Commentary Magazine


Topic: Karzai

One Way to Leave Afghanistan Faster Is to Promise to Stay Forever

I don’t get to say this very often so I am happy to offer kudos to Joe Biden on what seems to have been a successful visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He delivered a clear message that the U.S. has a long-term commitment to the region that will extend beyond 2014, thus helping to undo some of the damage from his own gaffe when he claimed that we would be out of Afghanistan at that time “come hell or high water.”

Now he and his boss, the president, need to take the next step: they should negotiate a long-term agreement with President Karzai to cement a permanent American-Afghan alliance. That would help to further assure Karzai and other Afghan leaders that we will not abandon them, thus increasing their incentive to take the sort of hard steps we are asking for in the fight against corruption and other ills that plague Afghanistan.

Interestingly, while Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq is deeply reluctant to enter into any kind of long-term agreement with the U.S. that would keep U.S. troops on his soil indefinitely, President Karzai is said to be much more open to such an arrangement. He knows, after all, that he doesn’t have oil riches to support his country; Afghanistan will be much more dependent on the U.S. than Iraq will be. Senator Lindsey Graham has suggested that the U.S. establish permanent air bases in Afghanistan. The administration should follow up on his suggestion and open negotiations with Karzai. If it does, it may well be discovered that nothing will speed the end of America’s combat mission in Afghanistan faster than expressing our willingness to say forever. That may sound paradoxical, but the more commitment we signal to enemies and waverers alike, the easier our troops will find it to drive out the Taliban.

I don’t get to say this very often so I am happy to offer kudos to Joe Biden on what seems to have been a successful visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He delivered a clear message that the U.S. has a long-term commitment to the region that will extend beyond 2014, thus helping to undo some of the damage from his own gaffe when he claimed that we would be out of Afghanistan at that time “come hell or high water.”

Now he and his boss, the president, need to take the next step: they should negotiate a long-term agreement with President Karzai to cement a permanent American-Afghan alliance. That would help to further assure Karzai and other Afghan leaders that we will not abandon them, thus increasing their incentive to take the sort of hard steps we are asking for in the fight against corruption and other ills that plague Afghanistan.

Interestingly, while Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq is deeply reluctant to enter into any kind of long-term agreement with the U.S. that would keep U.S. troops on his soil indefinitely, President Karzai is said to be much more open to such an arrangement. He knows, after all, that he doesn’t have oil riches to support his country; Afghanistan will be much more dependent on the U.S. than Iraq will be. Senator Lindsey Graham has suggested that the U.S. establish permanent air bases in Afghanistan. The administration should follow up on his suggestion and open negotiations with Karzai. If it does, it may well be discovered that nothing will speed the end of America’s combat mission in Afghanistan faster than expressing our willingness to say forever. That may sound paradoxical, but the more commitment we signal to enemies and waverers alike, the easier our troops will find it to drive out the Taliban.

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Fighting Corruption in Afghanistan

Just as important as the battle against Taliban militants is the struggle against corrupt officials in the Afghan government, who undermine public confidence and drive Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. U.S. forces know how to carry out security operations. Cleaning up corruption is much harder. How is that struggle going?

The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. There are some positive signs, to be sure, including the fact that General Petraeus has appointed H.R. McMaster — one of the brightest general officers in the entire Army — to run an anti-corruption task force. And today comes word, as noted in this Wall Street Journal article, that “Afghan prosecutors are planning to indict nearly two dozen current and former senior officials — the current mining minister among them — on allegations of taking bribes and stealing government funds.” Those prosecutions are certainly welcome, although it is unclear what impact they will have, since most of the targets are former, not current, officials, and thus by definition hardly members of President Karzai’s inner circle.

It is a small step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. For an indication of what’s needed, think back to 2004, when Karzai, with the strong aid and encouragement of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, succeeded in forcing warlord Ismail Khan out of his fiefdom in Herat. This was one of the bravest and most impressive challenges that Karzai has ever mounted against the power brokers and warlords who exercise such a baleful influence on events in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in recent years Karzai has been more focused on making common cause with abusive politicians than confronting them. This is due in part to his own weakness, and in part to the lack of support from the United States. Khalilzad was a friend of Karzai’s — someone Karzai felt he could count on. Karzai hasn’t had a similar relationship with any ambassador since; his relationship with Karl Eikenberry, the current ambassador, is said to be particularly tense. Karzai has faced public sniping from the Obama administration, which (however justified) has led to a loss of confidence on his part and a tendency to reach accommodation with some of the most corrupt characters in Afghanistan.

To deal corruption a real blow, Karzai will need to remove a major power broker, such as his own brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. That doesn’t necessarily mean criminal prosecution; Ahmed Wali could simply be sent as ambassador to the Seychelles.

But for something dramatic like that to happen, Karzai will need to have more support from, and more confidence in, the U.S. government than he currently does. And the U.S. government, in turn, will have to make a common determination that fighting corruption is actually a real priority. At the moment, too many officials regard it as more important to reach a modus vivendi with the powers that be. There are always practical, short-term arguments for such dealmaking, but the long-run consequence is to squander the trust of the Afghan people, which is our most important asset in the war against the Taliban.

Just as important as the battle against Taliban militants is the struggle against corrupt officials in the Afghan government, who undermine public confidence and drive Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. U.S. forces know how to carry out security operations. Cleaning up corruption is much harder. How is that struggle going?

The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. There are some positive signs, to be sure, including the fact that General Petraeus has appointed H.R. McMaster — one of the brightest general officers in the entire Army — to run an anti-corruption task force. And today comes word, as noted in this Wall Street Journal article, that “Afghan prosecutors are planning to indict nearly two dozen current and former senior officials — the current mining minister among them — on allegations of taking bribes and stealing government funds.” Those prosecutions are certainly welcome, although it is unclear what impact they will have, since most of the targets are former, not current, officials, and thus by definition hardly members of President Karzai’s inner circle.

It is a small step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. For an indication of what’s needed, think back to 2004, when Karzai, with the strong aid and encouragement of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, succeeded in forcing warlord Ismail Khan out of his fiefdom in Herat. This was one of the bravest and most impressive challenges that Karzai has ever mounted against the power brokers and warlords who exercise such a baleful influence on events in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in recent years Karzai has been more focused on making common cause with abusive politicians than confronting them. This is due in part to his own weakness, and in part to the lack of support from the United States. Khalilzad was a friend of Karzai’s — someone Karzai felt he could count on. Karzai hasn’t had a similar relationship with any ambassador since; his relationship with Karl Eikenberry, the current ambassador, is said to be particularly tense. Karzai has faced public sniping from the Obama administration, which (however justified) has led to a loss of confidence on his part and a tendency to reach accommodation with some of the most corrupt characters in Afghanistan.

To deal corruption a real blow, Karzai will need to remove a major power broker, such as his own brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. That doesn’t necessarily mean criminal prosecution; Ahmed Wali could simply be sent as ambassador to the Seychelles.

But for something dramatic like that to happen, Karzai will need to have more support from, and more confidence in, the U.S. government than he currently does. And the U.S. government, in turn, will have to make a common determination that fighting corruption is actually a real priority. At the moment, too many officials regard it as more important to reach a modus vivendi with the powers that be. There are always practical, short-term arguments for such dealmaking, but the long-run consequence is to squander the trust of the Afghan people, which is our most important asset in the war against the Taliban.

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Why Woodward’s Portrayal Is So Devastating

Eliot Cohen’s must-read column looks at the way various figures — from President Karzai to Bibi to our generals — would regard the portrait of the White House painted in Bob Woodward’s book. The most compelling comes from a hypothetical general. A sample:

The president fired one of our truly great commanders not for things that he said but for tolerating indiscretion, disloyalty and disrespect among his subordinates — but do these people apply anything remotely like that standard to themselves?

If the president felt he was getting bad advice, why didn’t he just stop his review until he got real options? Or fire the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Why does he write a six-page memo that reads more like a prenuptial agreement written by a pessimistic lawyer than a strategy document?

… He says that if he continues with the war he can’t carry the Democratic Party with him. Has he tried? When was the last speech he gave on Afghanistan? Does he understand that leading soldiers, including generals, means not just being smart and picking an option as if he were ordering from a menu at a Chinese restaurant but also giving us some steel in the spine and fire in the belly when we begin to lose hope?

Other fictionalized reactions include Ahmadinejad and Bibi, who both must regard Obama as weak. It also, most poignantly, includes the father of a lance corporal. (“They’re sending my son where a bomb or a bullet may tear a limb or his life away. Do the people in the White House still believe in this ‘war of necessity’? And if not, can any of them look me in the eye?”)

Cohen captures the sense of bewilderment experienced by serious people (determined enemies, stressed allies, beleaguered generals, etc.) upon recognition (or confirmation) that our president is decidedly unserious.

Obama, in his public actions, has confounded supporters and infuriated critics. Why set a counterproductive deadline? Why beat up on our allies? Why telegraph that we want out of Afghanistan? He has confused supporters and opponents because they have given the president, to be blunt, too much credit. What Woodward has shown us, by pulling back the curtain, is a president who is exceedingly indifferent to facts, unmoved by professional advice, and driven almost entirely by concerns for managing his liberal base. In short, he behaves as if he is still running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Couple that with an excessive stubbornness, and you have an administration that refuses to adjust to reality. The settlement-freeze moratorium has driven Middle East talks into the ground? No, never mind. Keep at it. The generals and his cabinet insist the Afghanistan war troop deadline is helping our enemies? Whatever. Repeat it in a nationally televised speech. The same is true in domestic policy. The stimulus is a bust? Come up with a slogan instead. (“Recovery summer.”) The public hates ObamaCare? Assume the voters are dolts and tell them they’ll learn to love it.

It is ironic. The left painted George Bush as an inflexible and hyperpartisan. He was portrayed as an isolated know-nothing. In reality, he was none of these things. But Obama certainly is. And once you understand that, it becomes a whole lot easier to predict and understand what he’s up to.

Eliot Cohen’s must-read column looks at the way various figures — from President Karzai to Bibi to our generals — would regard the portrait of the White House painted in Bob Woodward’s book. The most compelling comes from a hypothetical general. A sample:

The president fired one of our truly great commanders not for things that he said but for tolerating indiscretion, disloyalty and disrespect among his subordinates — but do these people apply anything remotely like that standard to themselves?

If the president felt he was getting bad advice, why didn’t he just stop his review until he got real options? Or fire the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Why does he write a six-page memo that reads more like a prenuptial agreement written by a pessimistic lawyer than a strategy document?

… He says that if he continues with the war he can’t carry the Democratic Party with him. Has he tried? When was the last speech he gave on Afghanistan? Does he understand that leading soldiers, including generals, means not just being smart and picking an option as if he were ordering from a menu at a Chinese restaurant but also giving us some steel in the spine and fire in the belly when we begin to lose hope?

Other fictionalized reactions include Ahmadinejad and Bibi, who both must regard Obama as weak. It also, most poignantly, includes the father of a lance corporal. (“They’re sending my son where a bomb or a bullet may tear a limb or his life away. Do the people in the White House still believe in this ‘war of necessity’? And if not, can any of them look me in the eye?”)

Cohen captures the sense of bewilderment experienced by serious people (determined enemies, stressed allies, beleaguered generals, etc.) upon recognition (or confirmation) that our president is decidedly unserious.

Obama, in his public actions, has confounded supporters and infuriated critics. Why set a counterproductive deadline? Why beat up on our allies? Why telegraph that we want out of Afghanistan? He has confused supporters and opponents because they have given the president, to be blunt, too much credit. What Woodward has shown us, by pulling back the curtain, is a president who is exceedingly indifferent to facts, unmoved by professional advice, and driven almost entirely by concerns for managing his liberal base. In short, he behaves as if he is still running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Couple that with an excessive stubbornness, and you have an administration that refuses to adjust to reality. The settlement-freeze moratorium has driven Middle East talks into the ground? No, never mind. Keep at it. The generals and his cabinet insist the Afghanistan war troop deadline is helping our enemies? Whatever. Repeat it in a nationally televised speech. The same is true in domestic policy. The stimulus is a bust? Come up with a slogan instead. (“Recovery summer.”) The public hates ObamaCare? Assume the voters are dolts and tell them they’ll learn to love it.

It is ironic. The left painted George Bush as an inflexible and hyperpartisan. He was portrayed as an isolated know-nothing. In reality, he was none of these things. But Obama certainly is. And once you understand that, it becomes a whole lot easier to predict and understand what he’s up to.

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The Afghan Study Group Opines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The CIA’s Self-Fulfilling Premises in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Petraeus on Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Afghanistan: Snapshots from the Morning Papers

This morning’s newspapers bring a slew of important and interesting articles about Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ongoing probe of the New Ansari Exchange, a leading “hawala” money-transfer company that has been linked to the Taliban, the drug trade, and corrupt Afghan officials. The article notes that an Afghan anti-corruption task force raided New Ansari’s Kabul office in January and seized all sorts of incriminating documents. President Karzai, whose friends and relatives are deeply implicated in these activities, is — of course — eager to quash the probe; but he hasn’t succeeded so far. One of the intriguing aspects of this issue is the vast number of links between the New Ansari Exchange and the Afghan United Bank — one of the country’s leading financial institutions. Haji Muhammad Jan is not only a founder of New Ansari but also the chairman of Afghan United Bank. The larger issue here is the rotten state of Afghanistan’s financial institutions. That is something that needs to be addressed by the coalition because, at the moment, hawalas and banks are important middlemen for corruption, narco-trafficking, and the insurgency. If the financial system can be cleaned up, that will go a long way toward defunding some of the most nefarious activities.

–The New York Times reports that the prospects of holding clean and fair parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for Sept. 18, are poor. Many of the same problems with ballot stuffing that marred the presidential election last year are expected to recur next month. As the Times notes, “already Western diplomats and observers are lowering expectations for the election, while Afghans are increasingly disillusioned and fatalistic about the prospects for democracy.” It’s still not too late to postpone the balloting, which will only further discredit the Afghan government.

–Another New York Times article claims: “American military officials are building a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding the war down quickly.” The article, in fact, suggests that it won’t be a hard case to make. It reports that President Obama has adopted a “two-year rule” — meaning that he will give U.S. troops in any particular location two years to execute a counterinsurgency strategy. The Times account continues:

The two-year clock, officials say, started in June 2009 when the first additional forces, more than 20,000 troops long requested by American commanders, arrived in Afghanistan. Those troops will have been in place for two years by next summer, the deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal under Mr. Obama’s plan.

In areas where operations began this year — like Marja, where results have been disappointing, and Kandahar, where American Special Operations forces are now conducting night raids to diminish the middle ranks of the Taliban — the two-year clock started later, and the work there could continue well into 2012.

This suggests that concerns on the right that our troops won’t have sufficient time to conduct counterinsurgency operations are unwarranted — two years should be enough time to stabilize most locations, provided that sufficient troops and resources be dedicated to the problem.

–Finally, the Wall Street Journal reports that German forces based in northern Afghanistan are planning an offensive to drive back the Taliban, who have made inroads in the past two years. That’s good news, although it would be even better news if Berlin were to relax onerous restrictions on their troops. The Journal writes: “A German spokesman in Mazar-e-Sharif says that, until now, when German forces have cleared a village, they have typically entered in the morning and left before nightfall, allowing the Taliban to return at their leisure. The new battalions hope there will be adequate Afghan police to stay behind to protect against the insurgents’ return, German officials say.” I wouldn’t bet on the prospects of stability in newly cleared areas unless German troops are willing to stay behind with Afghan security forces.

These are all, to be sure, snapshots of a war in progress. They don’t add up to a complete picture. Indeed, it’s far too early to draw any broad conclusions. What these articles do show, however, is that, while Afghanistan faces serious problems, coalition forces are for the first time making a serious effort to address them and that, in all likelihood, they will have the time needed to make real progress.

This morning’s newspapers bring a slew of important and interesting articles about Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ongoing probe of the New Ansari Exchange, a leading “hawala” money-transfer company that has been linked to the Taliban, the drug trade, and corrupt Afghan officials. The article notes that an Afghan anti-corruption task force raided New Ansari’s Kabul office in January and seized all sorts of incriminating documents. President Karzai, whose friends and relatives are deeply implicated in these activities, is — of course — eager to quash the probe; but he hasn’t succeeded so far. One of the intriguing aspects of this issue is the vast number of links between the New Ansari Exchange and the Afghan United Bank — one of the country’s leading financial institutions. Haji Muhammad Jan is not only a founder of New Ansari but also the chairman of Afghan United Bank. The larger issue here is the rotten state of Afghanistan’s financial institutions. That is something that needs to be addressed by the coalition because, at the moment, hawalas and banks are important middlemen for corruption, narco-trafficking, and the insurgency. If the financial system can be cleaned up, that will go a long way toward defunding some of the most nefarious activities.

–The New York Times reports that the prospects of holding clean and fair parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for Sept. 18, are poor. Many of the same problems with ballot stuffing that marred the presidential election last year are expected to recur next month. As the Times notes, “already Western diplomats and observers are lowering expectations for the election, while Afghans are increasingly disillusioned and fatalistic about the prospects for democracy.” It’s still not too late to postpone the balloting, which will only further discredit the Afghan government.

–Another New York Times article claims: “American military officials are building a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding the war down quickly.” The article, in fact, suggests that it won’t be a hard case to make. It reports that President Obama has adopted a “two-year rule” — meaning that he will give U.S. troops in any particular location two years to execute a counterinsurgency strategy. The Times account continues:

The two-year clock, officials say, started in June 2009 when the first additional forces, more than 20,000 troops long requested by American commanders, arrived in Afghanistan. Those troops will have been in place for two years by next summer, the deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal under Mr. Obama’s plan.

In areas where operations began this year — like Marja, where results have been disappointing, and Kandahar, where American Special Operations forces are now conducting night raids to diminish the middle ranks of the Taliban — the two-year clock started later, and the work there could continue well into 2012.

This suggests that concerns on the right that our troops won’t have sufficient time to conduct counterinsurgency operations are unwarranted — two years should be enough time to stabilize most locations, provided that sufficient troops and resources be dedicated to the problem.

–Finally, the Wall Street Journal reports that German forces based in northern Afghanistan are planning an offensive to drive back the Taliban, who have made inroads in the past two years. That’s good news, although it would be even better news if Berlin were to relax onerous restrictions on their troops. The Journal writes: “A German spokesman in Mazar-e-Sharif says that, until now, when German forces have cleared a village, they have typically entered in the morning and left before nightfall, allowing the Taliban to return at their leisure. The new battalions hope there will be adequate Afghan police to stay behind to protect against the insurgents’ return, German officials say.” I wouldn’t bet on the prospects of stability in newly cleared areas unless German troops are willing to stay behind with Afghan security forces.

These are all, to be sure, snapshots of a war in progress. They don’t add up to a complete picture. Indeed, it’s far too early to draw any broad conclusions. What these articles do show, however, is that, while Afghanistan faces serious problems, coalition forces are for the first time making a serious effort to address them and that, in all likelihood, they will have the time needed to make real progress.

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Why We Must Prevail in Afghanistan

I don’t agree with everything in George Packer’s short New Yorker article on Afghanistan, but after reviewing the problems with the current policy, he makes a very important point that other critics miss:

No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.

I think Packer is exactly right — which is why it’s so important that we prevail in Afghanistan. I believe our current strategy, under the leadership of General Petraeus and backed by what seems to be a freshly committed president, gives us a good chance to do that, notwithstanding the myriad difficulties we face. I will learn more, however, in Afghanistan itself, which is where I am currently headed.

I don’t agree with everything in George Packer’s short New Yorker article on Afghanistan, but after reviewing the problems with the current policy, he makes a very important point that other critics miss:

No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.

I think Packer is exactly right — which is why it’s so important that we prevail in Afghanistan. I believe our current strategy, under the leadership of General Petraeus and backed by what seems to be a freshly committed president, gives us a good chance to do that, notwithstanding the myriad difficulties we face. I will learn more, however, in Afghanistan itself, which is where I am currently headed.

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Time for Obama to Lead

On Fox News Sunday, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Diane Feinstein provided some sage advice and bipartisan leadership on the war in Afghanistan. Graham explained:

The ambassador’s a fine man, has a poor working relationship with President Karzai. That’s true of Ambassador Holbrooke. Can they function together with General Petraeus? That’s one thing I’d like to know. But the main problem I have going forward is that we’ve got to clarify this withdrawal date of July 2011. If it is a goal where we’ll all try to start transferring power over to the Afghans, I’m OK with that. If it’s a date where people are going to begin to leave no matter what, a predetermined withdrawal date, that, in my view, will doom this operation.

Feinstein was even more direct:

If the team isn’t right, I think Petraeus’ views should be taken into consideration and observed by the administration. This is kind of, if you will, not a last ditch stand, but it is a major change in the middle of the surge, and I think you put the general in, he should make the call. If he can’t work with the ambassador, the ambassador should be changed. If he can’t work with Holbrooke, that should change. I mean, I think we put all of our eggs in the Petraeus basket at this stage.

(I don’t always agree with her, but this reminds me that Feinstein, as she demonstrated on her report on the administration’s failings regarding the Christmas Day bomber, is one of the grown-ups on the Democratic side of the aisle.)

During the Fox Roundtable, both Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol noted that it is now up to Obama to exercise the same leadership as these two senators. If Obama can’t come up with a civilian team that is competent and cooperative, Gen. Petraeus will not succeed. Cheney argued that Obama should “completely and explicitly repudiate the July 2011 deadline,” while Kristol noted that “it would be better if the president ultimately repudiates that July 2011 date” but that Obama, as he has begun to do, can certainly distance himself from what has been another self-imposed obstacle to victory.

Over on Meet the Press, Sen. John McCain went after Obama’s rationale for the timeline: “In wars, you declare when you’re leaving after you’ve succeeded. And, by the way, no military adviser recommended to the president that he set a date of the middle of 2011. So it was purely a political decision, not one based on facts on the ground, not based on military strategy or anything. … They need to have a clear signal that we are staying.”

Unfortunately Obama turned petulant again yesterday, whining about the “obsession” with the timeline. Sigh. Yes, foes and allies do pay attention to his words, and it matters whether or not he gives a definitive commitment to stay until victory is achieved.

Despite relatively small differences in tone and language, there is remarkable agreement among the three senators who took to the airwaves on Sunday, as well as among other responsible figures, that if Obama fails to do what is needed (walk away from the timeline and replace the civilian leaders), the U.S. will suffer a devastating defeat. For Obama, it will be a blot on his legacy. No president will be fondly remembered if the first item in the history books is “He lost the war.”

On Fox News Sunday, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Diane Feinstein provided some sage advice and bipartisan leadership on the war in Afghanistan. Graham explained:

The ambassador’s a fine man, has a poor working relationship with President Karzai. That’s true of Ambassador Holbrooke. Can they function together with General Petraeus? That’s one thing I’d like to know. But the main problem I have going forward is that we’ve got to clarify this withdrawal date of July 2011. If it is a goal where we’ll all try to start transferring power over to the Afghans, I’m OK with that. If it’s a date where people are going to begin to leave no matter what, a predetermined withdrawal date, that, in my view, will doom this operation.

Feinstein was even more direct:

If the team isn’t right, I think Petraeus’ views should be taken into consideration and observed by the administration. This is kind of, if you will, not a last ditch stand, but it is a major change in the middle of the surge, and I think you put the general in, he should make the call. If he can’t work with the ambassador, the ambassador should be changed. If he can’t work with Holbrooke, that should change. I mean, I think we put all of our eggs in the Petraeus basket at this stage.

(I don’t always agree with her, but this reminds me that Feinstein, as she demonstrated on her report on the administration’s failings regarding the Christmas Day bomber, is one of the grown-ups on the Democratic side of the aisle.)

During the Fox Roundtable, both Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol noted that it is now up to Obama to exercise the same leadership as these two senators. If Obama can’t come up with a civilian team that is competent and cooperative, Gen. Petraeus will not succeed. Cheney argued that Obama should “completely and explicitly repudiate the July 2011 deadline,” while Kristol noted that “it would be better if the president ultimately repudiates that July 2011 date” but that Obama, as he has begun to do, can certainly distance himself from what has been another self-imposed obstacle to victory.

Over on Meet the Press, Sen. John McCain went after Obama’s rationale for the timeline: “In wars, you declare when you’re leaving after you’ve succeeded. And, by the way, no military adviser recommended to the president that he set a date of the middle of 2011. So it was purely a political decision, not one based on facts on the ground, not based on military strategy or anything. … They need to have a clear signal that we are staying.”

Unfortunately Obama turned petulant again yesterday, whining about the “obsession” with the timeline. Sigh. Yes, foes and allies do pay attention to his words, and it matters whether or not he gives a definitive commitment to stay until victory is achieved.

Despite relatively small differences in tone and language, there is remarkable agreement among the three senators who took to the airwaves on Sunday, as well as among other responsible figures, that if Obama fails to do what is needed (walk away from the timeline and replace the civilian leaders), the U.S. will suffer a devastating defeat. For Obama, it will be a blot on his legacy. No president will be fondly remembered if the first item in the history books is “He lost the war.”

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Pakistan Eyes Afghanistan as Obama’s Deadline Looms

All you need to know about the corrosive impact of President Obama’s deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan can be found buried deep in this page-one New York Times story:

[T]he Pakistanis say they have chosen this juncture to open talks with Mr. Karzai because, even before the controversy over General McChrystal, they sensed uncertainty — “a lack of fire in the belly,” said one Pakistani — within the Obama administration over the Afghan fight.

“The American timetable for getting out makes it easier for Pakistan to play a more visible role,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the spokesman for the Pakistani Army. He was referring to the July 2011 date set by Mr. Obama for the start of the withdrawal of some American combat troops.

The Pakistani role here is not positive; they are trying to get the Karzai government to strike a deal with the Haqqani network, one of the most murderous factions of the Taliban. Such a deal may make sense in the long run but only after the Haqqanis feel defeated; at the moment, they are feeling anything but. And Obama’s deadline, as much as anything else, is giving them confidence that they can prevail.

All you need to know about the corrosive impact of President Obama’s deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan can be found buried deep in this page-one New York Times story:

[T]he Pakistanis say they have chosen this juncture to open talks with Mr. Karzai because, even before the controversy over General McChrystal, they sensed uncertainty — “a lack of fire in the belly,” said one Pakistani — within the Obama administration over the Afghan fight.

“The American timetable for getting out makes it easier for Pakistan to play a more visible role,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the spokesman for the Pakistani Army. He was referring to the July 2011 date set by Mr. Obama for the start of the withdrawal of some American combat troops.

The Pakistani role here is not positive; they are trying to get the Karzai government to strike a deal with the Haqqani network, one of the most murderous factions of the Taliban. Such a deal may make sense in the long run but only after the Haqqanis feel defeated; at the moment, they are feeling anything but. And Obama’s deadline, as much as anything else, is giving them confidence that they can prevail.

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Obama Helps Obama by Keeping McChrystal

There has been some surprising but welcomed (at least by those who’d like to win in Afghanistan) opposition to firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal over his Rolling Stone interview. The Washington Post editors reel off three reasons not to accept the general’s resignation:

First, Gen. McChrystal is the architect of a crucial counterinsurgency campaign underway in southern Afghanistan — a strategy Mr. Obama approved after months of deliberation last year. … Second, whatever his reputation in Washington, Gen. McChrystal has built strong ties with the Afghan and Pakistani officials whose cooperation is vital to the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. … Most important, the inflammatory comments in the Rolling Stone article are symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction for which Gen. McChrystal is not chiefly responsible. As we pointed out on this page last week, the administration’s performance in Afghanistan has been hamstrung by continuing differences between civilian officials and military commanders that date to the debate over strategy last year. …

Mr. Obama has tolerated this feuding, with consequences that include poor coordination of military and civilian operations and deteriorating relations with Mr. Karzai. His dismissal of Gen. McChrystal would hand a victory to those in his administration who have resisted the counterinsurgency operations.

There is a fourth reason: Obama needs to shed his peevish and self-absorbed persona, to demonstrate to friends and foes that he can command a war effort, and to dispel the growing perception that he’s in over his head. He doesn’t do this by being the tough guy with the general, whom we have relied on to win the war. (And by the way, if McChrystal does quit, won’t we hear a whole lot more from him about the civilian officials who’ve been making the military’s job harder?) For a president very much concerned about his own image, maybe the most compelling argument for him to keep McChrystal is this: it’ll make Obama look good.

There has been some surprising but welcomed (at least by those who’d like to win in Afghanistan) opposition to firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal over his Rolling Stone interview. The Washington Post editors reel off three reasons not to accept the general’s resignation:

First, Gen. McChrystal is the architect of a crucial counterinsurgency campaign underway in southern Afghanistan — a strategy Mr. Obama approved after months of deliberation last year. … Second, whatever his reputation in Washington, Gen. McChrystal has built strong ties with the Afghan and Pakistani officials whose cooperation is vital to the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. … Most important, the inflammatory comments in the Rolling Stone article are symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction for which Gen. McChrystal is not chiefly responsible. As we pointed out on this page last week, the administration’s performance in Afghanistan has been hamstrung by continuing differences between civilian officials and military commanders that date to the debate over strategy last year. …

Mr. Obama has tolerated this feuding, with consequences that include poor coordination of military and civilian operations and deteriorating relations with Mr. Karzai. His dismissal of Gen. McChrystal would hand a victory to those in his administration who have resisted the counterinsurgency operations.

There is a fourth reason: Obama needs to shed his peevish and self-absorbed persona, to demonstrate to friends and foes that he can command a war effort, and to dispel the growing perception that he’s in over his head. He doesn’t do this by being the tough guy with the general, whom we have relied on to win the war. (And by the way, if McChrystal does quit, won’t we hear a whole lot more from him about the civilian officials who’ve been making the military’s job harder?) For a president very much concerned about his own image, maybe the most compelling argument for him to keep McChrystal is this: it’ll make Obama look good.

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What Those Primary Results Mean

Blanche Lincoln narrowly beat her Democratic challenger Bill Halter. She is among the walking wounded stumbling into the November election and is unlikely to keep her seat. Ben Smith got the quote of the night: “A senior White House official just called me with a very pointed message for the administration’s sometime allies in organized labor, who invested heavily in beating Blanche Lincoln, Obama’s candidate, in Arkanas. ‘Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,’ the official said. ‘If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.'” I’m sure the labor bosses — like President Karzai — will adore being dissed in public. Lesson: Mushy moderates who’ve boasted about their backroom deals have a hard road ahead.

Nikki Haley overcame an adultery smear campaign and won big but fell barely short of a majority. She will have a runoff against Rep. Gresham Barrett. If she couldn’t be knocked out by rumors of a sex scandal now, she has a good chance to prevail in the runoff and become the state’s first woman governor. Lesson: Voters have become skeptical if not hostile to nasty smears; those who think that’s a winning tactic risk an equally nasty backlash. And it doesn’t hurt when you have Sarah Palin at your side to stir up the base.

In Nevada, voters dumped the incumbent, the scandal-plagued Jim Gibbons, in favor of  Brian Sandoval, who would be the state’s first Hispanic governor (and who would confuse pundits who are certain Republicans have permanently offended Hispanics). In the Senate race, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle beat the former state chairwoman and other candidates. Lesson: Throw the bums out. And the Tea Party movement still matters.

In California, both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina (also Palin-endorsed) won big. In the Senate race, the lesson from Tom Campbell’s thumping is four-fold. First, anti-Israel votes and statements are losers with the GOP base (but can earn you a J Street endorsement, kudos from Peter Beinart, or a column in the Nation). Washington politicians are out of favor — honest. And the GOP has zero interest in mushy moderates with a mixed record on taxes (i.e., Charlie Crist isn’t the only one who missed the populist revolt). Finally, it matters how strong and creative a campaign you run — better ads, a more-engaging candidate, and sharper debating beat worse ads, a less-engaging candidate, and worse debating most of the time. And from the gubernatorial primary, we can only ponder why in the world Meg Whitman wants the job of governor of a state that most resembles Greece.

The overarching picture is a familiar one: Republicans want candidates who aren’t Democratic-lite, and incumbents are guilty until proven innocent in the minds of voters. Republican women — Haley, Fiorina, Angle, and Whitman — had a good night, so Democrats will have to find an insult other than “sexist” to hurl at the GOP.

Blanche Lincoln narrowly beat her Democratic challenger Bill Halter. She is among the walking wounded stumbling into the November election and is unlikely to keep her seat. Ben Smith got the quote of the night: “A senior White House official just called me with a very pointed message for the administration’s sometime allies in organized labor, who invested heavily in beating Blanche Lincoln, Obama’s candidate, in Arkanas. ‘Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,’ the official said. ‘If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.'” I’m sure the labor bosses — like President Karzai — will adore being dissed in public. Lesson: Mushy moderates who’ve boasted about their backroom deals have a hard road ahead.

Nikki Haley overcame an adultery smear campaign and won big but fell barely short of a majority. She will have a runoff against Rep. Gresham Barrett. If she couldn’t be knocked out by rumors of a sex scandal now, she has a good chance to prevail in the runoff and become the state’s first woman governor. Lesson: Voters have become skeptical if not hostile to nasty smears; those who think that’s a winning tactic risk an equally nasty backlash. And it doesn’t hurt when you have Sarah Palin at your side to stir up the base.

In Nevada, voters dumped the incumbent, the scandal-plagued Jim Gibbons, in favor of  Brian Sandoval, who would be the state’s first Hispanic governor (and who would confuse pundits who are certain Republicans have permanently offended Hispanics). In the Senate race, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle beat the former state chairwoman and other candidates. Lesson: Throw the bums out. And the Tea Party movement still matters.

In California, both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina (also Palin-endorsed) won big. In the Senate race, the lesson from Tom Campbell’s thumping is four-fold. First, anti-Israel votes and statements are losers with the GOP base (but can earn you a J Street endorsement, kudos from Peter Beinart, or a column in the Nation). Washington politicians are out of favor — honest. And the GOP has zero interest in mushy moderates with a mixed record on taxes (i.e., Charlie Crist isn’t the only one who missed the populist revolt). Finally, it matters how strong and creative a campaign you run — better ads, a more-engaging candidate, and sharper debating beat worse ads, a less-engaging candidate, and worse debating most of the time. And from the gubernatorial primary, we can only ponder why in the world Meg Whitman wants the job of governor of a state that most resembles Greece.

The overarching picture is a familiar one: Republicans want candidates who aren’t Democratic-lite, and incumbents are guilty until proven innocent in the minds of voters. Republican women — Haley, Fiorina, Angle, and Whitman — had a good night, so Democrats will have to find an insult other than “sexist” to hurl at the GOP.

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RE: The Shocking Rashad Hussain Interview

No doubt alarmed by the Rashad Hussain interview, the State Department has provided a transcript and an audio recording of the interview that departs in significant respects from the interview that was printed at the Asharq Al-Awsat website. As a preliminary matter, one has to wonder whether there is utility in speaking to such publications if the words of our special envoy are simply converted to anti-American and pro-Palestinian talking points. It is not clear whether the State Department will be requesting a retraction/correction.

What is different? Most clearly Hussain does not bash the Bush administration. In fact, when asked about overcoming hostility caused by the Bush administration, he says:

What we are really concerned about and moving forward on is implementing new areas of cooperation. Just to give you an example, to be fair to the previous administration, the envoy to the OIC was something that President Bush announced towards the end of his administration, so we are looking to go forward and really build on that and to make sure that the cooperation between the envoy and Muslim communities around the world is based on a whole range of issues, and some of those I’ve discussed with you.

However, as I indicated in my earlier post, the premise of the question — that the U.S. is responsible for hostility — is nowhere rebutted by Hussain, who is supposed to be representing the U.S., after all.

The Palestinian-Israeli question, however, is still the focus of Hussain’s pitch in the State Department version of the transcript. When asked what can be done about criticism of the U.S. “for its standing by Israel,” Hussain does not assert that Israel is an ally nor suggest that there is any other cause of hostility. (Iran perhaps? Syria?) He praises George Mitchell and coos about the two-state solution. His answer as to how to “renew the Islamic world’s confidence in the USA” is a bit strange:

The main thing which is going to improve relations between the United States and Muslims around the world is first of all when we make it clear that we have created a framework of cooperation and that our cooperation will not simply be based on one or two issues such as violent extremism, and that the United States makes it clear that we recognize that this is an issue where Muslims reject violent extremism and terrorism. That is the first step. But another step will be to really show results in a number of areas and those include working towards solving the political conflicts. The United States is working to get out of Iraq and the same thing we can say about Afghanistan. The United States is working tirelessly on a solution with the parties involved on the Middle East issue, but we’ve also implemented programs in the area of education where we’ve increased exchanges, in the area of health, we’re working on polio eradication, we’ve cooperated before Hajj on H1N1.  The President just held an entrepreneurship summit as you know, and we have many forums for interfaith dialogue. So we think that as we continue to develop these areas and Muslims and all people around the world see progress, then we’ll have a good basis for restoring positive relations.

Do all Muslims really reject “violent extremism and terrorism”? Why isn’t Hussain making a pitch to defend Muslims, who are the primary victims of Islamic terror? And is the message for Afghanistan — recall that we are now in the business of reassuring President Karzai — really like the one for  Iraq, i.e., that we are “getting out”?

But it is his answer on Sami Al-Arian that remains the most questionable:

You know in that case that I said very clearly on the panel that I wasn’t commenting on any of the specific allegations on him but I was making a comment about the process that was used in that case. And I think that in many of the cases which I’ve talked about, for example Chaplain Yee, the case of Brandon Mayfield, that the outcomes that have resulted in the United States, for example in both of those cases resulting in the two that were accused of being freed for example, that the justice system has fairly resolved the outcome in those cases. And I think that in America we have one of the most — we have the most just and process-oriented legal systems in the world, and I am very confident that we’ll continue in this way and we’ll continue to produce just outcomes.

This version is arguably worse than the original one. Here he seems to be reiterating that the prosecution was tainted in some respect. What is he saying about “the process used in that case”? Again, he doesn’t deny that such an allegation is shameful.

It is fair to exonerate Hussain of Bush-bashing. But this version remains problematic for the reasons stated earlier. Hussain seems to that think his job is to conceal the relationship with Israel, downplay our war in Afghanistan, minimize the focus on terrorism, and be utterly silent on Iran. This is the message we are transmitting to the “Muslim World.”

No doubt alarmed by the Rashad Hussain interview, the State Department has provided a transcript and an audio recording of the interview that departs in significant respects from the interview that was printed at the Asharq Al-Awsat website. As a preliminary matter, one has to wonder whether there is utility in speaking to such publications if the words of our special envoy are simply converted to anti-American and pro-Palestinian talking points. It is not clear whether the State Department will be requesting a retraction/correction.

What is different? Most clearly Hussain does not bash the Bush administration. In fact, when asked about overcoming hostility caused by the Bush administration, he says:

What we are really concerned about and moving forward on is implementing new areas of cooperation. Just to give you an example, to be fair to the previous administration, the envoy to the OIC was something that President Bush announced towards the end of his administration, so we are looking to go forward and really build on that and to make sure that the cooperation between the envoy and Muslim communities around the world is based on a whole range of issues, and some of those I’ve discussed with you.

However, as I indicated in my earlier post, the premise of the question — that the U.S. is responsible for hostility — is nowhere rebutted by Hussain, who is supposed to be representing the U.S., after all.

The Palestinian-Israeli question, however, is still the focus of Hussain’s pitch in the State Department version of the transcript. When asked what can be done about criticism of the U.S. “for its standing by Israel,” Hussain does not assert that Israel is an ally nor suggest that there is any other cause of hostility. (Iran perhaps? Syria?) He praises George Mitchell and coos about the two-state solution. His answer as to how to “renew the Islamic world’s confidence in the USA” is a bit strange:

The main thing which is going to improve relations between the United States and Muslims around the world is first of all when we make it clear that we have created a framework of cooperation and that our cooperation will not simply be based on one or two issues such as violent extremism, and that the United States makes it clear that we recognize that this is an issue where Muslims reject violent extremism and terrorism. That is the first step. But another step will be to really show results in a number of areas and those include working towards solving the political conflicts. The United States is working to get out of Iraq and the same thing we can say about Afghanistan. The United States is working tirelessly on a solution with the parties involved on the Middle East issue, but we’ve also implemented programs in the area of education where we’ve increased exchanges, in the area of health, we’re working on polio eradication, we’ve cooperated before Hajj on H1N1.  The President just held an entrepreneurship summit as you know, and we have many forums for interfaith dialogue. So we think that as we continue to develop these areas and Muslims and all people around the world see progress, then we’ll have a good basis for restoring positive relations.

Do all Muslims really reject “violent extremism and terrorism”? Why isn’t Hussain making a pitch to defend Muslims, who are the primary victims of Islamic terror? And is the message for Afghanistan — recall that we are now in the business of reassuring President Karzai — really like the one for  Iraq, i.e., that we are “getting out”?

But it is his answer on Sami Al-Arian that remains the most questionable:

You know in that case that I said very clearly on the panel that I wasn’t commenting on any of the specific allegations on him but I was making a comment about the process that was used in that case. And I think that in many of the cases which I’ve talked about, for example Chaplain Yee, the case of Brandon Mayfield, that the outcomes that have resulted in the United States, for example in both of those cases resulting in the two that were accused of being freed for example, that the justice system has fairly resolved the outcome in those cases. And I think that in America we have one of the most — we have the most just and process-oriented legal systems in the world, and I am very confident that we’ll continue in this way and we’ll continue to produce just outcomes.

This version is arguably worse than the original one. Here he seems to be reiterating that the prosecution was tainted in some respect. What is he saying about “the process used in that case”? Again, he doesn’t deny that such an allegation is shameful.

It is fair to exonerate Hussain of Bush-bashing. But this version remains problematic for the reasons stated earlier. Hussain seems to that think his job is to conceal the relationship with Israel, downplay our war in Afghanistan, minimize the focus on terrorism, and be utterly silent on Iran. This is the message we are transmitting to the “Muslim World.”

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Egypt Figures Out Obama Doesn’t Care About Democracy

The Washington Post editors remind us that Hosni Mubarak has extended the country’s “emergency” laws (the “emergency” has been going on since 1981) for another two years. They explain:

In so doing, he flouted an emerging mass movement that has called for the law’s lifting, so that elections for parliament and president scheduled for the next 18 months can be genuinely democratic. He also violated the repeated pledges that he and his ruling party have made to end the emergency regime, dating back to 2005.

Last but not least, Mr. Mubarak took advantage of the policy of the Obama administration, which has chosen to soft-pedal the cause of democracy and human rights in Egypt and across the Middle East. Even as it has publicly demanded that Israel freeze Jewish settlements and that Mr. Karzai reform his government, the administration has gently stroked Egypt’s strongman, on the theory that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship needed mending after the Bush administration.

So the thugocracy of Mubarak will continue and the next election will be a sham, as have been the previous ones. Meanwhile, the administration declares the move “regrettable.” It doesn’t even feign being “deeply concerned” or “profoundly troubled.”

And what have we accomplished with this reticence? Egypt teamed up with Iran to hassle Israel about the Nonproliferation Treaty. Egypt’s repression of religious minorities and political critics has increased. So once again we have thrown human rights and democracy promotion under the bus, with nothing to show for it. The Middle East inches closer to a deadly nuclear-arms race and the Arab regimes become more and more repressive. This is what comes from Obama’s “smart” diplomacy.

The Washington Post editors remind us that Hosni Mubarak has extended the country’s “emergency” laws (the “emergency” has been going on since 1981) for another two years. They explain:

In so doing, he flouted an emerging mass movement that has called for the law’s lifting, so that elections for parliament and president scheduled for the next 18 months can be genuinely democratic. He also violated the repeated pledges that he and his ruling party have made to end the emergency regime, dating back to 2005.

Last but not least, Mr. Mubarak took advantage of the policy of the Obama administration, which has chosen to soft-pedal the cause of democracy and human rights in Egypt and across the Middle East. Even as it has publicly demanded that Israel freeze Jewish settlements and that Mr. Karzai reform his government, the administration has gently stroked Egypt’s strongman, on the theory that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship needed mending after the Bush administration.

So the thugocracy of Mubarak will continue and the next election will be a sham, as have been the previous ones. Meanwhile, the administration declares the move “regrettable.” It doesn’t even feign being “deeply concerned” or “profoundly troubled.”

And what have we accomplished with this reticence? Egypt teamed up with Iran to hassle Israel about the Nonproliferation Treaty. Egypt’s repression of religious minorities and political critics has increased. So once again we have thrown human rights and democracy promotion under the bus, with nothing to show for it. The Middle East inches closer to a deadly nuclear-arms race and the Arab regimes become more and more repressive. This is what comes from Obama’s “smart” diplomacy.

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Liz Cheney: Maybe We Should Be Nice to Our Allies

Liz Cheney at the Republican Southern Leadership Conference issued a searing indictment of Obama’s treatment of our allies:

In the era of Obama, American allies have their loyalty met with humiliation, arrogance and incompetence. The shabby reception Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu received in Washington a few weeks ago — being treated as an uninvited guest at the White House — was disgraceful. President Obama must not understand the most fundamental point about US-Israeli relations — the world is safer when there is no daylight between America and the state of Israel.

Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East and one of our strongest and most important allies in the world. Barack Obama is playing a reckless game that could have deadly consequences if he continues on the path of diminishing America’s ties to Israel. Israel is not the only ally to have felt Obama’s wrath — last year the Obama Administration pulled the rug out from under leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic by abruptly canceling a missile defense system they had committed to host. We did so because the Russians complained.

Afghan President Karzai, whose support we need if we are going to succeed in Afghanistan, is being treated to an especially dangerous and juvenile display from this White House. They dress him down publicly almost daily and refuse to even say that he is an ally. There is a saying in the Arab world: “It is more dangerous to be America’s friend than to be her enemy.” In the age of Obama, that is proving true.

Although Cheney is undeniably one of the most popular conservatives and the Left’s second-favorite bogeywoman, her message should not be controversial and is anything but extreme. Presidents of both parties at least tried to maintain robust alliances with like-minded democracies. It is extraordinary to have a president now who by design seeks to distance himself from loyal allies for the purpose of proving our bona fides to our foes.

Nor was Cheney’s critique of Obama’s Iran policy particularly controversial. Given the mullahs’ behavior for more than a year, it’s hard to dispute this:

Ultimately, the only way diplomacy will succeed in halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions is if the mullahs understand, beyond a doubt, that America will take military action if they don’t comply peacefully. No enticements can work — there is nothing the international community can offer Iran that is worth more to them than a nuclear weapon. And watered down sanctions carry their own danger — they buy time for Iran while imposing no cost. The dangers grow to us and our allies with every hour we waste.

And it’s equally clear that our quietude over the repression of the Green Movement has “lost the respect of all concerned — both the oppressors and the oppressed.”

It is a measure of how feckless the Obama policies have become that commonsense notions previously embraced by presidents of both parties — treat allies well, don’t foreswear the use of American force, support democracy movements — are now anathema to the White House. Had Obama run on a platform of Israel-bashing, Iran appeasement, and retreat on human rights, it is questionable whether he would have cleared the bar of acceptability for a novice on the world stage. But that’s the course he’s on — one that is proving treacherous and leaves many more Americans agreeing with Cheney than with their president when it comes to national security.

Liz Cheney at the Republican Southern Leadership Conference issued a searing indictment of Obama’s treatment of our allies:

In the era of Obama, American allies have their loyalty met with humiliation, arrogance and incompetence. The shabby reception Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu received in Washington a few weeks ago — being treated as an uninvited guest at the White House — was disgraceful. President Obama must not understand the most fundamental point about US-Israeli relations — the world is safer when there is no daylight between America and the state of Israel.

Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East and one of our strongest and most important allies in the world. Barack Obama is playing a reckless game that could have deadly consequences if he continues on the path of diminishing America’s ties to Israel. Israel is not the only ally to have felt Obama’s wrath — last year the Obama Administration pulled the rug out from under leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic by abruptly canceling a missile defense system they had committed to host. We did so because the Russians complained.

Afghan President Karzai, whose support we need if we are going to succeed in Afghanistan, is being treated to an especially dangerous and juvenile display from this White House. They dress him down publicly almost daily and refuse to even say that he is an ally. There is a saying in the Arab world: “It is more dangerous to be America’s friend than to be her enemy.” In the age of Obama, that is proving true.

Although Cheney is undeniably one of the most popular conservatives and the Left’s second-favorite bogeywoman, her message should not be controversial and is anything but extreme. Presidents of both parties at least tried to maintain robust alliances with like-minded democracies. It is extraordinary to have a president now who by design seeks to distance himself from loyal allies for the purpose of proving our bona fides to our foes.

Nor was Cheney’s critique of Obama’s Iran policy particularly controversial. Given the mullahs’ behavior for more than a year, it’s hard to dispute this:

Ultimately, the only way diplomacy will succeed in halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions is if the mullahs understand, beyond a doubt, that America will take military action if they don’t comply peacefully. No enticements can work — there is nothing the international community can offer Iran that is worth more to them than a nuclear weapon. And watered down sanctions carry their own danger — they buy time for Iran while imposing no cost. The dangers grow to us and our allies with every hour we waste.

And it’s equally clear that our quietude over the repression of the Green Movement has “lost the respect of all concerned — both the oppressors and the oppressed.”

It is a measure of how feckless the Obama policies have become that commonsense notions previously embraced by presidents of both parties — treat allies well, don’t foreswear the use of American force, support democracy movements — are now anathema to the White House. Had Obama run on a platform of Israel-bashing, Iran appeasement, and retreat on human rights, it is questionable whether he would have cleared the bar of acceptability for a novice on the world stage. But that’s the course he’s on — one that is proving treacherous and leaves many more Americans agreeing with Cheney than with their president when it comes to national security.

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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.

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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.

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A Fighting Chance

The decision President Obama made was better than the speech he gave. What will matter, long after his address is forgotten, is that Barack Obama gave Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, two of our greatest military minds, the troops (30,000, plus additional allied troops) and strategy (counterinsurgency) they need to prevail in Afghanistan.

To the president’s credit, this is the second wave of troops he has sent to Afghanistan (in February, he approved sending 17,000). Mr. Obama, in siding with McChrystal and Petraeus, wisely ignored the counsel of his vice president, Joe Biden, whose 35-year track record on national-security matters is an almost unbroken string of unwise decisions. And the president made a decision that puts him at odds with his liberal/left-wing base, which seems as eager to lose in Afghanistan as it was eager to lose in Iraq.

As for the understandable concern some people have about Obama’s 18-month time line: it is, at least for now, less worrisome than it might appear. In his speech, Obama said we will “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” That is a key caveat; if conditions on the ground change, Obama has left himself plenty of room to revisit his decision. Nothing is etched in stone. Read More

The decision President Obama made was better than the speech he gave. What will matter, long after his address is forgotten, is that Barack Obama gave Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, two of our greatest military minds, the troops (30,000, plus additional allied troops) and strategy (counterinsurgency) they need to prevail in Afghanistan.

To the president’s credit, this is the second wave of troops he has sent to Afghanistan (in February, he approved sending 17,000). Mr. Obama, in siding with McChrystal and Petraeus, wisely ignored the counsel of his vice president, Joe Biden, whose 35-year track record on national-security matters is an almost unbroken string of unwise decisions. And the president made a decision that puts him at odds with his liberal/left-wing base, which seems as eager to lose in Afghanistan as it was eager to lose in Iraq.

As for the understandable concern some people have about Obama’s 18-month time line: it is, at least for now, less worrisome than it might appear. In his speech, Obama said we will “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” That is a key caveat; if conditions on the ground change, Obama has left himself plenty of room to revisit his decision. Nothing is etched in stone.

The president wisely backed away from bashing President Karzai, which at this point would only have been counterproductive. The focus on Pakistan was appropriate and intelligently stated. There was a degree of realism and candor about the situation that was impressive. Obama skillfully dispatched some of the concerns about his policy. And the president did something that was, for him, rare: he spoke about human rights and American achievements in a manner that was less than grudging.

At the same time, the speech did almost nothing to advance the public’s understanding of what is at the core of a counterinsurgency (as opposed to a counterterrorism) strategy. Obama’s remarks were also another instance of his being ungracious and unfair to his predecessor. You would think that given Obama’s haplessness on a whole range of foreign-policy issues, he would begin to show a smidgen of humility. Not a chance. In addition, the West Point address was far too self-referential and self-justifying, invoking imaginary achievements (such as forging a “new beginning between America and the Muslim World”; Fouad Ajami explodes that myth here). We were reminded by Obama, several times, that “I do not make this decision [to deploy additional troops] lightly.” Nor, he could have added, did he make it expeditiously. And the address included paragraphs that President Bush used to call “cram-ins” — in this instance, a poll-tested section on the economy that was undoubtedly put in by political advisers and that did a fine job of breaking the flow of the speech.

The most worrisome thing about last night, though, is that Obama’s statement that “our resolve [is] unwavering” came across as words on parchment rather than a deep, unwavering commitment. Will he hold shape if the summer of 2010 turns out to be a difficult and bloody one, as it may very well be? I hope so, and I choose to believe so. Will he continue to make the case for this war publicly and repeatedly, to explain to the citizenry why this conflict is worth waging and winning? We shall see. These are open questions. But one cannot help but get the sense that Obama is dealing with Afghanistan only with great reluctance, that he views it as an unwelcome distraction from his domestic agenda. He does not seem to view this war in the context of any great cause, whether it is the liberation of captive peoples or prevailing against men of almost unimaginable cruelty and malevolence. The president came across last night as clinical and detached, somewhat distant and weary. He seemed to be reporting to the nation rather than trying to rally it. You do not sense that this is a man whose heart has been touched by fire.

In the end, though, Obama’s decision will, I think, turn out to be far more important than his words. Having been given the tools, the exceptionally skilled McChrystal and Petraeus, backed up by the greatest fighting force on earth, can finish the job. They at least have a fighting chance, thanks to their commander in chief. At this juncture, that’s about as much as they, and we, could ask for.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Sen. Evan Bayh on a war surtax: “I don’t think it’s a good idea, not at this point, Chris.” He observes that “if ultimately you’re going to have to start talking about raising taxes, you shouldn’t do it until the economy is robust and really on its — on some pretty good footing.” Er … what about the hundreds of billions in the health-care bill?

Dana Perino on what conservatives will probably do if Obama gives Gen. Stanley McChrystal most of what he wants: “I think they’ll have to set aside the fact that they think it was a really sloppy process, that he undermined President Karzai, that he alienated General McChrystal, and say, ‘This is the right thing to do. We wish he wouldn’t talk about exit ramps so soon, but this is the right thing to do,’ and providing the generals what they need.”

Robert Gibbs issues a distressingly comical statement on news that Iran is about to embark on building 10 more enrichment sites, pronouncing that “time is running out for Iran to address the international community’s growing concerns about its nuclear program.” Good grief. Could they possibly sound any more inept and unserious? Perhaps double secret probation is next.

Mike Huckabee says he likes his TV gig and sounds not too serious about running in 2012. But remember, in 2005 we hadn’t a clue who really was and wasn’t going to run in 2008, so perhaps it’s best to wait a year or three before assessing the field.

ObamaCare seems to have a negative impact on its supporters: “When survey respondents are informed that AARP does support the health care plan, the number with a favorable opinion of the group falls 10 percentage points from 53% to 43%. Knowing of AARP’s position on health care legislation, 53% offer an unfavorable opinion of the group. The number with a Very Unfavorable view nearly doubles from 20% to 38%. Those with a negative opinion include 52% of senior citizens and 59% of those aged 50-64.”

Bibi makes clear where the problem rests in the non-peace process: “I see preconditions being laid that never before existed. I see legal steps being taken at the international court to advance that absurd thing called the Goldstone report. You can’t reach peace if the horizon is moving away.”

Richard Allen on the West Point venue for Obama’s speech: “An announcement on which so much rests must be made from the President’s own unique and highly symbolic center of authority, The Oval Office. It has meaning. It should be made by him alone, without the props of thousands in an audience and the hoopla of presidential travel and a massive press entourage. This President surely does not need the device of an audience to authenticate and legitimize his message or to bolster apparent support. But it would appear that he will seek solace, if not a measure of safety, in a large audience over which he has command.”

Another fight in the Senate: “The vote on increasing the debt will come just as Congress tries to put the finishing touches on a trillion-dollar plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system and President Barack Obama considers a possible escalation in the war in Afghanistan that could cost another trillion dollars over the next 10 years. A bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators is threatening to vote against an increase in the debt limit unless Congress passes a new deficit-fighting plan.” Maybe they should just not vote for the trillion-dollar health-care plan.

Mark Steyn bursts the “peer review” balloon: “The trouble with outsourcing your marbles to the peer-reviewed set is that, if you take away one single thing from the leaked documents, it’s that the global warm-mongers have wholly corrupted the ‘peer-review’ process. When it comes to promoting the impending ecopalypse, the Climate Research Unit is the nerve-center of the operation. The ‘science’ of the CRU dominates the ‘science’ behind the UN’s IPCC, which dominates the ‘science’ behind the Congressional cap-and-trade boondoggle, the upcoming Copenhagen shakindownen of the developed world, and the now routine phenomenon of leaders of advanced, prosperous societies talking like gibbering madmen escaped from the padded cell, whether it’s President Obama promising to end the rise of the oceans or the Prince of Wales saying we only have 96 months left to save the planet.”

Sen. Evan Bayh on a war surtax: “I don’t think it’s a good idea, not at this point, Chris.” He observes that “if ultimately you’re going to have to start talking about raising taxes, you shouldn’t do it until the economy is robust and really on its — on some pretty good footing.” Er … what about the hundreds of billions in the health-care bill?

Dana Perino on what conservatives will probably do if Obama gives Gen. Stanley McChrystal most of what he wants: “I think they’ll have to set aside the fact that they think it was a really sloppy process, that he undermined President Karzai, that he alienated General McChrystal, and say, ‘This is the right thing to do. We wish he wouldn’t talk about exit ramps so soon, but this is the right thing to do,’ and providing the generals what they need.”

Robert Gibbs issues a distressingly comical statement on news that Iran is about to embark on building 10 more enrichment sites, pronouncing that “time is running out for Iran to address the international community’s growing concerns about its nuclear program.” Good grief. Could they possibly sound any more inept and unserious? Perhaps double secret probation is next.

Mike Huckabee says he likes his TV gig and sounds not too serious about running in 2012. But remember, in 2005 we hadn’t a clue who really was and wasn’t going to run in 2008, so perhaps it’s best to wait a year or three before assessing the field.

ObamaCare seems to have a negative impact on its supporters: “When survey respondents are informed that AARP does support the health care plan, the number with a favorable opinion of the group falls 10 percentage points from 53% to 43%. Knowing of AARP’s position on health care legislation, 53% offer an unfavorable opinion of the group. The number with a Very Unfavorable view nearly doubles from 20% to 38%. Those with a negative opinion include 52% of senior citizens and 59% of those aged 50-64.”

Bibi makes clear where the problem rests in the non-peace process: “I see preconditions being laid that never before existed. I see legal steps being taken at the international court to advance that absurd thing called the Goldstone report. You can’t reach peace if the horizon is moving away.”

Richard Allen on the West Point venue for Obama’s speech: “An announcement on which so much rests must be made from the President’s own unique and highly symbolic center of authority, The Oval Office. It has meaning. It should be made by him alone, without the props of thousands in an audience and the hoopla of presidential travel and a massive press entourage. This President surely does not need the device of an audience to authenticate and legitimize his message or to bolster apparent support. But it would appear that he will seek solace, if not a measure of safety, in a large audience over which he has command.”

Another fight in the Senate: “The vote on increasing the debt will come just as Congress tries to put the finishing touches on a trillion-dollar plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system and President Barack Obama considers a possible escalation in the war in Afghanistan that could cost another trillion dollars over the next 10 years. A bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators is threatening to vote against an increase in the debt limit unless Congress passes a new deficit-fighting plan.” Maybe they should just not vote for the trillion-dollar health-care plan.

Mark Steyn bursts the “peer review” balloon: “The trouble with outsourcing your marbles to the peer-reviewed set is that, if you take away one single thing from the leaked documents, it’s that the global warm-mongers have wholly corrupted the ‘peer-review’ process. When it comes to promoting the impending ecopalypse, the Climate Research Unit is the nerve-center of the operation. The ‘science’ of the CRU dominates the ‘science’ behind the UN’s IPCC, which dominates the ‘science’ behind the Congressional cap-and-trade boondoggle, the upcoming Copenhagen shakindownen of the developed world, and the now routine phenomenon of leaders of advanced, prosperous societies talking like gibbering madmen escaped from the padded cell, whether it’s President Obama promising to end the rise of the oceans or the Prince of Wales saying we only have 96 months left to save the planet.”

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An About-Face, Finally

After publicly bashing the Afghan government for months, airing their doubts as to whether we have a reliable “partner,” and stalling a decision about the troops while the election was redone (but not really, as the challenger dropped out), the Obami have decided to be nice, or nicer, at any rate, to the government we are trying to stabilize. The Washington Post reports:

As President Obama nears a decision on how many more troops he will dispatch to Afghanistan, his top diplomats and generals are abandoning for now their get-tough tactics with Karzai and attempting to forge a far warmer relationship. They recognize that their initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.

“It’s not sustainable to have a ‘War of the Roses’ relationship here, where . . . we basically throw things at each other,” said another senior administration official . . .

The tension in the relationship stems from the cumulative impact of several White House decisions that were intended to improve the quality of the Afghan government. When Obama became president, he discontinued his predecessor’s practice of holding bimonthly video conferences with Karzai. Obama granted wide latitude to the hard-charging Holbrooke to pressure Karzai to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that have fueled the Taliban’s rise. The administration also indicated that it wanted many candidates to challenge Karzai in the August presidential election.

It turns out that the bullying routine was about as successful in Afghanistan as it has been in the Middle East. But don’t expect much self-reflection. Hillary Clinton is now tasked with the charm offensive. We learn: “As Mr. Karzai begins his new term, Mrs. Clinton has worked to avoid a hectoring tone in her public comments about him. American officials had done too much of that in the past, she said.” The past, meaning the past few months, I suppose.

Once again it seems as though we are having to relearn the lessons of Iraq. There, too, Democrats sneered at the government as hopeless and at its prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, as ineffectual and inept. With the success of the surge and the breathing room to establish a functioning civil government, that perception has changed. And likewise, in Afghanistan, the Obami may be learning belatedly (because they have chosen not to extract any meaningful lessons from the Iraq war, which they were ready to lose) that we actually need to bolster the native government if we hope to defeat our mutual enemy. You’d think smart diplomats would have figured this out much sooner.

After publicly bashing the Afghan government for months, airing their doubts as to whether we have a reliable “partner,” and stalling a decision about the troops while the election was redone (but not really, as the challenger dropped out), the Obami have decided to be nice, or nicer, at any rate, to the government we are trying to stabilize. The Washington Post reports:

As President Obama nears a decision on how many more troops he will dispatch to Afghanistan, his top diplomats and generals are abandoning for now their get-tough tactics with Karzai and attempting to forge a far warmer relationship. They recognize that their initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.

“It’s not sustainable to have a ‘War of the Roses’ relationship here, where . . . we basically throw things at each other,” said another senior administration official . . .

The tension in the relationship stems from the cumulative impact of several White House decisions that were intended to improve the quality of the Afghan government. When Obama became president, he discontinued his predecessor’s practice of holding bimonthly video conferences with Karzai. Obama granted wide latitude to the hard-charging Holbrooke to pressure Karzai to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that have fueled the Taliban’s rise. The administration also indicated that it wanted many candidates to challenge Karzai in the August presidential election.

It turns out that the bullying routine was about as successful in Afghanistan as it has been in the Middle East. But don’t expect much self-reflection. Hillary Clinton is now tasked with the charm offensive. We learn: “As Mr. Karzai begins his new term, Mrs. Clinton has worked to avoid a hectoring tone in her public comments about him. American officials had done too much of that in the past, she said.” The past, meaning the past few months, I suppose.

Once again it seems as though we are having to relearn the lessons of Iraq. There, too, Democrats sneered at the government as hopeless and at its prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, as ineffectual and inept. With the success of the surge and the breathing room to establish a functioning civil government, that perception has changed. And likewise, in Afghanistan, the Obami may be learning belatedly (because they have chosen not to extract any meaningful lessons from the Iraq war, which they were ready to lose) that we actually need to bolster the native government if we hope to defeat our mutual enemy. You’d think smart diplomats would have figured this out much sooner.

Read Less




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