When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.
The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.
Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:
First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.
Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
The agreement announced today by President Obama and Afghan President Karzai to speed up the transition of U.S. troops from combat to an advisory role is largely symbolic, since our troops will not be prohibited from engaging in combat. But the desire of the president to pull out as quickly and completely as possible is palpable.
No doubt if he decides to leave only a token residual force behind, or none at all, he will claim that the U.S. can adequately disrupt and deter terrorist groups with the lightest of light footprints. But is that actually true? This Washington Post article reports, not surprisingly, that the CIA is planning its own downsizing in Afghanistan to go along with the military drawdown:
Many of Chuck Hagel’s more vocal supporters have trumpeted his supposed anti-war credentials: He was against the Iraq war (after he was for it) and he was a skeptic about the Afghan war (again, after he was for it). Let’s put aside the fact that while senators can blow with the wind, the job of the defense secretary isn’t to abandon conflict when the winds of war change, but to adjust strategy in order regain momentum, fulfill the mission, and achieve the best results for U.S. national security.
There are plenty of mistakes to go around in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban government are not among them. What drove up the cost of the conflicts in both countries was not the initial military action, but rather all the nation building in which the United States subsequently engaged. While diplomats and politicians speak loftily of soft-power and development, the truth is that neither worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. The irony here, of course, is that while Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker have endorsed Hagel, they were the ones most responsible for the prolongation of the Iraq mission with their decision to scrap plans for a provisional government prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom (and, no, despite the nonsense in the press, pre-war plans did not envision anointing Ahmad Chalabi as Iraqi leader). Had the United States exited Iraq in 2003, Iraq would not look much different than it does today. Likewise, if the United States abandons Afghanistan—as it seems the Obama administration is wont to do—it will simply return that country to the dark days of its civil war.
In his new memoir (which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal), General Stanley McChrystal was careful not to criticize the Obama administration even though he arguably got a raw deal from the president. Obama did not send him enough troops in 2009 (only 30,000 out of the 40,000 McChrystal thought necessary) and then fired him a year later after some of his aides (but not apparently the general himself) were caught by a Rolling Stone reporter making disparaging, bantering remarks about senior administration figures.
McChrystal is a little more forthcoming in this interview with New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon. For instance, Gordon asked him about Obama’s plan to send only 30,000 troops and get the other 10,000 from allies–did those 10,000 ever materialize? McChrystal: “I was concerned about the allied 10,000, and at the end of the day I’m not sure how many of those came. … I know there was an intent to get the full 10,000.”
How low can they go? After leaks suggesting that the White House is decreasing projected troop levels in Afghanistan post-2014 to as low as 3,000, now the deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes has suggested that the zero option is a very real possibility.
This might be just a bargaining ploy to put pressure on Hamid Karzai as negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement heat up, but it could also be where the White House ends up. That was certainly the outcome in Iraq. There, as in Afghanistan, the view of most experts and military officers was that we needed a substantial residual force but after negotiations hit a snag, President Obama pulled all the troops out. He may well do so again in Afghanistan—an option that Chuck Hagel and John Kerry would be more likely to support than their predecessors at Defense and State.
Much of the controversy over the nomination of Chuck Hagel has focused on his views on Israel and Iran. I’m more worried, at least in the short term, about his views on Afghanistan.
When it comes to making policy vis-à-vis Israel and Iran, Hagel will be only one voice among many in the administration’s top-level “principals” meetings. Those are not primarily defense issues. But the war in Afghanistan is a matter where the secretary of defense has a disproportionate voice.
The press continues to be full of leaks about the administration’s troop drawdown plans in Afghanistan. The latest is this article in the Wall Street Journal, which reports that, at the White House’s insistence, the Pentagon has offered troop options post-2014 lower than those favored by General John Allen, the commander on the ground. His options call for between 6,000 and 15,000 troops (some other accounts have suggested his top-end figure is 20,000). The new set of options: 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops.
As the Journal notes, this is part of a continuing decrease in the size of forces envisioned for Afghanistan: “In late 2010, some senior administration and defense officials told NATO allies that the U.S. may need to keep at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission concludes. A year later, officials suggested troop levels could be closer to 20,000. As recently as November, Gen. Allen spoke privately with Pentagon chiefs about the need for 15,000 troops from the U.S. alone.” But now the administration seems to be leaning toward cutting the current force by more than half this year (from 66,000 to 30,000 or so) and leaving perhaps 6,000 or even fewer troops post-2014. And as U.S. troop number decreases, so do those of our NATO allies: nobody is going to do more than we are.
A fascinating story from Britain’s Daily Mail:
A collection of manuscripts from caves in Afghanistan has provided the first evidence of Jewish communities living in the devoutly Muslim country 1,000 years ago. The cache of Hebrew documents are thought to have originated from the country’s northeast region, a Taliban stronghold. The documents, which include biblical commentaries, personal letters and financial records, were unveiled by Israel’s National Library after being purchased from private dealers… The collection of documents has provided scholars with fascinating details into the lives of early Jewish communities in ancient Persia….
Malala Yousufzai, the Pashtun schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in Pakistan’s tribal region, today has left the hospital. Her recovery is not yet complete, and she will also undergo facial reconstruction surgery. The Pakistani government—which once tried to cut a deal with the same groups that targeted Malala and tried to deny her and her peers education solely on the basis of their gender—did the right thing by appointing her father to the Pakistani consulate so that the family might stay in the United Kingdom for the near future.
Malala’s ordeal should be a wake up call for the West. Momentum matters. Obama’s plans to withdraw “on schedule” from Afghanistan will imbue the Taliban with power they have not seen for more than a decade. They will claim that they have defeated two superpowers, and no amount of White House spin or historical fact-checking will change that perception among their Islamist followers. The idea that the Afghan government will stand on its own replicates the Soviet dream that Najibullah would last forever. As Najibullah learned, as soon as the foreign money runs out and the international community starts negotiating with his enemies, all is lost.
If this New York Times leak is accurate, Gen. John Allen has presented his three options for force levels in Afghanistan post-2014. Low risk option: 20,000. Medium risk: 10,000. High-risk: 6,000.
My own view is that 20,000 is actually the medium-risk option–the low-risk option (or, more accurately, lower risk option) is 25,000 to 35,000 troops as argued in this policy paper from retired Gen. David Barno, a former commander in Afghanistan. (He subsequently argued in an op-ed that 10,000 troops would be adequate but gave no reason why his earlier analysis did not hold.)
As if to buttress my earlier item on the dangers of outsourcing support for Syrian rebels to the Qataris and other Gulf Arabs, the New York Times carries this report on the worrisome consequences of earlier outsourcing the support of Libyan rebels to Qatar.
The newspaper reports: “The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government.”
Senator John McCain’s quip yesterday pushed his colleague Senator John Kerry’s ambitions back in the limelight. If President Barack Obama nominates Kerry to be secretary of state or defense, chances are his nomination would sail through the senate. The Senate is a club, and many members would consider it professional courtesy to give one of their own a pass. Ignore his positions and his track record for a moment: personality matters, and Kerry is perhaps the one senator least suited for any executive position.
The problem is, according to some of Kerry’s former staffers, that he is serially indecisive. Simple decisions regarding which of two candidates should receive a promotion on his staff could take six months. The problem was not Kerry’s busy schedule or his frequent travels, or that the memo got lost on his desk. Rather, it was that Kerry simply could not determine which candidate should get his blessing. In the end, he split the difference and announced co-directors. The result was predictable: turf wars and confusion as each sought to negate the other. Running a bureaucracy is not like attending a Quaker meeting; sometimes consensus is not the least-bad option. The example his own staffers gave was the rule, not the exception. They complained they would be waiting for Kerry’s decisions long after others on both side of the aisle had made up their minds.
Kim and Fred Kagan have a typically trenchant op-ed in the Washington Post today on the minimal force requirements necessary for post-2014 Afghanistan. Bottom line up front: They argue a force of at least 30,000 personnel will be needed for a bare-bones counterterrorism and advisory mission.
They begin by assuming that the U.S. will need three major bases outside Kabul–in Jalalabad, Khost, and Kandahar. Each base will require a battalion of ground troops, primarily for protection, and a battalion of combat-aviation to enable drone strikes and operations by Special Mission Units. That adds up to two brigades, or 10,000 troops. Add in 5,000 or so logisticians to keep those bases supplied and you’re up to 15,000. To prevent the areas around those bases from going to hell, it will also be necessary to send some advisors to the local Afghan army and police headquarters. That adds another 6,000 or so personnel. If you add in “the security forces for a base near Kabul, a theater headquarters, route-clearance packages, theater logisticians and other ancillary units,” you are pushing “the requirement above 30,000.”
The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.
James Monroe had the Monroe Doctrine; Harry Truman had the Truman Doctrine; George W. Bush had the Bush Doctrine; and now, the L.A. Times reports, Barack Obama will have the Costanza Doctrine.
Or at least that’s the best way to understand it. In a season five episode of “Seinfeld,” George Costanza’s character decides his life has been marked by an almost uninterrupted parade of bad decisions, and he must now do the opposite to break the pattern. The L.A. Times tries delicately to couch the Obama administration’s second-term foreign policy agenda in terms of moderation and pragmatism, but voters may, if the report is correct, witness an agenda quite different in tone and substance from what Obama told them he would do if reelected:
On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued the Islamist movement’s official statement in Pashto, which the Open Source Center translated:
1. Obama should fully utilize the new opportunity preventing the United States from acting as world police, focusing on solving own problems, and not allowing the country to burn in the fire of world’s hatred.
2. Obama realizes that Americans are now tired of the war and useless military expenditure. Therefore, he should take into account the demands and expectations of his people, and end the meaningless war. He should not let the United States become notorious by committing more war crimes.
3. Obama realizes that the American nation is tired of the war losses and back-breaking economic crisis. Therefore, he should immediately withdraw his troops from the country and prevent deaths of more US troops.
4. The elements who are currently supporting the United States in our country are indeed the most disgraceful and unwanted faces. Relying on such elements will cost the United States more financial and human losses.
5. Perhaps Obama has now realized well that he has lost the battle in Afghanistan. Therefore, instead of wasting time and telling lies, he should immediately leave our sacred soil and think about his country and people’s lives.
Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post is one of the best defense correspondents out there, but he goes off the deep end in this article, claiming that there is a truth that no politician, general, or think tanker dare utter–that “measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He explains: “Global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293 Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.” Therefore, he more or less suggests, there is no reason to spend as much as we do on defense. “The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze.”
Jaffe’s first claim is actually self-refuting–the notion that no one dare talk about how safe we are. He quotes academics and think tankers who do just that. In fact, the argument that the terrorist threat is overblown is a regular trope of political scientist John Mueller (see, for instance, this 2006 Foreign Affairs article). The fact that such arguments have won little traction in the political process–even relatively dovish Democrats think we should be spending a lot of money on homeland defense–is a sign not of the overwhelming lobbying power of defense contractors or hawkish think tankers or other actors, but rather of the fundamental unreality behind these arguments.
The joy with which residents of Kabul have greeted a championship boxing match in their city–won by Hamid Rahimi, a German of Afghan extraction–is further evidence that there is little desire in Afghanistan for a return to Taliban rule. The Taliban, after all, were the crackpots who banned boxing, music, kite flying, and other forms of entertainment. They did allow soccer matches, but would come out at halftime to execute or amputate their victims–a poor alternative to marching bands and cheerleaders.
Amid all of Afghanistan’s problems, its people are embracing professional soccer, boxing, and other amusements that would be unthinkable under Taliban control. Admittedly, Kabul is hardly representative of the entire country–it has always been the most Westernized of Afghan cities. But cities like Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad and even Kandahar are no more friendly to the resumption of Taliban control. The Taliban do have some support in the Pashtun countryside, but even there the Taliban’s draconian edicts–such as forbidding schooling for girls–go too far even for most conservative farmers.
Why do reporters bother to write formal news stories? The best, most illuminating accounts I read are those in which the reporter dispenses with the conventions of “objective” journalism and writes in the first person, telling readers what he or she saw. Exhibit A is this blog post by New York Times Kabul bureau chief Alyssa Rubin. Rubin had earlier published a news story attempting to get to the bottom of what happened recently when American and Afghan soldiers exchanged fire with one another, killing six men. She could not figure out the real story–were the Americans simply jumpy or were the Afghans actually trying to kill them?–and so the story was inherently unsatisfying. But her blog post on how she reported the story is the best single snapshot I have seen of real security conditions in Kabul and its environs.
She begins by noting that living in Kabul, as she does, can give a misleading impression because, “despite the blast walls and checkpoints and rubble, there’s still some normalcy there,” with “restaurants that cater to us [Westerners], clothing shops, grocers — even a couple of neighborhoods where you might run into each other on the street.” But if you drive just 35 miles out of the capital into Wardak Province, an area that has never been truly pacified, the scene changes alarmingly: “The road empties out, and the few trucks and minibuses bounce over the scars of I.E.D. blasts every mile or two. ” Further, she writes: