Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ryan Crocker

Ryan Crocker, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Elephant

Ryan Crocker has an op-ed in the New York Times today arguing that talking with Iran works. He bases his argument on his experience in Afghanistan, where in the days after 9/11, he took part in negotiations with Iran over that country’s fate. As Crocker writes:

The Iranians were constructive, pragmatic and focused, at one point they even produced an extremely valuable map showing the Taliban’s order of battle just before American military action began.  They were also strong proponents of taking action in Afghanistan. We met through the remaining months of 2001 in different locations, and Iranian-American agreement at the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan was central to establishing the Afghan Interim Authority, headed by Hamid Karzai, now the president of Afghanistan.

I continued to hold talks with the Iranians in Kabul when I was sent to reopen the United States Embassy there. We forged agreements on various security issues and coordinated approaches to reconstruction. And then, suddenly, it all came to an end when President George W. Bush gave his famous “Axis of Evil” speech in early 2002. The Iranian leadership concluded that in spite of their cooperation with the American war effort, the United States remained implacably hostile to the Islamic Republic.

Crocker is wrong. Never mind the fact that Iranian rhetoric toward the United States is ten times worse on a normal day. It’s important to consider what Crocker leaves out: In the months before President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, Bush received word—intelligence about which Crocker was unaware—that Iran was creating a secret enrichment facility at Natanz. At the same time, after a hard-won ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Iran was busy seeking to smuggle in 50 tons of weaponry into the Gaza Strip. In effect, Crocker is like the blind man describing the elephant, willing to amplify the description of one aspect of Iranian behavior into wide-ranging conclusions, seemingly unaware that honest description of other parts of the beast suggested the opposite.

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Ryan Crocker has an op-ed in the New York Times today arguing that talking with Iran works. He bases his argument on his experience in Afghanistan, where in the days after 9/11, he took part in negotiations with Iran over that country’s fate. As Crocker writes:

The Iranians were constructive, pragmatic and focused, at one point they even produced an extremely valuable map showing the Taliban’s order of battle just before American military action began.  They were also strong proponents of taking action in Afghanistan. We met through the remaining months of 2001 in different locations, and Iranian-American agreement at the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan was central to establishing the Afghan Interim Authority, headed by Hamid Karzai, now the president of Afghanistan.

I continued to hold talks with the Iranians in Kabul when I was sent to reopen the United States Embassy there. We forged agreements on various security issues and coordinated approaches to reconstruction. And then, suddenly, it all came to an end when President George W. Bush gave his famous “Axis of Evil” speech in early 2002. The Iranian leadership concluded that in spite of their cooperation with the American war effort, the United States remained implacably hostile to the Islamic Republic.

Crocker is wrong. Never mind the fact that Iranian rhetoric toward the United States is ten times worse on a normal day. It’s important to consider what Crocker leaves out: In the months before President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, Bush received word—intelligence about which Crocker was unaware—that Iran was creating a secret enrichment facility at Natanz. At the same time, after a hard-won ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Iran was busy seeking to smuggle in 50 tons of weaponry into the Gaza Strip. In effect, Crocker is like the blind man describing the elephant, willing to amplify the description of one aspect of Iranian behavior into wide-ranging conclusions, seemingly unaware that honest description of other parts of the beast suggested the opposite.

Nor does Crocker consider why Iran did cooperate in even a limited fashion in Afghanistan. Prior to 2001, Iran embraced a strategy of ethnic and Shiite solidarity in Afghanistan, in effect concentrating its efforts on the west, center, and north of the country. After 9/11, it decided it could exert its influence through the entirety of the country, in effect out-competing the United States.

Crocker cherry picks as well with regard to Iraq. He suggests that he held productive talks with Iran over Iraqi security in 2007, but never mentions that he had also held talks with Iran in 2003. The Iranians had at that time agreed to prevent the infiltration of the IRGC and IRGC-trained militias into Iraq. The Iranians—including Mohammad Javad Zarif, Crocker’s negotiating partner who is now Foreign Minister—lied. And as for 2007? In all likelihood, it was the surge which convinced Iran that their strategy would backfire rather than Crocker’s sweet words.

Crocker is an honorable man who has served well under the most difficult circumstances. But his policy judgment does not always match his reputation for wisdom. He has a long history of somewhat misguided faith in diplomacy. He has, after all, after retiring, testified in Congress in favor of talking to Hezbollah–a policy which would be counterproductive on any number of levels. Contrary to Crocker in the New York Times, talking does not always work. But for a diplomat to admit that would be to acknowledge that diplomacy is not the panacea so many diplomats which it to be.

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Crocker Pans the “Zero Option”

Leave it to Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador in Kabul, Islamabad, and Baghdad, among other capitals, and the greatest diplomat of his generation, to offer the definitive verdict on the “zero option”–the zany plan being floated by the White House to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after 2014. This is what Crocker told foreign policy columnist Trudy Rubin:

If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.

Nothing could encourage the Taliban more. The Pakistanis [who are helping the Taliban] will dig in harder. It will send Karzai in completely the wrong direction.

It invokes memories of the early 1990s. It’s as if we’re telling the Afghans, ‘We’re tired, we’re going home, screw you.’

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Leave it to Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador in Kabul, Islamabad, and Baghdad, among other capitals, and the greatest diplomat of his generation, to offer the definitive verdict on the “zero option”–the zany plan being floated by the White House to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after 2014. This is what Crocker told foreign policy columnist Trudy Rubin:

If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.

Nothing could encourage the Taliban more. The Pakistanis [who are helping the Taliban] will dig in harder. It will send Karzai in completely the wrong direction.

It invokes memories of the early 1990s. It’s as if we’re telling the Afghans, ‘We’re tired, we’re going home, screw you.’

The only thing one can add to this cogent and pithy summary is that it is not only the Afghans who will be “screwed” by American withdrawal–we would be screwing ourselves. The primary reason why are in Afghanistan, after all, is not as a service to Hamid Karzai or even to promote human rights but, rather, to allow us to effectively target the terrorist groups responsible for 9/11 and many smaller outrages.

Few would disagree with our need to maintain intelligence assets and drones in Afghanistan that allow us to strike our most vicious enemies–most famously in the case of the raid on Osama bin Laden which took off from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. But our ability to maintain those intelligence assets in Afghanistan is contingent on our ability to maintain the support of the Afghan government for this continuing deployment and on the ability of that government to maintain a modicum of security to allow CIA spooks and military special operators to function. That is now being cast into doubt by the drawdown.

The Washington Post‘s Greg Miller reports that “the CIA has begun closing clandestine bases in Afghanistan.” Current plans are to reduce the number of CIA bases from a total of a dozen to six or so by the end of 2014. But even the ability to maintain those six is contingent on military support since most of the CIA installations are in close proximity to U.S. military bases and depend on U.S. military support for logistics, security, and other requirements to augment the CIA’s limited capabilities in those regards.

The Post notes: “A full withdrawal of U.S. troops would probably trigger a deeper retrenchment by the CIA, which has relied on U.S. and allied military installations across the country to serve as bases for agency operatives and cover for their spying operations. The CIA’s armed drones are flown from a heavily fortified airstrip near the Pakistan border in Jalalabad.”

In all likelihood, if the U.S. refuses to support and train the Afghan military, the government of Afghanistan will tell the CIA and Special Operations Command to get lost–Afghanistan is not going to act as a platform for American strikes on America’s enemies if we are not providing a valuable service to Kabul in return.

In short, a zero option would amount to not only no conventional troops but few if any spies and commandos. That is an utterly unwarranted gift to the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, the Pakistan Taliban, and other dangerous extremist groups.

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Will Crocker Endorsement Save Hagel?

This isn’t like most of the other Chuck Hagel endorsements, which have hurt him more than they’ve helped him. Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s support is actually meaningful, especially for someone like Hagel, who was a big critic of the Iraq war while Crocker was ambassador to that country. He pens a strong defense of Hagel at the Wall Street Journal today:

Mr. Hagel understands far better than most the evils of Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran. He also appreciates the importance of looking in and among those groups for fissures that might lead to internal debate, dissension or division—or even to areas of agreement with the U.S. In the months after the 9/11 attacks, I negotiated with Iranian officials regarding Afghanistan; it accomplished a little of both, spurring agreement on some issues and internal debate among the Iranians on others. 

Chuck Hagel understood this, as he understood the importance of the unsuccessful talks I had with the Iranians in 2007, when I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The failure of those talks helped convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that a diplomatic solution to Iranian interference in Iraq wasn’t possible, at which point he decided to use his army successfully against Iranian-backed militias.

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This isn’t like most of the other Chuck Hagel endorsements, which have hurt him more than they’ve helped him. Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s support is actually meaningful, especially for someone like Hagel, who was a big critic of the Iraq war while Crocker was ambassador to that country. He pens a strong defense of Hagel at the Wall Street Journal today:

Mr. Hagel understands far better than most the evils of Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran. He also appreciates the importance of looking in and among those groups for fissures that might lead to internal debate, dissension or division—or even to areas of agreement with the U.S. In the months after the 9/11 attacks, I negotiated with Iranian officials regarding Afghanistan; it accomplished a little of both, spurring agreement on some issues and internal debate among the Iranians on others. 

Chuck Hagel understood this, as he understood the importance of the unsuccessful talks I had with the Iranians in 2007, when I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The failure of those talks helped convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that a diplomatic solution to Iranian interference in Iraq wasn’t possible, at which point he decided to use his army successfully against Iranian-backed militias.

Most of the argument is made in personal terms that are moot; Crocker reassures that Hagel’s heart is in the right place on Israel, and that he understands the magnitude of the Iranian threat. But for the rest of us judging him based on his public record, the evidence just isn’t there.

The endorsement may also be too late to matter. Even if President Obama hasn’t made up his mind yet, both sides are digging in and the fight is becoming increasingly bitter. Obama wouldn’t just be picking a battle with Republicans. Plenty of liberal Democrats, most recently Barney Frank, have also opposed the possible nomination. The gay community is still wary of Hagel’s position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and women’s groups are lobbying for a female secretary of defense now that Hillary Clinton is leaving the State Department.

The longer Obama waits to make a decision, the more divisive the issue will become. And unless Hagel has a lot more supporters of Crocker’s caliber waiting in the wings, he’s not going to be able to match the level of the opposition. Maybe that doesn’t matter to Obama; at the end of the day, it’s still his choice. If he wants Hagel badly enough, then he’ll suffer through the fight.

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Amb. Crocker Is Worth an Infantry Division

It is difficult to exaggerate the enormity of the loss for U.S. interests in Afghanistan from the early departure of Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Crocker is, quite simply, the best in the business of diplomacy.

He established superstar credentials by working with Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq to make the surge a success in 2007-2008. He further burnished his credentials in the last year by establishing a good working relationship with the volatile Hamid Karzai after relations with him had been mishandled by a succession of American envoys. The result was the signing of a U.S.-Afghanistan Security Partnership Accord that would have been inconceivable without Crocker’s deft, unobtrusive work.

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It is difficult to exaggerate the enormity of the loss for U.S. interests in Afghanistan from the early departure of Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Crocker is, quite simply, the best in the business of diplomacy.

He established superstar credentials by working with Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq to make the surge a success in 2007-2008. He further burnished his credentials in the last year by establishing a good working relationship with the volatile Hamid Karzai after relations with him had been mishandled by a succession of American envoys. The result was the signing of a U.S.-Afghanistan Security Partnership Accord that would have been inconceivable without Crocker’s deft, unobtrusive work.

It is shame that he will wind up serving only a year in Afghanistan–but it is a huge tribute to him that he agreed to come out of retirement at all, given his back problems and the comfortable university job he had to leave. Along with the continuing drawdown of U.S. troops and the expected departure of General John Allen, Crocker’s retirement is further cause for concern about Afghanistan’s future. A diplomat like Crocker is worth an infantry division.

 

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Afghan Deal Would Be a Win-Win

Chalk it up to Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–our dynamic duo in Kabul. They can get results even in the most unpromising circumstances.

Recently, they completed a deal to transfer custody of the main U.S. detention facility to Afghan control while maintaining American oversight and an American veto on any prisoner releases. Now they appear to be on the verge of concluding an agreement that would allow “night raids”–heavily criticized by President Hamid Karzai for their supposed infringement on Afghan sovereignty–to continue with only mild modifications. Afghan judges will be required to approve the raids but their approval apparently will be obtainable after the fact–which means that the secrecy essential for these operations will not be compromised.

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Chalk it up to Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–our dynamic duo in Kabul. They can get results even in the most unpromising circumstances.

Recently, they completed a deal to transfer custody of the main U.S. detention facility to Afghan control while maintaining American oversight and an American veto on any prisoner releases. Now they appear to be on the verge of concluding an agreement that would allow “night raids”–heavily criticized by President Hamid Karzai for their supposed infringement on Afghan sovereignty–to continue with only mild modifications. Afghan judges will be required to approve the raids but their approval apparently will be obtainable after the fact–which means that the secrecy essential for these operations will not be compromised.

Assuming the deal is sealed, this will be an important victory that will allow coalition forces to continue employing one of their most effective counter-terrorist tools while still giving the appearance of respecting Afghan sovereignty.

 

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Changing of the Ambassadorial Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Deadlines

Obama from last night on Iraq:

Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.

And on Afghanistan:

But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s. [emphasis added]

Obama, as many of us discussed at the time, did great damage to his own Afghanistan war strategy — which properly centered on an infusion of 30,000 troops — by imposing a deadline. His secretaries of state and defense have struggled mightily to blur it and redefine it. But it still stands and is, as the outgoing commandant of the Marines, John McCain, and many others have argued, a hindrance to our mission.

Less widely discussed (and kudos to the New York Post editors for picking this up) was the statement on Iraq. A number of distinguished supporters of the war, including former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, have cautioned that should the Iraqis request an extension of the Strategic Framework Agreement, we should respond positively. Paul Wolfowitz, likewise, advised:

Our commitment must also include continued material support, particularly in the form of military and technical assistance. And though we have agreed to withdraw all our troops by the end of next year — a pledge that we must honor if the Iraqi government so desires — we need to remain open to the possibility of a mutually agreed longer-term security commitment or military presence for deterrence and support.

And earlier this year, Fred and Kim Kagan warned:

The U.S. has steadfastly refused to discuss a long-term military partnership with Iraq beyond 2011, despite the fact that the Iraqi military will not be able to defend Iraq on its own by then. It has refused fully to increase civilian efforts in order to accomplish tasks that had been performed by military forces now withdrawing. It has reduced funding for the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which allows the military to provide “urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction” projects, as well as for other forms of humanitarian and security assistance.

But Obama is, at least for now, saying, in effect “We are out of here.” What if the situation deteriorates? What if conditions on the ground worsen? His statement hints at no wiggle room.

Deadlines, especially in wars against ideologically minded foes, are nearly always a bad idea. It is why George W. Bush, who understood well the nature of the war against jihadists, took such a firm stance against them. He was right, as are Crocker, Wolfowitz, and the Kagans: we should, in fact, be leaving the door open to the the extension of our military presence.

Presidential statements carry immense weight and we should be candid about what is said and why it is problematic. Those who root for success in Iraq owe the president the benefit of their counsel on the danger of deadlines.

Obama from last night on Iraq:

Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.

And on Afghanistan:

But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s. [emphasis added]

Obama, as many of us discussed at the time, did great damage to his own Afghanistan war strategy — which properly centered on an infusion of 30,000 troops — by imposing a deadline. His secretaries of state and defense have struggled mightily to blur it and redefine it. But it still stands and is, as the outgoing commandant of the Marines, John McCain, and many others have argued, a hindrance to our mission.

Less widely discussed (and kudos to the New York Post editors for picking this up) was the statement on Iraq. A number of distinguished supporters of the war, including former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, have cautioned that should the Iraqis request an extension of the Strategic Framework Agreement, we should respond positively. Paul Wolfowitz, likewise, advised:

Our commitment must also include continued material support, particularly in the form of military and technical assistance. And though we have agreed to withdraw all our troops by the end of next year — a pledge that we must honor if the Iraqi government so desires — we need to remain open to the possibility of a mutually agreed longer-term security commitment or military presence for deterrence and support.

And earlier this year, Fred and Kim Kagan warned:

The U.S. has steadfastly refused to discuss a long-term military partnership with Iraq beyond 2011, despite the fact that the Iraqi military will not be able to defend Iraq on its own by then. It has refused fully to increase civilian efforts in order to accomplish tasks that had been performed by military forces now withdrawing. It has reduced funding for the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which allows the military to provide “urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction” projects, as well as for other forms of humanitarian and security assistance.

But Obama is, at least for now, saying, in effect “We are out of here.” What if the situation deteriorates? What if conditions on the ground worsen? His statement hints at no wiggle room.

Deadlines, especially in wars against ideologically minded foes, are nearly always a bad idea. It is why George W. Bush, who understood well the nature of the war against jihadists, took such a firm stance against them. He was right, as are Crocker, Wolfowitz, and the Kagans: we should, in fact, be leaving the door open to the the extension of our military presence.

Presidential statements carry immense weight and we should be candid about what is said and why it is problematic. Those who root for success in Iraq owe the president the benefit of their counsel on the danger of deadlines.

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Arrogance Doesn’t Become Him

Fox’s Gretchen Carlson was too aggressive in her interview with Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, but it did allow Gibbs to display his unparalleled snideness and condescension. For a man who is part of an administration that is unspooling, you would think Gibbs would show a bit more humility. But you would be wrong.

As for substance: Mr. Gibbs is once again out of his depth. What he can’t seem to understand – or perhaps what he has chosen to willfully ignore – is that the surge was critical in both the success of the Anbar Awakening and the political progress that we have seen in Iraq. The surge allowed everything else that is good to take place. Without it, the Iraq war would have been lost and Iraq itself would be consumed in a bloody civil war and possibly genocide. And if Gibbs’s boss had gotten his way in 2007, that is exactly where things would now stand.

As for who has handled the diplomatic/political situation better between the Bush and Obama administration: here again, the Bush record is superior. Compare Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who was a spectacular diplomat, with Obama’s ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, who was not (Hill served in the Bush administration; his achievement as Ambassador to Korea and head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks could hardly be termed a success either).

Robert Gibbs often doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But to combine ignorance with such preening arrogance is uncommon even for Washington.

Fox’s Gretchen Carlson was too aggressive in her interview with Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, but it did allow Gibbs to display his unparalleled snideness and condescension. For a man who is part of an administration that is unspooling, you would think Gibbs would show a bit more humility. But you would be wrong.

As for substance: Mr. Gibbs is once again out of his depth. What he can’t seem to understand – or perhaps what he has chosen to willfully ignore – is that the surge was critical in both the success of the Anbar Awakening and the political progress that we have seen in Iraq. The surge allowed everything else that is good to take place. Without it, the Iraq war would have been lost and Iraq itself would be consumed in a bloody civil war and possibly genocide. And if Gibbs’s boss had gotten his way in 2007, that is exactly where things would now stand.

As for who has handled the diplomatic/political situation better between the Bush and Obama administration: here again, the Bush record is superior. Compare Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who was a spectacular diplomat, with Obama’s ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, who was not (Hill served in the Bush administration; his achievement as Ambassador to Korea and head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks could hardly be termed a success either).

Robert Gibbs often doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But to combine ignorance with such preening arrogance is uncommon even for Washington.

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Crocker on Iraq

The former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker is too modest to mention his own invaluable role in averting disaster in Iraq. He was, along with Gen. David Petraeus, responsible for the remarkable turnaround in the war and in staving off congressional calls in September 2007 to bug out. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, he explains:

The difficulty and delays we have seen since the March elections illustrate the fundamental truth that everything in Iraq is hard and is likely to continue being hard. When the next government is in place, it will have to wrestle with the tough issues that have been shelved since the elections and their aftermath. …

The threat of al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorism persists in Iraq, as recent attacks have made clear. Iraq’s relations with its neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, remain difficult amid signs that Tehran is waiting for a U.S. exit to ramp up its efforts at destabilization and reclaiming the ground it has lost in Iraq the past several years. Other challenges include the rising popular impatience over economic stagnation and the lack of basic services; refugees; widespread corruption; and a growing imbalance between Iraqi military and civilian governance capacities.

He is not predicting doom, but rather urging patience and persistence:

It is not a record of failure but an illustration of the enormity of the challenges in Iraq. How successfully Iraqis deal with these challenges has a great deal to do with the level of U.S. engagement going forward, including the process of government formation. . . Our lack of strategic patience is something that, over time, our adversaries have come to count on and our allies to fear — in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Like others who have urged continued American involvement, Crocker points to the Strategic Framework Agreement and the possibility that the Iraqis may ask that our troops remain beyond 2011. (“If so, I hope we will listen carefully.”)

Here’s an idea: if Obama really wants to preserve our gains, why not send Crocker back to Iraq for a couple of more years? That would be a signal of support that the Iraqis would surely appreciate. And it would indicate that the president finally understands the strategic smarts of the Bush team, which snatched Iraq from the jaws of defeat.

The former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker is too modest to mention his own invaluable role in averting disaster in Iraq. He was, along with Gen. David Petraeus, responsible for the remarkable turnaround in the war and in staving off congressional calls in September 2007 to bug out. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, he explains:

The difficulty and delays we have seen since the March elections illustrate the fundamental truth that everything in Iraq is hard and is likely to continue being hard. When the next government is in place, it will have to wrestle with the tough issues that have been shelved since the elections and their aftermath. …

The threat of al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorism persists in Iraq, as recent attacks have made clear. Iraq’s relations with its neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, remain difficult amid signs that Tehran is waiting for a U.S. exit to ramp up its efforts at destabilization and reclaiming the ground it has lost in Iraq the past several years. Other challenges include the rising popular impatience over economic stagnation and the lack of basic services; refugees; widespread corruption; and a growing imbalance between Iraqi military and civilian governance capacities.

He is not predicting doom, but rather urging patience and persistence:

It is not a record of failure but an illustration of the enormity of the challenges in Iraq. How successfully Iraqis deal with these challenges has a great deal to do with the level of U.S. engagement going forward, including the process of government formation. . . Our lack of strategic patience is something that, over time, our adversaries have come to count on and our allies to fear — in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Like others who have urged continued American involvement, Crocker points to the Strategic Framework Agreement and the possibility that the Iraqis may ask that our troops remain beyond 2011. (“If so, I hope we will listen carefully.”)

Here’s an idea: if Obama really wants to preserve our gains, why not send Crocker back to Iraq for a couple of more years? That would be a signal of support that the Iraqis would surely appreciate. And it would indicate that the president finally understands the strategic smarts of the Bush team, which snatched Iraq from the jaws of defeat.

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No Victory Laps in Iraq — Yet

President Obama delivers a speech today marking the end of combat operations in Iraq as the number of U.S. troops falls to 50,000 by the end of the month. Politico describes this as “the first steps of a U.S. victory lap on the war.” Meanwhile, Iraq continues to suffer from chronic electricity shortages, terrorists have stepped up their attacks this summer, and, most worrying of all, Iraqi politicos agree there is no chance of a government being formed before the fall. These worrisome trends on the ground shouldn’t obscure the amazing progress that has been made since 2007, but they should warn us against the kind of complacency the administration has fallen prey to in the past.

Having 50,000 troops remain in Iraq for at least another year still gives us considerable leverage to influence events in a more positive direction — if we have smart representatives capable of doing that and if they have the support they need in Washington. General Ray Odierno, the senior military commander (who, unfortunately, is about to depart), has done a tremendous job, but he has been let down by his diplomatic partner, Ambassador Chris Hill, who had never served in the Arab world before being appointed last year and has taken a curiously hands-off attitude toward the Iraqi political process.

The good news is that Hill is on the way out and a more experienced ambassador, Jim Jeffrey, who has served in Iraq before, is due to arrive soon. He is smart enough to bring back a few key staff members from the “Dream Team” that helped General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker manage the surge:

Brett McGurk, an Iraq adviser to then-President George W. Bush who was among the key negotiators of a 2008 bilateral agreement, recently arrived in Baghdad. Sadi Othman, who was Gen. David H. Petraeus’s main interlocutor with Iraqi politicians during the surge, has been asked to return to work for the incoming U.S. commander, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. Ali Khedery, who was an adviser to then-U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, will work temporarily for the next ambassador, James F. Jeffrey.

General Austin, the new military commander, doesn’t have the same level of experience in Iraq as Odierno, but overall this is a big upgrade of the American presence. Still, it’s not enough to have better representatives on the ground; success in Iraq will also require high-level engagement of the sort that the White House has conducted only intermittently. President Obama needs to pay closer attention and not simply hand Iraq off to Vice President Biden. It is still possible for our hard-won achievements in Iraq to be dissipated if the president is more interested in taking victory laps than in pushing the country forward.

President Obama delivers a speech today marking the end of combat operations in Iraq as the number of U.S. troops falls to 50,000 by the end of the month. Politico describes this as “the first steps of a U.S. victory lap on the war.” Meanwhile, Iraq continues to suffer from chronic electricity shortages, terrorists have stepped up their attacks this summer, and, most worrying of all, Iraqi politicos agree there is no chance of a government being formed before the fall. These worrisome trends on the ground shouldn’t obscure the amazing progress that has been made since 2007, but they should warn us against the kind of complacency the administration has fallen prey to in the past.

Having 50,000 troops remain in Iraq for at least another year still gives us considerable leverage to influence events in a more positive direction — if we have smart representatives capable of doing that and if they have the support they need in Washington. General Ray Odierno, the senior military commander (who, unfortunately, is about to depart), has done a tremendous job, but he has been let down by his diplomatic partner, Ambassador Chris Hill, who had never served in the Arab world before being appointed last year and has taken a curiously hands-off attitude toward the Iraqi political process.

The good news is that Hill is on the way out and a more experienced ambassador, Jim Jeffrey, who has served in Iraq before, is due to arrive soon. He is smart enough to bring back a few key staff members from the “Dream Team” that helped General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker manage the surge:

Brett McGurk, an Iraq adviser to then-President George W. Bush who was among the key negotiators of a 2008 bilateral agreement, recently arrived in Baghdad. Sadi Othman, who was Gen. David H. Petraeus’s main interlocutor with Iraqi politicians during the surge, has been asked to return to work for the incoming U.S. commander, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. Ali Khedery, who was an adviser to then-U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, will work temporarily for the next ambassador, James F. Jeffrey.

General Austin, the new military commander, doesn’t have the same level of experience in Iraq as Odierno, but overall this is a big upgrade of the American presence. Still, it’s not enough to have better representatives on the ground; success in Iraq will also require high-level engagement of the sort that the White House has conducted only intermittently. President Obama needs to pay closer attention and not simply hand Iraq off to Vice President Biden. It is still possible for our hard-won achievements in Iraq to be dissipated if the president is more interested in taking victory laps than in pushing the country forward.

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A Stroll Down Memory Lane

According to USA Today, in an interview Vice President Biden said that

former president George W. Bush deserved some credit for sending additional troops to Iraq in 2007. But even though Biden said the surge worked militarily, he said he didn’t regret his vote in the Senate against it because Bush did not include a plan to address Iraq’s political problems. “I don’t regret a thing, what I said or did about Iraq policy,” he said. It was the Obama administration, Biden said, that put in the plan that led to success. “What was lacking in the past was a coherent political process.”

Where oh where to begin? Perhaps with a short journey down Memory Lane.

In January 2007, after President Bush announced the so-called surge of forces in Iraq, then-Senator Joseph Biden declared: “If he surges another 20, 30 [thousand], or whatever number he’s going to, into Baghdad, it’ll be a tragic mistake.” He called it “doomed” and “a fantasy.”

“The surge isn’t going to work either tactically or strategically,” Biden assured the Boston Globe in the summer of 2007. Even well into 2008, when the surge had made undeniable progress, Biden was still insisting it was a failure, that Bush had no strategy, and that “there is little evidence the Iraqis will settle their differences peacefully any time soon.”

If you’d like to see Biden in his own inimitable words, take a look at this.

One would be hard pressed to think of another person who was as persistently and consistently wrong about the surge as Biden (though Barack Obama would give him a good run for his money). Biden went so far as to advocate dividing up Iraq into three parts based on ethnicity, one of the more ill-informed and dangerous ideas to emerge among war critics.

The truth is that if Joe Biden had had his way, the war would have been lost, Iraq would probably be engulfed in something close to genocide, al-Qaeda would have emerged with its most important victory ever, and America would have sustained a defeat far worse than it did in Vietnam.

As for Biden’s claim that what was lacking in the past was a “coherent political process,” let’s be generous to the vice president: he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The then-American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, was one of its outstanding diplomats. And unlike the situation in Afghanistan under the Obama administration, in Iraq the commanding general at the time (David Petraeus) and the U.S. ambassador (Crocker) worked hand-in-glove. They were an extraordinarily effective team. In order to refresh Biden’s memory of the coherent political process that was in place, he might want to review Ambassador Crocker’s Senate testimony from September 2007, before a committee Biden himself sat on.

Of course, none of what Biden said is especially surprising. Over the years he has shown himself to be loquacious, personable, comically self-important (this video is priceless), and a somewhat buffoonish figure (who can forget this gem or these incidents here and here). Beyond that, if you go back to his record since he was first elected to Congress in the early 1970s, you will find few if any members of Congress whose record on national-security matters can be judged to have been as consistently bad as Biden’s (see here).

Over the years, Mr. Biden has said a countless number of things that are silly and wrong. We can add what he said to USA Today to the list. And you can bet there will be plenty more to come.

According to USA Today, in an interview Vice President Biden said that

former president George W. Bush deserved some credit for sending additional troops to Iraq in 2007. But even though Biden said the surge worked militarily, he said he didn’t regret his vote in the Senate against it because Bush did not include a plan to address Iraq’s political problems. “I don’t regret a thing, what I said or did about Iraq policy,” he said. It was the Obama administration, Biden said, that put in the plan that led to success. “What was lacking in the past was a coherent political process.”

Where oh where to begin? Perhaps with a short journey down Memory Lane.

In January 2007, after President Bush announced the so-called surge of forces in Iraq, then-Senator Joseph Biden declared: “If he surges another 20, 30 [thousand], or whatever number he’s going to, into Baghdad, it’ll be a tragic mistake.” He called it “doomed” and “a fantasy.”

“The surge isn’t going to work either tactically or strategically,” Biden assured the Boston Globe in the summer of 2007. Even well into 2008, when the surge had made undeniable progress, Biden was still insisting it was a failure, that Bush had no strategy, and that “there is little evidence the Iraqis will settle their differences peacefully any time soon.”

If you’d like to see Biden in his own inimitable words, take a look at this.

One would be hard pressed to think of another person who was as persistently and consistently wrong about the surge as Biden (though Barack Obama would give him a good run for his money). Biden went so far as to advocate dividing up Iraq into three parts based on ethnicity, one of the more ill-informed and dangerous ideas to emerge among war critics.

The truth is that if Joe Biden had had his way, the war would have been lost, Iraq would probably be engulfed in something close to genocide, al-Qaeda would have emerged with its most important victory ever, and America would have sustained a defeat far worse than it did in Vietnam.

As for Biden’s claim that what was lacking in the past was a “coherent political process,” let’s be generous to the vice president: he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The then-American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, was one of its outstanding diplomats. And unlike the situation in Afghanistan under the Obama administration, in Iraq the commanding general at the time (David Petraeus) and the U.S. ambassador (Crocker) worked hand-in-glove. They were an extraordinarily effective team. In order to refresh Biden’s memory of the coherent political process that was in place, he might want to review Ambassador Crocker’s Senate testimony from September 2007, before a committee Biden himself sat on.

Of course, none of what Biden said is especially surprising. Over the years he has shown himself to be loquacious, personable, comically self-important (this video is priceless), and a somewhat buffoonish figure (who can forget this gem or these incidents here and here). Beyond that, if you go back to his record since he was first elected to Congress in the early 1970s, you will find few if any members of Congress whose record on national-security matters can be judged to have been as consistently bad as Biden’s (see here).

Over the years, Mr. Biden has said a countless number of things that are silly and wrong. We can add what he said to USA Today to the list. And you can bet there will be plenty more to come.

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It’s Obama’s War

Jennifer, Max, and Abe have been covering the McChrystal incident superbly. Beyond eschewing redundancy, however, I’ve been reticent about chiming in because I would be happier not to say what I really think, which is that President Obama’s current approach to Afghanistan wasn’t going to stand or fall with General McChrystal, and can’t be salvaged by General Petraeus.

A number of commentators have echoed Peter Wehner’s point that Obama did the right thing and chose the right man this week, and I agree with that. Obama did look decisive and presidential yesterday. I had John’s comments on the silly Maureen Dowd piece in mind as I watched Obama’s speech, thinking that it’s the military’s own traditions and character — distasteful as they are to Ms. Dowd — that endowed the removal of McChrystal with its air of statesmanlike decision. Everyone in uniform knew what the right answer was. There was absolute, uncomplaining loyalty from Obama’s senior military staffers to the boss and his decision, painful and unfortunate though it was.

As Jennifer has pointed out, looking decisive and presidential is out of character for this commander in chief. But loyal subordinates can and should make a boss look good. Even the best bosses would readily acknowledge how often the loyalty of the troops has saved their backsides. The military as an institution is particularly effective in this regard. I don’t grudge any president his recourse to the image-enhancing infrastructure of military culture.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t exaggerate the signal sent about Obama’s leadership by a personnel shift that was essentially thrust on him by a discipline problem. Unlike other celebrated personnel replacements made by war-time presidents — Lincoln, Truman, the younger Bush — the replacement of McChrystal was not prompted by this president’s strategic concern about the conduct of the war. That is Obama’s great failing; what he owes the armed forces that do his bidding is precisely that strategic concern.

George W. Bush gave Bob Gates, Ryan Crocker, and David Petraeus a level of strategic concern — attention, political investment, diplomatic cover — that enabled them to adopt an executable plan for Iraq and then execute it. What Obama has done, by contrast, is take McChrystal’s original executable plan and, after months of seemingly aimless deliberation, compromise its executability.

It’s quite true that the surge in Afghanistan has not truly begun yet; current events are not a judgment on the surge’s effectiveness. We can give Petraeus time and keep our hopes up. But there is already pressure being exerted against the surge by myriad factors in Afghanistan and the region, from Iran’s radical interests to Pakistan’s stability problems, India’s security concerns, Russia’s devious ambivalence about our presence, and the motley array of terrorists seeking their fortunes in the Afghan countryside. Many of these factors can’t be addressed with military force. They are outside Petraeus’s purview. Dealing with them requires a horse-trading, arm-twisting diplomacy that must be handled by ambassadors and envoys — actors who, up to now, are variously reported to be inert or dysfunctional — and can’t be successful without the president’s overt leadership.

I remain skeptical that Obama’s performance in this regard will change. The military specializes in executing big decisions efficiently, but Petraeus’s leadership is not enough to bring success out of a surge that carries an expiration date, supported half-heartedly by the Oval Office. The latter conditions still need to change, not just rhetorically but materially, if Petraeus is to have the chance he is unquestionably the best man to make use of.

Jennifer, Max, and Abe have been covering the McChrystal incident superbly. Beyond eschewing redundancy, however, I’ve been reticent about chiming in because I would be happier not to say what I really think, which is that President Obama’s current approach to Afghanistan wasn’t going to stand or fall with General McChrystal, and can’t be salvaged by General Petraeus.

A number of commentators have echoed Peter Wehner’s point that Obama did the right thing and chose the right man this week, and I agree with that. Obama did look decisive and presidential yesterday. I had John’s comments on the silly Maureen Dowd piece in mind as I watched Obama’s speech, thinking that it’s the military’s own traditions and character — distasteful as they are to Ms. Dowd — that endowed the removal of McChrystal with its air of statesmanlike decision. Everyone in uniform knew what the right answer was. There was absolute, uncomplaining loyalty from Obama’s senior military staffers to the boss and his decision, painful and unfortunate though it was.

As Jennifer has pointed out, looking decisive and presidential is out of character for this commander in chief. But loyal subordinates can and should make a boss look good. Even the best bosses would readily acknowledge how often the loyalty of the troops has saved their backsides. The military as an institution is particularly effective in this regard. I don’t grudge any president his recourse to the image-enhancing infrastructure of military culture.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t exaggerate the signal sent about Obama’s leadership by a personnel shift that was essentially thrust on him by a discipline problem. Unlike other celebrated personnel replacements made by war-time presidents — Lincoln, Truman, the younger Bush — the replacement of McChrystal was not prompted by this president’s strategic concern about the conduct of the war. That is Obama’s great failing; what he owes the armed forces that do his bidding is precisely that strategic concern.

George W. Bush gave Bob Gates, Ryan Crocker, and David Petraeus a level of strategic concern — attention, political investment, diplomatic cover — that enabled them to adopt an executable plan for Iraq and then execute it. What Obama has done, by contrast, is take McChrystal’s original executable plan and, after months of seemingly aimless deliberation, compromise its executability.

It’s quite true that the surge in Afghanistan has not truly begun yet; current events are not a judgment on the surge’s effectiveness. We can give Petraeus time and keep our hopes up. But there is already pressure being exerted against the surge by myriad factors in Afghanistan and the region, from Iran’s radical interests to Pakistan’s stability problems, India’s security concerns, Russia’s devious ambivalence about our presence, and the motley array of terrorists seeking their fortunes in the Afghan countryside. Many of these factors can’t be addressed with military force. They are outside Petraeus’s purview. Dealing with them requires a horse-trading, arm-twisting diplomacy that must be handled by ambassadors and envoys — actors who, up to now, are variously reported to be inert or dysfunctional — and can’t be successful without the president’s overt leadership.

I remain skeptical that Obama’s performance in this regard will change. The military specializes in executing big decisions efficiently, but Petraeus’s leadership is not enough to bring success out of a surge that carries an expiration date, supported half-heartedly by the Oval Office. The latter conditions still need to change, not just rhetorically but materially, if Petraeus is to have the chance he is unquestionably the best man to make use of.

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Take the Advice, Hold the Hyperbole

As many conservatives have been urging, Sens. Joe Lieberman, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham are imploring Obama to dump the incompetent civilian team in Afghanistan:

“The civilian side, in my view, is completely dysfunctional,” said Graham.

Lieberman said the magazine article “revealed what we have known, that there is not the kind of unity in Afghanistan between our civilian and military leadership” that is necessary.

Though none of the senators would name specific civilian leaders who should be replaced, McCain suggested “re-uniting the Crocker-Petraeus team,” a reference to former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who served in Baghdad while Petraeus headed up military operations in the country.

It’s going to be hard to make the argument that only the general should change. Petraeus, because of his accomplishment in Iraq, is uniquely situated to give unvarnished advice to Obama and make clear what he needs to achieve victory. In this relationship, Obama needs Petraeus more than Petraeus needs this job.

But alas, Lindsey Graham can never pass up an opportunity to burnish his image with the media, often at the expense of others. He feels it necessary to toss this in:

Graham had particularly harsh words for the other military officers quoted in the piece. “You let yourself and your Army down,” he said. “The language you used, the cavalier attitude, the disrespect … was unacceptable. This was a low point, in my view, for the armed forces in a very long time.”

Oh, good grief. First, it’s not necessary to emphasize that several officers behaved poorly; I think we all got this. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the worst thing to happen in the military “in a very long time.” This is a rare instance when it’s worth following Obama’s example. He gave a classy speech in announcing the change from McChrystal to Petraeus and left out the recriminations. Graham should have done the same.

As many conservatives have been urging, Sens. Joe Lieberman, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham are imploring Obama to dump the incompetent civilian team in Afghanistan:

“The civilian side, in my view, is completely dysfunctional,” said Graham.

Lieberman said the magazine article “revealed what we have known, that there is not the kind of unity in Afghanistan between our civilian and military leadership” that is necessary.

Though none of the senators would name specific civilian leaders who should be replaced, McCain suggested “re-uniting the Crocker-Petraeus team,” a reference to former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who served in Baghdad while Petraeus headed up military operations in the country.

It’s going to be hard to make the argument that only the general should change. Petraeus, because of his accomplishment in Iraq, is uniquely situated to give unvarnished advice to Obama and make clear what he needs to achieve victory. In this relationship, Obama needs Petraeus more than Petraeus needs this job.

But alas, Lindsey Graham can never pass up an opportunity to burnish his image with the media, often at the expense of others. He feels it necessary to toss this in:

Graham had particularly harsh words for the other military officers quoted in the piece. “You let yourself and your Army down,” he said. “The language you used, the cavalier attitude, the disrespect … was unacceptable. This was a low point, in my view, for the armed forces in a very long time.”

Oh, good grief. First, it’s not necessary to emphasize that several officers behaved poorly; I think we all got this. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the worst thing to happen in the military “in a very long time.” This is a rare instance when it’s worth following Obama’s example. He gave a classy speech in announcing the change from McChrystal to Petraeus and left out the recriminations. Graham should have done the same.

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McChrystal Out, Petraeus In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iraqi Elections — Good News

The Iraqi election looks, so far, to be generally good news. It went off without too much violence and it was managed by the Iraqis themselves with minimal American help. The preliminary results show that in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Coalition appears to have outpolled the unholy alliance of ISCI and the Sadrists — the Iraqi National Alliance, which is widely viewed as the party closest to Iran. Meanwhile former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, which appeals for Sunni and secular votes, appears to be in first place in Sunni areas and running a close second overall behind State of Law. If the results hold up, it would suggest that last year’s provincial elections were no fluke — Iraqi voters prefer nationalist candidates running on law-and-order platforms to religious candidates who are seen as too close to the Iranians. This is yet another big step forward in Iraq’s emergence as that most unlikely of creatures — a real Arab democracy, something that President Bush’s myriad of critics long dismissed as a neocon fantasy.

But it is hard to know what lies ahead. Predictably, there are claims of fraud being bandied about by losing candidates and there is sure to be much difficult camel trading ahead as the new government is being formed. The situation remains unsettled, so it is well worth listening to Ryan Crocker, the first-rate former ambassador and General Petraeus’s indispensible partner in implementing the surge and turning around the situation in 2007-2008. Here is what he has to say in a new interview with Foreign Policy about the impending drawdown of U.S. forces, which are scheduled to go from roughly 100,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August:

The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011.

It makes me nervous. We’re going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it’s likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren’t going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments — all of that’s going to be on hold until you have a new government.

That means that things aren’t going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time.

Sage words from one of our very best diplomats. We can only hope that President Obama is listening.

The Iraqi election looks, so far, to be generally good news. It went off without too much violence and it was managed by the Iraqis themselves with minimal American help. The preliminary results show that in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Coalition appears to have outpolled the unholy alliance of ISCI and the Sadrists — the Iraqi National Alliance, which is widely viewed as the party closest to Iran. Meanwhile former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, which appeals for Sunni and secular votes, appears to be in first place in Sunni areas and running a close second overall behind State of Law. If the results hold up, it would suggest that last year’s provincial elections were no fluke — Iraqi voters prefer nationalist candidates running on law-and-order platforms to religious candidates who are seen as too close to the Iranians. This is yet another big step forward in Iraq’s emergence as that most unlikely of creatures — a real Arab democracy, something that President Bush’s myriad of critics long dismissed as a neocon fantasy.

But it is hard to know what lies ahead. Predictably, there are claims of fraud being bandied about by losing candidates and there is sure to be much difficult camel trading ahead as the new government is being formed. The situation remains unsettled, so it is well worth listening to Ryan Crocker, the first-rate former ambassador and General Petraeus’s indispensible partner in implementing the surge and turning around the situation in 2007-2008. Here is what he has to say in a new interview with Foreign Policy about the impending drawdown of U.S. forces, which are scheduled to go from roughly 100,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August:

The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011.

It makes me nervous. We’re going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it’s likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren’t going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments — all of that’s going to be on hold until you have a new government.

That means that things aren’t going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time.

Sage words from one of our very best diplomats. We can only hope that President Obama is listening.

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Afghanistan Strategy: Getting on the Same Page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remember Iraq?

In today’s New York Times, David Carr has a piece about the dwindling media coverage of the Iraq War. Carr begins writing about war fatigue and soon descends into a lament about Pentagon restrictions on media and, of course, the human toll of the war. When a media expert cites the success of the troop surge as a possible cause for decreased coverage, Carr is quick to minimize the point:

“Ironically, the success of the surge and a reduction in violence has led to a reduction in coverage,” said Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There is evidence that people have made up their minds about this war, and other stories – like the economy and the election – have come along and sucked up all the oxygen.”

But the tactical success of the surge should not be misconstrued as making Iraq a safer place for American soldiers.

(Anyone interested in “misconstruing” the definition of success to actually mean success, should go check out this Los Angeles Times article about the four-year-low in Iraq violence.)

The MSM has reasons beyond widespread anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment to keep post-surge good news out of the headlines. H. Fred Garcia, media consultant at Logos Consulting Group, cites the five C’s that make a story newsworthy: Conflict, Contradiction, Controversy, Cast of Characters and Colorful Language. With the progress made in the last year, the Iraq War has disappointed in delivering the five C’s to outlets like the New York Times. Let’s consider them one-by-one:

Conflict: A more stable Iraq means, by definition, less conflict. Where there was once talk of civil war, there is now talk of reconciliation. Stories about parliamentary sessions don’t contain body counts, and pictures of bill-signings don’t make it to the front page as frequently as battle scenes.

Contradiction: General David Petraeus is in the honorable habit of telling it like it is. Whereas jettisoned personalities like Donald Rumsfeld could be relied upon to observe setbacks and brag of successes, Gen. Petraeus is circumspect when testifying about hard-won progress. How can the media trip up a man who readily concedes that the success he’s seeing is “fragile and reversible”? Furthermore there’s greater public agreement coming out of the Pentagon and the State Department than there was in the early days of the war. The Petraeus plan has been settled upon and there’s very little in-fighting to leak out.

Controversy: If you go to google.com/news and type in “Iraq scandal”, you’ll get hits for Abu Ghraib, Guantanemo Bay, Walter Reed, insufficient body armor, and Blackwater. These are all years-old stories of varying merit. Try as they might, the MSM has been unable to make any fresh controversy stick to the coalition’s effort in Iraq.

Cast of Characters: Iraq isn’t a soap opera anymore. The days of Donald Rumsfeld and Baghdad Bob are over. There is no more hubristic overstatement, wise-cracking insouciance, or delusional ranting. On the American side Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker don’t project primetime appeal. They appear before cameras to make their case and then go back to work. On the Iraqi side, there’s no more Saddam Hussein or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The classic villains have been slain. (The aged and puny Tariq Aziz is currently standing trial for war crimes and no one even notices.) The MSM salivates over Moqtada al-Sadr’s every bark and growl, but as he continues to be marginalized the effort to turn him into a larger-than-life personage grows evermore challenging. As Prime Minister al-Maliki goes about the unglamorous business of Iraqi statehood, he fails to cut the dashing image of, say, (one-time prime minister hopeful) Ahmed Chalibi.

Colorful language: The lexicon of battle is far more lurid than the lexicon of reconciliation. We’ve gone from the pyrotechnics of “Shock and Awe” and the exotic horror of exploding golden domes to the legalese of parliamentary decisions. The most hysterical effort at maintaining the electrified language of war can be found in the lede of a July 27 New York Times story about ice in Bagdhad: “Each day before the midsummer sun rises high enough to bake blood on concrete, Baghdad’s underclass lines up outside Dickensian ice factories.” Blood can bake only so many times as violence decreases.

So: We’re left with the humdrum narrative of slow and steady progress. Happiness, they say, writes white. While no one would characterize Iraq as happy, there’s been more boring good news coming from Mesopotamia in the past year than the MSM knows what to do with.

In today’s New York Times, David Carr has a piece about the dwindling media coverage of the Iraq War. Carr begins writing about war fatigue and soon descends into a lament about Pentagon restrictions on media and, of course, the human toll of the war. When a media expert cites the success of the troop surge as a possible cause for decreased coverage, Carr is quick to minimize the point:

“Ironically, the success of the surge and a reduction in violence has led to a reduction in coverage,” said Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There is evidence that people have made up their minds about this war, and other stories – like the economy and the election – have come along and sucked up all the oxygen.”

But the tactical success of the surge should not be misconstrued as making Iraq a safer place for American soldiers.

(Anyone interested in “misconstruing” the definition of success to actually mean success, should go check out this Los Angeles Times article about the four-year-low in Iraq violence.)

The MSM has reasons beyond widespread anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment to keep post-surge good news out of the headlines. H. Fred Garcia, media consultant at Logos Consulting Group, cites the five C’s that make a story newsworthy: Conflict, Contradiction, Controversy, Cast of Characters and Colorful Language. With the progress made in the last year, the Iraq War has disappointed in delivering the five C’s to outlets like the New York Times. Let’s consider them one-by-one:

Conflict: A more stable Iraq means, by definition, less conflict. Where there was once talk of civil war, there is now talk of reconciliation. Stories about parliamentary sessions don’t contain body counts, and pictures of bill-signings don’t make it to the front page as frequently as battle scenes.

Contradiction: General David Petraeus is in the honorable habit of telling it like it is. Whereas jettisoned personalities like Donald Rumsfeld could be relied upon to observe setbacks and brag of successes, Gen. Petraeus is circumspect when testifying about hard-won progress. How can the media trip up a man who readily concedes that the success he’s seeing is “fragile and reversible”? Furthermore there’s greater public agreement coming out of the Pentagon and the State Department than there was in the early days of the war. The Petraeus plan has been settled upon and there’s very little in-fighting to leak out.

Controversy: If you go to google.com/news and type in “Iraq scandal”, you’ll get hits for Abu Ghraib, Guantanemo Bay, Walter Reed, insufficient body armor, and Blackwater. These are all years-old stories of varying merit. Try as they might, the MSM has been unable to make any fresh controversy stick to the coalition’s effort in Iraq.

Cast of Characters: Iraq isn’t a soap opera anymore. The days of Donald Rumsfeld and Baghdad Bob are over. There is no more hubristic overstatement, wise-cracking insouciance, or delusional ranting. On the American side Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker don’t project primetime appeal. They appear before cameras to make their case and then go back to work. On the Iraqi side, there’s no more Saddam Hussein or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The classic villains have been slain. (The aged and puny Tariq Aziz is currently standing trial for war crimes and no one even notices.) The MSM salivates over Moqtada al-Sadr’s every bark and growl, but as he continues to be marginalized the effort to turn him into a larger-than-life personage grows evermore challenging. As Prime Minister al-Maliki goes about the unglamorous business of Iraqi statehood, he fails to cut the dashing image of, say, (one-time prime minister hopeful) Ahmed Chalibi.

Colorful language: The lexicon of battle is far more lurid than the lexicon of reconciliation. We’ve gone from the pyrotechnics of “Shock and Awe” and the exotic horror of exploding golden domes to the legalese of parliamentary decisions. The most hysterical effort at maintaining the electrified language of war can be found in the lede of a July 27 New York Times story about ice in Bagdhad: “Each day before the midsummer sun rises high enough to bake blood on concrete, Baghdad’s underclass lines up outside Dickensian ice factories.” Blood can bake only so many times as violence decreases.

So: We’re left with the humdrum narrative of slow and steady progress. Happiness, they say, writes white. While no one would characterize Iraq as happy, there’s been more boring good news coming from Mesopotamia in the past year than the MSM knows what to do with.

Read Less

Al Qaeda and America’s Role in the World

Today, Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq, seemed to back away from recent remarks made by Ryan Crocker. Speaking to reporters yesterday in Najaf, the American ambassador summarized the trend of developments in Iraq this way: “You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they’ve never been closer to defeat than they are now.” Today, Driscoll stated that the group remains “a very lethal threat.”

Nonetheless, the military spokesman pointed to important signs of progress. Last week, the number of attacks “decreased to the level not seen since March 2004,” Driscoll noted, and violence has fallen 70 percent since the surge began a year ago. Of course, al Qaeda can still mount attacks, and a well-timed surge of its own could determine the outcome of the American presidential campaign. Yet, as Driscoll declared, “We will not allow them to reorganize themselves.”

So if present trends hold and the Iraqi government continues to assert itself, what will be the effect on American opinion? “The national mood is retrenchment,” writes James Traub in today’s New York Times. “We recognize that our heroic designs have come to grief in Iraq. We see how very little we have accomplished in the Middle East, for all our swelling rhetoric.”

Of course, Traub has correctly gauged public sentiment in an anti-Bush, anti-idealism America. Just look at the amazing trajectory of the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. And despite the American military’s continuing success in Iraq, there is pressure on the President to end the war, bring troops home, and disengage from the world as fast as we can. Yet this is nothing new. We do this after every conflict, whether ending in victory (both World Wars), defeat (Vietnam), or stalemate (Korea). Last decade, we turned away from historic responsibilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet the general sentiment that Traub describes may not be as long-lasting as many assume. For one thing, the desire to turn inward will be undercut by the success in Iraq that Crocker and Driscoll describe. And, of course, the world has a way of drawing Americans back into involvement in its affairs. We can solve some of its problems peacefully, but others are not capable of amicable resolution. As Madeleine Albright once said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.”

It is now up to President Bush to continue to remind the American people that we, whether we want to assume the role or not, remain the only guarantor of the international system. With his Knesset speech he redirected the national conversation in the presidential campaign. Now he can take this discussion and put it into the broader context.

Today, Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq, seemed to back away from recent remarks made by Ryan Crocker. Speaking to reporters yesterday in Najaf, the American ambassador summarized the trend of developments in Iraq this way: “You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they’ve never been closer to defeat than they are now.” Today, Driscoll stated that the group remains “a very lethal threat.”

Nonetheless, the military spokesman pointed to important signs of progress. Last week, the number of attacks “decreased to the level not seen since March 2004,” Driscoll noted, and violence has fallen 70 percent since the surge began a year ago. Of course, al Qaeda can still mount attacks, and a well-timed surge of its own could determine the outcome of the American presidential campaign. Yet, as Driscoll declared, “We will not allow them to reorganize themselves.”

So if present trends hold and the Iraqi government continues to assert itself, what will be the effect on American opinion? “The national mood is retrenchment,” writes James Traub in today’s New York Times. “We recognize that our heroic designs have come to grief in Iraq. We see how very little we have accomplished in the Middle East, for all our swelling rhetoric.”

Of course, Traub has correctly gauged public sentiment in an anti-Bush, anti-idealism America. Just look at the amazing trajectory of the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. And despite the American military’s continuing success in Iraq, there is pressure on the President to end the war, bring troops home, and disengage from the world as fast as we can. Yet this is nothing new. We do this after every conflict, whether ending in victory (both World Wars), defeat (Vietnam), or stalemate (Korea). Last decade, we turned away from historic responsibilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet the general sentiment that Traub describes may not be as long-lasting as many assume. For one thing, the desire to turn inward will be undercut by the success in Iraq that Crocker and Driscoll describe. And, of course, the world has a way of drawing Americans back into involvement in its affairs. We can solve some of its problems peacefully, but others are not capable of amicable resolution. As Madeleine Albright once said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.”

It is now up to President Bush to continue to remind the American people that we, whether we want to assume the role or not, remain the only guarantor of the international system. With his Knesset speech he redirected the national conversation in the presidential campaign. Now he can take this discussion and put it into the broader context.

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