Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kabul

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.”

Read More

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.

Read Less

Kabul Attack Hardly a Sign of Strength

I respectfully dissent from the conclusion reached by some U.S. officials and outside analysts who claim to see Sunday’s assaults in Afghanistan as a show of strength and not weakness by the insurgency. No question there was an intelligence failure in not anticipating and preventing the attack. But no security force, no matter how formidable, can possibly stop every terrorist attack before it happens. Afghan and coalition forces have disrupted countless Haqqani attempts to attack Kabul in the past. Indeed, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack in the capital since September. But no defense can be full-proof.

It is hardly a sign of insurgent strength that some 40 Haqqani operatives managed to strike a series of Afghan and coalition targets in Kabul and a few other sites in eastern Afghanistan. It is not all that difficult to smuggle AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades into Kabul–but then it’s not so difficult to smuggle such weapons into the United States either. But once again, as in September, the insurgents had to stage their attacks from abandoned buildings, which suggests they do not have too much support in the capital. Certainly they were not able to infiltrate the parliament or other targets–they were not even able to penetrate the perimeter as far as I can tell. And Afghan forces responded quickly, managing to kill almost all the attackers while limiting civilian casualties.

Read More

I respectfully dissent from the conclusion reached by some U.S. officials and outside analysts who claim to see Sunday’s assaults in Afghanistan as a show of strength and not weakness by the insurgency. No question there was an intelligence failure in not anticipating and preventing the attack. But no security force, no matter how formidable, can possibly stop every terrorist attack before it happens. Afghan and coalition forces have disrupted countless Haqqani attempts to attack Kabul in the past. Indeed, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack in the capital since September. But no defense can be full-proof.

It is hardly a sign of insurgent strength that some 40 Haqqani operatives managed to strike a series of Afghan and coalition targets in Kabul and a few other sites in eastern Afghanistan. It is not all that difficult to smuggle AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades into Kabul–but then it’s not so difficult to smuggle such weapons into the United States either. But once again, as in September, the insurgents had to stage their attacks from abandoned buildings, which suggests they do not have too much support in the capital. Certainly they were not able to infiltrate the parliament or other targets–they were not even able to penetrate the perimeter as far as I can tell. And Afghan forces responded quickly, managing to kill almost all the attackers while limiting civilian casualties.

For the sake of comparison look at this description from the Encyclopedia Britannica of the 1968 Tet Offensive:

“On January 31 … the communists launched an offensive throughout South Vietnam. They attacked 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals, five of the six major cities, and more than two dozen airfields and bases. Westmoreland’s Saigon headquarters came under attack, and a VC squad even penetrated the compound of the U.S. embassy. In Hue, the former imperial Vietnamese capital, communist troops seized control of more than half the city and held it for nearly three weeks.”

Now that was an attack indicating insurgent strength, even if much of that strength was decimated in the robust U.S.-South Vietnamese offensive. The fact that Vietnamese capitals were able to attack dozens of cities with roughly 80,000 men showed impressive capabilities; they were even able to hold the city of Hue for a few weeks before being expelled by U.S. Marines. The fact that the Haqqanis were able to muster 40 gunmen to attack seven sites–not so impressive.

 

Read Less

For Whom Does the Taliban Ring Tone Toll?

How alarmed should we be by this Wall Street Journal article reporting on the brisk sale of Taliban songs and ring tones in Kabul? Even anti-Taliban residents of the capital feel compelled to have them on their cell phones in case they are stopped by a Taliban checkpoint which, the article claims, are common only an hour’s drive from the city center. The Journal reporters note:

“If you are going 30 or 60 miles outside of Kabul, you will surely find Taliban on the road,” said a member of President Hamid Karzai’s government. “If you have Indian music or Afghan music ringtones, they will tell you that you are not obeying Islamic rules and, in most cases, break our mobiles.”

This official said that whenever he leaves Kabul, he routinely carries two SIM cards for his cell phone. One contains the numbers of Afghan leaders, Western officials, military officers and other contacts he needs to do his job. The other is the Taliban-safe SIM card that he pops into his phone outside the capital.

Obviously this is cause for concern — but hardly panic. After all in Iraq, during the bad years (roughly 2004-2007), it was common for insurgent hit squads and checkpoints (sometimes under the color of Iraqi police units) to operate right in the capital city itself. Baghdad was in fact one of the biggest killing fields in the entire country before the surge took effect.
Read More

How alarmed should we be by this Wall Street Journal article reporting on the brisk sale of Taliban songs and ring tones in Kabul? Even anti-Taliban residents of the capital feel compelled to have them on their cell phones in case they are stopped by a Taliban checkpoint which, the article claims, are common only an hour’s drive from the city center. The Journal reporters note:

“If you are going 30 or 60 miles outside of Kabul, you will surely find Taliban on the road,” said a member of President Hamid Karzai’s government. “If you have Indian music or Afghan music ringtones, they will tell you that you are not obeying Islamic rules and, in most cases, break our mobiles.”

This official said that whenever he leaves Kabul, he routinely carries two SIM cards for his cell phone. One contains the numbers of Afghan leaders, Western officials, military officers and other contacts he needs to do his job. The other is the Taliban-safe SIM card that he pops into his phone outside the capital.

Obviously this is cause for concern — but hardly panic. After all in Iraq, during the bad years (roughly 2004-2007), it was common for insurgent hit squads and checkpoints (sometimes under the color of Iraqi police units) to operate right in the capital city itself. Baghdad was in fact one of the biggest killing fields in the entire country before the surge took effect.

Kabul, by contrast, is relatively secure — notwithstanding the occasional Haqqani Network atrocity. Many of the surrounding areas are secure too, e.g. Parwan Province to the northwest, whose Tajik and HAZARA population is immune to the lure of the Taliban. The trouble really starts in the east and south where coalition forces have not been present in enough density to guarantee security. In particular Logar, Wardak and Ghazni provinces, all south of Kabul, have been and remain prime Taliban areas because so few American troops have been deployed there.

The NATO plan was always to secure Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south and then transition the main effort to eastern Afghanistan and to the area around the capital itself. If Gen. John Allen is given the forces he needs, there is little doubt that he can implement this plan with considerable success. But there is considerable doubt now as to whether he will get the forces he needs — or whether President Obama will declare a premature pullout which will leave the Taliban in control of areas an hour’s drive from Kabul. If we do depart too soon it will be a disaster — and those Taliban checkpoints will start inexorable closing in on Kabul itself.

Read Less

More Progress in Afghanistan

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

Read Less

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?

Read Less

That Ominous Haze Over Kabul

I’m in Kabul now where two facts are evident every time you step outside.

First, security here is good — most days go by without a single insurgent attack in the capital, knock on wood. The streets are bustling. Movement is pretty unrestricted. This is nothing like Baghdad during the dark days of the Iraq war. Even Baghdad today remains less secure.

Second, the air quality is beyond terrible. I grew up in Southern California in the 1970s-80s, when smog was a fact of life. But seldom have I seen smog as bad as it is here. An ominous haze hovers over the city, and many people go around with a hacking cough. Turns out this is not just a quality-of-life problem — it’s a life or death issue.

Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Office (who knew that such a thing even existed?) claims that 3,000 people die annually from air pollution in Kabul — more than are killed in insurgent violence in the entire country. That’s not counting, of course, the dubious air quality in other parts of the country, which no doubt takes a serious toll as well. I have no idea if this statistic is accurate or not, but it’s clear that Afghanistan needs to act not just on the security front but on the environmental front as well.

Back home, I’m hardly a green activist, but spending time breathing the fumes of Kabul is enough to turn me into a fan of the EPA.

I’m in Kabul now where two facts are evident every time you step outside.

First, security here is good — most days go by without a single insurgent attack in the capital, knock on wood. The streets are bustling. Movement is pretty unrestricted. This is nothing like Baghdad during the dark days of the Iraq war. Even Baghdad today remains less secure.

Second, the air quality is beyond terrible. I grew up in Southern California in the 1970s-80s, when smog was a fact of life. But seldom have I seen smog as bad as it is here. An ominous haze hovers over the city, and many people go around with a hacking cough. Turns out this is not just a quality-of-life problem — it’s a life or death issue.

Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Office (who knew that such a thing even existed?) claims that 3,000 people die annually from air pollution in Kabul — more than are killed in insurgent violence in the entire country. That’s not counting, of course, the dubious air quality in other parts of the country, which no doubt takes a serious toll as well. I have no idea if this statistic is accurate or not, but it’s clear that Afghanistan needs to act not just on the security front but on the environmental front as well.

Back home, I’m hardly a green activist, but spending time breathing the fumes of Kabul is enough to turn me into a fan of the EPA.

Read Less

Step 1 in Negotiating with Taliban: Proof of “Taliban-ness”

How can you not laugh at the news that the Taliban “leader” who was negotiating with Afghan officials in Kabul was an imposter? Foreign Policy’s website runs a list of “Top 10 ways to tell  your new Taliban friend is an imposter” — e.g., “Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting,” and “Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul.”

Beyond the yucks, this merely confirms what I (and many others) have been saying all along: the time is not yet ripe for real negotiations. Before they will make a deal, the Taliban will have to be convinced they cannot win a military victory. The process of convincing them has just started. True, U.S. troops are making significant gains in Kandahar and Helmand, but it will not be obvious until next summer whether they can hold the ground they have just won. It is doubtful that many Taliban will decide to defect before then. By all means, the Afghan government and its foreign allies should keep an open door to talk about a political settlement — but we shouldn’t expect any results anytime soon. And in the future, if genuine negotiations do start, it might be wise to demand some proof of “Taliban-ness” from our interlocutors. Maybe we can demand that they behead someone?

How can you not laugh at the news that the Taliban “leader” who was negotiating with Afghan officials in Kabul was an imposter? Foreign Policy’s website runs a list of “Top 10 ways to tell  your new Taliban friend is an imposter” — e.g., “Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting,” and “Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul.”

Beyond the yucks, this merely confirms what I (and many others) have been saying all along: the time is not yet ripe for real negotiations. Before they will make a deal, the Taliban will have to be convinced they cannot win a military victory. The process of convincing them has just started. True, U.S. troops are making significant gains in Kandahar and Helmand, but it will not be obvious until next summer whether they can hold the ground they have just won. It is doubtful that many Taliban will decide to defect before then. By all means, the Afghan government and its foreign allies should keep an open door to talk about a political settlement — but we shouldn’t expect any results anytime soon. And in the future, if genuine negotiations do start, it might be wise to demand some proof of “Taliban-ness” from our interlocutors. Maybe we can demand that they behead someone?

Read Less

Good Works Plus Firepower Equals Effective Counterinsurgency

Among some Army traditionalists (and some ultra-hawkish conservatives), the knock on “population-centric” counterinsurgency — whose most prominent advocate is General David Petraeus — is that it is nothing more than “social work” that ignores the need to kill or capture the enemy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as current events in Afghanistan demonstrate. Yes, Petraeus has put more emphasis on securing the population, improving governance, and decreasing corruption. But, no, he hasn’t ignored the imperative to hit the enemy and to hit him hard.

That should be clear from this Washington Post article reporting on a decision to send a company of M1 Abrams tanks to assist Marine infantrymen fighting in Helmand Province. Gen. David McKiernan, a previous NATO commander who ironically had a reputation for being overly conventional, had actually turned down a prior Marine request for heavy armor because he thought it would reek too much of the Red Army’s tactics. Now Petraeus has approved the dispatch of tanks that are needed to aid Marines who are in a tough fight in places like Sangin.

That should hardly be surprising, because Petraeus is overseeing an impressive increase in overall firepower. As the Post notes:

Despite an overall counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes the use of troops to protect Afghan civilians from insurgents, statistics released by the NATO military command in Kabul and interviews with several senior commanders indicate that U.S. troop operations over the past two months have been more intense and have had a harder edge than at any point since the initial 2001 drive to oust the Taliban government.

The pace of Special Operations missions to kill or capture Taliban leaders has more than tripled over the past three months. U.S. and NATO aircraft unleashed more bombs and missiles in October – 1,000 total – than in any single month since 2001. In the districts around the southern city of Kandahar, soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division have demolished dozens of homes that were thought to be booby-trapped, and they have used scores of high-explosive line charges — a weapon that had been used only sparingly in the past — to blast through minefields.

That is not a repudiation of counterinsurgency doctrine but a good example of how it is supposed to work: melding kinetic and non-kinetic operations into a seamless whole. While more troops are among the population, and doing more civil-action projects, they are also gaining the trust and confidence of the locals and learning the lay of the land. That allows them to use firepower far more effectively than in the past, when the U.S. relied on a “small footprint,” counterterrorism-focused strategy.

In years past, air strikes resulted in many civilian deaths because we had so few boots on the ground; that meant we did not have good intelligence about where exactly the enemy was hiding. Now U.S. troops are able to call in air strikes far more precisely, which is why the considerable increase in air strikes has not led to a corresponding increase in civilian casualties or to widespread accusations of brutality, such as were common when U.S. bombs were blamed for blowing up wedding parties.

What Petraeus realizes — and his critics seem to miss — is that effective counterinsurgency can’t rely on force alone or on good works alone. Both are necessary to defeat a tenacious foe and secure a scared populace.

Among some Army traditionalists (and some ultra-hawkish conservatives), the knock on “population-centric” counterinsurgency — whose most prominent advocate is General David Petraeus — is that it is nothing more than “social work” that ignores the need to kill or capture the enemy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as current events in Afghanistan demonstrate. Yes, Petraeus has put more emphasis on securing the population, improving governance, and decreasing corruption. But, no, he hasn’t ignored the imperative to hit the enemy and to hit him hard.

That should be clear from this Washington Post article reporting on a decision to send a company of M1 Abrams tanks to assist Marine infantrymen fighting in Helmand Province. Gen. David McKiernan, a previous NATO commander who ironically had a reputation for being overly conventional, had actually turned down a prior Marine request for heavy armor because he thought it would reek too much of the Red Army’s tactics. Now Petraeus has approved the dispatch of tanks that are needed to aid Marines who are in a tough fight in places like Sangin.

That should hardly be surprising, because Petraeus is overseeing an impressive increase in overall firepower. As the Post notes:

Despite an overall counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes the use of troops to protect Afghan civilians from insurgents, statistics released by the NATO military command in Kabul and interviews with several senior commanders indicate that U.S. troop operations over the past two months have been more intense and have had a harder edge than at any point since the initial 2001 drive to oust the Taliban government.

The pace of Special Operations missions to kill or capture Taliban leaders has more than tripled over the past three months. U.S. and NATO aircraft unleashed more bombs and missiles in October – 1,000 total – than in any single month since 2001. In the districts around the southern city of Kandahar, soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division have demolished dozens of homes that were thought to be booby-trapped, and they have used scores of high-explosive line charges — a weapon that had been used only sparingly in the past — to blast through minefields.

That is not a repudiation of counterinsurgency doctrine but a good example of how it is supposed to work: melding kinetic and non-kinetic operations into a seamless whole. While more troops are among the population, and doing more civil-action projects, they are also gaining the trust and confidence of the locals and learning the lay of the land. That allows them to use firepower far more effectively than in the past, when the U.S. relied on a “small footprint,” counterterrorism-focused strategy.

In years past, air strikes resulted in many civilian deaths because we had so few boots on the ground; that meant we did not have good intelligence about where exactly the enemy was hiding. Now U.S. troops are able to call in air strikes far more precisely, which is why the considerable increase in air strikes has not led to a corresponding increase in civilian casualties or to widespread accusations of brutality, such as were common when U.S. bombs were blamed for blowing up wedding parties.

What Petraeus realizes — and his critics seem to miss — is that effective counterinsurgency can’t rely on force alone or on good works alone. Both are necessary to defeat a tenacious foe and secure a scared populace.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read Less

Tea Leaves and the Taliban

In the New York Times report that NATO has escorted Taliban leaders to talks in Kabul, there is a slight but eye-catching overemphasis on the importance of withholding the names of the Taliban. The Times cites a request from U.S. and Afghan officials that the names be withheld for fear of retaliation against the Taliban delegates by Pakistani intelligence or other Taliban. But a moment’s reflection informs us that the Taliban leaders’ associates know exactly who they are — and there are plenty of cell phones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It cannot be a secret for long who went to Kabul.

Strictly necessary or not, the security warning to the Times appears oddly pointed, fingering the Pakistani intelligence agency with an uncharacteristic lack of dissimulation about Pakistan’s quality as an antiterrorism ally. It is attributed to an Afghan official, but it comes across as representative of general concerns held also by the U.S. There seems to have been no attempt by Obama’s officials to leave a different impression. Intentionally or by default, the security warning serves as the rhetorical cutting of a tether: the end of a politically unifying narrative about the Afghan conflict and the beginning of something else. What that something else will be is not clear, but the central role of the Taliban in this strategic hinge point is informative.

The Times and others have picked up on the fact that the “discussions [in Kabul] appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan’s leaders … The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan.” If the U.S. is backing this play — and our concern about secrecy for the Taliban negotiators suggests we are – that’s a major development in our policy. Revealing such developments obliquely through oracles and signs is becoming a tiresome pattern with the Obama administration. It certainly doesn’t burnish our image of integrity as a global power. And as the Times points out, with masterly understatement, this particular policy shift “could backfire by provoking the Pakistanis.”

I agree with Max Boot that the military situation in Afghanistan is not such as to force the Taliban to negotiate. But the apparent import of the outreach to the Taliban is divorced from that consideration. This looks like evidence of an emerging policy initiative to exclude Pakistani influence from the reconciliation talks, independent of security conditions in Afghanistan.

If that is a misperception, it’s an awfully big and significant one to leave uncorrected. The U.S. headlines have been full of Pakistani perfidy for weeks now; my impression from the Obama administration’s effective silence has been that it has no interest in counteracting the animus that naturally arises in the American public in the face of such themes. In a rare editorial last week, Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq, was moved to defend the difficult situation of the Pakistani government, urging the U.S. administration not to turn its back on partnership with the struggling democracy. He appears to be swimming against the tide of headlines and administration policy.

Something that requires no divination to understand is the goal of the Taliban. Long War Journal’s Threat Matrix blog reports that the Taliban website, Voice of Jihad, has posted a demand that the U.S. guarantee in writing to withdraw its troops on a specified timeline (i.e., July 2011), as a good-faith gesture toward reconciliation talks. It’s hard to ignore the uncanny similarity of this demand to Hezbollah’s demand for the same guarantee from a prospective Maliki government in Iraq. Maliki’s Hezbollah-backed coalition with the radical Shia cleric al-Sadr is emerging as a fait accompli in Baghdad, in spite of U.S. opposition; the Taliban cannot be pessimistic about their own chances with reconciliation talks and a withdrawal timeline.

In the New York Times report that NATO has escorted Taliban leaders to talks in Kabul, there is a slight but eye-catching overemphasis on the importance of withholding the names of the Taliban. The Times cites a request from U.S. and Afghan officials that the names be withheld for fear of retaliation against the Taliban delegates by Pakistani intelligence or other Taliban. But a moment’s reflection informs us that the Taliban leaders’ associates know exactly who they are — and there are plenty of cell phones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It cannot be a secret for long who went to Kabul.

Strictly necessary or not, the security warning to the Times appears oddly pointed, fingering the Pakistani intelligence agency with an uncharacteristic lack of dissimulation about Pakistan’s quality as an antiterrorism ally. It is attributed to an Afghan official, but it comes across as representative of general concerns held also by the U.S. There seems to have been no attempt by Obama’s officials to leave a different impression. Intentionally or by default, the security warning serves as the rhetorical cutting of a tether: the end of a politically unifying narrative about the Afghan conflict and the beginning of something else. What that something else will be is not clear, but the central role of the Taliban in this strategic hinge point is informative.

The Times and others have picked up on the fact that the “discussions [in Kabul] appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan’s leaders … The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan.” If the U.S. is backing this play — and our concern about secrecy for the Taliban negotiators suggests we are – that’s a major development in our policy. Revealing such developments obliquely through oracles and signs is becoming a tiresome pattern with the Obama administration. It certainly doesn’t burnish our image of integrity as a global power. And as the Times points out, with masterly understatement, this particular policy shift “could backfire by provoking the Pakistanis.”

I agree with Max Boot that the military situation in Afghanistan is not such as to force the Taliban to negotiate. But the apparent import of the outreach to the Taliban is divorced from that consideration. This looks like evidence of an emerging policy initiative to exclude Pakistani influence from the reconciliation talks, independent of security conditions in Afghanistan.

If that is a misperception, it’s an awfully big and significant one to leave uncorrected. The U.S. headlines have been full of Pakistani perfidy for weeks now; my impression from the Obama administration’s effective silence has been that it has no interest in counteracting the animus that naturally arises in the American public in the face of such themes. In a rare editorial last week, Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq, was moved to defend the difficult situation of the Pakistani government, urging the U.S. administration not to turn its back on partnership with the struggling democracy. He appears to be swimming against the tide of headlines and administration policy.

Something that requires no divination to understand is the goal of the Taliban. Long War Journal’s Threat Matrix blog reports that the Taliban website, Voice of Jihad, has posted a demand that the U.S. guarantee in writing to withdraw its troops on a specified timeline (i.e., July 2011), as a good-faith gesture toward reconciliation talks. It’s hard to ignore the uncanny similarity of this demand to Hezbollah’s demand for the same guarantee from a prospective Maliki government in Iraq. Maliki’s Hezbollah-backed coalition with the radical Shia cleric al-Sadr is emerging as a fait accompli in Baghdad, in spite of U.S. opposition; the Taliban cannot be pessimistic about their own chances with reconciliation talks and a withdrawal timeline.

Read Less

What to Do About Pakistan?

In the New York Times, Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Kabul and Baghdad, suggests getting “tough” with Pakistan. Good idea, but how? He writes: “The United States should demand that Pakistan shut down all sanctuaries and military support programs for insurgents or else we will carry out operations against those insurgent havens, with or without Pakistani consent.”

That is, in fact, pretty much what the U.S. has been threatening since 2001. By now such threats ring hollow because we haven’t carried them out — and for good reason. How are we to suppose to clear out “insurgent havens” without Pakistani consent? Are we going to send tens of thousands of troops into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas? Not likely. Maybe step up drone strikes? That we can do, but Predators would hardly clear out the terrorists. And in return for violating Pakistani sovereignty, we would be vulnerable to Pakistani counter-pressure, from closing the supply routes for U.S. forces in Afghanistan to ending cooperation with the drone strikes against al-Qaeda.

Khalilzad proposes sweeteners for the Pakistanis, such as providing “long-term assistance to Pakistan, focused on developing not only its security apparatus, but also its civil society, economy, and democratic institutions” and facilitating “a major diplomatic effort … to improve relations between India and Pakistan.” Again, been there and done that.

Last year Congress approved a five-year, $7.5 billion package of nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. Now the Obama administration is asking for $2 billion more in military aid. That’s a lot of money in a place like Pakistan, and yet there is no sign that it has done or will do much good. Given how U.S. foreign aid is routinely stolen or used for inappropriate projects (Afghanistan and Iraq are both textbook examples), we can have little confidence that all this money is going to lead to a fundamental reorientation of Pakistani foreign policy. Nor will U.S. efforts to mediate between Pakistan and India — something we’ve done before — affect the fundamental calculations of Pakistan’s army, which views the Taliban and Haqqani Network as instruments of Pakistani statecraft in Afghanistan.

I don’t know how to reorient Pakistani policy; I don’t think anyone does. It would help, however, if President Obama made it clear that we’re not leaving Afghanistan next July. As Khalilzad rightly notes, “Pakistani military leaders believe that our current surge will be the last push before we begin a face-saving troop drawdown next July. They are confident that if they continue to frustrate our military and political strategy — even actively impede reconciliation between Kabul and Taliban groups willing to make peace — pro-Pakistani forces will have the upper hand in Afghanistan after the United States departs.”

In the New York Times, Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Kabul and Baghdad, suggests getting “tough” with Pakistan. Good idea, but how? He writes: “The United States should demand that Pakistan shut down all sanctuaries and military support programs for insurgents or else we will carry out operations against those insurgent havens, with or without Pakistani consent.”

That is, in fact, pretty much what the U.S. has been threatening since 2001. By now such threats ring hollow because we haven’t carried them out — and for good reason. How are we to suppose to clear out “insurgent havens” without Pakistani consent? Are we going to send tens of thousands of troops into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas? Not likely. Maybe step up drone strikes? That we can do, but Predators would hardly clear out the terrorists. And in return for violating Pakistani sovereignty, we would be vulnerable to Pakistani counter-pressure, from closing the supply routes for U.S. forces in Afghanistan to ending cooperation with the drone strikes against al-Qaeda.

Khalilzad proposes sweeteners for the Pakistanis, such as providing “long-term assistance to Pakistan, focused on developing not only its security apparatus, but also its civil society, economy, and democratic institutions” and facilitating “a major diplomatic effort … to improve relations between India and Pakistan.” Again, been there and done that.

Last year Congress approved a five-year, $7.5 billion package of nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. Now the Obama administration is asking for $2 billion more in military aid. That’s a lot of money in a place like Pakistan, and yet there is no sign that it has done or will do much good. Given how U.S. foreign aid is routinely stolen or used for inappropriate projects (Afghanistan and Iraq are both textbook examples), we can have little confidence that all this money is going to lead to a fundamental reorientation of Pakistani foreign policy. Nor will U.S. efforts to mediate between Pakistan and India — something we’ve done before — affect the fundamental calculations of Pakistan’s army, which views the Taliban and Haqqani Network as instruments of Pakistani statecraft in Afghanistan.

I don’t know how to reorient Pakistani policy; I don’t think anyone does. It would help, however, if President Obama made it clear that we’re not leaving Afghanistan next July. As Khalilzad rightly notes, “Pakistani military leaders believe that our current surge will be the last push before we begin a face-saving troop drawdown next July. They are confident that if they continue to frustrate our military and political strategy — even actively impede reconciliation between Kabul and Taliban groups willing to make peace — pro-Pakistani forces will have the upper hand in Afghanistan after the United States departs.”

Read Less

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.

Read Less

What the India-Pakistan Conflict Should Teach the West About the Middle East

A New York Times analysis yesterday discussed how the 63-year-old India-Pakistan conflict is undermining a vital American interest, one to which Washington has committed almost 100,000 soldiers: stabilizing Afghanistan so that it won’t revert to being a base for anti-American attacks. Pakistan’s fear of India, the report explained, spurs Islamabad to support the Taliban — the very people America is fighting in Afghanistan — as a bulwark against Indian influence in Kabul.

In short, resolving the India-Pakistan conflict could be vital to achieving America’s aims in Afghanistan. So why is Washington making no effort whatsoever to do so? Because, the Times explained, the conflict is not currently resolvable:

“It’s unfixable,” said C. Christine Fair, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “That’s why we’ll be working on this for the next 50 years. …

“If there was an easy way out of this, someone would have figured it out,” Professor Fair said. “But I don’t think it’s possible to untie this Gordian knot.”

It’s not that outside experts haven’t proposed various solutions, from formally dividing the disputed province of Kashmir (which is already divided de facto) to letting Kashmiris decide their own fate via a referendum. It’s just that none of the proposed solutions has ever proved acceptable to the parties that actually have to sign the deal: India and Pakistan.

The parallels to another conflict of almost identical duration, the Israeli-Arab one, are obvious. Here, too, outside experts have proposed various solutions, but none has yet proved acceptable to the parties that must actually sign the deals: Israel, the Palestinians, and Syria. That’s why, despite years of intensive negotiations and massive international involvement — both far exceeding anything ever tried with India-Pakistan — no agreement has yet been signed.

But there’s one huge difference between the two conflicts. In India-Pakistan, the West has recognized its inability to effect a solution and is therefore not wasting any time, money, or prestige on fruitless efforts. In the Israeli-Arab conflict, the delusion persists that it’s easily resolvable; indeed, “everyone knows the solution.” That this “solution” has repeatedly proved unacceptable to the parties themselves is somehow dismissed as unimportant. Therefore, massive amounts of Western time, money, and prestige continue to be spent on it to no avail.

Ironically, the one party spending almost no time, money, or prestige on this conflict is the Arab world — that same Arab world that, according to Western pundits, deems the Israeli-Palestinian conflict its No. 1 priority. That’s because Arab countries, unlike the West, are willing to acknowledge the facts: that the conflict is currently unsolvable, and that despite all the rhetoric about its importance, it actually matters little to the real regional problems.

Thus far, the peace-process fixation has caused nothing but harm: thousands of Israeli and Palestinian casualties, and for Palestinians, an economic tailspin from which they have yet to fully recover. But the price has also been paid by millions of other people worldwide — all those to whom the time, money, and prestige the West has squandered on this conflict might actually make a difference.

A New York Times analysis yesterday discussed how the 63-year-old India-Pakistan conflict is undermining a vital American interest, one to which Washington has committed almost 100,000 soldiers: stabilizing Afghanistan so that it won’t revert to being a base for anti-American attacks. Pakistan’s fear of India, the report explained, spurs Islamabad to support the Taliban — the very people America is fighting in Afghanistan — as a bulwark against Indian influence in Kabul.

In short, resolving the India-Pakistan conflict could be vital to achieving America’s aims in Afghanistan. So why is Washington making no effort whatsoever to do so? Because, the Times explained, the conflict is not currently resolvable:

“It’s unfixable,” said C. Christine Fair, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “That’s why we’ll be working on this for the next 50 years. …

“If there was an easy way out of this, someone would have figured it out,” Professor Fair said. “But I don’t think it’s possible to untie this Gordian knot.”

It’s not that outside experts haven’t proposed various solutions, from formally dividing the disputed province of Kashmir (which is already divided de facto) to letting Kashmiris decide their own fate via a referendum. It’s just that none of the proposed solutions has ever proved acceptable to the parties that actually have to sign the deal: India and Pakistan.

The parallels to another conflict of almost identical duration, the Israeli-Arab one, are obvious. Here, too, outside experts have proposed various solutions, but none has yet proved acceptable to the parties that must actually sign the deals: Israel, the Palestinians, and Syria. That’s why, despite years of intensive negotiations and massive international involvement — both far exceeding anything ever tried with India-Pakistan — no agreement has yet been signed.

But there’s one huge difference between the two conflicts. In India-Pakistan, the West has recognized its inability to effect a solution and is therefore not wasting any time, money, or prestige on fruitless efforts. In the Israeli-Arab conflict, the delusion persists that it’s easily resolvable; indeed, “everyone knows the solution.” That this “solution” has repeatedly proved unacceptable to the parties themselves is somehow dismissed as unimportant. Therefore, massive amounts of Western time, money, and prestige continue to be spent on it to no avail.

Ironically, the one party spending almost no time, money, or prestige on this conflict is the Arab world — that same Arab world that, according to Western pundits, deems the Israeli-Palestinian conflict its No. 1 priority. That’s because Arab countries, unlike the West, are willing to acknowledge the facts: that the conflict is currently unsolvable, and that despite all the rhetoric about its importance, it actually matters little to the real regional problems.

Thus far, the peace-process fixation has caused nothing but harm: thousands of Israeli and Palestinian casualties, and for Palestinians, an economic tailspin from which they have yet to fully recover. But the price has also been paid by millions of other people worldwide — all those to whom the time, money, and prestige the West has squandered on this conflict might actually make a difference.

Read Less

The Afghan Study Group Opines

Something called the Afghan Study Group has produced a report on “A New Way Forward in Afghanistan.” A quick glance at the list of signatories shows a group of individuals who are not exactly notable for their expertise in Afghanistan but who can be counted on to oppose any plan of winning a war, be it the “surge” in Iraq or the one now going on in Afghanistan. For instance: Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, left-wing blogger and Arabist Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, economist James Galbraith of the University of Texas, telecom executive Leo Hindery, the notorious Iran apologists Flynt and Hillary Leverett, and, of course, anti-Israel propagandist Stephen Walt of Harvard. There are, to be sure, among the people who have signed on, a few who have actually spent some time in the region, such as former State Department employee Matthew Hoh and think-tanker Selig Harrison. But the report is notable for its standard anti-war bromides rather than any convincing “way forward” and certainly not for any “new way” put forth.

My article in COMMENTARY, on the “Case for Optimism,” offers a detailed rebuttal of many of the vapid arguments they make, but a few further observations are in order. First there is the wishful thinking that somehow victory isn’t important: “Protecting our interests does not require a U.S. military victory over the Taliban,” they write. “A Taliban takeover is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment … and the risk of a new ‘safe haven’ there under more ‘friendly’ Taliban rule is overstated.” Talk about a triumph of hope over experience. The Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s when the U.S. wasn’t involved and immediately turned their country into a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Why would they do any differently today? If anything, the ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban are stronger today than they were in the 1990s.

Their recommendations are really grasping for straws. They loudly demand: “Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion,” “encourage economic development,” and “engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability.” As if the U.S. hasn’t been doing all of the above since 2001. Guess what? It hasn’t worked. The Taliban are a determined, well-armed insurgency group and they see no reason to reach a power-sharing deal, no matter what “regional and global stakeholders” say. Of course, there is not a hint of how key stakeholders such as Iran and Pakistan, which support the Taliban, can be convinced to cut them off. Instead, there is a blind hope that somehow “economic development” will ameliorate Afghanistan’s woes in the face of abundant evidence that the economic aid provided since 2001 has instead made the situation worse in many respects, by fueling out-of-control corruption.

The authors of this report, with their faith in negotiating with the enemy, would do well to read this recent Wall Street Journal dispatch by ace correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov, which notes what anyone with any knowledge of Afghanistan already knows. First, that “Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities” oppose “outreach to the Taliban, which they said could pave the way for the fundamentalist group’s return to power and reignite civil war.” Second, “Unless it is dealt a decisive setback in coming months, the only thing the Taliban may be interested in negotiating with Mr. Karzai is how to secure control of the central government in Kabul.” Third, “Few Afghans … believe that the Taliban, who already control ethnic Pashtun pockets throughout northern and western Afghanistan, would really stop the war after gaining the south and the east.”

In other words, negotiations with the Taliban would not result in some kind of painless resolution of the long-running war. It would only make the war bigger and more deadly, with the likely result being a Taliban triumph — just as in the 1990s. The members of the Afghan Study Group seem to think that outcome would be in America’s interests. Luckily President Obama does not. He has been right to increase our commitment in Afghanistan in the face of such feckless second-guessing on the home front. I only hope he keeps his nerve as pressure builds for a premature pullout that would hand the jihadists their biggest victory ever.

Something called the Afghan Study Group has produced a report on “A New Way Forward in Afghanistan.” A quick glance at the list of signatories shows a group of individuals who are not exactly notable for their expertise in Afghanistan but who can be counted on to oppose any plan of winning a war, be it the “surge” in Iraq or the one now going on in Afghanistan. For instance: Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, left-wing blogger and Arabist Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, economist James Galbraith of the University of Texas, telecom executive Leo Hindery, the notorious Iran apologists Flynt and Hillary Leverett, and, of course, anti-Israel propagandist Stephen Walt of Harvard. There are, to be sure, among the people who have signed on, a few who have actually spent some time in the region, such as former State Department employee Matthew Hoh and think-tanker Selig Harrison. But the report is notable for its standard anti-war bromides rather than any convincing “way forward” and certainly not for any “new way” put forth.

My article in COMMENTARY, on the “Case for Optimism,” offers a detailed rebuttal of many of the vapid arguments they make, but a few further observations are in order. First there is the wishful thinking that somehow victory isn’t important: “Protecting our interests does not require a U.S. military victory over the Taliban,” they write. “A Taliban takeover is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment … and the risk of a new ‘safe haven’ there under more ‘friendly’ Taliban rule is overstated.” Talk about a triumph of hope over experience. The Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s when the U.S. wasn’t involved and immediately turned their country into a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Why would they do any differently today? If anything, the ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban are stronger today than they were in the 1990s.

Their recommendations are really grasping for straws. They loudly demand: “Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion,” “encourage economic development,” and “engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability.” As if the U.S. hasn’t been doing all of the above since 2001. Guess what? It hasn’t worked. The Taliban are a determined, well-armed insurgency group and they see no reason to reach a power-sharing deal, no matter what “regional and global stakeholders” say. Of course, there is not a hint of how key stakeholders such as Iran and Pakistan, which support the Taliban, can be convinced to cut them off. Instead, there is a blind hope that somehow “economic development” will ameliorate Afghanistan’s woes in the face of abundant evidence that the economic aid provided since 2001 has instead made the situation worse in many respects, by fueling out-of-control corruption.

The authors of this report, with their faith in negotiating with the enemy, would do well to read this recent Wall Street Journal dispatch by ace correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov, which notes what anyone with any knowledge of Afghanistan already knows. First, that “Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities” oppose “outreach to the Taliban, which they said could pave the way for the fundamentalist group’s return to power and reignite civil war.” Second, “Unless it is dealt a decisive setback in coming months, the only thing the Taliban may be interested in negotiating with Mr. Karzai is how to secure control of the central government in Kabul.” Third, “Few Afghans … believe that the Taliban, who already control ethnic Pashtun pockets throughout northern and western Afghanistan, would really stop the war after gaining the south and the east.”

In other words, negotiations with the Taliban would not result in some kind of painless resolution of the long-running war. It would only make the war bigger and more deadly, with the likely result being a Taliban triumph — just as in the 1990s. The members of the Afghan Study Group seem to think that outcome would be in America’s interests. Luckily President Obama does not. He has been right to increase our commitment in Afghanistan in the face of such feckless second-guessing on the home front. I only hope he keeps his nerve as pressure builds for a premature pullout that would hand the jihadists their biggest victory ever.

Read Less

On Burning the Koran

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said the planned burning of Qurans on Sept. 11 by a Florida church could put the lives of American troops in danger and damage the war effort.

Gen. David Petraeus said the Taliban would exploit the demonstration for propaganda purposes, drumming up anger toward the U.S. and making it harder for allied troops to carry out their mission of protecting Afghan civilians.

“It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort,” Gen. Petraeus said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community.”

General Petraeus points out that hundreds of Afghans attended a demonstration in Kabul on Monday simply in anticipation of the plans of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who has said he will burn the Koran on September 11. Afghan protesters chanted “death to America” and speakers called on the U.S. to withdraw its military convoy. Military officials fear the protests are likely to spread beyond Kabul to other Afghan cities.

Some people may believe this is all overdone. Jones, after all, leads a church of just 50 people. He clearly does not speak for the overwhelming number of Christians in America. And of course, in a nation of more than 300 million people, there are a handful who can be found supporting every imaginable crazed cause.

But this incident has the capacity to be different. General Petraeus is a careful and cautious man; for him to speak out as he did means the danger is real enough. And there is precedent. As the Journal story reminds us, reports in Newsweek, later retracted, that a U.S. interrogator at the Guantanamo Bay prison had flushed a Koran down a toilet set off riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

If he carries through on his plan, then, the actions by Jones may undermine our mission in Afghanistan and threaten the lives of those serving in that theater. People with standing in Jones’s life need to stop him, in part because his actions are deeply antithetical to our founding principles. The Third Reich burned books; those who are citizens of the United States should not.

Jones’s actions would also be an offense against the Christian faith. From what we know, Jesus not only wasn’t an advocate of book-burning; he was a lover of them, most especially the Hebrew Bible, which he often quoted. Beyond that, Christianity is premised on evangelism, on spreading what the faithful believe to be truth about God, history, and the human person. There is nothing that would lead one to embrace coercion or to stoke (literally) the flames of hatred.

Whatever differences the Christian faith has with Islam, they are ones that followers of Jesus need to articulate with reason, with measured words, and with a spirit of grace and understanding. And whatever purpose Jones thinks he’s serving, it is not the purpose of the Prince of Peace. It is, in fact, very nearly its antithesis. We can only hope that this deeply misguided pastor is stopped before he does significant damage to his country, its gallant warriors, and the faith Jones claims as his own.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said the planned burning of Qurans on Sept. 11 by a Florida church could put the lives of American troops in danger and damage the war effort.

Gen. David Petraeus said the Taliban would exploit the demonstration for propaganda purposes, drumming up anger toward the U.S. and making it harder for allied troops to carry out their mission of protecting Afghan civilians.

“It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort,” Gen. Petraeus said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community.”

General Petraeus points out that hundreds of Afghans attended a demonstration in Kabul on Monday simply in anticipation of the plans of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who has said he will burn the Koran on September 11. Afghan protesters chanted “death to America” and speakers called on the U.S. to withdraw its military convoy. Military officials fear the protests are likely to spread beyond Kabul to other Afghan cities.

Some people may believe this is all overdone. Jones, after all, leads a church of just 50 people. He clearly does not speak for the overwhelming number of Christians in America. And of course, in a nation of more than 300 million people, there are a handful who can be found supporting every imaginable crazed cause.

But this incident has the capacity to be different. General Petraeus is a careful and cautious man; for him to speak out as he did means the danger is real enough. And there is precedent. As the Journal story reminds us, reports in Newsweek, later retracted, that a U.S. interrogator at the Guantanamo Bay prison had flushed a Koran down a toilet set off riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

If he carries through on his plan, then, the actions by Jones may undermine our mission in Afghanistan and threaten the lives of those serving in that theater. People with standing in Jones’s life need to stop him, in part because his actions are deeply antithetical to our founding principles. The Third Reich burned books; those who are citizens of the United States should not.

Jones’s actions would also be an offense against the Christian faith. From what we know, Jesus not only wasn’t an advocate of book-burning; he was a lover of them, most especially the Hebrew Bible, which he often quoted. Beyond that, Christianity is premised on evangelism, on spreading what the faithful believe to be truth about God, history, and the human person. There is nothing that would lead one to embrace coercion or to stoke (literally) the flames of hatred.

Whatever differences the Christian faith has with Islam, they are ones that followers of Jesus need to articulate with reason, with measured words, and with a spirit of grace and understanding. And whatever purpose Jones thinks he’s serving, it is not the purpose of the Prince of Peace. It is, in fact, very nearly its antithesis. We can only hope that this deeply misguided pastor is stopped before he does significant damage to his country, its gallant warriors, and the faith Jones claims as his own.

Read Less

The CIA’s Self-Fulfilling Premises in Afghanistan

Dexter Filkins has a good dispatch from Afghanistan — or as the headline dubs it, “Corrupt-istan.” He (correctly, in my opinion) criticizes all too many senior U.S. officials for their condescending attitude toward governance in Afghanistan:

Since 2001, one of the unquestioned premises of American and NATO policy has been that ordinary Afghans don’t view public corruption in quite the same way that Americans and others do in the West. Diplomats, military officers and senior officials flying in from Washington often say privately that while public graft is pernicious, there is no point in trying to abolish it — and that trying to do so could destroy the very government the West has helped to build.

Filkins notes that this has become a self-fulfilling premise with the CIA, for example, “putting on its payroll some of the most disputable members of Mr. Karzai’s government.” But ordinary Afghans turn out to be just as disgusted by widespread corruption as ordinary Americans would be. Writes Filkins:

Ahmed Shah Hakimi, who runs a currency exchange in Kabul, had just finished explaining some of the shadowy dealings of the business and political elite when he stopped in disgust.

“There are 50 of them,” Mr. Hakimi said. “The corrupt ones. All the Afghans know who they are.”

“Why do the Americans support them?” he asked.

Mr. Hakimi, a shrewd businessman, seemed genuinely perplexed.

“What the Americans need to do is take these Afghans and put them on a plane and fly them to America — and then crash the plane into a mountain,” Mr. Hakimi said. “Kill them all.”

Hakimi’s attitude is, indeed, widespread in Afghanistan. There is little of the “tolerance” for corruption that senior American officials seem to think is prevalent. Instead, corruption is driving more and more Afghans into the arms of the Taliban, who claim to crack down on immorality. That makes it imperative to reduce the runaway graft that is fueled by Western money. General David Petraeus realizes that; he is bent on reducing the power of what his aides call, according to Filkins, ”the MAN” — short for “malign actor network.” But other U.S. agencies, especially the CIA, are working at cross-purposes by empowering the “MAN.” There needs to be greater cohesion from the top of the administration to make sure that all agencies of the U.S. government work together to push Afghanistan in the right direction.

Dexter Filkins has a good dispatch from Afghanistan — or as the headline dubs it, “Corrupt-istan.” He (correctly, in my opinion) criticizes all too many senior U.S. officials for their condescending attitude toward governance in Afghanistan:

Since 2001, one of the unquestioned premises of American and NATO policy has been that ordinary Afghans don’t view public corruption in quite the same way that Americans and others do in the West. Diplomats, military officers and senior officials flying in from Washington often say privately that while public graft is pernicious, there is no point in trying to abolish it — and that trying to do so could destroy the very government the West has helped to build.

Filkins notes that this has become a self-fulfilling premise with the CIA, for example, “putting on its payroll some of the most disputable members of Mr. Karzai’s government.” But ordinary Afghans turn out to be just as disgusted by widespread corruption as ordinary Americans would be. Writes Filkins:

Ahmed Shah Hakimi, who runs a currency exchange in Kabul, had just finished explaining some of the shadowy dealings of the business and political elite when he stopped in disgust.

“There are 50 of them,” Mr. Hakimi said. “The corrupt ones. All the Afghans know who they are.”

“Why do the Americans support them?” he asked.

Mr. Hakimi, a shrewd businessman, seemed genuinely perplexed.

“What the Americans need to do is take these Afghans and put them on a plane and fly them to America — and then crash the plane into a mountain,” Mr. Hakimi said. “Kill them all.”

Hakimi’s attitude is, indeed, widespread in Afghanistan. There is little of the “tolerance” for corruption that senior American officials seem to think is prevalent. Instead, corruption is driving more and more Afghans into the arms of the Taliban, who claim to crack down on immorality. That makes it imperative to reduce the runaway graft that is fueled by Western money. General David Petraeus realizes that; he is bent on reducing the power of what his aides call, according to Filkins, ”the MAN” — short for “malign actor network.” But other U.S. agencies, especially the CIA, are working at cross-purposes by empowering the “MAN.” There needs to be greater cohesion from the top of the administration to make sure that all agencies of the U.S. government work together to push Afghanistan in the right direction.

Read Less

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.

Read Less

Petraeus on Afghanistan

This past weekend, General David Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, granted interviews to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Meet the Press [here and here].

Acknowledging that the mission is at a stage in which “what you have to do is to start turning inputs into outputs,” Petraeus said that the new U.S. war strategy is “fundamentally sound.” He sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces, and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting. According to the Post:

Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify … but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.

He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar’s northern fringe, where two U.S. Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with makeshift but lethal anti-personnel mines.

Petraeus points out that what we face is not a monolithic Taliban enemy; he describes it more like a crime syndicate. In the southern part of the country we face the Afghan Taliban; in the eastern part, the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban but not subservient to it. There are small elements of al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Pakistani Taliban as well.

Petraeus, who appears intent on taking a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government than we’ve seen in the past, says his most significant accomplishment since arriving in Kabul has been to get President Karzai to endorse the creation of armed neighborhood-watch groups. He also argues against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011. When asked by NBC’s David Gregory how stifling the deadline is, Petraeus said this:

I don’t find it that stifling. I’m not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden’s been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces. … I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based. … I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re able to do less in certain areas, certainly.

Articulating traditional counterinsurgency doctrine, Petraeus went on to say, “At the end of the day, it’s not about [the Afghan people’s] embrace of us, it’s not about us winning hearts and minds. It’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.” And when asked if the outcome is like Iraq, whether that constitutes achieving the mission, Petraeus said this:

Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.

“It’s a gradual effort,” Petraeus told the Post. “It’s a deliberate effort. There’s no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamations of victory. Rather, it’s just hard work.”

It is indeed. But America is fortunate to have one of the greatest military commanders in its history now in the lead. If we give him the tools and the time, he and the American military can finish the job.

This past weekend, General David Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, granted interviews to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Meet the Press [here and here].

Acknowledging that the mission is at a stage in which “what you have to do is to start turning inputs into outputs,” Petraeus said that the new U.S. war strategy is “fundamentally sound.” He sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces, and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting. According to the Post:

Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify … but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.

He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar’s northern fringe, where two U.S. Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with makeshift but lethal anti-personnel mines.

Petraeus points out that what we face is not a monolithic Taliban enemy; he describes it more like a crime syndicate. In the southern part of the country we face the Afghan Taliban; in the eastern part, the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban but not subservient to it. There are small elements of al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Pakistani Taliban as well.

Petraeus, who appears intent on taking a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government than we’ve seen in the past, says his most significant accomplishment since arriving in Kabul has been to get President Karzai to endorse the creation of armed neighborhood-watch groups. He also argues against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011. When asked by NBC’s David Gregory how stifling the deadline is, Petraeus said this:

I don’t find it that stifling. I’m not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden’s been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces. … I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based. … I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re able to do less in certain areas, certainly.

Articulating traditional counterinsurgency doctrine, Petraeus went on to say, “At the end of the day, it’s not about [the Afghan people’s] embrace of us, it’s not about us winning hearts and minds. It’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.” And when asked if the outcome is like Iraq, whether that constitutes achieving the mission, Petraeus said this:

Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.

“It’s a gradual effort,” Petraeus told the Post. “It’s a deliberate effort. There’s no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamations of victory. Rather, it’s just hard work.”

It is indeed. But America is fortunate to have one of the greatest military commanders in its history now in the lead. If we give him the tools and the time, he and the American military can finish the job.

Read Less

The Power of Private Security Firms in Afghanistan Must Be Curbed

It’s easy to shake one’s head in dismay at the latest outburst from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. “Karzai Slams Foreign Advisers” reads the headline in the Wall Street Journal.

And indeed, part of what’s going on here is dismaying — Karzai is throwing a fit over the recent arrest of Mohammad Zia Saleh, one of his national-security aides, on charges of corruption. The arrest was carried out by the Major Crimes Task Force, an Afghan investigative body that gets considerable assistance from Western law-enforcement agencies. Karzai claims that this is a violation of Afghan sovereignty and the constitution, although it is widely believed that he is simply upset that a member of his patronage network has been caught red-handed. The U.S. government is right to try to protect the Major Crimes Task Force and to keep Saleh in jail, although in the future the law enforcers will have to do a better job of laying the political groundwork for such high-profile takedowns.

But Karzai’s latest eruption contains not only cause for concern but also an opportunity that the West should seize. For he fulminated not only against Western advisers but also against the security firms that protect Western interests in Afghanistan:

“The people who are working in private security companies are against Afghan national interest, and their salaries are illegal money. They are thieves during the day and terrorists during the night,” Mr. Karzai said in Saturday’s speech. “If they want to serve Afghanistan they have to join the Afghan police.”

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the proximate cause of this outburst was a road accident in Kabul involving a DynCorp convoy that led to anti-American rioting. But most private security contractors aren’t foreigners. They’re Afghans who work for private security firms that are closely connected to the power structure. Indeed, as this study from the Institute for the Study of War notes, President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, is one of the largest employers of private security forces in the country thanks to his control over firms such as Watan Risk Management and Asia Security Group, which are paid to safeguard NATO supplies.

The gunmen employed by Watan and its ilk routinely terrorize Afghans in ways far more corrosive than anything done by DynCorp; they are also implicated in payoffs to the Taliban. If NATO is going to bring more security to southern Afghanistan, it will have to curb the power of these firms and give more control of the roads to Afghanistan’s lawful security forces. President Karzai’s statements provide a perfect opening to do just that.

It’s easy to shake one’s head in dismay at the latest outburst from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. “Karzai Slams Foreign Advisers” reads the headline in the Wall Street Journal.

And indeed, part of what’s going on here is dismaying — Karzai is throwing a fit over the recent arrest of Mohammad Zia Saleh, one of his national-security aides, on charges of corruption. The arrest was carried out by the Major Crimes Task Force, an Afghan investigative body that gets considerable assistance from Western law-enforcement agencies. Karzai claims that this is a violation of Afghan sovereignty and the constitution, although it is widely believed that he is simply upset that a member of his patronage network has been caught red-handed. The U.S. government is right to try to protect the Major Crimes Task Force and to keep Saleh in jail, although in the future the law enforcers will have to do a better job of laying the political groundwork for such high-profile takedowns.

But Karzai’s latest eruption contains not only cause for concern but also an opportunity that the West should seize. For he fulminated not only against Western advisers but also against the security firms that protect Western interests in Afghanistan:

“The people who are working in private security companies are against Afghan national interest, and their salaries are illegal money. They are thieves during the day and terrorists during the night,” Mr. Karzai said in Saturday’s speech. “If they want to serve Afghanistan they have to join the Afghan police.”

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the proximate cause of this outburst was a road accident in Kabul involving a DynCorp convoy that led to anti-American rioting. But most private security contractors aren’t foreigners. They’re Afghans who work for private security firms that are closely connected to the power structure. Indeed, as this study from the Institute for the Study of War notes, President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, is one of the largest employers of private security forces in the country thanks to his control over firms such as Watan Risk Management and Asia Security Group, which are paid to safeguard NATO supplies.

The gunmen employed by Watan and its ilk routinely terrorize Afghans in ways far more corrosive than anything done by DynCorp; they are also implicated in payoffs to the Taliban. If NATO is going to bring more security to southern Afghanistan, it will have to curb the power of these firms and give more control of the roads to Afghanistan’s lawful security forces. President Karzai’s statements provide a perfect opening to do just that.

Read Less