Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan

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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From Kabul to Kiev

A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

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A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

The shift away from wars that are winding down anyway is natural, but the focus on Ukraine should be more than a space-filler or the crisis flavor of the week. Indeed, as the right debates the future of conservative foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan, Ukraine (and situations like it) represents an integral part that debate. That fact was not lost on Marco Rubio, considered a 2016 contender, who put out a statement today standing with the Ukrainian opposition and urging sanctions on those involved in government-sponsored violence.

But it would be a shame if the debate on the right ends there. These sorts of events are likely to intrude on a presidential election. That happened in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. John McCain, an experienced foreign-policy candidate with a particular distaste for Vladimir Putin, responded forcefully. Barack Obama, woefully inexperienced and confused by the issue, put out a bland statement urging restraint on both sides. Within a couple of days, Obama had changed his mind and began echoing McCain. The Russia-Georgia war, and the fraught history of the post-Soviet sphere, intruded on the campaign and Obama was completely unprepared.

But it’s not just the possibility of such violent flare-ups surprising the candidates while on the campaign trail. Ukraine represents the kind of conflict that is complicated and nuanced and does not involve an American military component. The Obama administration’s spectacular diplomatic failures should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of clinging to preconceived notions as a substitute for genuine curiosity about the world.

And how conservatives in general view such crises is probably as important now as it’s ever been. At no previous time have the Republican Party’s candidates been so responsive to the grassroots. (The party’s base might think those candidates are still not responsive enough, but that’s a different story.) Part of this has to do with the effect of social media and the breakdown of the GOP’s next-in-linism. Over at the Federalist, Ben Domenech gets at this point with regard to Rand Paul’s prospective candidacy:

Paul can control that aspect of how he presents himself. What he cannot control is the chaos of world events, which may in the intervening time send the Republican Party’s Jacksonians back to their traditional ways. Today protesters are filling the streets in Venezuela; the Iran talks are struggling; the administration’s Syria strategy is proving the clusterfail we all expected; Japan is brandishing the sword; the North Korean human rights debacle is well in evidence; and Ukraine is literally on fire. How the Republican Party’s base reacts to this instability, and to Obama’s meandering foreign policy, remains an open question.

Look how many of those subjects have almost nothing to do with war-weariness or domestic surveillance–the two issues on which Paul leads and which have dominated the foreign-policy conversation. They have to do with building alliances, sending messages, choosing sides, standing consistently on principle, practicing attentive diplomacy, and understanding America’s adversaries.

Essentially, they require a coherent worldview that is absent from the current Democratic administration and which will be applied to a world different enough from the one confronted by the last Republican White House. If conservatives are prepared to have that conversation even while ObamaCare remains a potent issue and the economy trudges along, it will be an illuminating presidential election. If not, it will be a missed opportunity.

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Twenty-five Years after Soviet Afghanistan Withdrawal

A quarter century ago tomorrow, the last Soviet tanks rolled across the “Friendship Bridge” into Termez, a small town in Soviet Uzbekistan. The nightmare which the Soviet experience in Afghanistan had become was finally over.

Twenty-five years later, the Soviet experience still matters.

Washington D.C. in general and the White House in particular are infamous for convincing themselves that their own spin matters. As the United States prepares to withdraw most if not all of its forces from Afghanistan, political leaders and perhaps even some political generals will testify that the withdrawal confirms victory and a mission complete. They can spend hundreds of man hours crafting talking points and convince themselves that such things matter, but Afghans let alone the wider world interpret events through their own experience, not that of Washington spin artists.

Every Afghan tribal leader, village elder, and politician lived through the Soviet withdrawal and interprets current events through their own experience. So, what do they see? With the assistance of my colleague Ahmad Majidyar, I was asked to address this question at a presentation for a U.S. army unit. Here’s the core:

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A quarter century ago tomorrow, the last Soviet tanks rolled across the “Friendship Bridge” into Termez, a small town in Soviet Uzbekistan. The nightmare which the Soviet experience in Afghanistan had become was finally over.

Twenty-five years later, the Soviet experience still matters.

Washington D.C. in general and the White House in particular are infamous for convincing themselves that their own spin matters. As the United States prepares to withdraw most if not all of its forces from Afghanistan, political leaders and perhaps even some political generals will testify that the withdrawal confirms victory and a mission complete. They can spend hundreds of man hours crafting talking points and convince themselves that such things matter, but Afghans let alone the wider world interpret events through their own experience, not that of Washington spin artists.

Every Afghan tribal leader, village elder, and politician lived through the Soviet withdrawal and interprets current events through their own experience. So, what do they see? With the assistance of my colleague Ahmad Majidyar, I was asked to address this question at a presentation for a U.S. army unit. Here’s the core:

On one level, the goals of the Soviet Union and United States are remarkably similar on a macro level: Both seek the survival of the system they helped construct. The Soviets hoped to prevent outright Mujahedin victory, while the United States (and its NATO partners) seek to prevent outright Taliban victory. Both engaged similar efforts to advise, assist, and train. Policymakers in both cases were ambitious: The Soviets initially envisioned a 15,000-man advisory team, but ultimately settled for just a couple hundred. Likewise, it seems the United States might have to settle for far less than what its military strategies say is necessary.

Both the United States and Soviet Union faced similar obstacles: First was military stalemate. And, make no mistake, the United States and NATO are stalemated militarily by the Taliban, although that is largely because we have made a policy decision in the White House that we will not do what it takes to win. Both the United States and the Soviet Union also faced similar problems emanating from Pakistan, which had become a safe haven for the opposition.

Both Najibullah and Hamid Karzai had pursued a reconciliation strategy which led them to negotiate with the Mujahedin and Taliban respectively. In each case, the negotiations backfired as opponents smelled blood. Simultaneously, both the Soviet Union and United States have sought to bolster local and elite militias. This benefited security in the short term, but was corrosive in the long term. Regardless, both Moscow then and Washington now swore by the professionalism of their respective 350,000-man Afghan military. Such military, however, was heavily dependent on foreign assistance.

The Soviet Union and then Russia continued to provide about $3 billion in aid for each of the three years after the withdrawal, but as soon as the money ran dry, his regime and its military collapsed. The same will likely hold true for Karzai and the new Afghanistan Security Forces. A major difference, however, is that Afghanistan’s Najibullah-era air force could operate independently. Such cannot be said about Afghanistan’s air force today, which cannot function without ISAF assistance. That said, Karzai’s regime has international recognition. The Soviets had simply appointed Najibullah, who was therefore never able to claim internal legitimacy let alone win broad external recognition.

2014 will be a pivotal year for Afghanistan. The White House might hope for stability, but given the degree to which Afghans see history repeating, the opposite is much more likely true: As soon as the money runs out, expect the system to unravel. Momentum matters, and the first few defections will lead to a deluge. Many Afghans expect a civil war, or at least a multi-party civil struggle. How unfortunate this is, because it did not need to be this way.

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Afghanistan and Diplomacy Unhinged

Next week, my new book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups will officially come out. A major theme of the book is that contrary to the statements of many State Department officials across administrations, it can very much hurt to talk.

Eli Lake has a piece at the Daily Beast that confirms what long has been rumored: U.S. officials have neglected to go after the Haqqani network’s finances because to do so, the Obama administration believed, might undercut diplomacy:

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Next week, my new book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups will officially come out. A major theme of the book is that contrary to the statements of many State Department officials across administrations, it can very much hurt to talk.

Eli Lake has a piece at the Daily Beast that confirms what long has been rumored: U.S. officials have neglected to go after the Haqqani network’s finances because to do so, the Obama administration believed, might undercut diplomacy:

In the last 17 months since the U.S. government financially blacklisted the Haqqani Network, one of the deadliest insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not a single dollar associated with the group has been blocked or frozen, according to U.S. officials and one of the Congressman who oversees the Treasury Department’s financial war on terrorism. But it’s not just the Haqqanis—an ally today in the Taliban’s fight against U.S. troops and the Afghan government—who seem to have been spared from America’s economic attacks. According to a Treasury Department letter written in late November, not a single dollar been seized from the Pakistani Taliban, either, at least for 2012. The reason why, according to a leading Congressman, is that enforcing such sanctions might upset delicate negotiations between America, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups.

The whole article is worth reading. For what it is worth, such inconsistent and counterproductive outreach to the Haqqanis is not limited to the Obama administration, but also extends far back into the Bush administration. Regardless, the episode highlights a consistent problem with U.S. strategy that transcends U.S. administrations and their approach to both terrorist groups and rogue regimes and explains why U.S. diplomacy consistently fails. The idea that ameliorating and offering concessions to adversaries enables successful diplomacy is demonstrably false. Rather, the most successful diplomatic outcomes come when the United States acts from a position of strength and seeks to coerce and weaken its opponents.

Targeting the Haqqani network with an aim to bankrupting it is the only way to succeed. Make no mistake: the conscious decision to allow the Haqqanis access to financial resources results directly in Haqqani terror attacks, as the network tries to leverage violence into a position of greater strength and influence. Never should the United States forfeit its leverage for the sake of hope and wishful thinking. Adversaries will come to the table when they have no other choice, and it should be the policy of the United States government to ensure they have no other choice. It is time to stop holding back when it comes to countering terrorists and rogues, and make their defeat by all prudent means the central pillar of U.S. policy.

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Drones Should Follow the Threat

The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

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The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

Especially when we are dramatically reducing our troop levels in Afghanistan, drones remain one of the few effective ways to strike at our enemies and those of our allies. Indeed the administration would be well advised to expand drone strikes, at least temporarily, within Pakistan to target the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban which, for fear of offending Pakistani sensibilities, has been exempt from drone strikes before. With the Quetta Shura facing less military pressure in Afghanistan, following our troop drawdown, this would be one way to keep this organization off balance.

The question the administration should be addressing is not how quickly it can eliminate drone strikes in Pakistan but how quickly it can expand drone strikes to other areas where al-Qaeda has taken root–in particular western Iraq and northern and eastern Syria. This area, which crosses the Iraq-Syria border, has become a jihadist stronghold in the past year and it is a threat not just to regional governments but to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just testified that there are 26,000 jihadist fighters in Syria alone, including 7,000 foreigners, and that some of them are plotting against the American homeland.

Neither the Syrian nor the Iraqi government has shown much ability to address the problem. In fact, we don’t want the Syrian government to address the problem because Bashar Assad’s preferred approach to counterinsurgency is to perpetuate war crimes. The Iraqi government isn’t as bad but it, too, favors a blunt force approach that usually backfires.

That is why I am so concerned about the administration’s plan to sell Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Baghdad. Those weapons are as likely to be used against Sunni political foes of Prime Minister Maliki as they are against true al-Qaeda terrorists. I would have more confidence in U.S.-operated drones, although there is a question of where they would be based–Iraq? Turkey? Jordan? Israel? Liberated parts of Syria? Saudi Arabia?

Whatever the case, there is an urgent need for action to stop al-Qaeda from developing secure sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq, and drone strikes, assuming that local bases could be established, could be an effective tool in this fight if they are based on good intelligence. If the U.S. is going to shift part of its drone infrastructure out of Afghanistan–and, for the next few years anyway, this is probably a mistake–it should be shifted to the Middle East where the threat is growing every day.

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Karzai Pushing U.S. Out?

Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

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Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

In the first place, most Afghans do want us there. A continued U.S. presence was strongly endorsed by the Loya Jirga that Karzai convened and it has been endorsed by practically the entire Karzai cabinet. The issue isn’t the people of Afghanistan; it’s the behavior of Hamid Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office in April.

We can’t hold the future of our commitment in Afghanistan hostage to his whims because there are larger issues at stake. As the New York Times notes today, “The risk that President Obama may be forced to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the American intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.” Those are valid concerns because drones such as the Predator and Reaper have relatively short ranges; they need to be based close to the areas where they operate and if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it will have no other nearby air base from which to monitor Pakistan’s troubled frontier regions.

At this point, we need to simply ignore Karzai and try to develop a better relationship with whoever succeeds him. Because if we don’t stay in Afghanistan—and that means more than the 1,000 or 2,000 troops that Joe Biden is said to favor—there is a real danger of the country succumbing once again to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.

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Obama’s Choice in Afghanistan

If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, U.S. military commanders are telling President Obama that he should leave either 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 or none at all. This seems like wise advice given the president’s proven predilection for splitting the difference–and for providing only the barest of bare bones necessary to carry out a strategy. For example, when he ordered the initial surge of forces into Afghanistan in 2009, he sent 30,000 troops, not the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had asked for, and imposed a time limit that hindered their mission.

For months, the White House has been leaking that no more than 8,000 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2014–and possibly quite a few fewer. The military is right to warn that at a certain level, U.S. forces cannot sustain or defend themselves or their colleagues in the State Department and intelligence agencies. A handful of commandos cannot drop out of the sky and operate successfully–they need an infrastructure in place to support them. Same goes for military trainers, advisers, diplomats, and spies. 

So to that extent the military’s advice is on the money–although it is certain to be unwelcome in the White House which has long had a neuralgic reaction to leaks of force recommendations which Obama believes (perhaps rightly) are an attempt to “box him in” by the armed forces. 

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If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, U.S. military commanders are telling President Obama that he should leave either 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 or none at all. This seems like wise advice given the president’s proven predilection for splitting the difference–and for providing only the barest of bare bones necessary to carry out a strategy. For example, when he ordered the initial surge of forces into Afghanistan in 2009, he sent 30,000 troops, not the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had asked for, and imposed a time limit that hindered their mission.

For months, the White House has been leaking that no more than 8,000 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2014–and possibly quite a few fewer. The military is right to warn that at a certain level, U.S. forces cannot sustain or defend themselves or their colleagues in the State Department and intelligence agencies. A handful of commandos cannot drop out of the sky and operate successfully–they need an infrastructure in place to support them. Same goes for military trainers, advisers, diplomats, and spies. 

So to that extent the military’s advice is on the money–although it is certain to be unwelcome in the White House which has long had a neuralgic reaction to leaks of force recommendations which Obama believes (perhaps rightly) are an attempt to “box him in” by the armed forces. 

But for an outside analyst what is troubling about the Journal report is not the troop figure recommendation. It is, rather, that the military is supposedly telling Obama, as a sweetener, that the entire force can be withdrawn by the time he leaves office–i.e., by early 2017. 

It is hard to imagine how any responsible commander could so recommend at this point–i.e., in early 2014–so perhaps the report is inaccurate. I hope so, because it is simply impossible to know now what Afghanistan will look like in 2017. Perhaps Afghan forces will have made so much progress by then that they will no longer need much American support. That is certainly what everyone, including me, hopes. But it’s not likely to happen given the extreme poverty of Afghanistan and the size of the security challenge it faces from an undefeated Taliban insurgency.

If history has taught anything, it is that premature pullouts of U.S. forces can sacrifice all that they have fought so hard to achieve. See, most recently, Iraq. Or before that, Haiti, Somalia, Vietnam, post-World War I Europe… the list is a long one of squandered opportunities. Whereas if U.S. forces stay for the long-term, near-miraculous progress is possible. See Germany, Japan, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, South Korea, and other examples.

It is certainly possible, even probable, that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be able to responsibly draw down over the years. But any such withdrawal should be based on realities on the ground–not on an artificial desire to give President Obama a political coup by announcing the “end” of the Afghan War before the end of his term of office. We’ve seen in Iraq that a similar impulse led to more war, not less. The same danger looms in Afghanistan.

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Yes, the Taliban Are Terrorists

Diplomacy often obstructs moral clarity. After the Clinton administration launched its high-profile engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, State Department officials bent over backwards to ignore the complacency of PLO leaders in financing and ordering acts of terror. As I document in my new book, a comparison of intelligence available to the State Department and the concurrent testimony of senior State Department officials to Congress shows that the diplomats simply lied about the character of their partners in order to avoid U.S. law that would mandate a cessation of aid should the PLO be involved in terror.

For the past five years, both senior military officials (up to and including Gen. David Petraeus) and senior diplomats (up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have advocated for talks with the Taliban. At no time did policymakers consider the Bill Clinton administration’s sorry, five-year experience talking to the Taliban, an episode that caused diplomats to become distracted from the Taliban’s true aims and goals in the years leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

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Diplomacy often obstructs moral clarity. After the Clinton administration launched its high-profile engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, State Department officials bent over backwards to ignore the complacency of PLO leaders in financing and ordering acts of terror. As I document in my new book, a comparison of intelligence available to the State Department and the concurrent testimony of senior State Department officials to Congress shows that the diplomats simply lied about the character of their partners in order to avoid U.S. law that would mandate a cessation of aid should the PLO be involved in terror.

For the past five years, both senior military officials (up to and including Gen. David Petraeus) and senior diplomats (up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have advocated for talks with the Taliban. At no time did policymakers consider the Bill Clinton administration’s sorry, five-year experience talking to the Taliban, an episode that caused diplomats to become distracted from the Taliban’s true aims and goals in the years leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Time launders terrorists, after all. While the press and many policymakers once mocked Secretary of State Colin Powell for wanting to work with “moderate Taliban,” by the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that had effectively become the policy of the White House.

The Taliban’s attack on a Kabul restaurant frequented by foreigners is tragic, but should be a reminder of just who the Taliban are and what they represent. To call them an insurgent force is inaccurate: insurgents battle armies; they do not bomb restaurants and then shoot unarmed civilians. The Taliban are terrorists, plain and simple, and America’s premature withdrawal will empower them. The Taliban are not simply a Pashtun movement, as the late Richard Holbrooke once implied. True, many Taliban might be Pashtun, but not all Pashtun are Taliban and, indeed, many Pashtun have spent decades resisting the ignorant thugs who flocked to the Taliban.

It is time to put objective fact above diplomatic wishful thinking. The Taliban are terrorists, and seeking to include them in any post-withdrawal order is akin to negotiating with terrorists. Negotiating with the Taliban has not worked in the past, and there is no reason to believe any compromise will be possible in the future. Not talking to the Taliban, but allowing them to fill the vacuum created by America’s withdrawal is just as bad. Sometimes, adversaries simply need to be defeated, an accomplishment not possible when the White House constrains the military.

If the Taliban responsible for the restaurant attack had direct links to Pakistan—and they likely did—then it is time to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, no ifs, ands, or buts: diplomatic nicety does not benefit the United States; it makes them think America is weak and risible. Perhaps American diplomats and former senators find such talks sophisticated. Regardless, beyond the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network which are already designated, it is long past time to designate every other Taliban group which conducts attacks on civilians to be terrorists, and their foreign government sponsors to be state sponsors. While the Taliban has said that the attack on the Kabul restaurant was retaliation–a claim picked up and amplified by the New York Times–my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out that the Taliban makes such excuses for external consumption only. What the Taliban did not mention was that it also killed three young civilians in a rocket attack in Kandahar, an attack that had everything to do with the character of the movement and nothing to do with feigned grievance.

Perhaps it will remain the policy of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to compromise with and perhaps even empower terrorists through the policies they advocate. But if so, they should acknowledge it openly and be accountable for the strategic and moral vacuity of their position.

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The Silly Attempt to Discredit Bob Gates

In 1948, a diplomatic tell-all appeared on the shelves intended to make a splash. By former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, the book title blared “I Saw Poland Betrayed” beside the Polish coat of arms’ imposing white eagle, which seemed almost to be shouting the words. The cover also informs us that “Our Ambassador to Poland resigned to tell this story.”

In fact, the timeline is less condensed than that might imply. The betrayal Lane witnessed referred to the post-Yalta actions of the major powers in which FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sealed the fate of postwar Poland, which would be under the Soviet thumb for decades more. Lane resigned in 1947 after the sham Polish elections made it official. It was a headache for President Truman, one of many he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt. But it was not a surprise: Lane writes in the introduction that his resignation was accepted “with the understanding of President Truman … that I would tell the story as I had seen it.”

Lane’s book was only one in a sea of such memoirs, the latest of which is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s account of his time leading the Pentagon in wartime during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Excerpts from the book have caused a stir, showing President Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting that their opposition to the “surge” was feigned for political benefit, and that the Obama White House was broadly dismissive of and disrespectful to the American military. And the pushback commenced immediately, today garnering a Politico article attempting to shame Gates for his timing and his candor.

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In 1948, a diplomatic tell-all appeared on the shelves intended to make a splash. By former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, the book title blared “I Saw Poland Betrayed” beside the Polish coat of arms’ imposing white eagle, which seemed almost to be shouting the words. The cover also informs us that “Our Ambassador to Poland resigned to tell this story.”

In fact, the timeline is less condensed than that might imply. The betrayal Lane witnessed referred to the post-Yalta actions of the major powers in which FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sealed the fate of postwar Poland, which would be under the Soviet thumb for decades more. Lane resigned in 1947 after the sham Polish elections made it official. It was a headache for President Truman, one of many he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt. But it was not a surprise: Lane writes in the introduction that his resignation was accepted “with the understanding of President Truman … that I would tell the story as I had seen it.”

Lane’s book was only one in a sea of such memoirs, the latest of which is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s account of his time leading the Pentagon in wartime during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Excerpts from the book have caused a stir, showing President Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting that their opposition to the “surge” was feigned for political benefit, and that the Obama White House was broadly dismissive of and disrespectful to the American military. And the pushback commenced immediately, today garnering a Politico article attempting to shame Gates for his timing and his candor.

The good news for Gates is that it is likely many people who clicked on the article stopped reading a few paragraphs in. That’s because Politico offers the first shaming quote to Sandy Berger. Yes, Sandy Berger–the Clinton administration official who pilfered national-security documents from the National Archives to protect his boss. Here’s what Sandy Berger has to say about a highly decorated public servant who is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

“Cabinet members who don’t leave on principle ought to avoid undercutting the president while he’s still in office,” said Sandy Berger, who was national security adviser during President Bill Clinton’s second term. “I think they have that duty of loyalty to the president. It makes me uncomfortable to see Gates do this.”

Imagine that, you might say to yourself: the world has discovered behavior that makes Sandy Berger uncomfortable. But the larger point is just how difficult it is to tarnish Gates’s well-earned reputation. Gates must be chuckling to himself at being attacked by Sandy Berger.

Berger isn’t the only one quoted in the article, and the story goes on to mention James Byrnes’s post-Yalta memoir, though it is a far less relevant example than Lane’s. We hear from others as well in the story notes of disapproval about the timing of the memoir and the fact that it criticizes those Gates served. Berger’s critique is the least sensible of all: that Gates should have resigned to write this book or waited until Obama was out of office.

But think about that for a moment. Should Gates have resigned “on principle” to tell his story before President Obama’s reelection? How would that have been received? Surely many would have preferred to hear such criticism before casting their vote, but it would have been seen as an attempt to influence the presidential election.

Others in the story echo the claim Gates should have waited until Obama left office. But at that point, someone else criticized in the book might be taking office. How would it look if Gates released the book this time in 2017, just in time to ruin the inauguration of Obama’s successor?

Additionally, we are currently winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decisions have already been made, so this won’t change anything. It just enables the conversation about these changes to include Gates, surely one of the most knowledgeable sources in the country. The book’s actual impact, then, is going to be limited. It will mostly involve keeping the public better informed about the debate we’re now having. The attacks on Gates may have been predictable, but that makes them no less gratuitous or silly.

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Our Contemptible Commander in Chief

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward wrote a front-page story that includes excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.

According to Woodward, Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war… It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

But one begins to understand what underlies Secretary Gates’s judgment after learning about his thoughts during a meeting he attended. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Bear in mind that Mr. Obama was interested in getting out even as he gave the order to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was evident to some people at the time, and evident to everyone now, that President Obama had little interest in winning the war in Afghanistan. His aim was to check the box on the way to ending our involvement there.

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The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward wrote a front-page story that includes excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.

According to Woodward, Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war… It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

But one begins to understand what underlies Secretary Gates’s judgment after learning about his thoughts during a meeting he attended. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Bear in mind that Mr. Obama was interested in getting out even as he gave the order to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was evident to some people at the time, and evident to everyone now, that President Obama had little interest in winning the war in Afghanistan. His aim was to check the box on the way to ending our involvement there.

Secretary Gates also writes about an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.

These are an extraordinary series of revelations. The commander in chief (a) sent troops to fight and die in a war (Afghanistan) he wasn’t committed to and in whose strategy he had no confidence in; and (b) as a senator opposed for partisan reasons a counterinsurgency strategy that turned a war we were losing (Iraq) into one we were winning.

Losing a war is among the worst things that can happen to a nation. Yet we have as president a man who was willing to have America lose in Iraq in order to advance his own political ambitions. And a man, by the way, who constantly chastises Republicans for putting politics above country while portraying himself as the one true patriot.

Having served in the White House for seven years and spanning two wars, I had first-hand exposure to the devotion Mr. Obama’s predecessor had for our troops and how fiercely dedicated he was to having America prevail in these conflicts. Partisan politics not only didn’t drive President Bush’s decisions; they didn’t even enter into them. That is as it should be. For Mr. Obama, on the other hand–at least based on the account by the widely respected Bob Gates–partisan politics was an overwhelming factor in guiding Obama’s major war decisions.

Barack Obama acted in a way that was selfish, cynical, and contemptible. He sent young men and women to die for a war he was utterly ambivalent about and which he had no interest in winning. (Recall that Mr. Obama decided to withdraw the surge troops in Afghanistan in the middle of the fighting season rather than what the military recommended. That decision made no sense from a military standpoint, but it did happen to occur shortly before the 2012 presidential election.) As a senator he did everything he could to ensure that we would lose the Iraq war.

What Secretary Gates has revealed is a moral stain on the president that will never be removed.

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Cautious Optimism in Afghanistan

With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

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With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

Masses of Taliban foot soldiers attacked this spring and summer in a bid to take over Sangin district; government forces turned them back. Mohammad Rasoul Barakzai, the acting Sangin district governor, describes the year-end situation as “calm,” with only intermittent Taliban attacks.

What holds true in Sangin is true for Helmand Province more broadly: “the Afghans have emerged from the warm-weather fighting season in nominal control of every heavily populated district of Helmand—a result that U.S. and Afghan commanders say should inject optimism into the often-gloomy debate over the country’s future.”

This runs counter to recent reports of the Afghan army doing deals with the Taliban in Sangin. Phillips reports that this was a low-level accommodation reached by junior officers who have since been disciplined.

If his report is right, it is certainly good news, suggesting that Afghanistan has a fighting chance to survive the pullout of most Western forces at the end of this year.

There is, however, a big caveat that must be added. While U.S. troops mostly pulled out of ground combat last year, they continued to provide substantial support to their Afghan partners. As the Journal notes, “the U.S. continues to provide supplies, close air support and air evacuation of the badly wounded.” That’s less significant than the U.S. role in years past but it is still a major enabler of Afghan capability. If you take away that American support, no one knows what will happen.

But even under the best-case scenario–which is that President Karzai finally gets off his duff and signs the security accord he negotiated with Washington–it is unlikely that U.S. forces will continue to provide close air support or medevac. (Instead, U.S. forces are likely to be limited to a few major bases.) The worst-case scenario is that the bilateral security accord falls through and Afghanistan is left entirely on its own.

The Journal report shows that it would be foolish to write off Afghanistan–as long as it continues to receive substantial American assistance. If that assistance isn’t forthcoming, all bets are off and Afghanistan could regress back to the dark days of the 1990s, which led to the takeover of the Taliban and their Arab allies in al-Qaeda.

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Afghan Army Gives Up District Without a Fight

I have long been critical of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, both because emphasis on development and the accompanying infusion of money sparks corrosive corruption, and also because the timeline President Obama announced in 2009 and an embrace of negotiations with the Taliban misreads the Afghan mindset. As I tell military audiences to whom I lecture, it’s important to remember that Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Security of the family trumps fealty to any political force, and so Afghans won’t hesitate to switch sides in a way which to Americans would seem treasonous.

As transition approaches, it seems the State Department, Pentagon, and White House are infused with wishful thinking about how transition might go. If so, today’s events in southern Afghanistan should disabuse them of that notion. According to a tweet from Lt. Mustafa Kazemi, Afghan Army forces surrendered the Sangin district of Helmand without a fight, after being threatened by the Taliban. He elaborated, here.

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I have long been critical of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, both because emphasis on development and the accompanying infusion of money sparks corrosive corruption, and also because the timeline President Obama announced in 2009 and an embrace of negotiations with the Taliban misreads the Afghan mindset. As I tell military audiences to whom I lecture, it’s important to remember that Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Security of the family trumps fealty to any political force, and so Afghans won’t hesitate to switch sides in a way which to Americans would seem treasonous.

As transition approaches, it seems the State Department, Pentagon, and White House are infused with wishful thinking about how transition might go. If so, today’s events in southern Afghanistan should disabuse them of that notion. According to a tweet from Lt. Mustafa Kazemi, Afghan Army forces surrendered the Sangin district of Helmand without a fight, after being threatened by the Taliban. He elaborated, here.

Momentum means everything in Afghanistan. PowerPoint planning doesn’t capture local psychology, no matter what ISAF commanders may believe. Afghans want to side with the strong horse, not the horse that, for domestic political reasons, wants to go home.

If accurate, today’s events foreshadow the post-transition crisis will hit Afghanistan far quicker than military and diplomatic planners expect.

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The American Commitment to Afghanistan

The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

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The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

* Promote multiethnic coalitions—rather than individual candidates—for the 2014 presidential election and, for the eventual winner, encourage the appointment of a cabinet and senior officials that represent Afghanistan’s ethnic and cultural constituencies

* Pursue a foreign internal defense mission that includes between eight thousand and twelve thousand residual American troops, plus additional NATO forces.

* Support Afghan government–led discussions with the Taliban and other groups over prisoner exchanges, local cease-fires, and the reintegration of fighters….But U.S. policymakers  recognize that a comprehensive peace settlement with the Taliban is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

* Foreign donors should continue to provide $5 billion a year in funding to sustain the ANSF. The United States and other international donors should also provide economic assistance of $3.3 billion to $3.9 billion a year through 2017.

One can quibble with this recommendation or that, but on the whole this is a very sensible proposal informed by Jones’s considerable time on the ground working with U.S. Special Operations Forces.

The question is whether these policy options will actually be implemented. The obstacle is not just Karzai’s intransigence; there is a big question as to whether the Obama administration will support a commitment of this size. Given where the conversation stands in Washington, sending 12,000 U.S. troops is as at the high end of what’s possible even though U.S. military commanders have testified that a minimum of 13,000 or so troops is really needed.

I hope that President Obama himself reads the report and especially the section that outlines the stakes in Afghanistan: “A civil war or successful Taliban led insurgency,” the authors rightly warn, “would likely allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network, and Lashkare-Taiba to increase their presence in Afghanistan.” And a civil war or successful Taliban takeover is likely absent the kind of U.S. commitment outlined in the report.

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A Method to Karzai’s Madness?

Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which has been laboriously negotiated with the Obama administration, is maddening–but it does come with a silver lining: Karzai’s foot-dragging is showing that there is widespread popular support for a continuing American troop presence and of course for the money that comes with it. There was a telling vignette at the loya jirga that Karzai called to endorse the agreement–and whose verdict he is so far ignoring. As Najib Sharifi, a Kabul-based analyst, notes:

Almost 40 minutes into Karzai’s speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.

What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of “Death to slaves of Pakistan” and “Death to slaves of Iran” suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.

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Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which has been laboriously negotiated with the Obama administration, is maddening–but it does come with a silver lining: Karzai’s foot-dragging is showing that there is widespread popular support for a continuing American troop presence and of course for the money that comes with it. There was a telling vignette at the loya jirga that Karzai called to endorse the agreement–and whose verdict he is so far ignoring. As Najib Sharifi, a Kabul-based analyst, notes:

Almost 40 minutes into Karzai’s speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.

What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of “Death to slaves of Pakistan” and “Death to slaves of Iran” suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.

How often do you hear those who oppose a U.S. military presence in their country being denounced as traitors? Especially in a Muslim country? Yet that is what is now happening in Afghanistan where everyone, it seems, except for the Taliban, is urging Karzai to get on with it and sign an agreement that will enable the government’s survival past 2014.

Why isn’t Karzai complying so far? Afghanistan, like other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, is notorious for its conspiracy theories and Sharifi has a good one to explain Karzai’s actions:

By holding off on signing the agreement, he is generating further domestic support for the pact. In other words, he is effectively building public pressure against himself. Why? Because there is a historical stigma attached to any agreement that includes the establishment of foreign military bases in the country. While Afghans currently support the creation of these bases, with the country’s uncertain political future, Karzai is worried about his legacy and he does not want to be seen as the person who facilitated this development if the domestic sentiment changes. By increasing the public pressure, he is creating an environment that would allow him to sign the BSA, while claiming that he had no other choice but to yield to the public demand.

Far be it from me to predict or explain Karzai’s actions, but this actually seems like a compelling theory. I just hope that Sharifi is right that Karzai will soon end the charade and sign the BSA, because if he doesn’t the Obama administration can use that as an excuse to walk away, leaving Afghanistan–and U.S. interests in the region–in the lurch.

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