Commentary Magazine


Topic: North Atlantic Treaty Organization

What Can the GOP Senators Get?

Untangling fact from fiction and sneer from substance in a Maureen Dowd column is not a task for the fainthearted, especially when she wades into matters of policy. But let’s give it a shot. She writes:

But faced with the treaty’s unraveling, with possible deleterious consequences for sanctions on Iran and supply lines for our troops in Afghanistan, Obama had no choice. Even if the treaty doesn’t much affect our strategic security, it affects the relationship with Russia and our standing in the world. And resetting the relationship with Russia, with his buddy Dmitri, is the president’s only significant foreign policy accomplishment.

We will start with the accurate part: Obama has no other foreign policy accomplishments aside from whatever he has gotten out of our newly styled relationship with Russia. This is called “reset” because it sounds so much better than “appeasement.” Putin has much to show for his dealings with Obama. Missile-defense facilities were yanked out of Poland and the Czech Republic. We’ve been rather mute about the Russian thugocracy’s repressive tactics, and Russia still occupies a chunk of Georgia.

But what exactly has Obama accomplished? The Swiss cheese sanctions against Iran, which are not slowing the mullahs’ rush to nuclear powerdom, are not much to write home about. In fact, the Russians helped build and load fuel into the Bushehr nuclear plant, which seems to have accelerated the Iranian nuclear program. And then there is the alleged help in Afghanistan. Jamie Fly has debunked that one:

Unfortunately, only five supply flights occurred in the first six months of the program, an underwhelming number considering the administration’s bold projections.  This failure to meet expectations prompted Politico’s Ben Smith to remark that it was “hard to see this as a particularly major achievement of a revived relationship.”  Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Russian Affairs, recently stated that as of June 18, only 275 flights had occurred over Russian territory.  Had the administration’s bold projections proved accurate, nearly 3,500 flights should have already occurred.

Russia has also played an extensive role in undermining NATO transportation capabilities in other countries throughout the region, and in some cases has actively worked against U.S. efforts to adequately supply forces in Afghanistan. Recently, the United States was forced to triple its annual leasing rights payments to Bishkek after Moscow placed significant pressure on Kyrgyzstan to remove the U.S. air base at Manas.  A Russian-influenced campaign led to the ouster of President Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan and placed the tenuous status of the Manas air base again in peril.  If continued unrest in Kyrgyzstan leads to a closure of Manas, Russian intransigence in Central Asia could prove to be very costly for the American war effort.

So we are down to voting for an arms-control treaty, regardless of the merits, because otherwise Obama will look worse than he already does. Does this sound familiar? It’s akin to the Middle East peace talks bribe-a-thon, which was also meant to save the president from embarrassment (but merely has convinced onlookers, as one Israel expert put it, that the Obama diplomats “have taken leave of their senses”).

And what of the timing? In the case of both the Middles East and New START agreements, the deals must happen NOW — again, because Obama needs a boost.

Perhaps Sen. Jon Kyl had it wrong in declaring there will be no treaty ratification in the lame duck session. Really, that’s not the way to manage Obama. Instead, it’s time for the GOP senators to name their price. The Israelis got planes, promises to be defended in the UN, and a guarantee that the Obama team absolutely, positively won’t ask for any more settlement freezes. What could the GOP Senate get? They have already secured a multi-billion-dollar modernization plan, but is that really “enough”? Obama, you see, is desperate to get a deal, so the Republican senators should get creative — agreement on the Bush tax cuts, a dealing on spending cuts, etc. Too much? Oh no, the Republicans can tell the White House that this is called “reset.” And the name of the game is to create an exceptionally imbalanced relationship in which the only benefit to Obama is the right to tout his dealmaking skills.

Untangling fact from fiction and sneer from substance in a Maureen Dowd column is not a task for the fainthearted, especially when she wades into matters of policy. But let’s give it a shot. She writes:

But faced with the treaty’s unraveling, with possible deleterious consequences for sanctions on Iran and supply lines for our troops in Afghanistan, Obama had no choice. Even if the treaty doesn’t much affect our strategic security, it affects the relationship with Russia and our standing in the world. And resetting the relationship with Russia, with his buddy Dmitri, is the president’s only significant foreign policy accomplishment.

We will start with the accurate part: Obama has no other foreign policy accomplishments aside from whatever he has gotten out of our newly styled relationship with Russia. This is called “reset” because it sounds so much better than “appeasement.” Putin has much to show for his dealings with Obama. Missile-defense facilities were yanked out of Poland and the Czech Republic. We’ve been rather mute about the Russian thugocracy’s repressive tactics, and Russia still occupies a chunk of Georgia.

But what exactly has Obama accomplished? The Swiss cheese sanctions against Iran, which are not slowing the mullahs’ rush to nuclear powerdom, are not much to write home about. In fact, the Russians helped build and load fuel into the Bushehr nuclear plant, which seems to have accelerated the Iranian nuclear program. And then there is the alleged help in Afghanistan. Jamie Fly has debunked that one:

Unfortunately, only five supply flights occurred in the first six months of the program, an underwhelming number considering the administration’s bold projections.  This failure to meet expectations prompted Politico’s Ben Smith to remark that it was “hard to see this as a particularly major achievement of a revived relationship.”  Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Russian Affairs, recently stated that as of June 18, only 275 flights had occurred over Russian territory.  Had the administration’s bold projections proved accurate, nearly 3,500 flights should have already occurred.

Russia has also played an extensive role in undermining NATO transportation capabilities in other countries throughout the region, and in some cases has actively worked against U.S. efforts to adequately supply forces in Afghanistan. Recently, the United States was forced to triple its annual leasing rights payments to Bishkek after Moscow placed significant pressure on Kyrgyzstan to remove the U.S. air base at Manas.  A Russian-influenced campaign led to the ouster of President Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan and placed the tenuous status of the Manas air base again in peril.  If continued unrest in Kyrgyzstan leads to a closure of Manas, Russian intransigence in Central Asia could prove to be very costly for the American war effort.

So we are down to voting for an arms-control treaty, regardless of the merits, because otherwise Obama will look worse than he already does. Does this sound familiar? It’s akin to the Middle East peace talks bribe-a-thon, which was also meant to save the president from embarrassment (but merely has convinced onlookers, as one Israel expert put it, that the Obama diplomats “have taken leave of their senses”).

And what of the timing? In the case of both the Middles East and New START agreements, the deals must happen NOW — again, because Obama needs a boost.

Perhaps Sen. Jon Kyl had it wrong in declaring there will be no treaty ratification in the lame duck session. Really, that’s not the way to manage Obama. Instead, it’s time for the GOP senators to name their price. The Israelis got planes, promises to be defended in the UN, and a guarantee that the Obama team absolutely, positively won’t ask for any more settlement freezes. What could the GOP Senate get? They have already secured a multi-billion-dollar modernization plan, but is that really “enough”? Obama, you see, is desperate to get a deal, so the Republican senators should get creative — agreement on the Bush tax cuts, a dealing on spending cuts, etc. Too much? Oh no, the Republicans can tell the White House that this is called “reset.” And the name of the game is to create an exceptionally imbalanced relationship in which the only benefit to Obama is the right to tout his dealmaking skills.

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Good Works Plus Firepower Equals Effective Counterinsurgency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Anemic Public Diplomacy

The latest Quinnipiac poll reports:

American voters say 50 – 44 percent that the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan, the first time the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University poll finds more voters opposed to the war.  This compares to a September 9 survey in which voters said 49 – 41 percent that the U.S. was doing the right thing in Afghanistan. … Support for President Barack Obama’s policy in Afghanistan turns the political landscape upside down. Democrats say 62 – 33 percent the United States should not be there, even though they strongly support President Obama heavily on virtually all other issues. Republicans, who oppose Obama on most issues, back the war 64 – 31 percent. Independent voters say 54 – 40 percent the United States should not be in Afghanistan. Military families are divided, as 49 percent believe the U.S. is doing the right thing in Afghanistan while 47 percent say the U.S. should not be involved.

There are two issues here. First, given the example the Democrats set during the Iraq war, it is remarkable that Republicans have stuck to their principles and continued support for that war. It’s not a theme that the mainstream media have dwelled on all that much — OK, they’ve entirely ignored it. But when Obama and the White House start whining about GOP partisanship and its being the party of “no,” someone should remind them that on one of the most controversial aspects of Obama’s agenda, the GOP has hung tight.

The second issue is that Obama’s lack of public diplomacy and mixed messaging on our timeline for withdrawal have allowed public support for the war to slide. He’s not made the case forcefully and consistently for why we are there and why we must prevail. At the FPI conference this week, administration figures suggested that at the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon, Obama would issue a forceful statement on the war effort. This is good, but it shouldn’t be a single declaration. Obama seems to think he has a “communications” problem. While that may be a lame excuse for an election wipeout, it’s an accurate indictment of his war effort. He should commit to remedying that deficiency.

The latest Quinnipiac poll reports:

American voters say 50 – 44 percent that the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan, the first time the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University poll finds more voters opposed to the war.  This compares to a September 9 survey in which voters said 49 – 41 percent that the U.S. was doing the right thing in Afghanistan. … Support for President Barack Obama’s policy in Afghanistan turns the political landscape upside down. Democrats say 62 – 33 percent the United States should not be there, even though they strongly support President Obama heavily on virtually all other issues. Republicans, who oppose Obama on most issues, back the war 64 – 31 percent. Independent voters say 54 – 40 percent the United States should not be in Afghanistan. Military families are divided, as 49 percent believe the U.S. is doing the right thing in Afghanistan while 47 percent say the U.S. should not be involved.

There are two issues here. First, given the example the Democrats set during the Iraq war, it is remarkable that Republicans have stuck to their principles and continued support for that war. It’s not a theme that the mainstream media have dwelled on all that much — OK, they’ve entirely ignored it. But when Obama and the White House start whining about GOP partisanship and its being the party of “no,” someone should remind them that on one of the most controversial aspects of Obama’s agenda, the GOP has hung tight.

The second issue is that Obama’s lack of public diplomacy and mixed messaging on our timeline for withdrawal have allowed public support for the war to slide. He’s not made the case forcefully and consistently for why we are there and why we must prevail. At the FPI conference this week, administration figures suggested that at the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon, Obama would issue a forceful statement on the war effort. This is good, but it shouldn’t be a single declaration. Obama seems to think he has a “communications” problem. While that may be a lame excuse for an election wipeout, it’s an accurate indictment of his war effort. He should commit to remedying that deficiency.

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NATO Going Cold Turkey

More evidence that NATO is in trouble has come alive as the alliance prepares for its summit this weekend. As reported in several news sources, Turkey has gotten its way, and NATO officialdom will make no mention of Iran as a missile threat so as not to complicate things for NATO’s only Islamist member. The whole thing is, of course, a farce. NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who, as Danish prime minister during the cartoon affair, has already had a flavor of Turkish tolerance), has confirmed that NATO’s new strategic concept, due to be released at the summit, will not name Iran as a particular threat. Pressed by journalists, NATO spokesman James Appathurai was quoted as saying that “[t]here are at least 30 countries, more than 30 countries, acquiring, that have or are acquiring ballistic missile capability,” he replied. “So this is not just about one country. It’s about a growing and, in essence, generic potential threat to our territory.”

Now, we will not argue with the fact that NATO’s readiness to embrace missile defense may be more than just about Iran — after all, Syria and Libya have missiles (Libya actually shot missiles once at a NATO ally — Italy — in 1986, in lame retaliation for the U.S. raid over Tripoli). If Pakistan ever fell into the wrong hands, there would be even more reason to worry. And North Korea may one day have ICBMs to threaten NATO countries (it already threatens NATO allies and partners).

But why not point out Iran, given that Libya has renounced its nuclear program and Syria is an Iran proxy whose nuclear program benefited from Iranian and North Korean support? And the 30-country myth is especially silly — as it includes countries too far away to threaten NATO countries, friendly countries, NATO members, countries with obsolete missile programs, and then, well, and then Iran.

If missile defense is to be an essential component of NATO’s new doctrine of nuclear deterrence in a world populated in the future by rogue states with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, then it would be desirable to recall that another essential element of any deterrence doctrine is some kind of declaratory policy. If all we get from NATO is denial for Turkey’s appeasement’s sake, the credibility of NATO’s deterrence is harmed.

Which all comes down to a simple matter — why is Turkey still a member of the alliance?

More evidence that NATO is in trouble has come alive as the alliance prepares for its summit this weekend. As reported in several news sources, Turkey has gotten its way, and NATO officialdom will make no mention of Iran as a missile threat so as not to complicate things for NATO’s only Islamist member. The whole thing is, of course, a farce. NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who, as Danish prime minister during the cartoon affair, has already had a flavor of Turkish tolerance), has confirmed that NATO’s new strategic concept, due to be released at the summit, will not name Iran as a particular threat. Pressed by journalists, NATO spokesman James Appathurai was quoted as saying that “[t]here are at least 30 countries, more than 30 countries, acquiring, that have or are acquiring ballistic missile capability,” he replied. “So this is not just about one country. It’s about a growing and, in essence, generic potential threat to our territory.”

Now, we will not argue with the fact that NATO’s readiness to embrace missile defense may be more than just about Iran — after all, Syria and Libya have missiles (Libya actually shot missiles once at a NATO ally — Italy — in 1986, in lame retaliation for the U.S. raid over Tripoli). If Pakistan ever fell into the wrong hands, there would be even more reason to worry. And North Korea may one day have ICBMs to threaten NATO countries (it already threatens NATO allies and partners).

But why not point out Iran, given that Libya has renounced its nuclear program and Syria is an Iran proxy whose nuclear program benefited from Iranian and North Korean support? And the 30-country myth is especially silly — as it includes countries too far away to threaten NATO countries, friendly countries, NATO members, countries with obsolete missile programs, and then, well, and then Iran.

If missile defense is to be an essential component of NATO’s new doctrine of nuclear deterrence in a world populated in the future by rogue states with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, then it would be desirable to recall that another essential element of any deterrence doctrine is some kind of declaratory policy. If all we get from NATO is denial for Turkey’s appeasement’s sake, the credibility of NATO’s deterrence is harmed.

Which all comes down to a simple matter — why is Turkey still a member of the alliance?

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Karzai’s Words, and His Actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Finally we get “not only the authoritative takedown of ‘Fair Game,’ Douglas Liman’s meretricious cinematic hagiography of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, but also the essential case, laid out with amazing meticulousness, for a presidential pardon for Scooter Libby.”

No final tally yet for Republicans in the House. From the Cook Political Report (subscription required): “Overall, Republicans have captured 238 seats, Democrats have won 189 seats, and eight still hang in the balance. We expect each party to win three of these seats, while the two New York races (NY-01 and NY-25) are genuinely too close to call. Depending on the final outcome of these contests, Republicans are likely to have scored a net gain of between 62 and 64 seats in the House, the most in a midterm since 1938.”

The final act for Michael Steele? “As he contemplates running for a second term, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele is on the verge of losing his coalition of supporters. Even some of those closest to the controversial chairman have begun urging him to step aside. … Meanwhile, a group of prominent Republicans led by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie are searching for a consensus candidate capable of defeating Steele. Though they have not settled on a challenger, and in fact are unlikely to find a consensus choice, strategists who both support and oppose Steele say coalitions are forming now to deny Steele a second term.” Excuse me, but why not Ed Gillespie himself?

The final Senate race is nearly decided. “Sen. Lisa Murkowski is well on her way to pulling off a stunning upset victory in the Alaska Senate race after one day of counting write-in votes, despite Republican nominee Joe Miller’s legal challenges to the process. Murkowski took nearly 98 percent of the 19,203 write-in ballots counted Wednesday, with more than 8 percent of those awarded to her after an initial challenge by Miller over voters’ spelling abilities was thrown out.”

COMMENTARY contributor Jamie Kirchick finally puts to rest the notion that “reset” has paid dividends for us. “The initial appeal of Russia’s assistance — that the country has knowledge of Afghanistan thanks to its own, decade-long engagement — is belied by its brutal record. … Moreover, the actual Russian commitment is small. … More important than any of these factors, however, is the cynical way in which Moscow will use its paltry assistance to the [International Security Assistance Force] as leverage with the West in negotiations over other matters, from NATO expansion to human rights to missile defense.” Read the whole thing, which should be entitled “How Putin Took Obama to the Cleaners.”

Christine O’Donnell may finally be seeking a job for which she is well-suited. It seems there is a reality-show opportunity. Perrrrrfect.

Was Obama’s tinkering with the gulf-oil-spill report the final straw for the principled left? “The oil spill that damaged the Gulf of Mexico’s reefs and wetlands is also threatening to stain the Obama administration’s reputation for relying on science to guide policy. Academics, environmentalists and federal investigators have accused the administration since the April spill of downplaying scientific findings, misrepresenting data and most recently misconstruing the opinions of experts it solicited.”

The final figures for another failed government subsidy are in. Not good: “Any possible housing market recovery hit a snag during the three months ended September 30, as a government tax credit for homebuyers wound down. Home prices fell only slightly during the quarter, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), but the number of homes sold plummeted more than 25%, compared with the previous quarter.”

This will not be the final foreign-policy rebuff. “For President Obama, the last-minute failure to seal a trade deal with South Korea that would expand American exports of automobiles and beef is an embarrassing setback that deprives him of a foreign policy trophy and demonstrates how the midterm elections may have weakened his position abroad.”

Finally we get “not only the authoritative takedown of ‘Fair Game,’ Douglas Liman’s meretricious cinematic hagiography of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, but also the essential case, laid out with amazing meticulousness, for a presidential pardon for Scooter Libby.”

No final tally yet for Republicans in the House. From the Cook Political Report (subscription required): “Overall, Republicans have captured 238 seats, Democrats have won 189 seats, and eight still hang in the balance. We expect each party to win three of these seats, while the two New York races (NY-01 and NY-25) are genuinely too close to call. Depending on the final outcome of these contests, Republicans are likely to have scored a net gain of between 62 and 64 seats in the House, the most in a midterm since 1938.”

The final act for Michael Steele? “As he contemplates running for a second term, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele is on the verge of losing his coalition of supporters. Even some of those closest to the controversial chairman have begun urging him to step aside. … Meanwhile, a group of prominent Republicans led by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie are searching for a consensus candidate capable of defeating Steele. Though they have not settled on a challenger, and in fact are unlikely to find a consensus choice, strategists who both support and oppose Steele say coalitions are forming now to deny Steele a second term.” Excuse me, but why not Ed Gillespie himself?

The final Senate race is nearly decided. “Sen. Lisa Murkowski is well on her way to pulling off a stunning upset victory in the Alaska Senate race after one day of counting write-in votes, despite Republican nominee Joe Miller’s legal challenges to the process. Murkowski took nearly 98 percent of the 19,203 write-in ballots counted Wednesday, with more than 8 percent of those awarded to her after an initial challenge by Miller over voters’ spelling abilities was thrown out.”

COMMENTARY contributor Jamie Kirchick finally puts to rest the notion that “reset” has paid dividends for us. “The initial appeal of Russia’s assistance — that the country has knowledge of Afghanistan thanks to its own, decade-long engagement — is belied by its brutal record. … Moreover, the actual Russian commitment is small. … More important than any of these factors, however, is the cynical way in which Moscow will use its paltry assistance to the [International Security Assistance Force] as leverage with the West in negotiations over other matters, from NATO expansion to human rights to missile defense.” Read the whole thing, which should be entitled “How Putin Took Obama to the Cleaners.”

Christine O’Donnell may finally be seeking a job for which she is well-suited. It seems there is a reality-show opportunity. Perrrrrfect.

Was Obama’s tinkering with the gulf-oil-spill report the final straw for the principled left? “The oil spill that damaged the Gulf of Mexico’s reefs and wetlands is also threatening to stain the Obama administration’s reputation for relying on science to guide policy. Academics, environmentalists and federal investigators have accused the administration since the April spill of downplaying scientific findings, misrepresenting data and most recently misconstruing the opinions of experts it solicited.”

The final figures for another failed government subsidy are in. Not good: “Any possible housing market recovery hit a snag during the three months ended September 30, as a government tax credit for homebuyers wound down. Home prices fell only slightly during the quarter, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), but the number of homes sold plummeted more than 25%, compared with the previous quarter.”

This will not be the final foreign-policy rebuff. “For President Obama, the last-minute failure to seal a trade deal with South Korea that would expand American exports of automobiles and beef is an embarrassing setback that deprives him of a foreign policy trophy and demonstrates how the midterm elections may have weakened his position abroad.”

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Plus Ça Change

A poignant development illustrates the disintegration of the rarefied post-Cold War order we have inhabited since the early 1990s. Against the backdrop of shocks to that order over the past year and half, this little event may seem minor. But it is emblematic of the actions our strategic opponents no longer fear to take openly.

President Obama, currently in Indonesia, will attend the G-20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 11-12. Dmitry Medvedev arrives in Seoul today for a state visit and will hold bilateral talks with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak prior to the summit. These discussions – in which Korean security and global economic policy are expected to be major topics – continue the theme of Medvedev’s summit with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in October. Each case involves the Russian president talking over the biggest of global and regional issues with key American allies, in advance of the general summits to be held this month (the G-20 meeting in Seoul and the NATO summit in Lisbon).

But that’s not the most telling aspect of Russia’s posture for the G-20 summit in Seoul. That aspect is to be observed down the road in Inchon, from the pier where the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the missile cruiser Varyag, will be moored throughout the summit. The unambiguous signal from this visit is underscored by the report that South Korea will turn over to Varyag a set of artifacts Russia has been requesting for years: a battle flag and remnants of weapons from Varyag’s namesake, which participated in the Russo-Japanese War more than a century ago.

The earlier Varyag, attacked in Inchon in 1904 by a Japanese task force, was scuttled by the captain rather than being surrendered to the more powerful Japanese flotilla. Artifacts recovered from it by the Japanese have been stored in Inchon for decades – and each year since 1996, the modern cruiser Varyag has visited Inchon in February to commemorate the battle. Besides the latent bellicosity of bringing a warship to a G-20 summit, Russia is dealing a symbolic slap to Japan: occupying, under the aegis of a U.S. ally and an international body, the position in which a Japanese force once inflicted defeat on Russian ships.

To the American mind, the era before World War I seems to have existed across an unbridgeable historical divide. In a geopolitical sense, in particular, we have believed for decades that we inhabit a different order now. The old territorial resentments seem antique and irrelevant for global technological powers; we think of these obsessions as the province of benighted tribal cultures. But it shouldn’t surprise us to see Russia reverting to this age-old pattern. What we have to understand – but probably don’t today – is that this isn’t a meaningless gesture from Russia: it’s a marking of territory. This is how Russia operates. It all matters.

A poignant development illustrates the disintegration of the rarefied post-Cold War order we have inhabited since the early 1990s. Against the backdrop of shocks to that order over the past year and half, this little event may seem minor. But it is emblematic of the actions our strategic opponents no longer fear to take openly.

President Obama, currently in Indonesia, will attend the G-20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 11-12. Dmitry Medvedev arrives in Seoul today for a state visit and will hold bilateral talks with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak prior to the summit. These discussions – in which Korean security and global economic policy are expected to be major topics – continue the theme of Medvedev’s summit with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in October. Each case involves the Russian president talking over the biggest of global and regional issues with key American allies, in advance of the general summits to be held this month (the G-20 meeting in Seoul and the NATO summit in Lisbon).

But that’s not the most telling aspect of Russia’s posture for the G-20 summit in Seoul. That aspect is to be observed down the road in Inchon, from the pier where the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the missile cruiser Varyag, will be moored throughout the summit. The unambiguous signal from this visit is underscored by the report that South Korea will turn over to Varyag a set of artifacts Russia has been requesting for years: a battle flag and remnants of weapons from Varyag’s namesake, which participated in the Russo-Japanese War more than a century ago.

The earlier Varyag, attacked in Inchon in 1904 by a Japanese task force, was scuttled by the captain rather than being surrendered to the more powerful Japanese flotilla. Artifacts recovered from it by the Japanese have been stored in Inchon for decades – and each year since 1996, the modern cruiser Varyag has visited Inchon in February to commemorate the battle. Besides the latent bellicosity of bringing a warship to a G-20 summit, Russia is dealing a symbolic slap to Japan: occupying, under the aegis of a U.S. ally and an international body, the position in which a Japanese force once inflicted defeat on Russian ships.

To the American mind, the era before World War I seems to have existed across an unbridgeable historical divide. In a geopolitical sense, in particular, we have believed for decades that we inhabit a different order now. The old territorial resentments seem antique and irrelevant for global technological powers; we think of these obsessions as the province of benighted tribal cultures. But it shouldn’t surprise us to see Russia reverting to this age-old pattern. What we have to understand – but probably don’t today – is that this isn’t a meaningless gesture from Russia: it’s a marking of territory. This is how Russia operates. It all matters.

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NATO Death Watch

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in an interview with the New York Times this week, declined to name Iran as a missile threat to the NATO alliance. He spoke instead of “more than 30 countries in the world” having missile technology, with some of them able to hit targets in allied territory. This strange formulation implicates Britain, France, the United States, Russia, India, China, and Israel — if Rasmussen is talking about the countries that can already hit NATO targets with medium-range or longer missiles. (Pakistan can probably also hit Turkey with its newest Ghauri-class missile.)

But the Turkish press, writing up the Times interview, was clear on Rasmussen’s meaning. Undeceived by the politically absurd reference to “30 countries,” Today’s Zaman put it bluntly: “Rasmussen declines to name Iran as threat in missile shield plans.”

This isn’t really Rasmussen’s fault. According to the New York Times, it’s a NATO negotiating posture:

…President Obama and the Europeans are offering yet another round of talks to the Iranians, to get them to stop enriching uranium, and Turkey does not want the missile system to be seen as aimed at Tehran, so it is diplomatically impolite to mention Iran.

If we’re now at the point where it is “impolite” to mention one of the most significant threats NATO faces, we are in a stage of complacent denial for which I’m not sure there is even a name.

Turkey’s reluctance to see Iran identified as a threat should not silence the North Atlantic Council or the other allies — but it has. This is the clearest possible signal that political unity is over for the alliance: NATO can no longer handle the truth. Turkey’s objections, moreover, can’t govern our bargaining position without compromising it. Silence on the Iranian missile threat amounts to tacitly conceding Iran’s argument that its programs are not a threat. If Iran is right about that, then nothing the West is asking of Iran justifies sanctions or the use of force.

It was precisely by naming and objecting to the policies of the Soviet Union that U.S. presidents — Truman, Nixon, and Reagan in particular — obtained concessions from Moscow during the Cold War. The more explicit and obstinate we were, the more we got. We are apparently about to deal away any hope of such an effective posture with Iran. The upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon is not a business-as-usual gathering: Russia is being invited to the table for the first time, and NATO’s missile-defense strategy is to be the primary topic. The act of not declaring Iran’s missile (and nuclear) programs to be a threat to the allies will put the West, for the foreseeable future, at a permanent disadvantage in negotiations with Tehran.

The picture is growing clearer that NATO can’t retain its current alliance list and also operate from a common will to defend itself. To some extent, this shift has been building for a while, but the response favored by the Obama administration is the wrong one: letting an alliance that would fail a stress test be transformed against America’s interests. NATO, to which we have long provided most of the military spending, and now provide most of the forces and the political will, cannot be transformed in this manner without becoming an entangling alliance. That process has begun.

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in an interview with the New York Times this week, declined to name Iran as a missile threat to the NATO alliance. He spoke instead of “more than 30 countries in the world” having missile technology, with some of them able to hit targets in allied territory. This strange formulation implicates Britain, France, the United States, Russia, India, China, and Israel — if Rasmussen is talking about the countries that can already hit NATO targets with medium-range or longer missiles. (Pakistan can probably also hit Turkey with its newest Ghauri-class missile.)

But the Turkish press, writing up the Times interview, was clear on Rasmussen’s meaning. Undeceived by the politically absurd reference to “30 countries,” Today’s Zaman put it bluntly: “Rasmussen declines to name Iran as threat in missile shield plans.”

This isn’t really Rasmussen’s fault. According to the New York Times, it’s a NATO negotiating posture:

…President Obama and the Europeans are offering yet another round of talks to the Iranians, to get them to stop enriching uranium, and Turkey does not want the missile system to be seen as aimed at Tehran, so it is diplomatically impolite to mention Iran.

If we’re now at the point where it is “impolite” to mention one of the most significant threats NATO faces, we are in a stage of complacent denial for which I’m not sure there is even a name.

Turkey’s reluctance to see Iran identified as a threat should not silence the North Atlantic Council or the other allies — but it has. This is the clearest possible signal that political unity is over for the alliance: NATO can no longer handle the truth. Turkey’s objections, moreover, can’t govern our bargaining position without compromising it. Silence on the Iranian missile threat amounts to tacitly conceding Iran’s argument that its programs are not a threat. If Iran is right about that, then nothing the West is asking of Iran justifies sanctions or the use of force.

It was precisely by naming and objecting to the policies of the Soviet Union that U.S. presidents — Truman, Nixon, and Reagan in particular — obtained concessions from Moscow during the Cold War. The more explicit and obstinate we were, the more we got. We are apparently about to deal away any hope of such an effective posture with Iran. The upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon is not a business-as-usual gathering: Russia is being invited to the table for the first time, and NATO’s missile-defense strategy is to be the primary topic. The act of not declaring Iran’s missile (and nuclear) programs to be a threat to the allies will put the West, for the foreseeable future, at a permanent disadvantage in negotiations with Tehran.

The picture is growing clearer that NATO can’t retain its current alliance list and also operate from a common will to defend itself. To some extent, this shift has been building for a while, but the response favored by the Obama administration is the wrong one: letting an alliance that would fail a stress test be transformed against America’s interests. NATO, to which we have long provided most of the military spending, and now provide most of the forces and the political will, cannot be transformed in this manner without becoming an entangling alliance. That process has begun.

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Afghanistan: Moscow to the Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Counter View to Fouad Ajami’s Skepticism Regarding Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turkey Co-opts NATO Missile-Defense System to Hurt Israel and Help Iran

That Turkey has grown unrelentingly hostile to Israel, and cozy with Iran, is no longer news. But it is news, of the most disturbing kind, that Washington has chosen to actively collaborate in both the hostility and the coziness. Yet that’s what emerges from today’s Haaretz report on NATO’s planned missile-defense system: the U.S., it says, has agreed to Turkey’s demand that no information gathered by the system — whose primary goal is countering threats from Iran — be shared with Israel.

President George W. Bush, who conceived the system, had planned to station it in Eastern Europe. But due to Russia’s vehement opposition, President Barack Obama decided to relocate it to Turkey.

Ankara, reluctant to damage its burgeoning romance with Tehran, said it would agree only if four conditions were met. One, Turkish sources told Haaretz, was that “information gathered by the system not be given to any non-NATO member, and especially not to Israel.”

Moreover, the sources said, Washington has agreed to this demand. In other words, Washington has agreed that potentially vital information about Israel’s greatest enemy, gathered by a NATO facility that America conceived and will doubtless largely finance, won’t be shared with Israel.

Nor does the official excuse cited for this capitulation hold water: it’s true that Israel has information-gathering systems of its own devoted to Iran, but that doesn’t mean it has no need for NATO information. The new facility may well have capabilities Israel lacks.

The real reason, as the Turkish sources noted, is most likely that Washington had little choice: without Turkey’s consent, the project couldn’t go forward, and Ankara threatened a veto if its conditions weren’t met. Yet it was Obama’s own choice to relocate the project from two staunch American allies, Poland and the Czech Republic, to an increasingly hostile Turkey that left him vulnerable to this blackmail.

But Ankara posed another condition that may be even more worrying, given its coziness with Tehran: “direct Turkish access to any information gathered by the system.”

In May, Hakan Fidan became the new head of Turkish intelligence. Fidan, Haaretz reported at the time, “played a central role in tightening Turkish ties with Iran, especially on the nuclear issue.” He defended Iran’s nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency and was one of the architects of the uranium-transfer deal that Turkey and Brazil concocted with Iran in May in an effort to avert a planned UN Security Council vote on new sanctions against Tehran.

Thus Turkey wants its intelligence service, whose chief’s main goal has been to tighten ties with Iran, to have direct access to a system whose main goal is to gather information about Iran. Does NATO really want to gamble that Fidan will not pass this information on to Tehran, thereby letting it know exactly what NATO knows about its capabilities?

Under these circumstances, the system could end up doing more harm then good. At the very least, Congress should be asking some tough questions about it — and, even more important, about the utility of continuing the pretense that Turkey is still a Western ally.

That Turkey has grown unrelentingly hostile to Israel, and cozy with Iran, is no longer news. But it is news, of the most disturbing kind, that Washington has chosen to actively collaborate in both the hostility and the coziness. Yet that’s what emerges from today’s Haaretz report on NATO’s planned missile-defense system: the U.S., it says, has agreed to Turkey’s demand that no information gathered by the system — whose primary goal is countering threats from Iran — be shared with Israel.

President George W. Bush, who conceived the system, had planned to station it in Eastern Europe. But due to Russia’s vehement opposition, President Barack Obama decided to relocate it to Turkey.

Ankara, reluctant to damage its burgeoning romance with Tehran, said it would agree only if four conditions were met. One, Turkish sources told Haaretz, was that “information gathered by the system not be given to any non-NATO member, and especially not to Israel.”

Moreover, the sources said, Washington has agreed to this demand. In other words, Washington has agreed that potentially vital information about Israel’s greatest enemy, gathered by a NATO facility that America conceived and will doubtless largely finance, won’t be shared with Israel.

Nor does the official excuse cited for this capitulation hold water: it’s true that Israel has information-gathering systems of its own devoted to Iran, but that doesn’t mean it has no need for NATO information. The new facility may well have capabilities Israel lacks.

The real reason, as the Turkish sources noted, is most likely that Washington had little choice: without Turkey’s consent, the project couldn’t go forward, and Ankara threatened a veto if its conditions weren’t met. Yet it was Obama’s own choice to relocate the project from two staunch American allies, Poland and the Czech Republic, to an increasingly hostile Turkey that left him vulnerable to this blackmail.

But Ankara posed another condition that may be even more worrying, given its coziness with Tehran: “direct Turkish access to any information gathered by the system.”

In May, Hakan Fidan became the new head of Turkish intelligence. Fidan, Haaretz reported at the time, “played a central role in tightening Turkish ties with Iran, especially on the nuclear issue.” He defended Iran’s nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency and was one of the architects of the uranium-transfer deal that Turkey and Brazil concocted with Iran in May in an effort to avert a planned UN Security Council vote on new sanctions against Tehran.

Thus Turkey wants its intelligence service, whose chief’s main goal has been to tighten ties with Iran, to have direct access to a system whose main goal is to gather information about Iran. Does NATO really want to gamble that Fidan will not pass this information on to Tehran, thereby letting it know exactly what NATO knows about its capabilities?

Under these circumstances, the system could end up doing more harm then good. At the very least, Congress should be asking some tough questions about it — and, even more important, about the utility of continuing the pretense that Turkey is still a Western ally.

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The Real Deadline for Exiting Afghanistan

My former boss, Les Gelb, is onto something when he points out in the Daily Beast that the deadline for U.S. troops exiting Afghanistan isn’t the summer of 2011 but more likely the end of 2014. The former date was tossed out by President Obama as the beginning of a transition to Afghan forces, but all indications are that few U.S. troops will be withdrawn at that time. The latter date will emerge from the Lisbon NATO summit in mid-November as the deadline for NATO forces to transition out of Afghanistan.

Where I differ with Les is in the outrage he expresses over the extension of the war effort. Since he thinks the war effort as currently conceived is foolish and unable to achieve its objectives, it stands to reason that he would bemoan four more years of commitment. For my part, I think that the strategy Gen. Petraeus is now implementing gives us our best chance of assuring a decent outcome — but it’s not an outcome that we can bring about in the next year. Even the most successful counterinsurgency strategies take longer than that. The NATO deadline gives some assurance that our troops, and those of our allies, will have the time needed to roll back the Taliban and stand up Afghan security forces capable of protecting their own country in the future. That is not, I stress, an assurance of success; a lot can still go wrong. But it does at least give our troops a fighting chance to succeed, which they wouldn’t have if we were really pulling out next summer. Which we’re not. The challenge now will be communicating to the region that we are not — as our enemies hope and our friends fear — about to head out the exit.

My former boss, Les Gelb, is onto something when he points out in the Daily Beast that the deadline for U.S. troops exiting Afghanistan isn’t the summer of 2011 but more likely the end of 2014. The former date was tossed out by President Obama as the beginning of a transition to Afghan forces, but all indications are that few U.S. troops will be withdrawn at that time. The latter date will emerge from the Lisbon NATO summit in mid-November as the deadline for NATO forces to transition out of Afghanistan.

Where I differ with Les is in the outrage he expresses over the extension of the war effort. Since he thinks the war effort as currently conceived is foolish and unable to achieve its objectives, it stands to reason that he would bemoan four more years of commitment. For my part, I think that the strategy Gen. Petraeus is now implementing gives us our best chance of assuring a decent outcome — but it’s not an outcome that we can bring about in the next year. Even the most successful counterinsurgency strategies take longer than that. The NATO deadline gives some assurance that our troops, and those of our allies, will have the time needed to roll back the Taliban and stand up Afghan security forces capable of protecting their own country in the future. That is not, I stress, an assurance of success; a lot can still go wrong. But it does at least give our troops a fighting chance to succeed, which they wouldn’t have if we were really pulling out next summer. Which we’re not. The challenge now will be communicating to the region that we are not — as our enemies hope and our friends fear — about to head out the exit.

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No Time for Defeatism in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tea Leaves and the Taliban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talks with the Taliban?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shift in Momentum in Afghanistan

I am soon heading to Afghanistan to see for myself how the war effort is progressing, but in the meantime I note several news accounts that give a sense of cautious optimism. That doesn’t include the reports this morning that high-level negotiations with the Taliban are starting and are being facilitated by NATO forces. There have been stories along those lines for years, and they haven’t gone anywhere, because the Taliban have no serious incentive to negotiate until they see that they are losing the war on the ground.

In that connection, it is interesting to read the assessment of a French general that the situation has improved dramatically in his area of operations in eastern Afghanistan. He even claims that Afghan troops will be ready to take responsibility for this once-dangerous area by next summer. Is he right? Who knows? But it does indicate that things are moving in the right direction in at least one important area.

That is also the assessment of retired Gen. Jack Keane — one of the architects of the Iraq surge — who has just returned from Afghanistan and reports: “There are already some early signs of a beginning of a momentum shift in our favor.”

New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, a former Marine, also notes progress in training Afghan security forces:

Two main training sites — the Kabul Military Training Center, used principally by the Afghan Army, and the Central Training Center, used by the police — have become bustling bases, packed with trainers and recruits, and there is a sense among the officers that they are producing better soldiers than before.

The military center has been graduating 1,400 newly trained soldiers every two …. The ratio of instructors to students has gone from one for every 79 trainees in 2009 to one for every 29, officers at the center say, suggesting that the new police officers and soldiers are getting more attention than in years past. The soldiers are paid better and desert less often, officials say.

Another interesting data point comes from this report that coalition air strikes are up 172 percent: “Last month, NATO attack planes dropped their bombs and fired their guns on 700 separate missions, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. That’s more than double the 257 attack sorties they flew in September 2009, and one of the highest single-month totals of the entire nine-year Afghan campaign.” That should help allay the concerns of those who worry that U.S. forces are so handicapped by rules of engagement that they can’t take the fight to the enemy. In fact, tight rules are necessary to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties, but these statistics suggest that American airpower is still being used effectively to help win the fight. There has also been a less-publicized increase in Special Operations raids, which are taking a nightly toll on the Taliban’s leadership.

I would caution against reading too much into any of this. It’s still early days, the full complement of surge forces having arrived in Afghanistan only last month. There is much hard fighting ahead, and many setbacks are certain. But at least there is now a sense that the war may be moving, however haltingly and slowly, in the right direction.

I am soon heading to Afghanistan to see for myself how the war effort is progressing, but in the meantime I note several news accounts that give a sense of cautious optimism. That doesn’t include the reports this morning that high-level negotiations with the Taliban are starting and are being facilitated by NATO forces. There have been stories along those lines for years, and they haven’t gone anywhere, because the Taliban have no serious incentive to negotiate until they see that they are losing the war on the ground.

In that connection, it is interesting to read the assessment of a French general that the situation has improved dramatically in his area of operations in eastern Afghanistan. He even claims that Afghan troops will be ready to take responsibility for this once-dangerous area by next summer. Is he right? Who knows? But it does indicate that things are moving in the right direction in at least one important area.

That is also the assessment of retired Gen. Jack Keane — one of the architects of the Iraq surge — who has just returned from Afghanistan and reports: “There are already some early signs of a beginning of a momentum shift in our favor.”

New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, a former Marine, also notes progress in training Afghan security forces:

Two main training sites — the Kabul Military Training Center, used principally by the Afghan Army, and the Central Training Center, used by the police — have become bustling bases, packed with trainers and recruits, and there is a sense among the officers that they are producing better soldiers than before.

The military center has been graduating 1,400 newly trained soldiers every two …. The ratio of instructors to students has gone from one for every 79 trainees in 2009 to one for every 29, officers at the center say, suggesting that the new police officers and soldiers are getting more attention than in years past. The soldiers are paid better and desert less often, officials say.

Another interesting data point comes from this report that coalition air strikes are up 172 percent: “Last month, NATO attack planes dropped their bombs and fired their guns on 700 separate missions, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. That’s more than double the 257 attack sorties they flew in September 2009, and one of the highest single-month totals of the entire nine-year Afghan campaign.” That should help allay the concerns of those who worry that U.S. forces are so handicapped by rules of engagement that they can’t take the fight to the enemy. In fact, tight rules are necessary to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties, but these statistics suggest that American airpower is still being used effectively to help win the fight. There has also been a less-publicized increase in Special Operations raids, which are taking a nightly toll on the Taliban’s leadership.

I would caution against reading too much into any of this. It’s still early days, the full complement of surge forces having arrived in Afghanistan only last month. There is much hard fighting ahead, and many setbacks are certain. But at least there is now a sense that the war may be moving, however haltingly and slowly, in the right direction.

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Ahmadinejad Tour Provides Ominous Proof of Obama’s Failure

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s triumphant tour of Lebanon — which kicked off today with a rapturous welcome from crowds that lined the road from Beirut’s airport into the city — is more than a morale boost for the Iranian president or another demonstration of the strength of his Hezbollah ally that now dominates Lebanon’s government. It was more proof of both the Islamist regime’s increasing confidence and the failure of American efforts to isolate Iran.

Viewed through the prism of Lebanese politics, Ahmadinejad’s visit is part of Hezbollah’s attempt to solidify its grasp on power in a country that is now clearly back under the thumb of Iran’s ally Syria.

In terms of the Middle East peace process, Ahmadinejad’s scheduled jaunt into southern Lebanon tomorrow is a reminder of Iran’s desire to promote armed struggle against Israel. Since the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, Iran has paid for both the rearming of Hezbollah and the reconstruction of many areas in Lebanon that were destroyed in a fight that the Islamist terrorist group provoked. Ahmadinejad’s visit can be seen as a symbol of the transformation of Lebanon into a full-fledged confrontation state rather than the Western ally that many thought was created after the Cedar Revolution in 2005.

Just as devastating is the symbolism of the planned conclave between Ahmadinejad, Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, and Turkish Prime Minster Tayyip Erdogan on Friday. Despite the brave talk emanating from Washington about America’s success in getting mild sanctions against Iran passed by the United Nations, Iran may be in a stronger diplomatic position today than it was two years ago. The spectacle of Turkey sliding closer to an informal alliance with Iran, and with Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria combining to compromise Lebanon’s independence, demonstrates that Iran’s influence is growing rather than shrinking as Obama has claimed.

With a friendly trading partner in NATO member Turkey, the Iranians must now believe that any sanctions, even ones that are harsher than those currently in place, will always be able to be flouted. And with terrorist allies ensconced on two of Israel’s borders — Hezbollah and a Lebanese Army that seems to be morphing into a Hezbollah auxiliary in the north and Hamas-run Gaza in the south — Iran is also in a position to launch destabilizing terror strikes against Israel, as well as raising the possibility of another bloody war on either front.

While President Obama and his foreign policy team have been chasing their tails trying to orchestrate dead-end peace talks between Israel and a Palestinian Authority that has no interest in peace, Iran’s own diplomatic offensive is gaining ground. As the clock keeps ticking toward the moment when Ahmadinejad can announce the success of Iran’s nuclear project, there is little sign that the administration understands that Iran’s successes are the fruit of Washington’s spurned attempts to engage Tehran and its lackluster campaign to promote sanctions.

With the cheers of his Lebanese allies and the sweet talk from Turkey still ringing in his ears, it would be understandable if Ahmadinejad concluded that he has once again bested Obama. But as troubling as this diplomatic triumph for Iran may be, the confidence it may have engendered in the Iranian regime is something that ought to scare the Middle East and the rest of the world. An Iranian government that thinks it cannot lose in a confrontation with America, Israel, or the West is one that is liable to do anything if challenged. The consequences of such a mindset may be incalculable.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s triumphant tour of Lebanon — which kicked off today with a rapturous welcome from crowds that lined the road from Beirut’s airport into the city — is more than a morale boost for the Iranian president or another demonstration of the strength of his Hezbollah ally that now dominates Lebanon’s government. It was more proof of both the Islamist regime’s increasing confidence and the failure of American efforts to isolate Iran.

Viewed through the prism of Lebanese politics, Ahmadinejad’s visit is part of Hezbollah’s attempt to solidify its grasp on power in a country that is now clearly back under the thumb of Iran’s ally Syria.

In terms of the Middle East peace process, Ahmadinejad’s scheduled jaunt into southern Lebanon tomorrow is a reminder of Iran’s desire to promote armed struggle against Israel. Since the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, Iran has paid for both the rearming of Hezbollah and the reconstruction of many areas in Lebanon that were destroyed in a fight that the Islamist terrorist group provoked. Ahmadinejad’s visit can be seen as a symbol of the transformation of Lebanon into a full-fledged confrontation state rather than the Western ally that many thought was created after the Cedar Revolution in 2005.

Just as devastating is the symbolism of the planned conclave between Ahmadinejad, Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, and Turkish Prime Minster Tayyip Erdogan on Friday. Despite the brave talk emanating from Washington about America’s success in getting mild sanctions against Iran passed by the United Nations, Iran may be in a stronger diplomatic position today than it was two years ago. The spectacle of Turkey sliding closer to an informal alliance with Iran, and with Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria combining to compromise Lebanon’s independence, demonstrates that Iran’s influence is growing rather than shrinking as Obama has claimed.

With a friendly trading partner in NATO member Turkey, the Iranians must now believe that any sanctions, even ones that are harsher than those currently in place, will always be able to be flouted. And with terrorist allies ensconced on two of Israel’s borders — Hezbollah and a Lebanese Army that seems to be morphing into a Hezbollah auxiliary in the north and Hamas-run Gaza in the south — Iran is also in a position to launch destabilizing terror strikes against Israel, as well as raising the possibility of another bloody war on either front.

While President Obama and his foreign policy team have been chasing their tails trying to orchestrate dead-end peace talks between Israel and a Palestinian Authority that has no interest in peace, Iran’s own diplomatic offensive is gaining ground. As the clock keeps ticking toward the moment when Ahmadinejad can announce the success of Iran’s nuclear project, there is little sign that the administration understands that Iran’s successes are the fruit of Washington’s spurned attempts to engage Tehran and its lackluster campaign to promote sanctions.

With the cheers of his Lebanese allies and the sweet talk from Turkey still ringing in his ears, it would be understandable if Ahmadinejad concluded that he has once again bested Obama. But as troubling as this diplomatic triumph for Iran may be, the confidence it may have engendered in the Iranian regime is something that ought to scare the Middle East and the rest of the world. An Iranian government that thinks it cannot lose in a confrontation with America, Israel, or the West is one that is liable to do anything if challenged. The consequences of such a mindset may be incalculable.

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The Pakistan Problem

There are many “problems from hell” that confront U.S. policymakers, but none is more complicated or more important than our relationship with Pakistan. It is once again in the news because of Pakistan’s harsh reaction to a NATO helicopter firing a couple of missiles into Pakistani territory after it came under fire from across the border. The result has been the closing of Torkham Gate, one of the main supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the torching of a number of trucks carrying NATO supplies through Pakistan. This is Islamabad’s way of signaling its displeasure with what it views as a violation of its sovereignty. American officials, for their part, are growing increasingly and understandably exasperated with Pakistan’s double game: while receiving copious American aid and turning a blind eye to American drone strikes primarily directed against foreign jihadists, it is also continuing to support the Taliban and the Haqqani network as they target American and allied troops in Afghanistan.

I wish I knew how to solve this conundrum, but I don’t. No one does. We can’t simply cut off Pakistan, because its government does provide vital assistance in the war against terrorism, and we cannot permit a jihadist takeover of a nuclear-armed state. But nor can we simply live with Pakistan’s continuing role as supporter of terrorist groups that we (and other nations, including India) are fighting. That means we are stuck in a muddle — as we have been for a decade or more. We provide aid to the Pakistani military and try to bolster more moderate elements while realizing that we cannot press too hard because we lack sufficient leverage and risk sparking a destructive backlash.

The Obama administration has gotten slightly more muscular in its approach by stepping up drone strikes — a good idea. But at the same time, the president has made it harder to woo Pakistan because he has given credence to the notion that we are on our way out of Afghanistan. If that’s in fact the case — and I don’t believe it is — then Pakistan has no choice but to look after its own interests, and in the view of the Pakistani military, that means supporting jihadist proxy forces such as the Taliban. There is probably no way to wean the Pakistanis entirely off this strategy in the foreseeable future, but at least if Obama were to clarify his muddled rhetoric regarding a deadline for withdrawal and make it clear that the U.S. is in the region for the long term, he may change the incentive structure for the Pakistani officer corps and make it more palatable for them to take tougher action against terrorist groups, secure in the knowledge that we will not leave them in the lurch.

There are many “problems from hell” that confront U.S. policymakers, but none is more complicated or more important than our relationship with Pakistan. It is once again in the news because of Pakistan’s harsh reaction to a NATO helicopter firing a couple of missiles into Pakistani territory after it came under fire from across the border. The result has been the closing of Torkham Gate, one of the main supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the torching of a number of trucks carrying NATO supplies through Pakistan. This is Islamabad’s way of signaling its displeasure with what it views as a violation of its sovereignty. American officials, for their part, are growing increasingly and understandably exasperated with Pakistan’s double game: while receiving copious American aid and turning a blind eye to American drone strikes primarily directed against foreign jihadists, it is also continuing to support the Taliban and the Haqqani network as they target American and allied troops in Afghanistan.

I wish I knew how to solve this conundrum, but I don’t. No one does. We can’t simply cut off Pakistan, because its government does provide vital assistance in the war against terrorism, and we cannot permit a jihadist takeover of a nuclear-armed state. But nor can we simply live with Pakistan’s continuing role as supporter of terrorist groups that we (and other nations, including India) are fighting. That means we are stuck in a muddle — as we have been for a decade or more. We provide aid to the Pakistani military and try to bolster more moderate elements while realizing that we cannot press too hard because we lack sufficient leverage and risk sparking a destructive backlash.

The Obama administration has gotten slightly more muscular in its approach by stepping up drone strikes — a good idea. But at the same time, the president has made it harder to woo Pakistan because he has given credence to the notion that we are on our way out of Afghanistan. If that’s in fact the case — and I don’t believe it is — then Pakistan has no choice but to look after its own interests, and in the view of the Pakistani military, that means supporting jihadist proxy forces such as the Taliban. There is probably no way to wean the Pakistanis entirely off this strategy in the foreseeable future, but at least if Obama were to clarify his muddled rhetoric regarding a deadline for withdrawal and make it clear that the U.S. is in the region for the long term, he may change the incentive structure for the Pakistani officer corps and make it more palatable for them to take tougher action against terrorist groups, secure in the knowledge that we will not leave them in the lurch.

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Economy of Effort in Pakistan

As Pakistan’s situation sours, it is melancholy to observe the Obama administration’s response. The river flooding that has submerged a fifth of Pakistan’s territory is a catastrophe that warrants concerted, heroic international action. Few nations anywhere could deal effectively with domestic disaster on such a scale. The official death toll of less than 2,000 to date is misleading about the scope of the problem: the economic toll is devastating, with 17 million acres of crops and farmland lost and millions of farm animals dead or diseased. At least 20 million of Pakistan’s 170 million people have been displaced by the flooding. Now farmers are concerned that they won’t be able to plant next year’s crops, a setback that would mean two full years of near-zero agricultural production for the nation.

Pakistan’s serious ongoing problems have only worsened with the historic floods. Confidence in the feckless Zardari government has plummeted to a new low; in a high-level meeting with President Zardari on Monday, the Pakistani military demanded that some of his ministers be dismissed, an action widely interpreted as the veiled threat of a coup. Pervez Musharraf, a semi-retired coup leader himself, then clarified the significance of the threat in statements made to the media.

One of the Pakistani military’s greatest concerns is the breach of national sovereignty represented by NATO’s cross-border attacks on terrorist strongholds in the country’s northwestern region. The coup warning to Zardari was given as drone strikes on Waziristan ramped up over the past week. Today, Pakistan’s military has closed off NATO’s main supply line into Afghanistan, a move that will affect NATO operations very quickly if it can’t be reversed.

Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from Tuesday’s sympathetic New York Times account of the Obama approach to the boiling pot in Pakistan:

In his most recent visit to Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke … said the international community could not be expected to provide all the billions of dollars needed to repair the flood damage, a warning interpreted here as a rebuke of the civilian government and its mismanagement.

This helpful communication is bolstered by news of a key Obama policy thrust, one that can only be introduced with the time-honored “wait for it”:

In particular, Washington wants the government to raise taxes on the wealthy landed and commercial class, a shortcoming that has become especially galling as Pakistan’s dependence on foreign donors rises.

To summarize: what Obama’s doing about Pakistan is attacking its territory, lecturing its leadership on the limits of international liability for its problems, and urging it to raise taxes on the rich. The State Department points out that U.S. military helicopters are delivering aid to Pakistan; but so are other organizations, public and private. The American aid effort isn’t standing out for either scope or effectiveness. Indeed, Pakistan’s situation is so dire that it demands much more than the delivery of food and plastic sheeting. It demands what only a stronger America could provide: material partnership for promoting economic and political recovery.

Pakistan is NATO’s logistic hub for Afghanistan; without its willing support, NATO would be wholly dependent on supply routes governed by Russia. The country is a hideout for terrorists, al-Qaeda, and Taliban alike. It is also, of course, nuclear-armed. Putting greater effort into Pakistan is neither overly “interventionist” nor irrelevant to our security — and we Americans would feel ourselves much better able to do it if we were not in debt-and-government-shock from Obama’s domestic political assault. Handling Pakistan as an “economy of effort” theater is a recipe for failure, but that’s how the Obama administration has approached it. The 2010 flooding, with its dreadful economic and human toll, is basically serving to accelerate the inevitable.

As Pakistan’s situation sours, it is melancholy to observe the Obama administration’s response. The river flooding that has submerged a fifth of Pakistan’s territory is a catastrophe that warrants concerted, heroic international action. Few nations anywhere could deal effectively with domestic disaster on such a scale. The official death toll of less than 2,000 to date is misleading about the scope of the problem: the economic toll is devastating, with 17 million acres of crops and farmland lost and millions of farm animals dead or diseased. At least 20 million of Pakistan’s 170 million people have been displaced by the flooding. Now farmers are concerned that they won’t be able to plant next year’s crops, a setback that would mean two full years of near-zero agricultural production for the nation.

Pakistan’s serious ongoing problems have only worsened with the historic floods. Confidence in the feckless Zardari government has plummeted to a new low; in a high-level meeting with President Zardari on Monday, the Pakistani military demanded that some of his ministers be dismissed, an action widely interpreted as the veiled threat of a coup. Pervez Musharraf, a semi-retired coup leader himself, then clarified the significance of the threat in statements made to the media.

One of the Pakistani military’s greatest concerns is the breach of national sovereignty represented by NATO’s cross-border attacks on terrorist strongholds in the country’s northwestern region. The coup warning to Zardari was given as drone strikes on Waziristan ramped up over the past week. Today, Pakistan’s military has closed off NATO’s main supply line into Afghanistan, a move that will affect NATO operations very quickly if it can’t be reversed.

Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from Tuesday’s sympathetic New York Times account of the Obama approach to the boiling pot in Pakistan:

In his most recent visit to Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke … said the international community could not be expected to provide all the billions of dollars needed to repair the flood damage, a warning interpreted here as a rebuke of the civilian government and its mismanagement.

This helpful communication is bolstered by news of a key Obama policy thrust, one that can only be introduced with the time-honored “wait for it”:

In particular, Washington wants the government to raise taxes on the wealthy landed and commercial class, a shortcoming that has become especially galling as Pakistan’s dependence on foreign donors rises.

To summarize: what Obama’s doing about Pakistan is attacking its territory, lecturing its leadership on the limits of international liability for its problems, and urging it to raise taxes on the rich. The State Department points out that U.S. military helicopters are delivering aid to Pakistan; but so are other organizations, public and private. The American aid effort isn’t standing out for either scope or effectiveness. Indeed, Pakistan’s situation is so dire that it demands much more than the delivery of food and plastic sheeting. It demands what only a stronger America could provide: material partnership for promoting economic and political recovery.

Pakistan is NATO’s logistic hub for Afghanistan; without its willing support, NATO would be wholly dependent on supply routes governed by Russia. The country is a hideout for terrorists, al-Qaeda, and Taliban alike. It is also, of course, nuclear-armed. Putting greater effort into Pakistan is neither overly “interventionist” nor irrelevant to our security — and we Americans would feel ourselves much better able to do it if we were not in debt-and-government-shock from Obama’s domestic political assault. Handling Pakistan as an “economy of effort” theater is a recipe for failure, but that’s how the Obama administration has approached it. The 2010 flooding, with its dreadful economic and human toll, is basically serving to accelerate the inevitable.

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S-300: Political Football

Americans looking for coherence in Russia’s on-again, off-again policy on the S-300 sale to Iran should focus on the overall thrust of Russian policy in the Putin era. Putin’s emphasis — with interstitial refinements from Dmitry Medvedev — is on supplanting American leadership with a set of multilateral bodies and rivalries in which Russia can wield increasing influence.

As with many of Putin’s foreign-policy moves, the S-300 sale is a tool for putting Russia at the center of a major decision point about international security. The prospect of the sale has given Europe, Asia, and the U.S. a reason to seek Russian cooperation. It has also given Russia an influence over Iran that no other nation has had in the past half-decade. This is related, in turn, to the trigger the sale has put in Russia’s hands: from any objective military analysis, the delivery of the S-300 to Iran would set the clock ticking on Israel’s window of feasibility for attacking the Iranian nuclear sites.

Russia wouldn’t let this valuable bargaining chip go for light and transient reasons. Everything in his history must tell us that Putin is letting go of this uniquely privileged position because he has what he wants: he doesn’t feel he needs the power of that particular position for the time being. If he wants it back, he can probably get it (unless China steps into the breach and sells its version of the S-300 to Iran instead). Meanwhile, cancelling the sale is a signal that Putin is satisfied with the benefits his policies have realized, to date, from Russian influence with Iran.

What benefits has he realized? In brief, he has succeeded in getting America’s closest allies to seek accommodation with Russia as a means of improving their position vis-à-vis Iran. I’ve written here and here, for example, about the Netanyahu government’s pragmatic outreach to Moscow, which recently produced a defense-cooperation agreement that would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

Equally significant is the September announcement by NATO’s political chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that NATO’s future lies in structured cooperation with Russia on security issues, including missile defense. In the wake of that proclamation, France and Germany will hold a summit with Russia in October in preparation for the next G-20 conference. Their main topic will reportedly be “joint security issues.”

It cannot be reiterated too often that incorporating Russia in Europe’s missile defenses will give Russia an effective veto over anything it doesn’t like about those defenses. It will also give Moscow a means of dividing Europe from North America over the nature and purpose of our common defense arrangements. Assuming these incipient efforts move forward as proposed — all while Russia keeps missiles trained on Eastern Europe — it’s not too much to say that we will be witnessing the death throes of the NATO alliance.

These are heady achievements for Putin’s policies, but they’re not the only ones. Russia has succeeded in ingratiating itself with India to a much greater extent in the last 18 months, increasing arms cooperation dramatically and establishing itself as a partner in containing the Taliban. In all of these cases, a narrowly-focused and expedient passivity on the part of the U.S has smoothed Russia’s path. President Obama himself created the conditions for Russia to act as a spoiler in NATO missile defenses, by abandoning the installations planned for Eastern Europe and rushing into the ill-considered New START treaty. And his dilatory approach to Iran has been a key factor in driving the nations of the Eastern hemisphere to look to Russia for help, rather than counting on the U.S. to avert the security catastrophe of a nuclear-armed Iran.

It would actually be a better sign, at this point, if Putin still thought the S-300 sale was an indispensable bargaining chip. It would mean he still considered it necessary to leverage such a chip against U.S. power. But he no longer does — and that doesn’t mean he has changed. It means we have.

Americans looking for coherence in Russia’s on-again, off-again policy on the S-300 sale to Iran should focus on the overall thrust of Russian policy in the Putin era. Putin’s emphasis — with interstitial refinements from Dmitry Medvedev — is on supplanting American leadership with a set of multilateral bodies and rivalries in which Russia can wield increasing influence.

As with many of Putin’s foreign-policy moves, the S-300 sale is a tool for putting Russia at the center of a major decision point about international security. The prospect of the sale has given Europe, Asia, and the U.S. a reason to seek Russian cooperation. It has also given Russia an influence over Iran that no other nation has had in the past half-decade. This is related, in turn, to the trigger the sale has put in Russia’s hands: from any objective military analysis, the delivery of the S-300 to Iran would set the clock ticking on Israel’s window of feasibility for attacking the Iranian nuclear sites.

Russia wouldn’t let this valuable bargaining chip go for light and transient reasons. Everything in his history must tell us that Putin is letting go of this uniquely privileged position because he has what he wants: he doesn’t feel he needs the power of that particular position for the time being. If he wants it back, he can probably get it (unless China steps into the breach and sells its version of the S-300 to Iran instead). Meanwhile, cancelling the sale is a signal that Putin is satisfied with the benefits his policies have realized, to date, from Russian influence with Iran.

What benefits has he realized? In brief, he has succeeded in getting America’s closest allies to seek accommodation with Russia as a means of improving their position vis-à-vis Iran. I’ve written here and here, for example, about the Netanyahu government’s pragmatic outreach to Moscow, which recently produced a defense-cooperation agreement that would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

Equally significant is the September announcement by NATO’s political chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that NATO’s future lies in structured cooperation with Russia on security issues, including missile defense. In the wake of that proclamation, France and Germany will hold a summit with Russia in October in preparation for the next G-20 conference. Their main topic will reportedly be “joint security issues.”

It cannot be reiterated too often that incorporating Russia in Europe’s missile defenses will give Russia an effective veto over anything it doesn’t like about those defenses. It will also give Moscow a means of dividing Europe from North America over the nature and purpose of our common defense arrangements. Assuming these incipient efforts move forward as proposed — all while Russia keeps missiles trained on Eastern Europe — it’s not too much to say that we will be witnessing the death throes of the NATO alliance.

These are heady achievements for Putin’s policies, but they’re not the only ones. Russia has succeeded in ingratiating itself with India to a much greater extent in the last 18 months, increasing arms cooperation dramatically and establishing itself as a partner in containing the Taliban. In all of these cases, a narrowly-focused and expedient passivity on the part of the U.S has smoothed Russia’s path. President Obama himself created the conditions for Russia to act as a spoiler in NATO missile defenses, by abandoning the installations planned for Eastern Europe and rushing into the ill-considered New START treaty. And his dilatory approach to Iran has been a key factor in driving the nations of the Eastern hemisphere to look to Russia for help, rather than counting on the U.S. to avert the security catastrophe of a nuclear-armed Iran.

It would actually be a better sign, at this point, if Putin still thought the S-300 sale was an indispensable bargaining chip. It would mean he still considered it necessary to leverage such a chip against U.S. power. But he no longer does — and that doesn’t mean he has changed. It means we have.

Read Less




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