly euphoric. Recall that in Iraq President Bush welcomed each election which took place, claiming that the very fact of voting would help to restore order and allow American troops to leave responsibly. It didn’t work out that way. In fact in Iraq elections reinforced, rather than resolved, sectarian divisions.

How things work out in Afghanistan remains far from clear. Now that ballots have been cast, there is a major challenge to count them fairly. Fraud is still possible in the counting stage. Beyond that there is the paramount issue of who will emerge on top in the voting. 

The three leading candidates are said to be Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, and Zalmai Rassoul. All three men, who have served at various times in Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, are qualified for the top job and reasonably friendly to the United States. All three have indicated they will sign the Bilateral Security Accord that Hamid Karzai negotiated. But there is a huge question as to whether any of them will be up to the job of improving one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional governments on the face of the earth and defeating one of the most potent insurgencies in the world.

The success or lack thereof of this election is ultimately going to be judged not based on whether the balloting was reasonably fair (although let us hope that it has been), but on whether the resulting government can get results for the people–namely to improve the abysmal delivery of services and to curb rampant corruption. The fact that all three leading candidates for president have had to cut deals with warlords to get ahead suggests it will be tough for any of them to break with the corrupt power structure which has looted the country over the past decade and driven many ordinary Pashtuns into the arms of the Taliban as the less-corrupt alternative. But maybe, just maybe, there is a Konrad Adenauer or Alvaro Uribe lurking in the mix.

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No Moderation from the Monstrous Taliban

One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

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One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

The Taliban remain monsters who kill small children–not as the accidental collateral damage from a larger attack but deliberately and at pointblank range. This is the true face of the enemy in Afghanistan, and it is why the civilized world cannot abandon Afghanistan to its fate.

The Afghan security forces are now much bigger and better organized than they once were. They are now taking the lead in 95 percent of all coalition operations in Afghanistan and suffering 95 percent of coalition casualties. But to defeat an insurgency which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, they still need continuing American assistance. If we don’t provide it–and our ability to help will be contingent on Hamid Karzai’s successor signing a Bilateral Security Accord–then we will be leaving Afghanistan and indeed the entire region to the tender mercies of child killers.

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Obama’s Afghan Strategy Helps Putin

Vladimir Putin is Machiavelli. He waited until he had a strong hand and he played it. President Obama and his European counterparts might hem and haw, but the worst Putin likely expects from them is being put on double secret probation. Europe has always been mercantile, unwilling to give up short-term profit for the sake of long-term security, hence the constant efforts by countries like Germany and Italy to dilute Iran. Putin, however, also has leverage over Europe because many European countries depend on Russian pipelines for their gas.

Such leverage is bad enough, but Obama has enabled Putin to turn his full house into a royal flush. By imposing a political timeline for withdrawal on Afghanistan, Obama has given Putin sway over the ability of American forces to withdrawal their equipment from Afghanistan. Obama now faces a choice: Risk American equipment transiting Russia, or succumb to Pakistani blackmail which can be just as costly. There will be many reverberations and second order effects because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Emboldening Putin is only the first.

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Vladimir Putin is Machiavelli. He waited until he had a strong hand and he played it. President Obama and his European counterparts might hem and haw, but the worst Putin likely expects from them is being put on double secret probation. Europe has always been mercantile, unwilling to give up short-term profit for the sake of long-term security, hence the constant efforts by countries like Germany and Italy to dilute Iran. Putin, however, also has leverage over Europe because many European countries depend on Russian pipelines for their gas.

Such leverage is bad enough, but Obama has enabled Putin to turn his full house into a royal flush. By imposing a political timeline for withdrawal on Afghanistan, Obama has given Putin sway over the ability of American forces to withdrawal their equipment from Afghanistan. Obama now faces a choice: Risk American equipment transiting Russia, or succumb to Pakistani blackmail which can be just as costly. There will be many reverberations and second order effects because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Emboldening Putin is only the first.

Of course, just as Putin has called Obama’s bluff, it is possible that Obama could call Putin’s. Rather than withdrawing from Afghanistan in the midst of an election when security is most needed, and rather than slash defense to pre-World War II levels against the backdrop of international chaos, Obama could reconsider the investment needed to secure America’s place in the world and, indeed, to secure greater peace in the world. If Obama altered his arbitrary deadline in Afghanistan, he would instantly undercut Putin’s leverage. That would assume, however, that Obama cared about America’s place in the world or the freedom of its allies. That he does not—and that he gratuitously increases the power and position of American adversaries—is becoming hard to deny.

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The Enemy Still Gets a Vote

A few days ago I noted that the current defense budget, which cuts all the services and the Army most of all, is predicated on wishful assumptions. Such Pollyannaish thinking is exemplified in this New York Times editorial backing the defense cuts.

The sages of the Times sanguinely opine: “The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future.”

Well, that settles it: If the people of America don’t want to engage in “large-scale foreign occupations” and if Pentagon planners don’t expect any such occupations in the future–then they won’t occur. Perhaps while we’re at it we can get rid of the entire Defense Department on the assumption that America will never be involved in wars in the future because we don’t like to fight them.

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A few days ago I noted that the current defense budget, which cuts all the services and the Army most of all, is predicated on wishful assumptions. Such Pollyannaish thinking is exemplified in this New York Times editorial backing the defense cuts.

The sages of the Times sanguinely opine: “The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future.”

Well, that settles it: If the people of America don’t want to engage in “large-scale foreign occupations” and if Pentagon planners don’t expect any such occupations in the future–then they won’t occur. Perhaps while we’re at it we can get rid of the entire Defense Department on the assumption that America will never be involved in wars in the future because we don’t like to fight them.

Of course that argument sounds silly–even if it once sounded rational enough in the 1920s when the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war, the proud achievement of the Coolidge administration, was signed. But if it’s silly to expect that wars will cease, it is only marginally less silly to expect that whatever wars we confront can be dealt with by a small force–with an army at its smallest size since 1940–augmented by “Mr. Hagel’s proposed increase in investment in special operations, cyberwarfare and rebalancing the American presence in Asia.”

If only America’s enemies would cooperate with the assumptions held by the Obama administration and the New York Times, then everything will work out just fine. But the nature of enemies is that they operate on different assumptions and seek to exploit vulnerabilities when they occur. And, make no mistake, being unprepared to fight a major conventional war–much less two conventional wars, the strategic construct which governed force structure for decades–creates a major vulnerability, whether we want to prepare for occupations or not.

What is truly alarming and hilarious is the trust that the Times editorialists place in “Pentagon planners”–trust which is not forthcoming from the Times when it comes to how the military deals with sexual abuse, gay rights, or other hot-button social issues, or when the military asks for a large force commitment to execute counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. When it suits its assumptions, however, the Times apparently believes “Pentagon planners” are infallible.

As it happens, however, the Times is confusing and conflating “administration political appointees” with “Pentagon planners.” Sure, some officers in the Pentagon believe that the era of ground wars and occupations has passed. They’re by and large in the Air Force and Navy–services that are desperate to take resources away from the Army in a time of declining budgets. But few Marine or Army officers believe that the era of ground wars and occupations has passed; they’re simply not being vocal about their real views because they’ve been told to do so would be seen as an act of disloyalty by the administration.

Even if there were unanimity among “Pentagon planners,” those planners could easily be wrong. How many of them anticipated in the 1950s America’s involvement in a big ground war in Vietnam? How many anticipated in the 1990s (the decade of high-tech “network centric” warfare) major ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? As former defense secretary Bob Gates has accurately warned:

When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.

The upshot of Gates’s remarks is that we need to prepare for a wide array of contingencies–something that the current budget cuts make impossible. Alas Gates’s wisdom is being disregarded on Capitol Hill, at the White House, in the Pentagon–and now in the headquarters of the New York Times.

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Afghanistan After Karzai

It’s hard to blame President Obama for telling Hamid Karzai that the U.S. is planning to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan unless Karzai’s successor as president finally signs the Bilateral Security Agreement that Karzai himself negotiated with the U.S. Obama did show a commendable willingness to extend the U.S. troop presence, only to be blindsided by Karzai’s maddening refusal to sign the accord–and by the president’s equally infuriating decision to release dozens of dangerous terrorists from prison.

The good news is that pretty much all of the major candidates running to succeed Karzai have indicated their support for the accord–as has the Loya Jirga that Karzai called to ratify the pact. Ordinary Afghans and especially those serving in the security forces know they need continued U.S. assistance to hold off the Taliban.

And if they needed any reminder of why outside aid is so important, the Taliban’s recent attack on an Afghan army base in volatile Kunar Province provides it. The attackers killed 21 soldiers, who are now being celebrated as “martyrs” across the country. Without a substantial American presence, expect such attacks to become more widespread and deadly, potentially leading to the fracturing of the Afghan security forces and an all-out civil war.

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It’s hard to blame President Obama for telling Hamid Karzai that the U.S. is planning to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan unless Karzai’s successor as president finally signs the Bilateral Security Agreement that Karzai himself negotiated with the U.S. Obama did show a commendable willingness to extend the U.S. troop presence, only to be blindsided by Karzai’s maddening refusal to sign the accord–and by the president’s equally infuriating decision to release dozens of dangerous terrorists from prison.

The good news is that pretty much all of the major candidates running to succeed Karzai have indicated their support for the accord–as has the Loya Jirga that Karzai called to ratify the pact. Ordinary Afghans and especially those serving in the security forces know they need continued U.S. assistance to hold off the Taliban.

And if they needed any reminder of why outside aid is so important, the Taliban’s recent attack on an Afghan army base in volatile Kunar Province provides it. The attackers killed 21 soldiers, who are now being celebrated as “martyrs” across the country. Without a substantial American presence, expect such attacks to become more widespread and deadly, potentially leading to the fracturing of the Afghan security forces and an all-out civil war.

But that presence needs to be more than token or symbolic. Sending just 3,000 troops–one of the four options the White House is reportedly considering–will do little to stabilize Afghanistan. If the U.S. offers only such a puny force, the odds go up that the next president of Afghanistan will take a pass–just as Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq took a pass in 2011 when White House leakers were suggesting the U.S. could keep fewer than 5,000 troops in his country.

To be enticing to the Afghans, a U.S. troop presence has to be large enough–at least 10,000 troops–to make a difference. Obama needs to be careful to get off on the right foot with Karzai’s successor by not making a troop offer that is insultingly and unrealistically small. Indeed, Obama would be well advised to dispel such suspicion now–and to make clear that America will not abandon Afghanistan–by announcing what size force he would like to keep post-2014, assuming the government of Afghanistan agrees.

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The Defense Budget vs. History

Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

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Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

Actually the situation is even worse than the news would have you believe. Because the army’s plan to cut down to 440,000 to 450,000 is premised on the assumption that Congress will continue to provide relief from half a trillion dollars in sequestration cuts. But the budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray only provides sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015; unless Congress is willing to turn off sequestration in future years, the army will have to go even lower in end-strength.

Moreover, the defense budget includes modest cuts in personnel spending–spending on pay, pensions, and health care–which are long overdue but which are likely to be blocked by Congress, as was the case with a recent attempt to cut cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees by a measly one percent. Unless Congress goes along with cuts to personnel costs, which now constitute half of the defense budget, other parts of the budget–including, no doubt, the army’s end-strength–will have to endure further scaling back.

That is a responsible decline in military strength only if you assume that we will never fight another major land war, or engage in simultaneous stabilization and counterinsurgency operations. And that, in turn, is a tenable assumption only if you assume that the laws of history have been repealed and a new era is dawning in which the U.S. will be able to protect all of its vital interests through drone strikes and commando raids. We all hope that’s the case but, as the saying has it, hope isn’t a strategy. Except, it seems, in Washington defense circles today.

If history teaches anything, it is that the era of land wars is not over and that we will pay a heavy price in the future for our unpreparedness–as we have paid in blood at the beginning of every major war in American history. Our failure to learn from history is stunning and (from a historian’s standpoint) disheartening but not, alas, terribly surprising: Throughout history, supposedly enlightened elites have been able to convince themselves that the era of conflict is over and a new age is dawning. The fact that they have always been wrong before does not, somehow, lead them to question those assumptions in the present day, because this is such a convenient belief to have.

Today, for both Republicans and Democrats, the president and Congress, these hope-based assumptions about defense spending allow them to put off the truly difficult decisions about cutting entitlement spending. But at what cost? If history is any guide, the cost of unpreparedness will be steep and will be borne by future generations of American troops.

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