Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hamid Karzai

Don’t Meddle in Afghanistan’s Election

A few days ago, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon took to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that the United States should actively interfere in the next Afghan election to pick a winner. O’Hanlon writes:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him. Also, the international presence in Afghanistan will have enormous influence whether we acknowledge it or not. Supporting the Karzai government is actually a form of political intervention, as it gives the incumbent great resources, such as control of state-run media, to try to choose his successor. Moreover, with U.S. officials making decisions about how much money and how many troops to devote to Afghanistan’s long-term assistance, we have a right to say that the level of our support will be strongly influenced by the choices Afghans make — even if we will not (and should not) try to pick a winner… U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania (which have impressive track records in fighting corruption and improving governance in recent years), should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

O’Hanlon is a serious scholar and a formidable strategic thinker. He is not an instant expert chasing after headlines; his ideas deserve to be taken seriously. In this case, however, he is not only wrong, but if the Obama administration and U.S. military followed his advice, the results would be counterproductive to the extreme.

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A few days ago, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon took to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that the United States should actively interfere in the next Afghan election to pick a winner. O’Hanlon writes:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him. Also, the international presence in Afghanistan will have enormous influence whether we acknowledge it or not. Supporting the Karzai government is actually a form of political intervention, as it gives the incumbent great resources, such as control of state-run media, to try to choose his successor. Moreover, with U.S. officials making decisions about how much money and how many troops to devote to Afghanistan’s long-term assistance, we have a right to say that the level of our support will be strongly influenced by the choices Afghans make — even if we will not (and should not) try to pick a winner… U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania (which have impressive track records in fighting corruption and improving governance in recent years), should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

O’Hanlon is a serious scholar and a formidable strategic thinker. He is not an instant expert chasing after headlines; his ideas deserve to be taken seriously. In this case, however, he is not only wrong, but if the Obama administration and U.S. military followed his advice, the results would be counterproductive to the extreme.

Let’s put aside that Tanzania doesn’t have an embassy in Afghanistan, and few Afghans care what Turkey thinks. We should also open to question the comments of those with whom O’Hanlon spoke during his recent trip to Afghanistan: The U.S. military’s horse-and-pony shows are much like grand juries: the bubble is controlled and so is the outcome, simply by controlling where the jurors can go and with which witnesses they can interact.

For very simple reasons, the idea of mucking about in the elections would backfire and benefit only Karzai, whom O’Hanlon is right to castigate as a malign influence.  He proposes Ashraf Ghani and Hanif Atmar, as suitable candidates deserving of U.S. backing. Both are talented people but very much unelectable. Picking either would be about as wise as betting on Jon Huntsman to get the nod at the Republican National Convention.

The problem is also in the principle. If the United States interferes in elections, it will affirm the worst beliefs of Afghans who interpreted the overbearing attitudes of the late Richard Holbrooke and Peter Galbraith as direct interference. Not only did their actions create a backlash among ordinary Afghans, but they also convinced Karzai and his supporters to do anything possible to rig the polls.

O’Hanlon is correct that Karzai is a disaster. We have seen this picture before, however, because whenever American policymakers concentrate more on supporting an individual than in building a system, the results are the same: The individual grows corrupt and power-hungry, cutting off rivals at the knees. Generals and diplomats, worried more about short-term metrics than long-term stability, fear anything that undercuts their partner, playing into the partners’ hands as he consolidates power.

What should the United States do? Frankly, anything may be too late. Our original sin was imposing a system on Afghanistan with so much power vested in the president. Not only was that system unnatural in Afghan affairs, but also throughout Afghan history, there is a direct correlation between insurgency and the speed of reform. More important, is President Obama’s timeline. No matter what the merits of an electoral plan, so long as an artificial timeline to withdraw hangs over Afghanistan, then American influence rests on quicksand. It’s not even clear that Afghanistan has the resources to hold elections, nor that donors are willing to pony up the several hundred million dollars to make it possible. Elections challenge security, but rather than surge troops into Afghanistan during elections, Obama plans to withdraw them.

If O’Hanlon wants to rally international partners—and avoiding the malign influence of both Iran and Pakistan will be difficult under such circumstances—then the pressure must be for an empowerment of the parliament and local officials at the expense of the president.

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Paying the Price in Afghanistan

Most officers, now deploying to Afghanistan often for their third or fourth time, are far more attuned to political developments and the problems facing that country than the politicians who are ordering them into battle. Based on my experience teaching classes to deploying officers before each unit departs, there is an overwhelming consensus that governance in Afghanistan is fatally flawed. While officers recognize that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is inimical to American security, few officers see how propping up Hamid Karzai’s corrupt plutocracy is a U.S. interest.

Alas, the problem that Karzai has become today is the direct result of a strategy that traded short-term gain for long-term ills. Without doubt, it was important that the United States unseat the Taliban. Simply put, the Taliban can never be a partner for peace and it should have no role in Afghanistan’s future; it must be eliminated. The Clinton administration had tried a negotiated solution with Taliban leaders; the same Taliban representatives with whom Obama’s team now engage promised any number of resolutions, but then as now always failed to deliver.

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Most officers, now deploying to Afghanistan often for their third or fourth time, are far more attuned to political developments and the problems facing that country than the politicians who are ordering them into battle. Based on my experience teaching classes to deploying officers before each unit departs, there is an overwhelming consensus that governance in Afghanistan is fatally flawed. While officers recognize that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is inimical to American security, few officers see how propping up Hamid Karzai’s corrupt plutocracy is a U.S. interest.

Alas, the problem that Karzai has become today is the direct result of a strategy that traded short-term gain for long-term ills. Without doubt, it was important that the United States unseat the Taliban. Simply put, the Taliban can never be a partner for peace and it should have no role in Afghanistan’s future; it must be eliminated. The Clinton administration had tried a negotiated solution with Taliban leaders; the same Taliban representatives with whom Obama’s team now engage promised any number of resolutions, but then as now always failed to deliver.

When Operation Enduring Freedom began, the problem was not just the Taliban but rather, more broadly, the warlords or, in diplomat-speak, “regional power brokers.” When Operation Enduring Freedom began, Afghanistan had been without an army or professional police force for years. Warlords ruled the country. The United States was not in a position to subdue every single warlord; Afghanistan was not logistically capable of handling the huge numbers of U.S. forces that would be necessary for such a mission; the country did not have the extensive networks of bases such as those Saddam Hussein had left behind in Iraq.

The strategy hatched by Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American on Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council (and future ambassador to Afghanistan), was to co-opt as many Afghan warlords as possible by giving them posts in the new Afghan government, thereby removing them from their regional power base, all the while building up the new Afghan security forces. To enable this strategy to work, American officials needed a strong central government, with a president able to appoint not only ministers, but also governors and other regional officials.

Karzai certainly did not object to a strong presidency, and played along. He appointed Ismail Khan—a major Iranian-backed warlord from Herat—to be minister of energy. Notorious Afghan Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum became chief of staff to commander of the Afghan National Army, a largely ceremonial position.  The new Afghan government transferred Gul Agha Sherzai to be governor, first of Kandahar and then Nangarhar. Initially, the strategy paid off. By the time the warlords recognized their power had been surpassed by the national army, it was too late for them.

The payback, however, is now: The central government has become a major source of grievance. Karzai is mercurial and his family notoriously corrupt. If a basis of the U.S. counterinsurgency is to win hearts and minds at a local level, then Karzai and the centralized model implemented during the Bush years becomes the major problem. Afghan villagers and townsmen want leaders to whom they can turn who look like them, speak like them, and are representative of the population in the district in which they live. But, if the appointees and decisions are coming from above, then ultimately the only way to fight city hall is to fight the central government.

So what to do? The short-term strategy achieved its goal—the power of the warlords was undercut—but the bill is now coming due. Unless there is a concerted effort by all international partners to encourage a new loyal jirga to reconsider the structure of government, then Afghanistan is headed once again to chaos. Success will depend on empowering local officials beneath the banner of a loose central government. Alas, the United States has no standing now to rectify either problem, nor does Karzai have an interest in loosening the grip of his family. Obama’s timeline for withdrawal has undercut what little leverage American policymakers have.

The whole situation adds up to a frustrating mess for our soldiers, who are putting their lives on the line for a noble goal betrayed by a diplomatic fiction they all can see through. It is time our politicians treated our troops with the respect they deserve. They are willing to answer the call, but they must see that the problems so glaringly obvious in Afghanistan are being addressed rather than swept under the rug.

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Allen West’s Reckless Rhetoric

Republican Representative Allen West, a Tea Party favorite from Florida, weighed in on President Obama’s 10-year security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In the agreement, Obama pledged continued support to Afghanistan once NATO combat troops leave in 2014. “I look at what happened between President Obama and President Karzai as a 1930s, Chamberlain, Hitler moment,” Representative West told radio host Frank Gaffney. “There is not going to be peace in our time.”

I’m not quite sure what this analogy is supposed to prove. Is Karzai supposed to be Hitler? Whatever complaints one has with Karzai – and I have plenty of my own – he’s clearly no Hitler, and he doesn’t appear to have designs for world conquest.

As a general matter, the Chamberlain-Hitler-appeasement analogy is much overused and is often a sign of lazy thinking, as is the case here.

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Republican Representative Allen West, a Tea Party favorite from Florida, weighed in on President Obama’s 10-year security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In the agreement, Obama pledged continued support to Afghanistan once NATO combat troops leave in 2014. “I look at what happened between President Obama and President Karzai as a 1930s, Chamberlain, Hitler moment,” Representative West told radio host Frank Gaffney. “There is not going to be peace in our time.”

I’m not quite sure what this analogy is supposed to prove. Is Karzai supposed to be Hitler? Whatever complaints one has with Karzai – and I have plenty of my own – he’s clearly no Hitler, and he doesn’t appear to have designs for world conquest.

As a general matter, the Chamberlain-Hitler-appeasement analogy is much overused and is often a sign of lazy thinking, as is the case here.

Representative West, it’s probably worth pointing out, also recently told a town hall meeting that “there’s [sic] about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party who are members of the Communist Party,” referring to their membership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. (West’s defense of his comments can be found here.)

This is not simply an unfortunate comment but an ugly one. Communism is associated with immense and even incomprehensible humor horror, from the estimated 65 million deaths under Mao in China; to the more than 20 million Russians who perished under Stalin and Lenin; to the almost two million Cambodians – comprising around one quarter of the entire population – who died under the Pol Pot regime. Communism has been responsible for forced labor, slavery, starvation, mass executions, and wholesale slaughter. Surely West must know this. And so for him to characterize his (very) liberal colleagues as Communists, and then to defend the claim, is a form of slander.

West would do himself, his party and his cause a world of good if he decided to jettison the corrosive and insulting rhetoric.

 

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Afghans Question Karzai’s Loyalty

While Americans continue to self-flagellate for our own self-inflicted wounds in Afghanistan, be they Quran burnings, shootings of civilians, or grisly trophy photographs—the conversation among Afghans remains sharply different. In the wake of the well-coordinated Taliban attacks inside Kabul, Afghan anger is riding high at President Hamid Karzai, who had referred to the Taliban as “our brothers.”

Social media is important, and the following image has gone viral in Afghanistan, transferred from cell phone to cell phone, and across Afghans’ Facebook pages. On the left, it shows a member of the Taliban captured in women’s clothes. The caption in Dari above reads “Karzai’s brother.”  On the right is an image of an Afghan soldier wounded in the leg defending the city. The caption above reads, “Our brother.”

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While Americans continue to self-flagellate for our own self-inflicted wounds in Afghanistan, be they Quran burnings, shootings of civilians, or grisly trophy photographs—the conversation among Afghans remains sharply different. In the wake of the well-coordinated Taliban attacks inside Kabul, Afghan anger is riding high at President Hamid Karzai, who had referred to the Taliban as “our brothers.”

Social media is important, and the following image has gone viral in Afghanistan, transferred from cell phone to cell phone, and across Afghans’ Facebook pages. On the left, it shows a member of the Taliban captured in women’s clothes. The caption in Dari above reads “Karzai’s brother.”  On the right is an image of an Afghan soldier wounded in the leg defending the city. The caption above reads, “Our brother.”

I disagree with Max Boot that the attacks on Kabul are a sign of weakness (would the reverse logic, a lack of attacks on Kabul then be a sign of Taliban strength?), Boot is absolutely correct to highlight how well the Afghan security forces have availed themselves in defending the city and repulsing the attacks. Unfortunately, the Afghans are up against not only the Taliban, but also the Obama’s administration’s self-defeating timelines and an Afghan president who, believing American staying power to be a mirage, is actively becoming an impediment to victory rather than the hope for the future.

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What Afghans Think About Declining U.S. Support

In the current issue of COMMENTARY, Jamie M. Fly has an excellent article reminding readers of the moral case for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. With the Koran burning in February and a lone, deranged soldier’s massacre of Afghan civilians last month, U.S. support for our continued intervention in Afghanistan has declined precipitously. Both American progressives—for whom Afghanistan was once the good war—and many conservatives increasingly say the United States is at the point of decline returns, and that our occupation has become the problem. News reports showing 500 people in Kabul protesting and chanting anti-American slogans can be disheartening given the blood and treasure which the United States has invested into Afghanistan. The situation looks dire especially if one forgets that Kabul is a city of five million people, and so spontaneous demonstrations of 500 are pitiful by even rent-a-mob standards. Seldom, however, do journalists and officials consider what the Afghans are thinking before they project their own doubts onto the Afghan population.

It is in this context that a March 28 article in Hasht-e Sobh (8 a.m.), Afghanistan’s newspaper of record, is so interesting. In an editorial entitled, “Will support for war wane?” (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center), the newspaper places blame for declining U.S. public support not on the United States but rather on Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

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In the current issue of COMMENTARY, Jamie M. Fly has an excellent article reminding readers of the moral case for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. With the Koran burning in February and a lone, deranged soldier’s massacre of Afghan civilians last month, U.S. support for our continued intervention in Afghanistan has declined precipitously. Both American progressives—for whom Afghanistan was once the good war—and many conservatives increasingly say the United States is at the point of decline returns, and that our occupation has become the problem. News reports showing 500 people in Kabul protesting and chanting anti-American slogans can be disheartening given the blood and treasure which the United States has invested into Afghanistan. The situation looks dire especially if one forgets that Kabul is a city of five million people, and so spontaneous demonstrations of 500 are pitiful by even rent-a-mob standards. Seldom, however, do journalists and officials consider what the Afghans are thinking before they project their own doubts onto the Afghan population.

It is in this context that a March 28 article in Hasht-e Sobh (8 a.m.), Afghanistan’s newspaper of record, is so interesting. In an editorial entitled, “Will support for war wane?” (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center), the newspaper places blame for declining U.S. public support not on the United States but rather on Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

The question is why war in Afghanistan is losing support after a decade? This has happened due to some internal and external factors. It appears that prolongation of war, increasing casualties of the US forces and the high financial costs are the main factors behind the fall in support for the Afghan war in the United States… Over the past 10 years, the Afghan government has not been able to prove its capability. The inability of the government in ensuring security and rule of law is one of the factors which questions continuation of US support and US forces’ presence in Afghanistan. In addition, US-Afghan relations have seen many ups and downs over the past 10 years. Many times, Mr. Karzai strongly criticized the United States and sometimes supported the neighboring countries’ anti-US policies. Now, it is expected that there will be less tension with the signing of the strategic agreement, however the presence of some anti-US circles in the government and the government’s stances have caused the Americans to lose hope about the continuation of their presence in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, we will witness a fall in support for Afghanistan from other countries if Mr. Karzai does not change his policies and bring about changes in the presidential office.

Americans have a bad habit to self-flagellate. But leadership requires not allowing strategic goals to be undercut by the vicissitudes of war or short-term public opinion. Indeed, if the Afghan press is believed, the situation might improve considerably if, rather than throw up their hands and surrender, Obama administration officials would do a better job of holding Hamid Karzai to account for his own double-dealing.

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Afghan Mission Imperiled by Opposition to ‘Night Raids’

Having concluded a deal with Hamid Karzai that will involve transferring more than 3,000 detainees to Afghan custody, American negotiators are now trying to clinch a deal that would allow the continuation of “night raids”—the melodramatic label given to most Special Operations missions which occur at night when fewer civilians are likely to be in harm’s way and the targets are less likely to be on their guard and at more of a disadvantage because of America’s night-vision systems. The Wall Street Journal claims that the U.S. side is offering to allow Afghan judges to approve any future operations; I don’t know if this is true but it would make sense because similar authority was given to Iraqi judges.

The broader point is that it’s very difficult to get the Afghan government to approve what American leaders regard as their most effective terrorist-fighting tool—the ability of Special Operations Forces such as the SEALs, Rangers, and Delta Force to swoop down on “high-value targets” at night. And if it’s difficult today, when the U.S. has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan buttressing the authority of its government, imagine how difficult it will be after 2014 or even sooner when the U.S. presence will decline dramatically.

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Having concluded a deal with Hamid Karzai that will involve transferring more than 3,000 detainees to Afghan custody, American negotiators are now trying to clinch a deal that would allow the continuation of “night raids”—the melodramatic label given to most Special Operations missions which occur at night when fewer civilians are likely to be in harm’s way and the targets are less likely to be on their guard and at more of a disadvantage because of America’s night-vision systems. The Wall Street Journal claims that the U.S. side is offering to allow Afghan judges to approve any future operations; I don’t know if this is true but it would make sense because similar authority was given to Iraqi judges.

The broader point is that it’s very difficult to get the Afghan government to approve what American leaders regard as their most effective terrorist-fighting tool—the ability of Special Operations Forces such as the SEALs, Rangers, and Delta Force to swoop down on “high-value targets” at night. And if it’s difficult today, when the U.S. has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan buttressing the authority of its government, imagine how difficult it will be after 2014 or even sooner when the U.S. presence will decline dramatically.


Advocates of a steep drawdown, such as Vice President Biden, seem to imagine that even if we pull out most combat troops, our Special Operators will still have full freedom to target any concentrations of terrorists they might find. But in fact no Afghan government is likely to extend such authority, and Kabul may very well decide to kick out the U.S. military altogether if our presence becomes so minuscule that it enflames nationalist resentment stoked by the Taliban without providing an effective check on the insurgency’s advance.

Afghan leaders are most concerned about stopping the Taliban, which threaten their rule, while U.S. leaders are most concerned about Al Qaeda that threatens the American homeland. In the past decade we have essentially made a de facto compact—the Afghans will permit us to chase Al Qaeda if we support their government. If we stop effectively supporting their government, the deal is off and the U.S. will have about as much freedom to operate as it currently does in Iraq—which is to say none at all.

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What Lesson to Draw from Hamid Karzai?

When the United States and the international community agreed to an interim Afghan government at the Bonn Conference more than a decade ago, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pushed for Hamid Karzai. Karzai, they believed, was pliable. At the same time, Karzai was a figure who had relations with everyone—he had even been part of the Taliban before 1996. Never mind that Karzai was an opportunist who simply jumped on whichever horse he felt was strongest at the time.

It’s clear today that Karzai is a disaster. He has revealed himself to be a corrupt kleptocrat and in bed with drug lords. He has made a mockery of the U.S. mission and, having no more use for the Americans, works openly with our enemies. Even his Taliban reconciliation efforts have less to do with peace and more to do with his own desire to ingratiate himself to an enemy in the hope that they will let him remain in power once the countdown inherent in Obama’s timeline completes. In short, he may have made a good CIA asset in the past, but he was a horrendous choice to be Afghanistan’s leader.

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When the United States and the international community agreed to an interim Afghan government at the Bonn Conference more than a decade ago, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pushed for Hamid Karzai. Karzai, they believed, was pliable. At the same time, Karzai was a figure who had relations with everyone—he had even been part of the Taliban before 1996. Never mind that Karzai was an opportunist who simply jumped on whichever horse he felt was strongest at the time.

It’s clear today that Karzai is a disaster. He has revealed himself to be a corrupt kleptocrat and in bed with drug lords. He has made a mockery of the U.S. mission and, having no more use for the Americans, works openly with our enemies. Even his Taliban reconciliation efforts have less to do with peace and more to do with his own desire to ingratiate himself to an enemy in the hope that they will let him remain in power once the countdown inherent in Obama’s timeline completes. In short, he may have made a good CIA asset in the past, but he was a horrendous choice to be Afghanistan’s leader.

Afghanistan is not the exception, but rather the rule. Prior to the Iraq war, the CIA tried an end-run against both Iraqis and the interagency process when it pushed former General Nizar al-Khazraji into Iraq’s leadership. Al-Khazraji may have shared whiskey with his CIA handlers and done everything they expected, but Iraqis knew him as a war criminal complicit in chemical weapons attacks on Kurds during the 1980s. With their top choice sidelined, the good folks at Langley then cast their lot with Ayad Allawi—a horse they continue to back. The problem with Allawi, as any Iraqi will acknowledge—is not his corruption or brutality—but rather the fact that he is lazy. He spends most of his time outside Iraq, awaiting his anointment rather than doing the hardscrabble work that folks like Nouri al-Maliki, whatever their faults, have been willing to do.

Among the Palestinians, too, the CIA has a record of picking and training losers. President Clinton’s deference to the Agency to train a Palestinian security force brought anything but security, but rather laid the groundwork for decades more terror.

Intelligence sources, even unsavory ones, are extraordinarily valuable. But they make horrid leaders. When it comes time to conduct the lessons learned from the decade-long Afghan debacle, let’s hope the CIA will not be immune from introspection.

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U.S.-Afghan Agreement is a Win-Win

For those who claim it is impossible to deal with Hamid Karzai and U.S. forces cannot succeed while he is in power, today’s agreement on the handling of detainees in U.S. custody is a good rebuttal.

Karzai had been demanding the U.S. immediately hand over all 3,200 detainees in our custody–he understandably views the operation of a U.S. detention facility on Afghan soil as an affront to Afghan sovereignty– even though Afghan forces are manifestly not capable of holding them securely on their own. The result was months of deadlock in negotiating a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement. That deadlock was broken today when both sides agreed to give a little. Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding, they agreed that during the next six months the U.S. detention facility in Parwan will transition to full Afghan control (there are already Afghan personnel in training there) but that the U.S. would retain a veto on the release of any prisoners while our forces remain in Afghanistan. Moreover, U.S. personnel will continue to supervise the facility to make sure detainees are held safely and securely. And finally, roughly 50 non-Afghan fighters–highly dangerous al-Qaeda terrorists–will remain under full U.S. custody.

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For those who claim it is impossible to deal with Hamid Karzai and U.S. forces cannot succeed while he is in power, today’s agreement on the handling of detainees in U.S. custody is a good rebuttal.

Karzai had been demanding the U.S. immediately hand over all 3,200 detainees in our custody–he understandably views the operation of a U.S. detention facility on Afghan soil as an affront to Afghan sovereignty– even though Afghan forces are manifestly not capable of holding them securely on their own. The result was months of deadlock in negotiating a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement. That deadlock was broken today when both sides agreed to give a little. Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding, they agreed that during the next six months the U.S. detention facility in Parwan will transition to full Afghan control (there are already Afghan personnel in training there) but that the U.S. would retain a veto on the release of any prisoners while our forces remain in Afghanistan. Moreover, U.S. personnel will continue to supervise the facility to make sure detainees are held safely and securely. And finally, roughly 50 non-Afghan fighters–highly dangerous al-Qaeda terrorists–will remain under full U.S. custody.

This agreement allows both sides to get what it wants–Karzai gets a demonstration of his government’s sovereignty, while the U.S. gets to keep in detention prisoners whose release would endanger our troops and hamper their efforts to pacify the country.

This looks like a win-win and offers hope that the last remaining deadlock–over “night raids”–will soon be broken.

 

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Changing of the Ambassadorial Guard

With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.

Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model  here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki  to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.

There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.

By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?

With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.

Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model  here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki  to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.

There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.

By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?

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The Bracing Realism of Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke was, as the obits have it, a “giant of diplomacy.” Indeed, he has a claim to being one of the most influential diplomats in American history who never became secretary of state — a job he should have been given by President Clinton. He is edged out by George Kennan in the annals of American diplomatic history, but his achievement in hammering out the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the war in Bosnia is as impressive as any feat of negotiations in the post–World War II era.

He was much less successful in his latest job as the administration’s chief “AfPak” envoy. Why is that? Part of the reason was his mistake in alienating Hamid Karzai; an American envoy’s job is to talk tough behind the scenes but to preserve relations with an important allied head of state. Holbrooke, inexplicably, failed to do that. But most of the blame does not accrue to Holbrooke. The problem was that in Bosnia, the skillful use of force had set the conditions for diplomatic success — something that has not yet occurred in Afghanistan.

By the time Holbrooke was called upon to negotiate an end to the Bosnian fighting, the combatants had been exhausted and Serbian attempts at aggrandizement had been stymied, first by a Croatian offensive, then by NATO bombing. They were ready to cut a deal. Not so the Taliban and their sponsors in Islamabad. General David Petraeus has only now launched in earnest the military operations necessary to frustrate Taliban designs and compel elements of the group to negotiate or face annihilation. Without the effective use of force, not even a diplomat as supremely skilled as Holbrooke could achieve success.

A personal note: I knew Holbrooke slightly and liked him. I realize he had a reputation in Washington for being abrasive and egotistical; that reputation probably cost him the secretary of state job that he coveted and had earned. But effective diplomats can’t afford to be shrinking violets. Sure, Holbrooke had an outsize personality, but so did Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and other diplomatic superstars. Like them, Holbrooke also had enormous reservoirs of intelligence , savvy, and learning. And like them, he was a skilled writer; his memoir of the Dayton peace process was a classic. One of many regrets about his premature passing is that the world will be denied his memoirs.

He was a liberal but a tough-minded one — one of the last prominent hawks in the Democratic Party. He was, in short, a “neo-liberal,” which isn’t so far removed from a “neo-conservative,” a label that I teased him with and that he naturally resisted. The country as a whole will miss him, and so in particular will the Democratic Party, which could use more of his bracing realism in its counsels.

Richard Holbrooke was, as the obits have it, a “giant of diplomacy.” Indeed, he has a claim to being one of the most influential diplomats in American history who never became secretary of state — a job he should have been given by President Clinton. He is edged out by George Kennan in the annals of American diplomatic history, but his achievement in hammering out the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the war in Bosnia is as impressive as any feat of negotiations in the post–World War II era.

He was much less successful in his latest job as the administration’s chief “AfPak” envoy. Why is that? Part of the reason was his mistake in alienating Hamid Karzai; an American envoy’s job is to talk tough behind the scenes but to preserve relations with an important allied head of state. Holbrooke, inexplicably, failed to do that. But most of the blame does not accrue to Holbrooke. The problem was that in Bosnia, the skillful use of force had set the conditions for diplomatic success — something that has not yet occurred in Afghanistan.

By the time Holbrooke was called upon to negotiate an end to the Bosnian fighting, the combatants had been exhausted and Serbian attempts at aggrandizement had been stymied, first by a Croatian offensive, then by NATO bombing. They were ready to cut a deal. Not so the Taliban and their sponsors in Islamabad. General David Petraeus has only now launched in earnest the military operations necessary to frustrate Taliban designs and compel elements of the group to negotiate or face annihilation. Without the effective use of force, not even a diplomat as supremely skilled as Holbrooke could achieve success.

A personal note: I knew Holbrooke slightly and liked him. I realize he had a reputation in Washington for being abrasive and egotistical; that reputation probably cost him the secretary of state job that he coveted and had earned. But effective diplomats can’t afford to be shrinking violets. Sure, Holbrooke had an outsize personality, but so did Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and other diplomatic superstars. Like them, Holbrooke also had enormous reservoirs of intelligence , savvy, and learning. And like them, he was a skilled writer; his memoir of the Dayton peace process was a classic. One of many regrets about his premature passing is that the world will be denied his memoirs.

He was a liberal but a tough-minded one — one of the last prominent hawks in the Democratic Party. He was, in short, a “neo-liberal,” which isn’t so far removed from a “neo-conservative,” a label that I teased him with and that he naturally resisted. The country as a whole will miss him, and so in particular will the Democratic Party, which could use more of his bracing realism in its counsels.

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Coming Apart at the Seams

As much as Obama’s aura has dimmed in the United States, his international standing is potentially in worse condition, and with more dire consequences. As this report explains, he’s finding it hard — no matter how lucrative the bribe — to get any nation to make a deal:

From failing to secure a free-trade agreement in South Korea to struggling to win Senate ratification of an arms-control treaty with Russia, Obama has bumped up against the boundaries of his power at a defining moment of his presidency. …

“He assumed that because he was liked so clearly and overwhelmingly he could merely assert what he wanted to achieve and people would follow,” said Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Clearly enough, the world that he imagined proved to be different than the world as it is.” …

The Middle East peace process he inaugurated two months ago has stalled. His mercurial ally in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, is calling for scaled-back U.S. military operations there at the height of the 30,000-troop escalation Obama approved a year ago.

His pledge to remedy one polarizing legacy of the Bush administration by closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suffered this week when a jury convicted the first former detainee to face civilian trial on only one of 285 criminal counts. Read More

As much as Obama’s aura has dimmed in the United States, his international standing is potentially in worse condition, and with more dire consequences. As this report explains, he’s finding it hard — no matter how lucrative the bribe — to get any nation to make a deal:

From failing to secure a free-trade agreement in South Korea to struggling to win Senate ratification of an arms-control treaty with Russia, Obama has bumped up against the boundaries of his power at a defining moment of his presidency. …

“He assumed that because he was liked so clearly and overwhelmingly he could merely assert what he wanted to achieve and people would follow,” said Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Clearly enough, the world that he imagined proved to be different than the world as it is.” …

The Middle East peace process he inaugurated two months ago has stalled. His mercurial ally in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, is calling for scaled-back U.S. military operations there at the height of the 30,000-troop escalation Obama approved a year ago.

His pledge to remedy one polarizing legacy of the Bush administration by closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suffered this week when a jury convicted the first former detainee to face civilian trial on only one of 285 criminal counts.

You get the picture. So Obama’s gambits become more and more desperate. Hence, the cockeyed attempt to spare himself the collapse of the non-direct, non-peace talks. “National security analysts say the price Obama is willing to pay for another three months of talks is high, in part because he set a one-year timeline for their successful conclusion. Many believe that the deadline, like other of Obama’s foreign policy goals, was overly optimistic.” Well, that’s a generous way of putting it. To be blunt, he’s made hash out of our relationship with Israel, diminished our credibility with every player in the Middle East, and now is panicked that it is all about to come tumbling down around his ears.

Likewise, out of desperation to get a “win,” Obama is trying to force a Senate vote on New START. Saner voices are trying to warn him:

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations who held senior foreign-policy positions in both Bush administrations, said “it’s no big deal if gets kicked off until February, March, then passes.”

“You don’t want to bring this to a vote and lose,” Haass said. “You don’t want to have the Senate equivalent of going to Seoul and not getting a trade agreement.”

Funny how each new foreign policy fumble has a precursor. Seoul is like Copenhagen. New START is like the Syrian ambassador’s nomination. The handling of the Honduras “coup” is like pulling the rug out from under our Eastern European allies on missile defense. And on it goes — an endless series of half-baked ideas, offended allies, stalled negotiations, and poorly executed gambits. And we haven’t even gotten to the worst of it: an emboldened Iran racing toward membership in the nuclear power club.

It’s not all a disaster. Obama is showing some recognition that we must remain engaged in Iraq. He’s coming around to erasing the ill-advised Afghanistan deadline. And perhaps, after two years, he’s cluing into the need to get serious about human rights in Egypt and elsewhere. But the continuities with his predecessor (annoyingly accompanied by chest-puffing and refusal to credit President Bush) are outnumbered and overshadowed by the gaffes.

This is not a time for conservatives to cheer. It is deeply troubling that the president has imperiled our standing in the world. Congress is no substitute for a commander in chief, but responsible voices in the House and Senate should work — by resolution, oversight, private conversation, and funding — to guide the administration to more sober policymaking and less erratic execution. Unfortunately, once the credibility of the American president is diminished by hapless moves and unserious rhetoric, it’s hard to get it back.

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Karzai’s Words, and His Actions

Hamid Karzai has caused considerable consternation with his weekend interview with the Washington Post. He told Post editors and reporters: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life…. It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.” He also criticized “night raids”–Special Operations raids that occur at night–as he has in the past.

The Post reports that General Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” as his remarks which seem to fly in the face of NATO’s strategy. Today Karzai’s spokesman was rapidly backtracking, stressing that Karzai’s comments about the desirability of a troop pullout were “conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.” The spokesman made clear that Karzai supports NATO’s goal to begin withdrawing in 2014.

This kerfuffle reminds me of many similar statements made over the years by Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. As I noted in this 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Maliki, too, has had a history of calling for U.S. troop withdrawals:

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, “Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.”

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be “only a matter of months” before his security forces could “take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role.”

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn’t happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn’t want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials.” When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as “lukewarm.”

I suggested in the op-ed that it was wise to judge Maliki by what he did, not what he said. For all of his public doubts about the U.S. troop presence he generally supported American actions behind-the-scenes–although often only after considerable arm-twisting from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Karzai, too, should be judged by his actions, rather than by his occasional expressions of public frustration with the coalition. He has not done anything as dramatic as Maliki, who ordered his security forces to clear Basra and Sadr City of the Sadrist militia, but he has taken some positive steps such as agreeing to the setting up of the Afghan Local Police program to augment the Afghan security forces.

Moreover, some of his criticisms of international forces are on the mark–the U.S. and its allies have done much to fuel corruption in Afghanistan, as he complains, and their employment of local security forces has often been a contributor to instability. Yet at the end of the day Afghanistan would be far more insecure without an America troop presence, and that is something I suspect Karzai, for all his misguided public statements, actually realizes.

Hamid Karzai has caused considerable consternation with his weekend interview with the Washington Post. He told Post editors and reporters: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life…. It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.” He also criticized “night raids”–Special Operations raids that occur at night–as he has in the past.

The Post reports that General Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” as his remarks which seem to fly in the face of NATO’s strategy. Today Karzai’s spokesman was rapidly backtracking, stressing that Karzai’s comments about the desirability of a troop pullout were “conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.” The spokesman made clear that Karzai supports NATO’s goal to begin withdrawing in 2014.

This kerfuffle reminds me of many similar statements made over the years by Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. As I noted in this 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Maliki, too, has had a history of calling for U.S. troop withdrawals:

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, “Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.”

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be “only a matter of months” before his security forces could “take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role.”

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn’t happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn’t want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials.” When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as “lukewarm.”

I suggested in the op-ed that it was wise to judge Maliki by what he did, not what he said. For all of his public doubts about the U.S. troop presence he generally supported American actions behind-the-scenes–although often only after considerable arm-twisting from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Karzai, too, should be judged by his actions, rather than by his occasional expressions of public frustration with the coalition. He has not done anything as dramatic as Maliki, who ordered his security forces to clear Basra and Sadr City of the Sadrist militia, but he has taken some positive steps such as agreeing to the setting up of the Afghan Local Police program to augment the Afghan security forces.

Moreover, some of his criticisms of international forces are on the mark–the U.S. and its allies have done much to fuel corruption in Afghanistan, as he complains, and their employment of local security forces has often been a contributor to instability. Yet at the end of the day Afghanistan would be far more insecure without an America troop presence, and that is something I suspect Karzai, for all his misguided public statements, actually realizes.

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It’s the Everything, Stupid

A few weeks ago, we learned that the Obama administration granted get-out-of-ObamaCare waivers to 30 big-time employers. Now we find out that the number of organizations and businesses that have broken free of the job killing policy is at 111 and growing. The president who came to office proudly signing executive orders condemning his predecessor’s policies is now quietly signing hall passes exempting Americans from his own.

For the first 20 months of the Obama presidency, the world watched to see if the ambitious, progressive superstar who talked loftily about real change would actually confer some magical metamorphosis upon the country. Even those of us who doubted his superhuman abilities harbored a small fear that he had the talent and the polish to pull it off.  His campaign performance was brilliant and his election, by the time it happened, felt like a matter of national fate. But after he was sworn in, we watched his ideology and his increasingly evident incompetence duke it out for pride of place. We hoped that where he wanted to apply extreme liberal ideas, his ineptitude would trip him up. Read More

A few weeks ago, we learned that the Obama administration granted get-out-of-ObamaCare waivers to 30 big-time employers. Now we find out that the number of organizations and businesses that have broken free of the job killing policy is at 111 and growing. The president who came to office proudly signing executive orders condemning his predecessor’s policies is now quietly signing hall passes exempting Americans from his own.

For the first 20 months of the Obama presidency, the world watched to see if the ambitious, progressive superstar who talked loftily about real change would actually confer some magical metamorphosis upon the country. Even those of us who doubted his superhuman abilities harbored a small fear that he had the talent and the polish to pull it off.  His campaign performance was brilliant and his election, by the time it happened, felt like a matter of national fate. But after he was sworn in, we watched his ideology and his increasingly evident incompetence duke it out for pride of place. We hoped that where he wanted to apply extreme liberal ideas, his ineptitude would trip him up.

What happened could not have been predicted: the campus progressivism and the incompetence fused. Obama pushed through an enormous fiscal stimulus and a calamitous healthcare policy, both of which were not only unapologetically redistributive but structurally unsound as well. As Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron said of the stimulus, “even the components with a plausible justification were designed in the least productive and most redistributionist way possible.”  A labyrinthine bureaucratic architecture and a tangle of regulatory loose ends similarly doomed ObamaCare.

On foreign policy, the same thing happened. President Obama not only approached foreign provocateurs with harmful progressive notions of Western guilt and omni-directional empathy; his green foreign policy team bungled overtures and gambits, so that world leaders ceased to take America seriously, even as an apology nation.  While antagonists forged greater alliances, friends complained about the un-seriousness of American policy. The world took the measure of the commander in chief and pronounced him a lightweight.

Now, with the waiting game over and with the midterm elections having hemmed in the administration, we have a president who is, halfway into his term, ineffective. At this point, he’s likely to pivot to foreign affairs where he’s less constrained by the conservative realignment in Congress. But look at how that’s going. During a 10-day tour of Asia, Obama failed to secure a key trade agreement with South Korea and got nowhere with China on its harmful currency devaluation. At the same time, Obama’s ill-conceived personal request that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani step aside and allow Iyad Allawi to become Iraq’s new president was immediately rebuffed. Even as our troops make progress in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai tells the Washington Post, “The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan… to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life.” A burst of military success is not enough in Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to be in for the long haul, so that our allies don’t cut survival deals with our enemies. If we’re not staying long enough to keep Afghanistan on course, Karzai wants his waiver too. Many pundits are misinterpreting Obama’s foreign policy headaches. It’s not that world leaders are responding to Americans’ midterm disapproval; it’s that they too are unimpressed.

No American should be pleased about any of this. Those who were initially afraid of Obama’s power and his ideological designs now have a new concern of equal importance: his powerlessness.  Recently, Walter Russell Mead wrote at his American Interest blog, “No president in my lifetime has fallen from heaven to earth as rapidly as President Obama.” If he keeps falling, he takes us with him. Waivers are a start, but the enormous work of reversal and restoration has not yet properly begun. We’d all do well to hope for a little of that early executive determination and sense of purpose.

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How Afghans View Their Country Now

Is Afghanistan a lost cause? Many Americans think so. In fact, on Wednesday night in New York, I’ll be debating the motion “Resolved: Afghanistan is a lost cause” as part of the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series. (Tickets still available — see the website.) Obviously, I’ll have more to say on this subject then, but for now it’s worth noting that the Asia Foundation has just released a survey of 6,467 Afghans — and they don’t view their country as a lost cause.

Here is the survey’s major finding: “In 2010, 47% of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction. This figure has been increasing since 2008 (38%) and 2009 (42%).” By contrast, only 27% think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Insecurity remains the biggest source of concern for Afghans — cited by 44% of those who think their country is going in the wrong direction. But Afghans are happy with improvements in their economic situation: “More Afghans say they are better off now than a year ago in all domains, particularly in terms of the financial wellbeing of their household.”

Another major source of satisfaction for those who think Afghanistan is moving in the right direction is the performance of their government:

Satisfaction with the performance of the national government has risen steadily over the last three years (from 67% in 2008 to 71% in 2009 and 73% in 2010). The 2010 survey records the highest levels of positive assessments of national government performance since 2007 in almost all regions.

That may seem illogical to Americans who are used to focusing on the shortcomings of Hamid Karzai, but obviously Afghans — with experience of decades of war and oppression — have a different metric by which they measure governmental performance. In the West, we are concerned over the problems with Afghan elections. But Afghans are happy just to be holding elections: “Around three quarters (74%) of respondents say they think elections have improved the country.”

That doesn’t mean Afghans are blind to the flaws of their government — “Fifty-five percent say corruption is a major problem in their daily lives.” But they also see improvements that we tend to ignore. For instance, there has been much reporting on the deficiencies of the Afghan Security Forces. But more than 90% of respondents said that the Afghan National Army is “honest and fair with the Afghan people.” However, that doesn’t mean Afghans think their security forces can go it alone. Some 70% think the ANA still needs the support of foreign troops.

That is a level of nuance and realism that, alas, is all too often lacking in Western assessments of the situation.

Is Afghanistan a lost cause? Many Americans think so. In fact, on Wednesday night in New York, I’ll be debating the motion “Resolved: Afghanistan is a lost cause” as part of the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series. (Tickets still available — see the website.) Obviously, I’ll have more to say on this subject then, but for now it’s worth noting that the Asia Foundation has just released a survey of 6,467 Afghans — and they don’t view their country as a lost cause.

Here is the survey’s major finding: “In 2010, 47% of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction. This figure has been increasing since 2008 (38%) and 2009 (42%).” By contrast, only 27% think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Insecurity remains the biggest source of concern for Afghans — cited by 44% of those who think their country is going in the wrong direction. But Afghans are happy with improvements in their economic situation: “More Afghans say they are better off now than a year ago in all domains, particularly in terms of the financial wellbeing of their household.”

Another major source of satisfaction for those who think Afghanistan is moving in the right direction is the performance of their government:

Satisfaction with the performance of the national government has risen steadily over the last three years (from 67% in 2008 to 71% in 2009 and 73% in 2010). The 2010 survey records the highest levels of positive assessments of national government performance since 2007 in almost all regions.

That may seem illogical to Americans who are used to focusing on the shortcomings of Hamid Karzai, but obviously Afghans — with experience of decades of war and oppression — have a different metric by which they measure governmental performance. In the West, we are concerned over the problems with Afghan elections. But Afghans are happy just to be holding elections: “Around three quarters (74%) of respondents say they think elections have improved the country.”

That doesn’t mean Afghans are blind to the flaws of their government — “Fifty-five percent say corruption is a major problem in their daily lives.” But they also see improvements that we tend to ignore. For instance, there has been much reporting on the deficiencies of the Afghan Security Forces. But more than 90% of respondents said that the Afghan National Army is “honest and fair with the Afghan people.” However, that doesn’t mean Afghans think their security forces can go it alone. Some 70% think the ANA still needs the support of foreign troops.

That is a level of nuance and realism that, alas, is all too often lacking in Western assessments of the situation.

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Afghanistan: Moscow to the Rescue

I’m almost always in agreement with Max Boot’s assessments of the tactical situation in Afghanistan, and I think he’s correct when he says Hamid Karzai is, to invoke the Margaret Thatcher phrase, “someone we can do business with.” He is right to point out that these factors are not cause for despair — that there are, in fact, positive signs to be seen in them. I would never accuse Fouad Ajami, whose opinion piece Max references, of a disingenuous approach to the Karzai question. But naysayers do seem to be latching on to every tactical setback and unsavory development in Afghanistan to encourage a growing sense that the conflict is unwinnable.

It’s not. That said, however, there are major factors mounting against it: not on the battlefield but in the halls of state power and diplomacy. I’m not sure Americans appreciate the extent to which the other nations no longer see this war as ours to win or lose — or victory as ours to define.

Once it became obvious that President Obama did not intend to pursue the focused, determined counterinsurgency course proposed by General McChrystal, the other players’ alternate views of the situation crystallized. Our NATO allies are eager to cut a deal with the Taliban because they perceive that Obama does not, in fact, have the will to reshape the situation on the ground through military action. European NATO is concerned about its troops ending up surrounded and on the defensive in a Central Asian redoubt. But that danger adds a vulnerability to Europe’s relations with Russia and the other Asian nations that concerns Europeans even more. These concerns are amplified by the increasing recalcitrance of Pakistan, which is based partly on Islamabad’s fear that the U.S. and NATO are seeking a “separate peace” with certain factions of the Taliban. The map is inexorable: if Pakistan is an unreliable path into Afghanistan, and Iran is not an option, then what’s left is the Central Asian land route under Russia’s security umbrella. Read More

I’m almost always in agreement with Max Boot’s assessments of the tactical situation in Afghanistan, and I think he’s correct when he says Hamid Karzai is, to invoke the Margaret Thatcher phrase, “someone we can do business with.” He is right to point out that these factors are not cause for despair — that there are, in fact, positive signs to be seen in them. I would never accuse Fouad Ajami, whose opinion piece Max references, of a disingenuous approach to the Karzai question. But naysayers do seem to be latching on to every tactical setback and unsavory development in Afghanistan to encourage a growing sense that the conflict is unwinnable.

It’s not. That said, however, there are major factors mounting against it: not on the battlefield but in the halls of state power and diplomacy. I’m not sure Americans appreciate the extent to which the other nations no longer see this war as ours to win or lose — or victory as ours to define.

Once it became obvious that President Obama did not intend to pursue the focused, determined counterinsurgency course proposed by General McChrystal, the other players’ alternate views of the situation crystallized. Our NATO allies are eager to cut a deal with the Taliban because they perceive that Obama does not, in fact, have the will to reshape the situation on the ground through military action. European NATO is concerned about its troops ending up surrounded and on the defensive in a Central Asian redoubt. But that danger adds a vulnerability to Europe’s relations with Russia and the other Asian nations that concerns Europeans even more. These concerns are amplified by the increasing recalcitrance of Pakistan, which is based partly on Islamabad’s fear that the U.S. and NATO are seeking a “separate peace” with certain factions of the Taliban. The map is inexorable: if Pakistan is an unreliable path into Afghanistan, and Iran is not an option, then what’s left is the Central Asian land route under Russia’s security umbrella.

A quiet announcement by NATO’s secretary-general on Monday indicates that the NATO nations, approaching this unpleasant reality head-on, have decided to do what they can to make a partnership out of the necessity of Russian involvement. The UK Independent reports that NATO (with full U.S. participation) is inviting Russia into Afghanistan in a military role. The acceptance from the Russians comes with strings, of course; as the Independent puts it, “Moscow is seeking what it terms as more cooperation from NATO.” Not defining this cooperative quid pro quo in advance would seem to indicate a colossal breakdown in NATO’s bargaining skills; what we can be sure of is that the price of Russian involvement will be political — and high.

With this agreement, Russia positions itself as a nexus of independent influence in the Afghan settlement: a new option for Pakistan — and Iran and India — to play Russia off against the U.S. These factors combine to produce a bottom line that is quickly outracing the American people’s lagging idea of our role Afghanistan. We have much the largest military commitment there, but we are dealing away the latitude to define victory and decide what the strategy will be.

No political leader ever announces he is doing this. Don’t expect Obama to be explicit about it. NATO has been working on the Russian accord without fanfare and will probably announce it as something of an afterthought in Lisbon, where the public emphasis is expected to be on missile-defense cooperation with Moscow. But this will be a decisive turn in the Afghan war. Assuming we proceed with this agreement, the war will, in fact, no longer be ours to wage as we see fit. Whatever his precise intentions, Obama probably couldn’t have found a better way to induce the war’s American supporters to want to get out of it on his timetable.

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A Counter View to Fouad Ajami’s Skepticism Regarding Afghanistan

Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

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Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

The problem is that in carrying out this mission we must work with wholly imperfect allies. Karzai is no angel. But then neither is Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq — a leader whom Ajami presciently championed even when others scoffed at his potential to rise above his sectarian roots. In many ways, Maliki has been an even more troubling ally than Karzai. For all his faults, Karzai is not known to be personally sympathetic to the Taliban, who killed his father. By contrast, Maliki had a lot of sympathy for Shiite sectarianism. He has been surrounded by Iranian agents and Shiite extremists, who were deeply implicated in the work of the death squads that were killing hundreds of Sunnis every night in 2006-2007. It may be discouraging to hear that Karzai accepts a couple of million dollars in cash from Iran but is there any doubt that Maliki has taken far more money from Tehran? And not just money. As this article noted, Iran actually provided Maliki with his presidential jet, complete with Iranian pilots. Say what you will about Karzai, but at least he doesn’t routinely entrust his life to an Iranian aircraft.

Moreover, Maliki has been as notorious as Karzai for showing a lack of gratitude toward American efforts to save his county. As I noted in this 2008 op-ed, Maliki has had a pattern of dismissing the American contribution to Iraqi security, saying, for instance, in May 2006, that “[Iraqi] forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.” Maliki opposed the surge, which saved his country in 2007 and even when it succeeded refused to give us credit. As I noted:

In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned “many factors,” including “the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve,” “the progress being made by our security forces,” “the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias,” and “the economic recovery.” No mention of the surge.

Yet for all of Maliki’s maddening imperfections — which stand in high relief now as he ruthlessly maneuvers for another term — he showed ability to rise above his sectarian origins. He displayed real political courage in ordering his forces to attack the Sadrists in Basra and Sadr City in 2008. Now, of course, he is cutting deals with those same Sadrists. That, alas, is how the political game is played in unstable countries like Iraq — or Afghanistan. That should not cause us to despair of either country’s future.

If we could work with Maliki, we can certainly work with Karzai. The former, after all, does not speak English and spent years of exile living in Syria and Iran, two of the most anti-American states in the world. Karzai, by contrast, is a fluent English-speaker with several brothers who have lived in the U.S. for years and even hold U.S. citizenship. He is, in many ways, a more natural fit as an ally than Maliki. There is little doubt that he and his brothers are implicated in the corruption of Afghani politics, but at least, unlike Maliki, they are not cozying up to Iranian-backed death squads. To the extent that Karzai has cozied up to Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, it has been as a hedge against a precipitous American pullout. But Karzai also knows that the Iranians are double-dealing — they are supporting the Taliban too — which can give Karzai little confidence that Iran would be a reliable ally. At the end of the day, Karzai knows that his future and his country’s rests with the United States and NATO; that we are all that is keeping him from death or exile.

It would be nice if Karzai showed more political courage in working with us and refrained from denouncing us, but some of his denunciations have, alas, the ring of truth — and some of his actions are actually well intentioned. Take his attempts to close down private security companies that are terrorizing ordinary Afghanis and driving them into the arms of the Taliban. Most of these companies are, in fact, directly or indirectly, funded by American taxpayers — just as Karzai alleges. Many of them are also run by Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and by others linked to the Karzai clan. (See this report from the Institute for the Study of War for details.) So by closing down these firms, Karzai seems to be moving against his family’s economic interests. If he were simply interested in continuing to exploit this lucrative economic niche, he would leave the existing situation alone.

I don’t know what motivates Karzai but I suspect that, like most people, he is moved by a combination of noble and ignoble impulses — idealism and selfishness, self-interest and the public interest. He is no Adenaeur or De Gaulle or Ataturk or Washington — but then neither is Maliki. He is deeply imperfect, but he is the president of Afghanistan, and I do believe it is possible to work with him. Luckily, we have in Kabul the same general — David Petraeus — who skillfully worked with Maliki at a time when many Americans wrote him off as incorrigible. Already Petreaus has shown a similar ability to get useful concessions out of Karzai, for instance winning the president’s approval for setting up the Afghan Local Police, an initiative to supplement the Afghan Security Forces, which Karzai initially opposed.

Running through Ajami’s article is a deep skepticism not only about Karzai but also about Barack Obama. He criticizes Obama, rightly, for displaying irresolution. I too have been dismayed by the deadline Obama laid out for our withdrawal from Afghanistan — but I have been cheered to see, as I have noted in previous posts, that Obama is backing off that deadline. What foes for Karzai also goes for Obama: you go to war with the leaders you have — not the ones you would like to have. But I don’t believe that either Karzai or Obama is so flawed that it is impossible to prevail in Afghanistan — especially not when we have so many outstanding troops on the ground led by our greatest general.

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No Time for Defeatism in Afghanistan

Today’s New York Times offers two competing narratives from Afghanistan — one of success, the other of failure. The front page features the most hopeful article I’ve seen out of Afghanistan in years, headlined, “Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region.” Carlotta Gall reports that coalition operations are chasing the Taliban out of their strongholds around Kandahar:

A series of civilian and military operations around the strategic southern province, made possible after a force of 12,000 American and NATO troops reached full strength here in the late summer, has persuaded Afghan and Western officials that the Taliban will have a hard time returning to areas they had controlled in the province that was their base. ..

Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

If true, this is amazingly good news. You wouldn’t know that anything positive was going on, however, from reading Nick Kristof’s op-ed column, which is full of typical gloom and doom. He claims that “President Obama’s decision to triple the number of troops in Afghanistan has resulted, with some exceptions, mostly in more dead Americans and Afghans alike.” Kristof suggests preemptively declaring defeat: “My vote would be to scale back our military footprint: use a smaller troop presence to secure Kabul and a few other cities, step up training of the Afghan National Army, and worry less about the Taliban and more about Al Qaeda. We also should push aggressively for a peace deal between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, backed by Pakistan.”

This is a pretty amazing sentiment considering that Kristof has been an ardent human-rights campaigner who has pushed for greater Western intervention to deal with ills ranging from the white-slave trade to ethnic cleansing. But in Afghanistan, he is happy to consign the people to the tender mercies of the Taliban. He seems to comfort himself by claiming that it’s still possible to run schools and other development projects even in Taliban-dominated areas — a dubious claim that was certainly not borne out during the years of Taliban rule (1996-2001), when they subjected the people of Afghanistan, and especially its women, to a regime of unparalleled barbarism.

Kristof’s prescriptions would make sense only if we had already fought and lost in Afghanistan. But with the last of the surge forces having arrived only last month, our outstanding troops have barely begun to fight. And as Carlotta Gall’s report makes clear, in areas where we are applying substantial combat power, we are making progress on the ground. This is no time for defeatism.

Today’s New York Times offers two competing narratives from Afghanistan — one of success, the other of failure. The front page features the most hopeful article I’ve seen out of Afghanistan in years, headlined, “Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region.” Carlotta Gall reports that coalition operations are chasing the Taliban out of their strongholds around Kandahar:

A series of civilian and military operations around the strategic southern province, made possible after a force of 12,000 American and NATO troops reached full strength here in the late summer, has persuaded Afghan and Western officials that the Taliban will have a hard time returning to areas they had controlled in the province that was their base. ..

Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

If true, this is amazingly good news. You wouldn’t know that anything positive was going on, however, from reading Nick Kristof’s op-ed column, which is full of typical gloom and doom. He claims that “President Obama’s decision to triple the number of troops in Afghanistan has resulted, with some exceptions, mostly in more dead Americans and Afghans alike.” Kristof suggests preemptively declaring defeat: “My vote would be to scale back our military footprint: use a smaller troop presence to secure Kabul and a few other cities, step up training of the Afghan National Army, and worry less about the Taliban and more about Al Qaeda. We also should push aggressively for a peace deal between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, backed by Pakistan.”

This is a pretty amazing sentiment considering that Kristof has been an ardent human-rights campaigner who has pushed for greater Western intervention to deal with ills ranging from the white-slave trade to ethnic cleansing. But in Afghanistan, he is happy to consign the people to the tender mercies of the Taliban. He seems to comfort himself by claiming that it’s still possible to run schools and other development projects even in Taliban-dominated areas — a dubious claim that was certainly not borne out during the years of Taliban rule (1996-2001), when they subjected the people of Afghanistan, and especially its women, to a regime of unparalleled barbarism.

Kristof’s prescriptions would make sense only if we had already fought and lost in Afghanistan. But with the last of the surge forces having arrived only last month, our outstanding troops have barely begun to fight. And as Carlotta Gall’s report makes clear, in areas where we are applying substantial combat power, we are making progress on the ground. This is no time for defeatism.

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Talks with the Taliban?

Newspaper front pages seem to be full of stories about talks with the Taliban. It is breathlessly reported that NATO has facilitated the travel of senior Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders to Kabul for discussions with President Hamid Karzai and his inner circle. There is nothing wrong with such talks, nor is there anything particularly novel about them. It is the Afghan way to talk to your opponents as well as your friends; after all, their positions could be switched before long. Indeed, some families have sons in both the Taliban and the government.

But don’t expect a breakthrough anytime soon. As CIA Director Leon Panetta sagely said: “If there are elements that wish to reconcile and get reintegrated, that ought to be obviously explored. But I still have not seen anything that indicates that at this point a serious effort is being made to reconcile.”

I don’t see any serious effort at reconciliation either. For that to happen the Taliban will have to suffer more military defeats than they have endured so far. The coalition is just starting to push back in a major way against the insurgency with a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan that includes everything from troops surging into enemy-held areas to increased Special Operations raids and air strikes to attempts to reduce the corrupt uses of foreign-aid money. All of this will take some time to come to fruition, and only when the enemy realizes that there is no way they can shoot their way into power will you see a serious splintering of the Taliban.

A good target of opportunity may arise next summer when President Obama’s deadline for troop withdrawals comes around. The Taliban have been telling anyone who will listen that the Americans are headed out the door. Assuming that any troop withdrawals next summer are small and largely symbolic, the Taliban may well be shocked to discover that they will be hammered just as hard after July 2011 as they were before. That could create a psychological breaking point for at least some of the Taliban, who may decide at that point that their best bet for collecting a pension would mandate leaving the insurgency. But we aren’t at that point yet, so I wouldn’t put too much stock into hyped media reports of talks with the Taliban.

Newspaper front pages seem to be full of stories about talks with the Taliban. It is breathlessly reported that NATO has facilitated the travel of senior Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders to Kabul for discussions with President Hamid Karzai and his inner circle. There is nothing wrong with such talks, nor is there anything particularly novel about them. It is the Afghan way to talk to your opponents as well as your friends; after all, their positions could be switched before long. Indeed, some families have sons in both the Taliban and the government.

But don’t expect a breakthrough anytime soon. As CIA Director Leon Panetta sagely said: “If there are elements that wish to reconcile and get reintegrated, that ought to be obviously explored. But I still have not seen anything that indicates that at this point a serious effort is being made to reconcile.”

I don’t see any serious effort at reconciliation either. For that to happen the Taliban will have to suffer more military defeats than they have endured so far. The coalition is just starting to push back in a major way against the insurgency with a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan that includes everything from troops surging into enemy-held areas to increased Special Operations raids and air strikes to attempts to reduce the corrupt uses of foreign-aid money. All of this will take some time to come to fruition, and only when the enemy realizes that there is no way they can shoot their way into power will you see a serious splintering of the Taliban.

A good target of opportunity may arise next summer when President Obama’s deadline for troop withdrawals comes around. The Taliban have been telling anyone who will listen that the Americans are headed out the door. Assuming that any troop withdrawals next summer are small and largely symbolic, the Taliban may well be shocked to discover that they will be hammered just as hard after July 2011 as they were before. That could create a psychological breaking point for at least some of the Taliban, who may decide at that point that their best bet for collecting a pension would mandate leaving the insurgency. But we aren’t at that point yet, so I wouldn’t put too much stock into hyped media reports of talks with the Taliban.

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Investigating Mahmoud Karzai

It’s good to read that federal prosecutors in New York are investigating Mahmoud Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, who, like his siblings, became an instant millionaire when his brother took power. Mahmoud is actually a U.S. citizen, so he is especially vulnerable to American law enforcement. But I have a question and a caveat to offer.

First, I don’t understand why the New York Times is reporting that the NSA is wiretapping Mahmoud. NSA surveillance is one of the most closely held secrets in the U.S. government, so why was it leaked? Possibly to put pressure on Mahmoud, but, if anything, it simply alerts him to be more discreet in his communications. Perhaps someone more savvy in the ways of law enforcement can tell me what’s going on with the leak.

Now the caveat: the goal should not be to throw Mahmoud into jail. The goal should be to apply leverage on his brother, the president, to help clean up Afghan politics. Investigating Mahmoud is a great way to pressure his brother, but actually indicting him and trying to convict him could backfire by making Hamid more intransigent. It is vitally important that this criminal probe be coordinated at the highest levels of the administration with General Petraeus’s headquarters and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to make sure that all the U.S. government actors are on the same page here. Unfortunately, given the Justice Department’s tradition of independence, I suspect that kind of coordination to only happen at the cabinet or even presidential level. Prosecutions, in general, should be made strictly on the merits of the case, but this is a case that is intimately wrapped up with an American war effort in which 100,000 American lives are at risk. Therefore, ordinary law-enforcement concerns need to be subordinated to larger strategic imperatives.

It’s good to read that federal prosecutors in New York are investigating Mahmoud Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, who, like his siblings, became an instant millionaire when his brother took power. Mahmoud is actually a U.S. citizen, so he is especially vulnerable to American law enforcement. But I have a question and a caveat to offer.

First, I don’t understand why the New York Times is reporting that the NSA is wiretapping Mahmoud. NSA surveillance is one of the most closely held secrets in the U.S. government, so why was it leaked? Possibly to put pressure on Mahmoud, but, if anything, it simply alerts him to be more discreet in his communications. Perhaps someone more savvy in the ways of law enforcement can tell me what’s going on with the leak.

Now the caveat: the goal should not be to throw Mahmoud into jail. The goal should be to apply leverage on his brother, the president, to help clean up Afghan politics. Investigating Mahmoud is a great way to pressure his brother, but actually indicting him and trying to convict him could backfire by making Hamid more intransigent. It is vitally important that this criminal probe be coordinated at the highest levels of the administration with General Petraeus’s headquarters and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to make sure that all the U.S. government actors are on the same page here. Unfortunately, given the Justice Department’s tradition of independence, I suspect that kind of coordination to only happen at the cabinet or even presidential level. Prosecutions, in general, should be made strictly on the merits of the case, but this is a case that is intimately wrapped up with an American war effort in which 100,000 American lives are at risk. Therefore, ordinary law-enforcement concerns need to be subordinated to larger strategic imperatives.

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Fighting Corruption in Afghanistan

President Hamid Karzai’s firing of Afghanistan’s deputy attorney general, Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, over his refusal to block investigations of high-level corruption is extremely troubling — but hardly surprising. I sympathize with those such as Congresswoman Nita Lowey who want to hold up aid to Afghanistan in protest against such blatant cover-ups. Such efforts may actually be useful, in that they provide American officials in Kabul with a stick they can use to threaten Karzai with in private.

But the reality is that there are few Third World countries where the judiciary and law-enforcement authorities are independent enough to allow investigations of corruption reaching into the president’s office. Even in the U.S., we have experience with high-level malfeasance going unpunished; recall LBJ’s notorious corruption or Clinton’s perjury. This should not cause us to throw up our hands in despair and declare that the mission in Afghanistan is hopeless. It’s not. Nor should we say that fighting corruption is impossible. It must be fought, and it’s possible to do — as long as we don’t limit our efforts to Afghan criminal justice, where Karzai and his cronies can all too easily frustrate investigations of their shenanigans.

There are other legal options available. Since much of the money in question comes from U.S. taxpayers to begin with, malefactors can be prosecuted in U.S. courts or they can have their funds frozen in foreign bank accounts, whether in the United Arab Emirates, Europe, or the U.S.  Moreover, with the growing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, our commanders on the ground have ways of squeezing corrupt officials that don’t require a court order. The sort of thing I have in mind is a staple of cops-and-robbers movies, where the police tell some notorious gangster that until he does what they want, they will harass him: raid his businesses, interrogate his employees, scare away his customers. Such pressure is perfectly legal and can be applied against all sorts of malign actors in Afghanistan — or at least threatened. Senior officials have substantial financial interests that are highly vulnerable to Western pressure, and those interests can be manipulated to put pressure on them to clean up their act. That won’t eliminate corruption altogether, but it could reduce it to less catastrophic levels.

President Hamid Karzai’s firing of Afghanistan’s deputy attorney general, Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, over his refusal to block investigations of high-level corruption is extremely troubling — but hardly surprising. I sympathize with those such as Congresswoman Nita Lowey who want to hold up aid to Afghanistan in protest against such blatant cover-ups. Such efforts may actually be useful, in that they provide American officials in Kabul with a stick they can use to threaten Karzai with in private.

But the reality is that there are few Third World countries where the judiciary and law-enforcement authorities are independent enough to allow investigations of corruption reaching into the president’s office. Even in the U.S., we have experience with high-level malfeasance going unpunished; recall LBJ’s notorious corruption or Clinton’s perjury. This should not cause us to throw up our hands in despair and declare that the mission in Afghanistan is hopeless. It’s not. Nor should we say that fighting corruption is impossible. It must be fought, and it’s possible to do — as long as we don’t limit our efforts to Afghan criminal justice, where Karzai and his cronies can all too easily frustrate investigations of their shenanigans.

There are other legal options available. Since much of the money in question comes from U.S. taxpayers to begin with, malefactors can be prosecuted in U.S. courts or they can have their funds frozen in foreign bank accounts, whether in the United Arab Emirates, Europe, or the U.S.  Moreover, with the growing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, our commanders on the ground have ways of squeezing corrupt officials that don’t require a court order. The sort of thing I have in mind is a staple of cops-and-robbers movies, where the police tell some notorious gangster that until he does what they want, they will harass him: raid his businesses, interrogate his employees, scare away his customers. Such pressure is perfectly legal and can be applied against all sorts of malign actors in Afghanistan — or at least threatened. Senior officials have substantial financial interests that are highly vulnerable to Western pressure, and those interests can be manipulated to put pressure on them to clean up their act. That won’t eliminate corruption altogether, but it could reduce it to less catastrophic levels.

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