Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kabul

Afghanistan: July 2011 Psychosis

Joe Biden has long been seen as the administration’s leading advocate of a “small footprint” approach to Afghanistan. But on ABC’s This Week program on Sunday, he was at pains to downplay the July 2011 withdrawal deadline. There will be a “transition,” he said, but not necessarily a massive withdrawal of forces — “It could be as few as a couple thousand troops.”

That puts Biden effectively on the same page as Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, Mike Mullen, David Petraeus, and other senior administration and military figures who have been stressing that we aren’t headed for the exists come next summer. That’s an important and welcome clarification of the ambiguous policy laid out by President Obama at West Point last fall. But I doubt that the message has reached the region where the perception of American fickleness continues to encourage our foes and discourage our friends.

In Kabul recently, I had dinner with several Afghan politicians and bureaucrats. They were, to a man, horrified by the July 2011 deadline, which feeds into recurring Afghan fears of abandonment by the West — something that happened as recently as the 1990s. They were not mollified when I and other visiting scholars tried to explain that the appointment of General Petraeus suggested that Obama was in the war to win. They actually claimed that Petraeus had been sent to offer a “face-saving way” for the U.S. to withdraw — as he supposedly had done in Iraq. I and the other visitors spent hours trying to mollify these worried Afghans, but without success. As one of them acknowledged, “We’ve developed July 2011 psychosis.”

I am not sure anything can shake their concerns about a premature American departure but at the very least it would be helpful for Obama himself to clarify where he stands. There is a widespread perception in Washington that he has done a sotto voce walk-back from the exit deadline but he needs to be more explicit to convey the message across 7,000 miles of geography and an even wider gap of understanding and perception.

Paradoxically, the more that Obama makes it clear that we will stay in Afghanistan long enough to win, the more he hastens our departure by increasing the pressure on the Taliban. And the more he equivocates, the harder he makes it for NATO forces to make the kind of progress needed to begin a responsible, conditions-based drawdown.

Joe Biden has long been seen as the administration’s leading advocate of a “small footprint” approach to Afghanistan. But on ABC’s This Week program on Sunday, he was at pains to downplay the July 2011 withdrawal deadline. There will be a “transition,” he said, but not necessarily a massive withdrawal of forces — “It could be as few as a couple thousand troops.”

That puts Biden effectively on the same page as Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, Mike Mullen, David Petraeus, and other senior administration and military figures who have been stressing that we aren’t headed for the exists come next summer. That’s an important and welcome clarification of the ambiguous policy laid out by President Obama at West Point last fall. But I doubt that the message has reached the region where the perception of American fickleness continues to encourage our foes and discourage our friends.

In Kabul recently, I had dinner with several Afghan politicians and bureaucrats. They were, to a man, horrified by the July 2011 deadline, which feeds into recurring Afghan fears of abandonment by the West — something that happened as recently as the 1990s. They were not mollified when I and other visiting scholars tried to explain that the appointment of General Petraeus suggested that Obama was in the war to win. They actually claimed that Petraeus had been sent to offer a “face-saving way” for the U.S. to withdraw — as he supposedly had done in Iraq. I and the other visitors spent hours trying to mollify these worried Afghans, but without success. As one of them acknowledged, “We’ve developed July 2011 psychosis.”

I am not sure anything can shake their concerns about a premature American departure but at the very least it would be helpful for Obama himself to clarify where he stands. There is a widespread perception in Washington that he has done a sotto voce walk-back from the exit deadline but he needs to be more explicit to convey the message across 7,000 miles of geography and an even wider gap of understanding and perception.

Paradoxically, the more that Obama makes it clear that we will stay in Afghanistan long enough to win, the more he hastens our departure by increasing the pressure on the Taliban. And the more he equivocates, the harder he makes it for NATO forces to make the kind of progress needed to begin a responsible, conditions-based drawdown.

Read Less

McChrystal Out, Petraeus In

Bill Kristol called it. General Petraeus is heading out to rescue yet another counterinsurgency effort in trouble. Give credit to President Obama for acting decisively by relieving General McChrystal and immediately picking the best possible replacement, not letting a dangerous vacuum develop.

If there is one general who can step quickly  into the top job in Afghanistan, it is Petraeus, who has been closely involved in formulating the campaign plan along with McChrystal. And if there is one general who knows how to handle the media and the political process (skills that McChrystal obviously lacked), it is Petraeus. That doesn’t mean that he is a “political general” — that dreaded epithet applied by combat soldiers to those who get ahead by playing office politics rather than by proving their worth on the battlefield. Petraeus has proven himself at every level of command, on the battlefield and off. His courage cannot be doubted. Neither can his skill. Already in Iraq, he has pulled off the greatest turnaround in American military history since Matthew Ridgway took over the 8th Army in 1950 during the dark days of the Korean War. Now he has to do it again in Afghanistan. Don’t bet against him.

As for General McChrystal, it is a tragedy that his sterling career has come to such an inglorious end. McChrystal is widely admired, especially in the Special Operations community, and for good reason. He turned the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq into a well-honed killing machine. He also did much to improve the situation in Afghanistan, injecting fresh energy into the war effort and designing a campaign plan that can succeed. He deserves enormous credit, too, for declaring in his first major report to the president last summer that the war effort would fail without a fresh injection of troops. That prompted Obama to send more troops, which now gives the NATO command a shot at success. Unfortunately the Rolling Stone incident showed that he was not quite ready to operate at the highest strategic level, where discretion and judgment are prized, and where Special-Forces swagger can be a liability.

But President Obama should not fool himself into thinking that, by replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, he has magically solved all of the problems with the war effort. There is still that little matter of the looming deadline — July 2011 — for troop withdrawals. Vice President Biden is pulling for a rapid pullout, and Defense Secretary Gates is taking a go-slow approach. McChrystal has been firmly aligned with Gates, while the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has publicly backed the “light footprint” approach advocated by Biden. That tension will not disappear because of the change of command; Petraeus is a firm believer in the need for a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, just as McChrystal was. So far, President Obama has been mum on what the deadline means and how many troops will actually come out. He should back his new commander with a firm pledge to make any withdrawal strictly contingent on conditions being met, and he should leave open the possibility of sending more troops if necessary.

Obama also needs to rethink the entire team in Kabul — not just the military component. In Iraq, Petraeus succeeded in part because he found such a capable and cooperative “wing man” — Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Perhaps Eikenberry will work better with Petraeus than he did with McChrystal; certainly Petraues is more diplomatic and better at tending to those kinds of relationships. But I hope that the president would give serious consideration to the other part of Bill Kristol’s suggestion to appoint Ryan Crocker as ambassador in Kabul. And if Crocker wouldn’t do it, because of his health and other reasons, no doubt there is another capable diplomat who could do the job. Whoever the top diplomatic representative is, he needs to cultivate a good relationship with Hamid Karzai — something that Eikenberry has notoriously lacked and that McChrystal, to his credit, did not.

The president has made a good start by putting our very best general into Kabul. But Petraeus will have a tough task ahead of him — and he will need complete support from the president to succeed. In particular, Obama needs to make sure that other members of his administration don’t undercut Petraeus as they once undercut McChrystal. More than that, Obama needs to show the same kind of will to win that President Bush displayed in Iraq when he ordered the surge. Instead, we have mostly had cool ambivalence from the Oval Office, and that has led to the tensions that boiled over in the Rolling Stone article with McChrystal’s aides expressing derogatory views of Biden and other administration higher-ups. It would be nice if Obama were to give speeches on Afghanistan more than once every six months. He can’t just hand off the war to David Petraeus and check that box; a successful war effort needs consistent presidential leadership in public as well as behind closed doors.

Bill Kristol called it. General Petraeus is heading out to rescue yet another counterinsurgency effort in trouble. Give credit to President Obama for acting decisively by relieving General McChrystal and immediately picking the best possible replacement, not letting a dangerous vacuum develop.

If there is one general who can step quickly  into the top job in Afghanistan, it is Petraeus, who has been closely involved in formulating the campaign plan along with McChrystal. And if there is one general who knows how to handle the media and the political process (skills that McChrystal obviously lacked), it is Petraeus. That doesn’t mean that he is a “political general” — that dreaded epithet applied by combat soldiers to those who get ahead by playing office politics rather than by proving their worth on the battlefield. Petraeus has proven himself at every level of command, on the battlefield and off. His courage cannot be doubted. Neither can his skill. Already in Iraq, he has pulled off the greatest turnaround in American military history since Matthew Ridgway took over the 8th Army in 1950 during the dark days of the Korean War. Now he has to do it again in Afghanistan. Don’t bet against him.

As for General McChrystal, it is a tragedy that his sterling career has come to such an inglorious end. McChrystal is widely admired, especially in the Special Operations community, and for good reason. He turned the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq into a well-honed killing machine. He also did much to improve the situation in Afghanistan, injecting fresh energy into the war effort and designing a campaign plan that can succeed. He deserves enormous credit, too, for declaring in his first major report to the president last summer that the war effort would fail without a fresh injection of troops. That prompted Obama to send more troops, which now gives the NATO command a shot at success. Unfortunately the Rolling Stone incident showed that he was not quite ready to operate at the highest strategic level, where discretion and judgment are prized, and where Special-Forces swagger can be a liability.

But President Obama should not fool himself into thinking that, by replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, he has magically solved all of the problems with the war effort. There is still that little matter of the looming deadline — July 2011 — for troop withdrawals. Vice President Biden is pulling for a rapid pullout, and Defense Secretary Gates is taking a go-slow approach. McChrystal has been firmly aligned with Gates, while the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has publicly backed the “light footprint” approach advocated by Biden. That tension will not disappear because of the change of command; Petraeus is a firm believer in the need for a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, just as McChrystal was. So far, President Obama has been mum on what the deadline means and how many troops will actually come out. He should back his new commander with a firm pledge to make any withdrawal strictly contingent on conditions being met, and he should leave open the possibility of sending more troops if necessary.

Obama also needs to rethink the entire team in Kabul — not just the military component. In Iraq, Petraeus succeeded in part because he found such a capable and cooperative “wing man” — Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Perhaps Eikenberry will work better with Petraeus than he did with McChrystal; certainly Petraues is more diplomatic and better at tending to those kinds of relationships. But I hope that the president would give serious consideration to the other part of Bill Kristol’s suggestion to appoint Ryan Crocker as ambassador in Kabul. And if Crocker wouldn’t do it, because of his health and other reasons, no doubt there is another capable diplomat who could do the job. Whoever the top diplomatic representative is, he needs to cultivate a good relationship with Hamid Karzai — something that Eikenberry has notoriously lacked and that McChrystal, to his credit, did not.

The president has made a good start by putting our very best general into Kabul. But Petraeus will have a tough task ahead of him — and he will need complete support from the president to succeed. In particular, Obama needs to make sure that other members of his administration don’t undercut Petraeus as they once undercut McChrystal. More than that, Obama needs to show the same kind of will to win that President Bush displayed in Iraq when he ordered the surge. Instead, we have mostly had cool ambivalence from the Oval Office, and that has led to the tensions that boiled over in the Rolling Stone article with McChrystal’s aides expressing derogatory views of Biden and other administration higher-ups. It would be nice if Obama were to give speeches on Afghanistan more than once every six months. He can’t just hand off the war to David Petraeus and check that box; a successful war effort needs consistent presidential leadership in public as well as behind closed doors.

Read Less

All the News That Is Fit to Ignore

The New York Times editors, opining on the McChrystal interview, pronounce, “The Rolling Stone article doesn’t suggest any serious policy disagreements between the president and General McChrystal.” That’s a wee bit deceptive, perhaps part of an endless string of efforts to deflect blame from the president.

While not technically a “policy disagreement,” the interview — and the reason why McChrystal may be canned — centers on the allegation that the entire civilian operation is impeding the war effort. Technically, this is a personnel problem, not a policy disagreement, but it goes to the heart of Obama’s management of the war.

Moreover, while the interview sidesteps it (“We’re talking the antiwar hippie magazine,” as Maureen Dowd puts it.), there are certainly major policy disagreements between Obama and the military. Bill Kristol and Tom Donnelly explain:

The imposition of a troop-withdrawal deadline, in particular, has poisoned our Afghanistan strategy. McChrystal has, understandably, behaved like a man under pressure to produce quick results to get good marks in the administration’s December Afghanistan strategy review.  Even the timetable for the review is premature and therefore transparently artificial: the last “surge” brigade won’t be deployed until November.

The shortage of time is also compounded by the shortage of forces.  McChrystal’s cardinal achievement to date has been the re-wiring of the dysfunctional ISAF structure, but it’s also required him to deploy forces in places such as Kunduz, north of Kabul but still a Pashtun area where the Taliban have been more active, because the German forces there are insufficient.

The Gray Lady’s editors seem to prefer to shelter Obama rather than to focus on the real import of the Rolling Stone interview, namely that the commander in chief is failing to do what is necessary to win the war. Instead, the editors blame McChrystal for what ails the Afghanistan operation:

Instead of answering questions about his media strategy, General McChrystal should be explaining what went wrong with his first major offensive in Marja and how he plans to do better in Kandahar. Instead of General McChrystal having to apologize to Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Eikenberry, they all should be working a lot harder to come up with a plan for managing relations with Afghanistan’s deeply flawed president, Hamid Karzai.

Frankly, McChrystal is one of the few with an effective relationship with Karzai (even Rolling Stone got that point), and the offensive is failing because our troops have too few people and too little time. But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a Times‘s op-ed.

The New York Times editors, opining on the McChrystal interview, pronounce, “The Rolling Stone article doesn’t suggest any serious policy disagreements between the president and General McChrystal.” That’s a wee bit deceptive, perhaps part of an endless string of efforts to deflect blame from the president.

While not technically a “policy disagreement,” the interview — and the reason why McChrystal may be canned — centers on the allegation that the entire civilian operation is impeding the war effort. Technically, this is a personnel problem, not a policy disagreement, but it goes to the heart of Obama’s management of the war.

Moreover, while the interview sidesteps it (“We’re talking the antiwar hippie magazine,” as Maureen Dowd puts it.), there are certainly major policy disagreements between Obama and the military. Bill Kristol and Tom Donnelly explain:

The imposition of a troop-withdrawal deadline, in particular, has poisoned our Afghanistan strategy. McChrystal has, understandably, behaved like a man under pressure to produce quick results to get good marks in the administration’s December Afghanistan strategy review.  Even the timetable for the review is premature and therefore transparently artificial: the last “surge” brigade won’t be deployed until November.

The shortage of time is also compounded by the shortage of forces.  McChrystal’s cardinal achievement to date has been the re-wiring of the dysfunctional ISAF structure, but it’s also required him to deploy forces in places such as Kunduz, north of Kabul but still a Pashtun area where the Taliban have been more active, because the German forces there are insufficient.

The Gray Lady’s editors seem to prefer to shelter Obama rather than to focus on the real import of the Rolling Stone interview, namely that the commander in chief is failing to do what is necessary to win the war. Instead, the editors blame McChrystal for what ails the Afghanistan operation:

Instead of answering questions about his media strategy, General McChrystal should be explaining what went wrong with his first major offensive in Marja and how he plans to do better in Kandahar. Instead of General McChrystal having to apologize to Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Eikenberry, they all should be working a lot harder to come up with a plan for managing relations with Afghanistan’s deeply flawed president, Hamid Karzai.

Frankly, McChrystal is one of the few with an effective relationship with Karzai (even Rolling Stone got that point), and the offensive is failing because our troops have too few people and too little time. But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a Times‘s op-ed.

Read Less

Should the General Be Called on the Carpet?

America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.

But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.

One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.

The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.

As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.

But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.

America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.

But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.

One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.

The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.

As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.

But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.

Read Less

The New British Government Is “Wobbly” on Afghanistan

I had low expectations for the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government in the UK, but the coalition is turning out to be even worse than I expected on foreign policy. Witness the comments from new Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defense Minister Liam Fox, according to which Britain is eager to withdraw its 10,000 troops from Afghanistan, where they form the second-largest foreign contingent:

In an interview with The Times newspaper before arriving in Kabul, Fox made clear the visit would focus on speeding up the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and that no new troops would be deployed.

“We need to accept we are at the limit of numbers now and I would like the forces to come back as soon as possible,” he was quoted as saying.

“We have to reset expectations and timelines.

“National security is the focus now. We are not a global policeman. We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened,” Fox said.

What a terrible message to send at precisely the wrong time, when American forces under the command of a British general in Regional Command-South are gearing up for a major offensive to retake control of Kandahar! President Obama has already blundered badly by suggesting that U.S. troops would start coming home next summer. The message from the incoming British government only reinforces the sense, which many Taliban no doubt already have, that insurgents can simply wait out coalition forces. This development places another obstacle in the way of ordinary Afghans who might be considering siding with the coalition. Why would they want to risk life and limb if their protectors are searching for an exit strategy?

In an ideal world, a Conservative government in London would press the American president not to go “wobbly” — as Margaret Thatcher famously did with George H.W. Bush after Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq. In this case, it seems that the Conservatives are bent on reinforcing Obama’s worst wobbly instincts. That’s not the kind of trans-Atlantic cooperation I would like to see.

I had low expectations for the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government in the UK, but the coalition is turning out to be even worse than I expected on foreign policy. Witness the comments from new Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defense Minister Liam Fox, according to which Britain is eager to withdraw its 10,000 troops from Afghanistan, where they form the second-largest foreign contingent:

In an interview with The Times newspaper before arriving in Kabul, Fox made clear the visit would focus on speeding up the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and that no new troops would be deployed.

“We need to accept we are at the limit of numbers now and I would like the forces to come back as soon as possible,” he was quoted as saying.

“We have to reset expectations and timelines.

“National security is the focus now. We are not a global policeman. We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened,” Fox said.

What a terrible message to send at precisely the wrong time, when American forces under the command of a British general in Regional Command-South are gearing up for a major offensive to retake control of Kandahar! President Obama has already blundered badly by suggesting that U.S. troops would start coming home next summer. The message from the incoming British government only reinforces the sense, which many Taliban no doubt already have, that insurgents can simply wait out coalition forces. This development places another obstacle in the way of ordinary Afghans who might be considering siding with the coalition. Why would they want to risk life and limb if their protectors are searching for an exit strategy?

In an ideal world, a Conservative government in London would press the American president not to go “wobbly” — as Margaret Thatcher famously did with George H.W. Bush after Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq. In this case, it seems that the Conservatives are bent on reinforcing Obama’s worst wobbly instincts. That’s not the kind of trans-Atlantic cooperation I would like to see.

Read Less

We’re Not to Blame for Pakistani Terrorists

No doubt we will soon be hearing, if we aren’t already, that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are responsible for the aborted Times Square bombing, which is linked to the Pakistani Taliban. If only we weren’t targeting the terrorists, some will argue, they wouldn’t target us.

This Los Angeles Times article provides good insight into how the operations have been ramped up under the Obama administration, which has given the CIA authority to eliminate suspected terrorists even if their names were not entered into a vetted list:

The new rules have transformed the program from a narrow effort aimed at killing top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders into a large-scale campaign of airstrikes in which few militants are off-limits, as long as they are deemed to pose a threat to the U.S., the officials said.

Instead of just a few dozen attacks per year, CIA-operated unmanned aircraft now carry out multiple missile strikes each week against safe houses, training camps and other hiding places used by militants in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. … Of more than 500 people who U.S. officials say have been killed since the pace of strikes intensified, the vast majority have been individuals whose names were unknown, or about whom the agency had only fragmentary information. ‬

Has this enraged the Pakistani Taliban? No doubt. But it has also hurt them — as similar attacks have hurt other extremist groups. It is fanciful to imagine that we could ever do anything to appease such fanatical groups. The very fact that we support moderate governments in Islamabad and Kabul is enough to earn us their undying enmity. Curtailing the drone strikes won’t earn their gratitude; it would simply signal to them that we can be intimidated. The best response to the Times Square attempted attack is to keep sending our robotic aircraft after the bad guys. This is by far the most effective program we have to address the terrorist threat inside Pakistan.

No doubt we will soon be hearing, if we aren’t already, that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are responsible for the aborted Times Square bombing, which is linked to the Pakistani Taliban. If only we weren’t targeting the terrorists, some will argue, they wouldn’t target us.

This Los Angeles Times article provides good insight into how the operations have been ramped up under the Obama administration, which has given the CIA authority to eliminate suspected terrorists even if their names were not entered into a vetted list:

The new rules have transformed the program from a narrow effort aimed at killing top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders into a large-scale campaign of airstrikes in which few militants are off-limits, as long as they are deemed to pose a threat to the U.S., the officials said.

Instead of just a few dozen attacks per year, CIA-operated unmanned aircraft now carry out multiple missile strikes each week against safe houses, training camps and other hiding places used by militants in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. … Of more than 500 people who U.S. officials say have been killed since the pace of strikes intensified, the vast majority have been individuals whose names were unknown, or about whom the agency had only fragmentary information. ‬

Has this enraged the Pakistani Taliban? No doubt. But it has also hurt them — as similar attacks have hurt other extremist groups. It is fanciful to imagine that we could ever do anything to appease such fanatical groups. The very fact that we support moderate governments in Islamabad and Kabul is enough to earn us their undying enmity. Curtailing the drone strikes won’t earn their gratitude; it would simply signal to them that we can be intimidated. The best response to the Times Square attempted attack is to keep sending our robotic aircraft after the bad guys. This is by far the most effective program we have to address the terrorist threat inside Pakistan.

Read Less

Sadly True

The outstanding Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has written an important piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Among other points, he makes this one:

All this plays out under the gaze of an Islamic world that is coming to a consensus that a discernible American retreat in the region is in the works. America’s enemies are increasingly brazen, its friends unnerved. … The shadow of American power is receding; the rogues are emboldened. The world has a way of calling the bluff of leaders and nations summoned to difficult endeavors. Would that our biggest source of worry in that arc of trouble was the intemperate outburst of our ally in Kabul.

These are typically elegant words by Ajami. And they are, unfortunately, apposite.

The outstanding Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has written an important piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Among other points, he makes this one:

All this plays out under the gaze of an Islamic world that is coming to a consensus that a discernible American retreat in the region is in the works. America’s enemies are increasingly brazen, its friends unnerved. … The shadow of American power is receding; the rogues are emboldened. The world has a way of calling the bluff of leaders and nations summoned to difficult endeavors. Would that our biggest source of worry in that arc of trouble was the intemperate outburst of our ally in Kabul.

These are typically elegant words by Ajami. And they are, unfortunately, apposite.

Read Less

Obama’s Karzai Miscalculation

With the relationship between the American and Afghan presidents in tatters, it’s worth noting just how far back Barack Obama’s mishandling of Hamid Karzai goes. This revealing Washington Post article from May 6, 2009 relates a story about a meeting between the two men in July of 2008, when Obama was still a presidential candidate.

Karzai was fairly obsequious and Obama was mistrustful. The former talked up progress in Afghanistan and offered, “I’m at your disposal, Senator Obama.” Yet, “Obama voiced concern that the situation was worse than Karzai had acknowledged, [Sen. Chuck] Hagel recalled. He ‘was not taken in,’ Hagel said, ‘by all of the happy talk.’”

Which is to Obama’s credit. But surely there was a productive way to exploit the Afghan president’s declaration of obedience. Karzai might well have been embellishing, but if Obama was truly interested in a fresh start in Afghanistan he could scarcely have hoped for a better opening. Instead, once he was elected, he threw Karzai’s offer back in his face:

Ten days before Obama’s inauguration, Karzai told Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a private meeting in Kabul that he looked forward to building with Obama the same sort of chummy relationship he had with Bush, which included frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

“Well, it’s going to be different,” Biden replied, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. “You’ll probably talk to him or see him a couple of times a year. You’re not going to be talking to him every week.”

It’s hard to make a sensible person feel bad for Hamid Karzai, but the above exchange just about does the trick. There is no question that Obama was working what he thought of as an effective angle to bring accountability to a deeply problematic government. But there is also no question that this approach was informed by a reactive dismissal of everything George W. Bush did during his time in office. According to the Post, “Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader’s flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability.”

But accountability cannot simply be demanded. It must be cleverly finagled. And so, things devolved steadily, while Karzai struggled to save face in his own country. Obama rarely dealt with him and the White House rejected his request for a bilateral meeting in Washington.  The Afghan president acknowledged the tension in the relationship but claimed, “the fundamentals are strong and steady.” At the same time, administration figures, most notably, special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke was pushing for Afghans to challenge Karzai in the then-upcoming elections.

Of course, since the Post story, things have gone from bad to worse. Last December, when Obama announced that some 30,000 additional U.S. forces would be heading to Afghanistan, he diluted his message of support with a vow to pull out in 18 months. This itself constituted a new and potent disaster, quite apart from all the snubbing. For the only thing that keeps leaders on America’s side in that part of the world is the assurance that we are all in and there for the duration. Sunni sheiks in Iraq would not have dreamed of joining up with Americans against al Qaeda unless they knew we weren’t leaving prematurely. That reasoning now risks an Afghan-style inversion. Karzai wouldn’t make noise about joining the Taliban unless he had doubts about America’s willingness to outlast them.

On top of Obama’s mixed message, the administration leaked that Karzai’s brother was a drug dealer and then publicly—and impotently—berated Karzai about the non-transparent elections that returned him to power.

The point here is not that Karzai is a paragon of trustworthiness and good governance. He is a very flawed and, in some ways, compromised figure. The issue is how best to keep him from actively obstructing our mission and how to lay the foundation for a genuine tilt toward a stable and accountable representative government in Afghanistan. That’s achieved first by backing up a rock-solid commitment to defeat the Taliban and staying on for institution building. At the same time, Karzai should be intelligently coerced in private, not undermined in public.

For a president who has invested so much in style over substance, and dwelled so incessantly on the virtues of listening over dictating, Obama has achieved a strikingly ill conceived tone on Karzai. What’s more his penchant for the perfect compromise has not served him well on Afghanistan. We cannot at once be committed to fighting and winding down the same war. Nor can we treat a partner as both an ally and an antagonist. For all Obama’s talk of Bush’s failures in Afghanistan, the president could learn a few things from his predecessor.

With the relationship between the American and Afghan presidents in tatters, it’s worth noting just how far back Barack Obama’s mishandling of Hamid Karzai goes. This revealing Washington Post article from May 6, 2009 relates a story about a meeting between the two men in July of 2008, when Obama was still a presidential candidate.

Karzai was fairly obsequious and Obama was mistrustful. The former talked up progress in Afghanistan and offered, “I’m at your disposal, Senator Obama.” Yet, “Obama voiced concern that the situation was worse than Karzai had acknowledged, [Sen. Chuck] Hagel recalled. He ‘was not taken in,’ Hagel said, ‘by all of the happy talk.’”

Which is to Obama’s credit. But surely there was a productive way to exploit the Afghan president’s declaration of obedience. Karzai might well have been embellishing, but if Obama was truly interested in a fresh start in Afghanistan he could scarcely have hoped for a better opening. Instead, once he was elected, he threw Karzai’s offer back in his face:

Ten days before Obama’s inauguration, Karzai told Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a private meeting in Kabul that he looked forward to building with Obama the same sort of chummy relationship he had with Bush, which included frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

“Well, it’s going to be different,” Biden replied, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. “You’ll probably talk to him or see him a couple of times a year. You’re not going to be talking to him every week.”

It’s hard to make a sensible person feel bad for Hamid Karzai, but the above exchange just about does the trick. There is no question that Obama was working what he thought of as an effective angle to bring accountability to a deeply problematic government. But there is also no question that this approach was informed by a reactive dismissal of everything George W. Bush did during his time in office. According to the Post, “Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader’s flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability.”

But accountability cannot simply be demanded. It must be cleverly finagled. And so, things devolved steadily, while Karzai struggled to save face in his own country. Obama rarely dealt with him and the White House rejected his request for a bilateral meeting in Washington.  The Afghan president acknowledged the tension in the relationship but claimed, “the fundamentals are strong and steady.” At the same time, administration figures, most notably, special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke was pushing for Afghans to challenge Karzai in the then-upcoming elections.

Of course, since the Post story, things have gone from bad to worse. Last December, when Obama announced that some 30,000 additional U.S. forces would be heading to Afghanistan, he diluted his message of support with a vow to pull out in 18 months. This itself constituted a new and potent disaster, quite apart from all the snubbing. For the only thing that keeps leaders on America’s side in that part of the world is the assurance that we are all in and there for the duration. Sunni sheiks in Iraq would not have dreamed of joining up with Americans against al Qaeda unless they knew we weren’t leaving prematurely. That reasoning now risks an Afghan-style inversion. Karzai wouldn’t make noise about joining the Taliban unless he had doubts about America’s willingness to outlast them.

On top of Obama’s mixed message, the administration leaked that Karzai’s brother was a drug dealer and then publicly—and impotently—berated Karzai about the non-transparent elections that returned him to power.

The point here is not that Karzai is a paragon of trustworthiness and good governance. He is a very flawed and, in some ways, compromised figure. The issue is how best to keep him from actively obstructing our mission and how to lay the foundation for a genuine tilt toward a stable and accountable representative government in Afghanistan. That’s achieved first by backing up a rock-solid commitment to defeat the Taliban and staying on for institution building. At the same time, Karzai should be intelligently coerced in private, not undermined in public.

For a president who has invested so much in style over substance, and dwelled so incessantly on the virtues of listening over dictating, Obama has achieved a strikingly ill conceived tone on Karzai. What’s more his penchant for the perfect compromise has not served him well on Afghanistan. We cannot at once be committed to fighting and winding down the same war. Nor can we treat a partner as both an ally and an antagonist. For all Obama’s talk of Bush’s failures in Afghanistan, the president could learn a few things from his predecessor.

Read Less

Soothing Karzai

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.

The worst thing the administration can do in response is to hit back in an unseemly public tit-for-tit. Better to work quietly behind the scenes with Karzai, trying, as General McChrystal is, to bolster his standing as a legitimate and popular war leader while also working to improve governance at the cabinet, provincial, and district levels. To some extent, Karzai is an obstacle to lower-level progress, especially when he keeps in power his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose notorious dealings in Kandahar are a major drawing card for the Taliban. But as Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan note, Karzai is not all bad:

Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.

The worst thing the administration can do in response is to hit back in an unseemly public tit-for-tit. Better to work quietly behind the scenes with Karzai, trying, as General McChrystal is, to bolster his standing as a legitimate and popular war leader while also working to improve governance at the cabinet, provincial, and district levels. To some extent, Karzai is an obstacle to lower-level progress, especially when he keeps in power his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose notorious dealings in Kandahar are a major drawing card for the Taliban. But as Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan note, Karzai is not all bad:

Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.

Read Less

Progress in Marjah

The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:

On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:

Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they’re just out of recruit training.  So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.

The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.

None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.

The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:

On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:

Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they’re just out of recruit training.  So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.

The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.

None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.

Read Less

A Military in Progress in Afghanistan

C.J. “Chris” Chivers, a former Marine officer turned New York Times correspondent, provides an update on how the Afghan National Army is doing in the Marjah offensive. It’s a mixed picture — pretty much what one would have expected. The Afghans are hardly leading and planning the mission, as suggested by some spinners in Kabul. Chivers writes:

In every engagement between the Taliban and one front-line American Marine unit, the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops. They organized the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.

No surprise there, given how advanced the Marine Corps is and how relatively primitive the ANA remains. But the good news is that the ANA soldiers are not running away, either — as so many Iraqi soldiers did in the early years of the Iraq War. Chivers notes:

At the squad level [the ANA] has been a source of effective, if modestly skilled, manpower. Its soldiers have shown courage and a willingness to fight. Afghan soldiers have also proved, as they have for years, to be more proficient than Americans at searching Afghan homes and identifying potential Taliban members — two tasks difficult for outsiders to perform….

“They are a lot better than the Iraqis,” said the sergeant [Joseph G. Harms], who served a combat tour in Iraq. “They understand all of our formations, they understand how to move. They know how to flank and they can recognize the bad guys a lot better than we can.”

The main problem for the ANA is a lack of effective leadership. Chivers recounts an anecdote of an ANA captain taking away a Red Bull that one of his men had acquired in a trade with a marine; the captain and his officers and NCOs drank the entire beverage and didn’t let the poor soldier have a sip. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening in the Marine Corps, where officers are drilled to always take care of the men first and foremost. That ethic is alien to the ANA, as it is to most Third World militaries, and it will take time to inculcate it, however imperfectly.

It will take just as long to teach ANA officers to conduct complex operations. The task is actually more difficult than in Iraq because of the lower level of literacy and education in Afghanistan, but it’s not impossible. If the Taliban can field effective leadership, so can the ANA. Just don’t expect results overnight — and don’t write off the ANA as hopeless because they can’t perform up to USMC standards.

C.J. “Chris” Chivers, a former Marine officer turned New York Times correspondent, provides an update on how the Afghan National Army is doing in the Marjah offensive. It’s a mixed picture — pretty much what one would have expected. The Afghans are hardly leading and planning the mission, as suggested by some spinners in Kabul. Chivers writes:

In every engagement between the Taliban and one front-line American Marine unit, the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops. They organized the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.

No surprise there, given how advanced the Marine Corps is and how relatively primitive the ANA remains. But the good news is that the ANA soldiers are not running away, either — as so many Iraqi soldiers did in the early years of the Iraq War. Chivers notes:

At the squad level [the ANA] has been a source of effective, if modestly skilled, manpower. Its soldiers have shown courage and a willingness to fight. Afghan soldiers have also proved, as they have for years, to be more proficient than Americans at searching Afghan homes and identifying potential Taliban members — two tasks difficult for outsiders to perform….

“They are a lot better than the Iraqis,” said the sergeant [Joseph G. Harms], who served a combat tour in Iraq. “They understand all of our formations, they understand how to move. They know how to flank and they can recognize the bad guys a lot better than we can.”

The main problem for the ANA is a lack of effective leadership. Chivers recounts an anecdote of an ANA captain taking away a Red Bull that one of his men had acquired in a trade with a marine; the captain and his officers and NCOs drank the entire beverage and didn’t let the poor soldier have a sip. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening in the Marine Corps, where officers are drilled to always take care of the men first and foremost. That ethic is alien to the ANA, as it is to most Third World militaries, and it will take time to inculcate it, however imperfectly.

It will take just as long to teach ANA officers to conduct complex operations. The task is actually more difficult than in Iraq because of the lower level of literacy and education in Afghanistan, but it’s not impossible. If the Taliban can field effective leadership, so can the ANA. Just don’t expect results overnight — and don’t write off the ANA as hopeless because they can’t perform up to USMC standards.

Read Less

The Obami’s Engagement Dead End

Hillary Clinton is now decrying the emergence in Iran of a military dictatorship. She declares:

“We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship. … I think the trend with this greater and greater military lock on leadership decisions should be disturbing to Iranians, as well as to those of us on the outside,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters as she flew from Qatar to Saudi Arabia.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, Clinton appears to root for the mullahs. Why in the world are we seemingly bemoaning the plight of the Supreme Leader? Could we perhaps take the side of real regime change and root for the democracy protestors? Too much to expect, I think. Even the New York Times notices the cul-de-sac in which this sort of argument puts Clinton: “But in prodding the clerics and politicians to take action, Mrs. Clinton found herself in the awkward position of celebrating the early days of the Islamic Revolution. Iran today, she said, is ‘a far cry from the Islamic republic that had elections and different points of view within the leadership circle.’” So the current regime isn’t as swell as the old regime, but we’re rooting for ‘em anyway. And this is what passes for smart diplomacy.

But there is another problem here. If the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is infesting and manipulating the regime, and if its reach extends to the political apparatus, how are itty-bitty, narrowly focused sanctions going to work? Amir Taheri observes that the IRGC essentially turned “Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry” in response to the Feb. 11 protests. He observes of the IRGC:

Their leaders are more strident than many of the regime’s leaders, vetoing countless attempts by mullahs and politicians to reach a compromise with the portion of the opposition still calling for reform rather than regime change. Revolutionary Guard generals frequently appear on television to call for mass arrests and show trials. A weak and indecisive caliph, Mr. Khamenei has so far refused to endorse the kind of “final solution” the generals demand.

Abroad, the Revolutionary Guard pursues an aggressive policy aimed at “filling the vacuum” the generals hope will be created when the U.S. disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan by funding terrorist groups and their political front organizations. The IRGC has reportedly created a special desk to monitor the coming parliamentary elections in Baghdad and Kabul with the aim of helping pro-Tehran elements win power.

Hmm. But the Obami are going to come up with very narrowly framed sanctions, they keep telling us. This is to avoid impacting the rest of the government and to keep the Iranian population at large – the same population that has already pretty much figured out who the bad guys are – from becoming upset with the U.S. (although they are actually already upset with the U.S. for granting legitimacy to the regime).

You wonder how the Obami, such smart and educated folks, got so tied up in knots. Well, it seems like they had not a clue about whom they were dealing when they headed down the regime road. The New York Times tells us:

Ray Takeyh, a former Iran adviser to the Obama administration, said administration officials were learning from experience.

“There was a thesis a year ago that the differences between the United States and Iran was subject to diplomatic mediation, that they could find areas of common experience, that we were ready to have a dialogue with each other,” Mr. Takeyh said, but “those anticipations discounted the extent how the Iranian theocracy views engagement with the United States as a threat to its ideological identity.”

Even the Gray Lady can figure it out: “And if Mrs. Clinton is correct that the Revolutionary Guards, not the politicians or the clerics, are becoming the central power in Iran, the prospects for rapprochement can only look worse. Not that Iran’s political and religious leaders, so far, have demonstrated much interest in Mr. Obama’s outreach.”

There is only one reasonable and viable path out of this: regime change. Not mullah boosterism. Not pin-prick sanctions to get the mullahs back to dickering with us in Vienna. There are Iranians dying in the street to displace the regime — mullahs, IRGC, the whole gaggle of thugs — and that is the horse we should be betting on.

Hillary Clinton is now decrying the emergence in Iran of a military dictatorship. She declares:

“We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship. … I think the trend with this greater and greater military lock on leadership decisions should be disturbing to Iranians, as well as to those of us on the outside,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters as she flew from Qatar to Saudi Arabia.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, Clinton appears to root for the mullahs. Why in the world are we seemingly bemoaning the plight of the Supreme Leader? Could we perhaps take the side of real regime change and root for the democracy protestors? Too much to expect, I think. Even the New York Times notices the cul-de-sac in which this sort of argument puts Clinton: “But in prodding the clerics and politicians to take action, Mrs. Clinton found herself in the awkward position of celebrating the early days of the Islamic Revolution. Iran today, she said, is ‘a far cry from the Islamic republic that had elections and different points of view within the leadership circle.’” So the current regime isn’t as swell as the old regime, but we’re rooting for ‘em anyway. And this is what passes for smart diplomacy.

But there is another problem here. If the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is infesting and manipulating the regime, and if its reach extends to the political apparatus, how are itty-bitty, narrowly focused sanctions going to work? Amir Taheri observes that the IRGC essentially turned “Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry” in response to the Feb. 11 protests. He observes of the IRGC:

Their leaders are more strident than many of the regime’s leaders, vetoing countless attempts by mullahs and politicians to reach a compromise with the portion of the opposition still calling for reform rather than regime change. Revolutionary Guard generals frequently appear on television to call for mass arrests and show trials. A weak and indecisive caliph, Mr. Khamenei has so far refused to endorse the kind of “final solution” the generals demand.

Abroad, the Revolutionary Guard pursues an aggressive policy aimed at “filling the vacuum” the generals hope will be created when the U.S. disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan by funding terrorist groups and their political front organizations. The IRGC has reportedly created a special desk to monitor the coming parliamentary elections in Baghdad and Kabul with the aim of helping pro-Tehran elements win power.

Hmm. But the Obami are going to come up with very narrowly framed sanctions, they keep telling us. This is to avoid impacting the rest of the government and to keep the Iranian population at large – the same population that has already pretty much figured out who the bad guys are – from becoming upset with the U.S. (although they are actually already upset with the U.S. for granting legitimacy to the regime).

You wonder how the Obami, such smart and educated folks, got so tied up in knots. Well, it seems like they had not a clue about whom they were dealing when they headed down the regime road. The New York Times tells us:

Ray Takeyh, a former Iran adviser to the Obama administration, said administration officials were learning from experience.

“There was a thesis a year ago that the differences between the United States and Iran was subject to diplomatic mediation, that they could find areas of common experience, that we were ready to have a dialogue with each other,” Mr. Takeyh said, but “those anticipations discounted the extent how the Iranian theocracy views engagement with the United States as a threat to its ideological identity.”

Even the Gray Lady can figure it out: “And if Mrs. Clinton is correct that the Revolutionary Guards, not the politicians or the clerics, are becoming the central power in Iran, the prospects for rapprochement can only look worse. Not that Iran’s political and religious leaders, so far, have demonstrated much interest in Mr. Obama’s outreach.”

There is only one reasonable and viable path out of this: regime change. Not mullah boosterism. Not pin-prick sanctions to get the mullahs back to dickering with us in Vienna. There are Iranians dying in the street to displace the regime — mullahs, IRGC, the whole gaggle of thugs — and that is the horse we should be betting on.

Read Less

Afghanistan Strategy: Getting on the Same Page

One of the key relationships that made the surge work in Iraq in 2007 was the close partnership between General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The two men put aside some personal and institutional prerogatives to work harmoniously together to implement a policy they both wholeheartedly believed in. A New York Times article  today suggests how far we are from this optimum situation in Afghanistan.

The Times runs the text of two cables by Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star general who is now the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, objecting to the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by General Stanley McChrystal, the four-star U.S. general and NATO commander. The existences of the memos had previously been reported in the fall, but their text indicates just how far apart the two men are — or at least were. Eikenberry indicates no confidence that a troop increase will make things better. Instead, he fears, it will only “increase Afghan dependency” — the same argument that was made by senior military and civilian commanders against increasing force levels in Iraq prior to 2007.

He is also damning about the leadership capacity of Hamid Karzai in ways that raise questions about whether he can work fruitfully with the Afghan president. He writes: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. … Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. … It strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally this late in his life.”

Eikenberry makes some good points about the lack of funding for civilian efforts and the “inadequate civilian structure” to partner with military efforts. But then he bizarrely makes the claim that “a relatively small additional investment in programs for development and governance would yield results that, if not as visible as those from sending more troops, would move us closer to achieving our goals at far lesser cost and risk.” Yet nowhere does he explain how more development aid could accomplish so much given the lack of capacity on the part of the Afghan government and civilian aid agencies that he bemoans elsewhere in the memo. Nor does he explain how aid dollars could be spent productively in a climate of pervasive insecurity. No doubt that’s why President Obama essentially endorsed McChrystal’s recommendations over Eikenberry’s.

Leave aside the merit — or lack thereof — of Ambassador Eikenberry’s cables. The real issue is whether he functions effectively with McChrystal while holding views so much at odds with the general’s. I know that Eikenberry told Congress in December, while testifying on the Obama plan for Afghanistan: “I can say without equivocation that I fully support this approach.” But he has never said what elements of his previous analysis he believes are no longer valid. Therefore, his support for the policy looks more pro forma than genuine.

This is a very troubling situation that calls out for top-level resolution to make sure that somehow America’s senior civilian and military representatives in Kabul get on the same page — otherwise success will be harder to achieve than it needs to be.

One of the key relationships that made the surge work in Iraq in 2007 was the close partnership between General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The two men put aside some personal and institutional prerogatives to work harmoniously together to implement a policy they both wholeheartedly believed in. A New York Times article  today suggests how far we are from this optimum situation in Afghanistan.

The Times runs the text of two cables by Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star general who is now the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, objecting to the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by General Stanley McChrystal, the four-star U.S. general and NATO commander. The existences of the memos had previously been reported in the fall, but their text indicates just how far apart the two men are — or at least were. Eikenberry indicates no confidence that a troop increase will make things better. Instead, he fears, it will only “increase Afghan dependency” — the same argument that was made by senior military and civilian commanders against increasing force levels in Iraq prior to 2007.

He is also damning about the leadership capacity of Hamid Karzai in ways that raise questions about whether he can work fruitfully with the Afghan president. He writes: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. … Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. … It strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally this late in his life.”

Eikenberry makes some good points about the lack of funding for civilian efforts and the “inadequate civilian structure” to partner with military efforts. But then he bizarrely makes the claim that “a relatively small additional investment in programs for development and governance would yield results that, if not as visible as those from sending more troops, would move us closer to achieving our goals at far lesser cost and risk.” Yet nowhere does he explain how more development aid could accomplish so much given the lack of capacity on the part of the Afghan government and civilian aid agencies that he bemoans elsewhere in the memo. Nor does he explain how aid dollars could be spent productively in a climate of pervasive insecurity. No doubt that’s why President Obama essentially endorsed McChrystal’s recommendations over Eikenberry’s.

Leave aside the merit — or lack thereof — of Ambassador Eikenberry’s cables. The real issue is whether he functions effectively with McChrystal while holding views so much at odds with the general’s. I know that Eikenberry told Congress in December, while testifying on the Obama plan for Afghanistan: “I can say without equivocation that I fully support this approach.” But he has never said what elements of his previous analysis he believes are no longer valid. Therefore, his support for the policy looks more pro forma than genuine.

This is a very troubling situation that calls out for top-level resolution to make sure that somehow America’s senior civilian and military representatives in Kabul get on the same page — otherwise success will be harder to achieve than it needs to be.

Read Less

Fresh Buzz: Reintegration

A new political theme is slipping the surly bonds of caution this week, as negotiators prepare to converge on London for the upcoming conference on Afghanistan. Suddenly the word “reintegration” is on every tongue, and conferees affirm portentously that the solution in Afghanistan “must be political.” Lest the meaning of that be missed, Sweden’s venerable Carl Bildt offers this clarification: “There is no military solution.”

This is a straw man, of course; no one says there is a “military solution” for unifying and pacifying Afghanistan. But Defense Secretary Bob Gates and General Stanley McChrystal have been clear in the last week that military operations must be one of the tools used to achieve the long-term solution. The candidates for reintegration into Afghanistan’s polity are the Taliban, and among them are factions that have shown no sign at any time of being amenable to consensual negotiation or compromise. They attack civilians and military forces alike in their campaign to destabilize the central government in Kabul.

The Taliban’s record in the past month forms a striking contrast with the pace of reintegration being proposed in political circles. After killing nearly 100 people at a volleyball match in Pakistan and assassinating CIA agents at a base in Afghanistan, the Taliban killed 20 in a market bombing in central Afghanistan and killed seven and wounded 71 in coordinated attacks in downtown Kabul. These tallies don’t reflect smaller incidents in the AfPak theater during the same period, but they are in line with the UN’s report that 2009 was the Taliban’s bloodiest year since the regime change in 2001. Hamid Karzai’s reintegration policy for the Taliban has naturally been endorsed by President Obama and our NATO allies, but there is no evidence as yet — not even a photo op — of any material reciprocation from the insurgents.

European leaders nevertheless show signs of favoring reintegration measures like the ones outlined by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. In light of the Taliban’s unrelieved recalcitrance, adopting this list unilaterally would clearly be getting ahead of ourselves. It’s too early to talk about removing Taliban members from terror lists, or limiting Karzai’s latitude with a UN mandate for him to sit down with the insurgents. Gates and McChrystal have spoken consistently of using a multi-pronged approach, including military operations, to create the conditions for productive diplomacy — and those conditions don’t exist yet. Comments from both men have made it clear that their position has not changed, even though the media is portraying their endorsement of eventual negotiations somewhat misleadingly, as if they might be ready to dispense with the inconvenient labor of shaping conditions beforehand.

We haven’t heard much from Obama on this. We can hope that he concurs with his defense leadership, although there have been troubling indications of divergence in the definitions being used by the White House and the Pentagon. The Taliban are not even pretending to be potential negotiators; they’re giving the international coalition no excuse for deceiving itself about their intentions or openness to compromise. Obama should exercise the coalition leadership necessary to keep the effort in Afghanistan on track, and not let it lose its way in imprudent shortcuts.

A new political theme is slipping the surly bonds of caution this week, as negotiators prepare to converge on London for the upcoming conference on Afghanistan. Suddenly the word “reintegration” is on every tongue, and conferees affirm portentously that the solution in Afghanistan “must be political.” Lest the meaning of that be missed, Sweden’s venerable Carl Bildt offers this clarification: “There is no military solution.”

This is a straw man, of course; no one says there is a “military solution” for unifying and pacifying Afghanistan. But Defense Secretary Bob Gates and General Stanley McChrystal have been clear in the last week that military operations must be one of the tools used to achieve the long-term solution. The candidates for reintegration into Afghanistan’s polity are the Taliban, and among them are factions that have shown no sign at any time of being amenable to consensual negotiation or compromise. They attack civilians and military forces alike in their campaign to destabilize the central government in Kabul.

The Taliban’s record in the past month forms a striking contrast with the pace of reintegration being proposed in political circles. After killing nearly 100 people at a volleyball match in Pakistan and assassinating CIA agents at a base in Afghanistan, the Taliban killed 20 in a market bombing in central Afghanistan and killed seven and wounded 71 in coordinated attacks in downtown Kabul. These tallies don’t reflect smaller incidents in the AfPak theater during the same period, but they are in line with the UN’s report that 2009 was the Taliban’s bloodiest year since the regime change in 2001. Hamid Karzai’s reintegration policy for the Taliban has naturally been endorsed by President Obama and our NATO allies, but there is no evidence as yet — not even a photo op — of any material reciprocation from the insurgents.

European leaders nevertheless show signs of favoring reintegration measures like the ones outlined by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. In light of the Taliban’s unrelieved recalcitrance, adopting this list unilaterally would clearly be getting ahead of ourselves. It’s too early to talk about removing Taliban members from terror lists, or limiting Karzai’s latitude with a UN mandate for him to sit down with the insurgents. Gates and McChrystal have spoken consistently of using a multi-pronged approach, including military operations, to create the conditions for productive diplomacy — and those conditions don’t exist yet. Comments from both men have made it clear that their position has not changed, even though the media is portraying their endorsement of eventual negotiations somewhat misleadingly, as if they might be ready to dispense with the inconvenient labor of shaping conditions beforehand.

We haven’t heard much from Obama on this. We can hope that he concurs with his defense leadership, although there have been troubling indications of divergence in the definitions being used by the White House and the Pentagon. The Taliban are not even pretending to be potential negotiators; they’re giving the international coalition no excuse for deceiving itself about their intentions or openness to compromise. Obama should exercise the coalition leadership necessary to keep the effort in Afghanistan on track, and not let it lose its way in imprudent shortcuts.

Read Less

Securing Kabul

The Economist, seemingly alone among the MSM, gets it about the terrorist attack in Kabul. It writes:

Mr Karzai can feel some pride in the performance of the police, army and various counter-terror units. The insurgents have shown an undimmed ability to launch attacks in the city, but at least local security forces responded quickly and efficiently, no doubt limiting the death toll. A few soldiers from NATO did join in the fray, but the bulk of the response was local because Afghan forces now have direct responsibility for guarding the capital. …

Security officials were helped by intelligence which suggested that a plot was imminent. Guards at the central bank opened fire on a man whom they correctly identified as a suicide bomber, before he could get inside. Later in the day guards at a checkpoint stopped a bomber who was driving an ambulance full of explosives. Kabul police moved quickly to block roads across swathes of the city. Soon after the attacks began the main thoroughfares and shopping districts were boarded up and people headed to safe areas on the edge of town.

Although the latest attack reinforces the fears of residents in Kabul, it at least suggests that militants are finding it harder to strike official targets.

I think that’s right: the outcome of the attacks was not good news for the Haqqani Network and the Taliban — except, of course, for the propaganda points they scored. Still, despite the relatively benign outcome of what could have been a much more horrific attack, there is still a need for Afghanistan to do more to “harden” its capital and other areas against terrorist attacks, in much the same way that Israel, Iraq, and other countries that face a high degree of threat have done. Such precautions are by no means foolproof; Baghdad, in particular, has seen a few terrible al-Qaeda bombings in recent months that are much worse than anything that has occurred in Kabul. If not for all the concrete barriers and checkpoints that have gone up in Baghdad in recent years, such attacks would be much more frequent and even more severe. Kabul hasn’t faced as severe a threat, so not as much has been done to secure it, but that needs to change.

The Economist, seemingly alone among the MSM, gets it about the terrorist attack in Kabul. It writes:

Mr Karzai can feel some pride in the performance of the police, army and various counter-terror units. The insurgents have shown an undimmed ability to launch attacks in the city, but at least local security forces responded quickly and efficiently, no doubt limiting the death toll. A few soldiers from NATO did join in the fray, but the bulk of the response was local because Afghan forces now have direct responsibility for guarding the capital. …

Security officials were helped by intelligence which suggested that a plot was imminent. Guards at the central bank opened fire on a man whom they correctly identified as a suicide bomber, before he could get inside. Later in the day guards at a checkpoint stopped a bomber who was driving an ambulance full of explosives. Kabul police moved quickly to block roads across swathes of the city. Soon after the attacks began the main thoroughfares and shopping districts were boarded up and people headed to safe areas on the edge of town.

Although the latest attack reinforces the fears of residents in Kabul, it at least suggests that militants are finding it harder to strike official targets.

I think that’s right: the outcome of the attacks was not good news for the Haqqani Network and the Taliban — except, of course, for the propaganda points they scored. Still, despite the relatively benign outcome of what could have been a much more horrific attack, there is still a need for Afghanistan to do more to “harden” its capital and other areas against terrorist attacks, in much the same way that Israel, Iraq, and other countries that face a high degree of threat have done. Such precautions are by no means foolproof; Baghdad, in particular, has seen a few terrible al-Qaeda bombings in recent months that are much worse than anything that has occurred in Kabul. If not for all the concrete barriers and checkpoints that have gone up in Baghdad in recent years, such attacks would be much more frequent and even more severe. Kabul hasn’t faced as severe a threat, so not as much has been done to secure it, but that needs to change.

Read Less

Only Thing “Spectacular” About Taliban Attack Is MSM Overreaction

So let me get this straight. Seven Taliban staged an attack in Kabul. They failed to blast their way into the Central Bank as intended. In the end they were hunted down by Afghan security forces. Five attackers were gunned down; two committed suicide. The entire attack apparently killed three soldiers and two civilians — far below the death toll of the Columbine massacre, to say nothing of Mumbai. And this is supposed to be a “spectacular attack” that shows the “resiliency” of the Taliban?

All it shows is their flair for publicity. True, the attack showed a fair degree of organization, but it was not terribly successful. More impressive than the attack was the Afghan response, which did not involve any American troops. Once again, the Afghan security forces showed themselves to be more proficient than the Indian security forces did in Mumbai. Unfortunately there will continue to be more such attacks as long as the Taliban know that the international news media will give  them publicity out of all proportion to their military achievements.

So let me get this straight. Seven Taliban staged an attack in Kabul. They failed to blast their way into the Central Bank as intended. In the end they were hunted down by Afghan security forces. Five attackers were gunned down; two committed suicide. The entire attack apparently killed three soldiers and two civilians — far below the death toll of the Columbine massacre, to say nothing of Mumbai. And this is supposed to be a “spectacular attack” that shows the “resiliency” of the Taliban?

All it shows is their flair for publicity. True, the attack showed a fair degree of organization, but it was not terribly successful. More impressive than the attack was the Afghan response, which did not involve any American troops. Once again, the Afghan security forces showed themselves to be more proficient than the Indian security forces did in Mumbai. Unfortunately there will continue to be more such attacks as long as the Taliban know that the international news media will give  them publicity out of all proportion to their military achievements.

Read Less

Michael Flynn’s Revelatory Report

One of the reasons I admire Gen. Stanley McChrystal and think he is the right commander to turn around the war effort in Afghanistan is that he is not afraid to be unconventional and effective even if, in so doing, he leaves a few colleagues with noses bent out of joint. And he has surrounded himself with similar hard chargers, including Major General Michael Flynn, his chief intelligence officer. Now Flynn has done something that has caused a minor earthquake in the Pentagon — he has written a scathing overview of the intelligence operations in Afghanistan not for internal distribution to a handful of top-secret addressees but rather to the whole world, via the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

His report, co-written with a DIA officer and a Marine captain (who was formerly a Wall Street Journal reporter), is a must-read for anyone who cares about the war in Afghanistan, the wider war on terror, or the subject of intelligence in general, much in the news these days.  It includes the kind of blunt talk seldom heard from serving military officers. The authors begin this way:

Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collec­tion efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intel­ligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the envi­ronment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the cor­relations between various development projects and the levels of coopera­tion among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence offi­cers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-mak­ers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.

The rest of the report isn’t so diplomatic. Flynn and his co-authors go on to describe the tendency of intel analysts to “overemphasize detailed informa­tion about the enemy at the expense of the political, economic, and cultural environment that supports it.” They propose a solution—setting up new fusion cells called Stability Operations Information Centers, which would focus on Afghanistan district by district. The analysts who work there will not be allowed to remain in a cushy office far from the battlefield. They call for commanders to:

… authorize a select group of analysts to retrieve information from the ground level and make it available to a broader audience, similar to the way journalists work. These analysts must leave their chairs and visit the people who operate at the grassroots level – civil affairs officers, PRTs, atmospherics teams, Afghan liaison officers, female engagement teams, will­ing NGOs and development organizations, United Nations officials, psychological operations teams, human terrain teams, and staff officers with infan­try battalions – to name a few.

That may sound like common sense, but it is a radical departure from how many within the intel community work today.

Normally, reports of this sort come and go, issuing recommendations that are by and large ignored by policymakers. In this case, Major General Flynn’s rank and position mean that his insightful criticisms and prescriptions will get the attention they deserve — he can order many of these changes to be instituted. But he also knows that issuing memos in Kabul doesn’t affect fundamental change on the ground. To get out his message to current and future operational commanders, he has chosen a most unconventional approach — one that has caused predictable sniping at the Pentagon. Such uproar is instinctively avoided by most officers — indeed by most federal employees — but McChrystal and his aides know it is the only way to bring about the fundamental change needed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.

One of the reasons I admire Gen. Stanley McChrystal and think he is the right commander to turn around the war effort in Afghanistan is that he is not afraid to be unconventional and effective even if, in so doing, he leaves a few colleagues with noses bent out of joint. And he has surrounded himself with similar hard chargers, including Major General Michael Flynn, his chief intelligence officer. Now Flynn has done something that has caused a minor earthquake in the Pentagon — he has written a scathing overview of the intelligence operations in Afghanistan not for internal distribution to a handful of top-secret addressees but rather to the whole world, via the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

His report, co-written with a DIA officer and a Marine captain (who was formerly a Wall Street Journal reporter), is a must-read for anyone who cares about the war in Afghanistan, the wider war on terror, or the subject of intelligence in general, much in the news these days.  It includes the kind of blunt talk seldom heard from serving military officers. The authors begin this way:

Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collec­tion efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intel­ligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the envi­ronment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the cor­relations between various development projects and the levels of coopera­tion among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence offi­cers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-mak­ers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.

The rest of the report isn’t so diplomatic. Flynn and his co-authors go on to describe the tendency of intel analysts to “overemphasize detailed informa­tion about the enemy at the expense of the political, economic, and cultural environment that supports it.” They propose a solution—setting up new fusion cells called Stability Operations Information Centers, which would focus on Afghanistan district by district. The analysts who work there will not be allowed to remain in a cushy office far from the battlefield. They call for commanders to:

… authorize a select group of analysts to retrieve information from the ground level and make it available to a broader audience, similar to the way journalists work. These analysts must leave their chairs and visit the people who operate at the grassroots level – civil affairs officers, PRTs, atmospherics teams, Afghan liaison officers, female engagement teams, will­ing NGOs and development organizations, United Nations officials, psychological operations teams, human terrain teams, and staff officers with infan­try battalions – to name a few.

That may sound like common sense, but it is a radical departure from how many within the intel community work today.

Normally, reports of this sort come and go, issuing recommendations that are by and large ignored by policymakers. In this case, Major General Flynn’s rank and position mean that his insightful criticisms and prescriptions will get the attention they deserve — he can order many of these changes to be instituted. But he also knows that issuing memos in Kabul doesn’t affect fundamental change on the ground. To get out his message to current and future operational commanders, he has chosen a most unconventional approach — one that has caused predictable sniping at the Pentagon. Such uproar is instinctively avoided by most officers — indeed by most federal employees — but McChrystal and his aides know it is the only way to bring about the fundamental change needed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.

Read Less

Obama Finally Resolute on Afghanistan?

As President Obama prepares to deliver his West Point address tonight, most indications are positive — surprisingly so, given the public hand-wringing from the White House that has characterized this debate over the past three months. Barring a last-minute change of heart, the president will announce the dispatch of at least 30,000 troops to Afghanistan along with the expectation that our allies will provide at least 5,000 more. According to this New York Times article, Obama “has decided to expedite the deployment … over the next six months, in an effort to reverse the momentum of Taliban gains and create urgency for the government in Kabul to match the American surge with one using its own forces.” It may not be logistically possible to dispatch 30,000 extra troops by the summer of 2010, but it’s a good sign that Obama is setting this as a goal. It means he is taking to heart the warnings from General McChrystal that “success will require a discrete ‘jump’ to gain the initiative, demonstrate progress in the short term, and secure long-term support.”

The key question now is, how much resolve will Obama signal in the address itself? If he spends too much time talking about “off-ramps” (i.e., situations under which reinforcements might be canceled), “benchmarks” that the Karzai government must meet “or else,” or “exit strategies,” he will undo some of the positive impact of his courageous decision to substantially increase the number of American troops on the ground.

Thus, it is worrisome to read in another Times leak that Obama will announce “that he will begin to transition American forces out of Afghanistan beginning in July 2011″ — a curious message to send while announcing a major increase in our war effort. That gives the troops who will be arriving only a year to get the job done, which may or may not be enough time. A far better time line would be “performance-based,” as it was in the case of the Iraq surge: Obama should announce that the troops will stay as long as necessary to get the job done. Even if he has already settled on a time line for withdrawal, he should keep it quiet, lest he encourage the Taliban to simply wait us out.

Nevertheless, despite that disturbing detail, it sounds as if it will be a policy that all those who see the need to prevail in this important war effort can and should support. I will, of course, stay tuned for the speech itself and report back with an initial reaction once I’ve had a chance to hear the president’s words. But I imagine that the nuances won’t become apparent until a few days after the administration has performed its background briefings and Secretary of Defense Gates, the Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Mullen, and other key leaders have testified on Capitol Hill.

As President Obama prepares to deliver his West Point address tonight, most indications are positive — surprisingly so, given the public hand-wringing from the White House that has characterized this debate over the past three months. Barring a last-minute change of heart, the president will announce the dispatch of at least 30,000 troops to Afghanistan along with the expectation that our allies will provide at least 5,000 more. According to this New York Times article, Obama “has decided to expedite the deployment … over the next six months, in an effort to reverse the momentum of Taliban gains and create urgency for the government in Kabul to match the American surge with one using its own forces.” It may not be logistically possible to dispatch 30,000 extra troops by the summer of 2010, but it’s a good sign that Obama is setting this as a goal. It means he is taking to heart the warnings from General McChrystal that “success will require a discrete ‘jump’ to gain the initiative, demonstrate progress in the short term, and secure long-term support.”

The key question now is, how much resolve will Obama signal in the address itself? If he spends too much time talking about “off-ramps” (i.e., situations under which reinforcements might be canceled), “benchmarks” that the Karzai government must meet “or else,” or “exit strategies,” he will undo some of the positive impact of his courageous decision to substantially increase the number of American troops on the ground.

Thus, it is worrisome to read in another Times leak that Obama will announce “that he will begin to transition American forces out of Afghanistan beginning in July 2011″ — a curious message to send while announcing a major increase in our war effort. That gives the troops who will be arriving only a year to get the job done, which may or may not be enough time. A far better time line would be “performance-based,” as it was in the case of the Iraq surge: Obama should announce that the troops will stay as long as necessary to get the job done. Even if he has already settled on a time line for withdrawal, he should keep it quiet, lest he encourage the Taliban to simply wait us out.

Nevertheless, despite that disturbing detail, it sounds as if it will be a policy that all those who see the need to prevail in this important war effort can and should support. I will, of course, stay tuned for the speech itself and report back with an initial reaction once I’ve had a chance to hear the president’s words. But I imagine that the nuances won’t become apparent until a few days after the administration has performed its background briefings and Secretary of Defense Gates, the Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Mullen, and other key leaders have testified on Capitol Hill.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

Obama drops below 50% approval in Gallup.

The cap-and-trade bill is so bad even John McCain opposes it. “McCain refers to the bill as ‘cap and tax,’ calls the climate legislation that passed the House in June ‘a 1,400-page monstrosity’ and dismisses a cap-and-trade proposal included in the White House budget as ‘a government slush fund.’”

A Democrat breaks with the White House on trying KSM in civilian court: “The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee expressed opposition today to Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to give civilian trials to the 9/11 plotters. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) penned a letter to Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggesting military trials would be a more appropriate venue for the accused terrorists. ”

Another slighted democratic ally: “Days before India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to be welcomed in the White House for his first state visit with President Obama, two perceived missteps by the Obama administration have concerned Indian officials that New Delhi suddenly has been relegated to the second tier of U.S.-Asian relations.” When is it that we start “restoring” our standing in the world?

Sen. Jon Kyl wants answers from the Justice Department regarding the NIAC.

Trouble in the “permanent majority“: “The Democratic Party’s broad ruling coalition is starting to fracture as lawmakers come under increasing pressure from the left to respond to voter anger over joblessness and Wall Street bailouts. Tensions boiled over this week, with an angry party caucus meeting Monday in the House, and black lawmakers Thursday threatening to block legislation in protest of President Barack Obama’s economic policies.  . . The squabbling is turning up pressure on the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress to respond, a challenge when their focus is on passing a health-care overhaul.” What a difference a year of one-party Democratic liberal rule makes.

Democrats insist that 2010 won’t be another 1994. However, “danger could lurk if turnout is low, factors that hurt Dem GOV candidates in NJ and VA this year.” In other words, if things keep going the way they have been, a lot of Democrats will be in trouble.

She must not have gotten the new script. This week we are being supportive of the Afghan government: “Calling Afghan President Hamid Karzai an ‘unworthy partner,’ a key Democratic leader warned Friday that Congress cannot fund an expanded military mission without a reliable ally in Kabul. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said moreover she did not think there was political support for sending more US troops to Afghanistan, as President Barack Obama is contemplating.”

The Obama team may not be able to give Big Labor card check but they haven’t run out of goodies: “The National Mediation Board, which oversees labor relations in the air and rail industry, this month moved to overturn 75 years of labor policy. The board plans to stack the deck for organized labor in union elections. Under a proposed rule, unions would no longer have to get the approval of a majority of airline workers to achieve certification. Not even close. Instead, a union could win just by getting a majority of the employees who vote. Thus, if only 1,000 of 10,000 flight attendants vote in a union election, and 501 vote for certification, the other 9,499 become unionized.”

Obama drops below 50% approval in Gallup.

The cap-and-trade bill is so bad even John McCain opposes it. “McCain refers to the bill as ‘cap and tax,’ calls the climate legislation that passed the House in June ‘a 1,400-page monstrosity’ and dismisses a cap-and-trade proposal included in the White House budget as ‘a government slush fund.’”

A Democrat breaks with the White House on trying KSM in civilian court: “The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee expressed opposition today to Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to give civilian trials to the 9/11 plotters. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) penned a letter to Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggesting military trials would be a more appropriate venue for the accused terrorists. ”

Another slighted democratic ally: “Days before India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to be welcomed in the White House for his first state visit with President Obama, two perceived missteps by the Obama administration have concerned Indian officials that New Delhi suddenly has been relegated to the second tier of U.S.-Asian relations.” When is it that we start “restoring” our standing in the world?

Sen. Jon Kyl wants answers from the Justice Department regarding the NIAC.

Trouble in the “permanent majority“: “The Democratic Party’s broad ruling coalition is starting to fracture as lawmakers come under increasing pressure from the left to respond to voter anger over joblessness and Wall Street bailouts. Tensions boiled over this week, with an angry party caucus meeting Monday in the House, and black lawmakers Thursday threatening to block legislation in protest of President Barack Obama’s economic policies.  . . The squabbling is turning up pressure on the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress to respond, a challenge when their focus is on passing a health-care overhaul.” What a difference a year of one-party Democratic liberal rule makes.

Democrats insist that 2010 won’t be another 1994. However, “danger could lurk if turnout is low, factors that hurt Dem GOV candidates in NJ and VA this year.” In other words, if things keep going the way they have been, a lot of Democrats will be in trouble.

She must not have gotten the new script. This week we are being supportive of the Afghan government: “Calling Afghan President Hamid Karzai an ‘unworthy partner,’ a key Democratic leader warned Friday that Congress cannot fund an expanded military mission without a reliable ally in Kabul. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said moreover she did not think there was political support for sending more US troops to Afghanistan, as President Barack Obama is contemplating.”

The Obama team may not be able to give Big Labor card check but they haven’t run out of goodies: “The National Mediation Board, which oversees labor relations in the air and rail industry, this month moved to overturn 75 years of labor policy. The board plans to stack the deck for organized labor in union elections. Under a proposed rule, unions would no longer have to get the approval of a majority of airline workers to achieve certification. Not even close. Instead, a union could win just by getting a majority of the employees who vote. Thus, if only 1,000 of 10,000 flight attendants vote in a union election, and 501 vote for certification, the other 9,499 become unionized.”

Read Less

Slowing to a Crawl

The New York Times observes:

The disclosure that the United States ambassador in Kabul has expressed written opposition to deploying more American troops to Afghanistan lays bare the fierce debate within the Obama administration over the direction of the war, even after weeks of deliberations and with the president on the verge of a decision.

And for those not quite privy to the ways of leaks and press manipulation, the Times notes that the anti-counterinsurgency-we’d-like-this-on-the-cheap contingent (Gens. Axelrod, Biden, and Emanuel, we presume) “seemed pleased that his perspective had entered the public debate, which has been dominated for two months by the leaked assessment of General McChrystal.” In other words, time to leak, gum up the works, and make it that much more difficult to come to a conclusion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for one, is fed up with the leaking and has exclaimed that “everybody ought to just shut up.”

One senses that the president is buffeted by this and that group, seemingly unwilling or unable to just decide. The helpful spinners both on and off the record assure us the president is being more “assertive” and “challenging” the advice. But still, alas, not reaching a final call. How’s it working out? “The behind-the-scenes tug-of-war over policy has become increasingly bitter.” Not as bitter as I imagine those in the field and their families may become as the seminars churn, the equivocation continues over the precise numbers to be deployed (38,000 or 36, 500? or maybe just 26,750?), and both our allies and adversaries look on slack-jawed.

It is quite a spectacle, one unlikely to endear the president to the voters or bolster his image as a wartime leader.

The New York Times observes:

The disclosure that the United States ambassador in Kabul has expressed written opposition to deploying more American troops to Afghanistan lays bare the fierce debate within the Obama administration over the direction of the war, even after weeks of deliberations and with the president on the verge of a decision.

And for those not quite privy to the ways of leaks and press manipulation, the Times notes that the anti-counterinsurgency-we’d-like-this-on-the-cheap contingent (Gens. Axelrod, Biden, and Emanuel, we presume) “seemed pleased that his perspective had entered the public debate, which has been dominated for two months by the leaked assessment of General McChrystal.” In other words, time to leak, gum up the works, and make it that much more difficult to come to a conclusion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for one, is fed up with the leaking and has exclaimed that “everybody ought to just shut up.”

One senses that the president is buffeted by this and that group, seemingly unwilling or unable to just decide. The helpful spinners both on and off the record assure us the president is being more “assertive” and “challenging” the advice. But still, alas, not reaching a final call. How’s it working out? “The behind-the-scenes tug-of-war over policy has become increasingly bitter.” Not as bitter as I imagine those in the field and their families may become as the seminars churn, the equivocation continues over the precise numbers to be deployed (38,000 or 36, 500? or maybe just 26,750?), and both our allies and adversaries look on slack-jawed.

It is quite a spectacle, one unlikely to endear the president to the voters or bolster his image as a wartime leader.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.