Commentary Magazine


Topic: Taliban

ISIS Can Win Without Baghdad

I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

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I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

Certainly the public pronouncements from the White House do not communicate the gravity of the situation. Instead administration leakers are claiming that urgent action is not needed because the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has stalled in its attack north of Baghdad, which is protected not only by Iraqi security forces but also by Shiite militias. That is true, but it’s not the whole story. For one thing, ISIS continues to make important gains in the north, with the most recent news being that Iraq’s largest oil refinery, at Baiji, has fallen to the terrorists. If they manage to continue operating the refinery it will result in a critical lost of revenue (and power) for Baghdad and a concomitant increase in money and power for ISIS.

Moreover ISIS does not have to take Baghdad, much less the Shiite heartland, to win. It wins if it can simply establish and maintain an Islamist emirate encompassing not only the Sunni Triangle of Iraq but also northern Syria–a goal it is well on its way toward achieving. Eventually ISIS rule will chafe on the people under its thumb, as happened previously in Anbar Province–and as seen earlier in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Fundamentalist jihadist rule is not very popular.

But that’s in the long run. In the short term a lot can and likely will happen if ISIS can consolidate its authority. It is likely, for example, to welcome a motley who’s who of international jihadists to its domain where they can be trained and, in some cases, exported to carry out terrorist attacks in their homelands–including Europe and the United States.

Some will argue that I’m overstating the danger because it’s not in ISIS’s interest to directly target the U.S. or our allies because this is more likely to trigger American intervention. But the same thing could have been said about the Taliban and al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. For some strange reason the reasoning of Western faculty lounges does not always resonate with the hard men of the jihadist movement.

The longer that ISIS controls northern and western Iraq and northern Syria, the more its power will grow and the harder it will be to dislodge. This will likely harden the division of Iraq between a Sunni terrorist state and a Shiite terrorist state. This is or should be America’s worst nightmare–and it is why the president needs to act with greater dispatch and decisiveness than is his usual professorial pattern.

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Could Jordan Fall?

I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

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I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

If ISIS is able to consolidate control, and given its ideological antipathy to nation-state borders, then it will likely turn its sights on Jordan. After all, while ISIS considers Jews, Christians, and Shi’ite Muslims to be heretics deserving of a slow and painful death, its main victims have always been Sunnis.

Security officials acknowledge that ISIS already has cells in Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan does himself no favors. Like Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia or Ayad Allawi in Iraq, Abdullah is far more popular abroad than he is at home. Indeed, when he assumed the throne upon the death of his father, Abdullah was fluent in English but stumbled through Arabic. His wife Rania might charm Western audiences and might be imagined to attract Palestinian support because of her own heritage, but her profligate spending and tin ear to the plight of ordinary people has antagonized many Jordanians.

Many tensions Jordan faces are not Abdullah’s fault: While Jordan has, more than any other Arab state, worked to integrate the Palestinian refugee population, it has also been hit by waves of refugees, first from Iraq and then from Syria. Those working among the Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan report that they have not previously seen such a radicalized population. Jordan also does not have the natural resources of some of its neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Iraq are oil-rich and Israel now has gas.

The left-of-center Center for American Progress last week released an excellent new report looking at the pressures Jordan faces as well as the Islamist landscape in the Kingdom. Anything by the Washington Institute’s David Schenker is also worth reading.

An element of blowback also exists. Speaking on the Chris Matthews Show almost a decade ago, King Abdullah II warned of a “Shi’ite crescent,” a specter he subsequently explained in this Middle East Quarterly interview. For those who see an Iranian hidden hand behind every Shi’ite community, Abdullah’s warning had resonance. For Arab Shi’ites, however, it was unrestrained bigotry. Abdullah was not simply content to warn, however. He transformed Jordan into a safe haven for Iraqi Sunni insurgents and spared little effort to undermine Iraqi stability. He, like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was too clever for his own good: By supporting those who justified violence against Shi’ites on sectarian grounds and by working for his own sectarian reasons to undercut Iraqi stability, he set the stage for the blowback which is on the horizon.

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Obama’s Retreat and Jihad’s Rise

Back in 2012, the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism” stated that “The loss of bin Laden and these other key operatives puts the [al-Qaeda] network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.”

In 2014, the terrorist organization stands on the brink of statehood. Not so difficult, really. The United States withdrew from the Middle East and al-Qaeda didn’t. With jihadists now taking city after city in Iraq, we’re hearing murmurs of a rising caliphate.

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Back in 2012, the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism” stated that “The loss of bin Laden and these other key operatives puts the [al-Qaeda] network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.”

In 2014, the terrorist organization stands on the brink of statehood. Not so difficult, really. The United States withdrew from the Middle East and al-Qaeda didn’t. With jihadists now taking city after city in Iraq, we’re hearing murmurs of a rising caliphate.

Through it all, the Obama administration has bragged about its grit and wisdom. As the president told Mitt Romney in their third debate, “We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11, and as a consequence, al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated.” Responding to charges of appeasement at a White House press conference in 2011, Obama boasted: “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement.”

It would probably be more useful to ask the thousands of al-Qaeda associates who’ve been bombing and beheading their way to glory in Mesopotamia. You could also ask the Taliban five. And for good measure, you might want to pose the question to Hamas, whose political legitimacy has been given the Obama seal of approval.

Most Americans consented to our retreat from the Muslim world. It was easy to look back at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with regret as long as you ignored the alternatives. If warnings of a regional jihadist uprising were nothing more than hyped-up neocon scare-mongering, American military action looked like tragic overreach. But with that alternative no longer hypothetical, George W. Bush’s post-9/11 policies are beginning to look more like what they were: difficult but necessary initiatives aimed at stunting Islamist aggression.

Undoubtedly many Americans still think of the Great Islamist Comeback as a foreign disturbance with little bearing on their day-to-day lives. But that too requires some ignoring. Today, reports abound of terrorists plotting against the United States in Libya and the Syria-Iraq corridor. Even the Nigerian kidnapping crew Boko Haram is reportedly working on plans to hit American targets. Will Americans wait until those hypothetical concerns also become real before they accept the necessity of a strong U.S. presence in the Middle East? Al-Qaeda roared back to life with ease. Somehow the path that still remains difficult to reverse is our own.

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Hagel’s Unconvincing Spin

If there is one good aspect of the dismaying advance of Islamist extremists in Iraq from the Obama administration’s standpoint, it is that these events are distracting attention from the continuing controversy over the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

More embarrassing stories continue to emerge. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that four out of the five released Taliban were likely to return to the fight and that two of them would assume senior positions. Foreign Policy, meanwhile, reports that the two senior U.S. military commanders in the region–General Joe Dunford in Kabul and General Lloyd Austin at Central Command–were not informed of the deal beforehand (although they knew about the ongoing negotiations).

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If there is one good aspect of the dismaying advance of Islamist extremists in Iraq from the Obama administration’s standpoint, it is that these events are distracting attention from the continuing controversy over the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

More embarrassing stories continue to emerge. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that four out of the five released Taliban were likely to return to the fight and that two of them would assume senior positions. Foreign Policy, meanwhile, reports that the two senior U.S. military commanders in the region–General Joe Dunford in Kabul and General Lloyd Austin at Central Command–were not informed of the deal beforehand (although they knew about the ongoing negotiations).

Little wonder that senior administration officials who have trooped to Capitol Hill for briefings have not managed to satisfy members’ concerns. The latest to try is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. had not actually negotiated with terrorists. Why not? Because Bergdahl was being held by the Haqqani Network and the U.S. instead talked with the Taliban through the good offices of Qatari officials. As one Republican congressman said, “These responses are very, very tortuous.”

But this damage control is also being overshadowed by the ongoing disaster in Iraq. Before long the administration will be able to say that Bergdahl is “old news” and thus duck further inquiries. Unfortunately from the standpoint of the rest of the world, the Bergdahl and Iraq stories are merging to create an appearance of American weakness in dealing with al-Qaeda and its ilk.

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Key to Obama’s Diplomacy? Giving Up

While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

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While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

The administration trumpeted the interim deal signed with Iran last November as proof that the president’s belief in engagement with Iran was vindicated. But the point of the P5+1 process by which the West talked with Iran was not to merely negotiate with the Islamist regime but to get it to surrender its nuclear ambitions. In order to get the deal with the ayatollahs, the U.S. had to give in on the centerpiece of its previous demands: that Iran cease enriching uranium, a position that already had the imprimatur of United Nations resolutions. The administration also discarded any effort to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for international terrorism.

Fast forward a few months to the next stage in the diplomatic process with Iran and it looks like the same pattern is being repeated. Rather than focus on getting Tehran to abandon its nuclear program—something that President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign—the U.S. is again solely obsessed with being able to achieve any sort of an agreement, even if all it will accomplish is to slightly lengthen the “break out” time Iran would need in order to use its stockpiles of fuel to create a weapon.

That same trait was clearly on display in the Bergdahl talks. Rather than defend U.S. interests or to create a template that would stabilize Afghanistan, the only thing the administration wanted was Bergdahl’s freedom and demonstrated that they were prepared to pay an exorbitant price in order to get it.

It should be understood that liberating any American soldier held by the enemy, no matter the circumstances surround his captivity, was very much the president’s obligation. But the problem with the deal for Bergdahl was not just the price but that it reflected a desire on the part of the administration to bug out of the Afghanistan conflict. Though concessions are part of any negotiation, the Taliban seemed to be informed by the same mindset that the Iranians have shown in their dealings with the Obama foreign-policy team. They understood that if they stood their ground and made demands, Obama would eventually cave in to them, no matter how outrageous those positions were.

Taken together, the Iran and Bergdahl negotiations show that discussions of Obama’s weakness are not about metaphors or apology tours that are rooted in symbolism rather than substance. The last year of American foreign policy has proven that the key to the president’s diplomacy is that he gives up when pressed by opponents. The two negotiations aren’t merely bad policy. They show he will always allow his zeal for a deal and desire to abandon American interests to prevail over principle.

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Kerry’s Implausible Antiterror Assurances

John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas. 

For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces). 

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John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas. 

For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces). 

The reasons for this forbearance are a bit mysterious–it’s not as if U.S. intelligence doesn’t have good actionable intelligence on the location inside Pakistan of senior Taliban commanders and it’s not as if those commanders aren’t plotting regular attacks on American forces. Most likely the U.S. has refrained from targeting them for fear of offending Pakistani sensitivities, because the Taliban are so closely linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. There is also undoubted concern about operating drones in urban areas where the Taliban hide and where the risk of civilian casualties is much greater.

Whatever the cause, it’s a fact that the U.S. has not tried to kill senior Taliban commanders such as those just released from Guantanamo as long as they have stayed out of Afghanistan. This is unlikely to change in the future, especially now that the U.S. is beginning its pullout from Afghanistan. So as long as the Taliban Five don’t infiltrate Afghanistan–as long as they stay in Pakistan, or even Qatar, to organize attacks–they are de facto freed of the threat of American retaliation. 

The Bergdahl swap may still be defensible on “leave no man behind” grounds. But Kerry and other senior administration officials need to level about the fact that our imperfect intelligence will not allow us to know as soon as the Taliban Five return to terrorism and our self-imposed limitations on the use of force in all likelihood will not allow us to kill them if they do.

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Thinking Through the Morality of the Bergdahl Deal

I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

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I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

In that context it’s worth noting that six former members of Sgt. Bergdahl’s platoon were interviewed by Fox’s Megyn Kelly, and to a person they opposed the Bergdahl deal. And it’s not simply based on how Bergdahl conducted himself. They made it clear they wouldn’t want or expect a similar deal for their return if they had been captured. In addition, according to this story in Time, the president’s actions overrode officials in the Pentagon and intelligence communities who had successfully fought off release of the five Taliban members in the past. So when the president says, as he did yesterday, that his actions simply reaffirm the “basic principle that we don’t leave anybody behind,” it may be that this principle isn’t as basic or self-evident as he thinks. What the president did to secure the release of Sgt. Bergdahl has rankled a lot of people in uniform, who presumably have some understanding of what their country owes those who are captured.

As a general matter, then, I believe that releasing experienced jihadist commanders in exchange for an American soldier is too high a price to pay, even as I understand why others would disagree with me.

This case, of course, is complicated–at least for some of us–by the fact that based on the publicly available evidence, including reported interviews with those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl seems to have been a deserter. If that’s the case, the moral question moves from swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier to swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier who betrayed his country. They are rather different things.

Citizenship isn’t simply what our nation owes us; it’s also what we owe our nation. There is reciprocity involved. The dictionary definition of citizenship is “the condition or status of a citizen, with its rights and duties.” [Emphasis added.] When an individual breaks faith with his country–when there are grave violations of duty–how his country views him and treats him ought to change. Mass murderers are citizens, too, but we rightly treat them differently than we do those who abide by the law. Under some circumstances we deny rights, including in some instances the right to life, to American citizens.

What makes this deal even more troubling for some of us is that several genuine American heroes may have died in order to free an individual who deserted them. If that’s the case, and more investigation has to occur before we know for sure, that has to be factored in as well. Mr. Obama spent a lot of time talking in moving terms about Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents. Perhaps someday he’ll find it within his heart to talk in equally moving terms about the parents and spouses and children of those who bore such a high cost trying to free Sgt. Bergdahl. The parents of a deserter have had the honor of standing next to the president in the Rose Garden. Will the parents of the heroes who tried to free him be accorded the same honor?

Let me now offer up a thought experiment. Assume for the sake of the argument that the five released terrorists return to the battlefield and as a result 50, or 500, or 5,000, or 50,000 Americans die as a result. Would those who favor this deal continue to defend it? If not, how many dead Americans tip the scales from supporting to opposing it?

My point is that this kind of decision often involves an element of ethical consequentialism. It’s not self-evident to me that if the result of winning the release of a man who deserted is the destruction of a large American city, securing that release is morally justifiable. To be clear: I’m not saying that the release of Sgt. Bergdahl will result in such an event; I’m simply saying that most of us would properly take into account what the consequences are. Yet some of those who defend the deal insist that what follows from it need not be taken into account.

Our nation has a special responsibility to those who put on the uniform, but they also a have special responsibility to our nation. They agree to uphold a code of conduct. By the accounts of those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl failed in his responsibilities. Which is why some of the strongest reaction against this deal comes from those in the military who have actually served our nation with honor and distinction; who felt summoned by a country whose voice (to paraphrase George Washington) they could never hear but with veneration and love. 

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Bergdahl Starring in Taliban’s PR Blockbuster

A lot has changed in warfare since the days of hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears in ancient Mesopotamia 5,000 years. One thing hasn’t changed, however: War remains a test of wills. If you break the enemy’s will, you win. If he breaks your will, you lose. If neither of your wills is broken, and assuming you have sufficient material resources to continue fighting, the war becomes a stalemate. This is a fundamental truth and yet one that President Obama seems to miss time after time.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces and their Afghan allies have dealt defeat after defeat to the Taliban. Yet the president keeps showing that his will is wavering by attaching deadlines to U.S. troop deployments, the most recent being a promise that, while 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan in 2015, all of them will depart by the end of 2016. The latest sign of wavering American will, at least from the Taliban’s standpoint, is the prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl.

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A lot has changed in warfare since the days of hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears in ancient Mesopotamia 5,000 years. One thing hasn’t changed, however: War remains a test of wills. If you break the enemy’s will, you win. If he breaks your will, you lose. If neither of your wills is broken, and assuming you have sufficient material resources to continue fighting, the war becomes a stalemate. This is a fundamental truth and yet one that President Obama seems to miss time after time.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces and their Afghan allies have dealt defeat after defeat to the Taliban. Yet the president keeps showing that his will is wavering by attaching deadlines to U.S. troop deployments, the most recent being a promise that, while 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan in 2015, all of them will depart by the end of 2016. The latest sign of wavering American will, at least from the Taliban’s standpoint, is the prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl.

The Taliban are going to town with a video of the exchange that has become an Internet sensation. The message of the video is obvious: the Taliban are a force to be reckoned with. The U.S. has tried to portray the Taliban as mere terrorists who are on the wrong side of history, but the fact of this exchange bolsters the Taliban’s narrative that they are actually a legitimate governmental entity that will one day rule Afghanistan again. The Taliban’s video producers pulled out all the stops to depict the exchange as a shameful surrender for America. As one news account notes, “For the insurgents, getting the five men back was ‘blissful news’ and a ‘historic achievement,’ the narrator says, which ‘filled up the eyes of all Muslims with tears of happiness.’ ”

For most ordinary Afghans—whose allegiance is the ultimate prize in this conflict—the exchange was disconcerting news. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “Fifteen years later, local residents here are responding with fear and dismay to the U.S. release of the notorious commander [Mohammed Fazl], along with four other Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American prisoner of war who was held by the Taliban.”

The reactions of this residents of the Shomali Plain is easy to explain, since they remember all too well how Fazl and his goons terrorized them. As the Journal notes: “When the Taliban seized control of this area from their Northern Alliance rivals in 1999, they systematically demolished entire villages, blowing up houses, burning fields and seeding the land with mines, according to two comprehensive studies of war crimes and atrocities during wars in Afghanistan and human rights reports. Mr. Fazl played a major role in the destruction.”

What kind of message does it send to these Afghans when the U.S. has been coerced into letting Fazl and four other notorious terrorists go free? That will be seen as a rebuttal of Kabul’s and Washington’s claims that the Taliban cannot win. After all they have just won a big concession—and they can expect more gains once the US pulls out. It may not turn out that way, because the Afghan security forces are increasingly capable of defending their own country—but why give the Taliban hope just when they are reeling from numerous setbacks, most recently the successful presidential election?

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Obama’s Dishonorable Deal

Even I, a consistent and at times quite a harsh critic of President Obama, have been taken aback by the latest turn of events.

To recapitulate: Mr. Obama released five high-value, high-risk terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it appears was a deserter–and has been known to be a deserter for a couple of years. People who served with him are calling on the military to court martial Bergdahl. Media reports indicate that at least six Americans died  in their efforts to rescue him.

In de facto negotiating with the Taliban and acceding to their demands, the president violated a law he signed, requiring him to inform Congress 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo Bay. And the effect of this deal will be to incentivize the capture of more Americans, since it obviously pays dividends.

Yet the Obama administration took this humiliating accommodation and portrayed it as a victory of American values and purpose. The president held a Rose Garden event on Saturday extolling the deal. National Security Adviser Susan Rice referred to it as an “extraordinary day for America” that deserves to be “celebrated.” And Ms. Rice said of Sgt. Bergdahl, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.” 

Really, now? A deserter who, according to the New York Times, “left a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life,” is a person who served with “honor and distinction”? By what ethical calculus does she claim this to be so?

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Even I, a consistent and at times quite a harsh critic of President Obama, have been taken aback by the latest turn of events.

To recapitulate: Mr. Obama released five high-value, high-risk terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it appears was a deserter–and has been known to be a deserter for a couple of years. People who served with him are calling on the military to court martial Bergdahl. Media reports indicate that at least six Americans died  in their efforts to rescue him.

In de facto negotiating with the Taliban and acceding to their demands, the president violated a law he signed, requiring him to inform Congress 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo Bay. And the effect of this deal will be to incentivize the capture of more Americans, since it obviously pays dividends.

Yet the Obama administration took this humiliating accommodation and portrayed it as a victory of American values and purpose. The president held a Rose Garden event on Saturday extolling the deal. National Security Adviser Susan Rice referred to it as an “extraordinary day for America” that deserves to be “celebrated.” And Ms. Rice said of Sgt. Bergdahl, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.” 

Really, now? A deserter who, according to the New York Times, “left a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life,” is a person who served with “honor and distinction”? By what ethical calculus does she claim this to be so?

This illustrates quite well the fundamental differences the president and his aides and I have. My response to what has occurred is not just intellectual but visceral. I consider what occurred, when everything is taken into account, to be substantively indefensible and morally dishonorable. The president, in my estimation, has rendered a great service to our enemies, and they know it. (Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, hailed the release of the top five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo as a “great victory” for the mujahideen of Afghanistan.) The president’s decision may well endanger American lives down the road. And his administration has elevated an apparent deserter–one whose actions were reported on in the past (see this 2012 Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings) and who is responsible for the death of fellow soldiers who tried to rescue him–into a hero. 

This strikes me as morally grotesque. Yet for Mr. Obama and some of those in the progressive movement, the events of the last few days count as a fantastic achievement, one worth venerating and exalting.

Years ago John Gray wrote a book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In this case, it’s the president and I who occupy different worlds, including different moral worlds. Mr. Obama is proud of a series of acts that I would think he would, after careful reflection, feel regret for and even (when it comes to his administration lionizing Sgt. Bergdahl) some shame.

At times individuals interpret the same events at such different angles of vision that their actions are nearly incomprehensible one to another. I will confess that more than I ever imagined, I have that feeling with my president.

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Bergdahl Disgrace Not Like Israel’s Shalit

Did President Obama expect to be showered with praise for his exchange of five senior Taliban terrorists for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? The president defended the swap today while speaking in Europe as simply part of his obligation to leave no American behind on the field of battle, a position that is eminently defensible. But given the public splash made by the White House about this story over the weekend, it’s clear that some in the West Wing thought the retrieval of Bergdahl would dovetail nicely with the president’s West Point speech extolling his decision to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The return of the only missing American soldier from that conflict would put a period on the war Democrats once extolled as the “good war” in contrast to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq.

If a Bergdahl photo op with the prisoner’s parents at the White House was not quite the moral equivalent of the Situation Room photos on the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing, it’s possible that some in the presidential echo chamber believed it would still boost Obama’s image in a second term badly in need of a triumph. But only two days after the president walked arm-in-arm with the Bergdahl family at the White House, those expectations have been exploded.

News stories about the anger felt by Bergdahl’s army comrades who allege that he deserted rather than being captured have tainted any good feelings about the exchange. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s tone deaf comments on ABC’s This Week claiming Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” now look to be as big a lie as her September 2012 Sunday show blitz about the Benghazi attack being the reaction to a video rather than terrorism. Congress is rightly grousing about the executive branch violating the law by not informing them of the prisoner exchange and many voices are being raised questioning the wisdom of releasing five top Taliban officials likely to return to the war against America for the freedom of a man who, if reports are correct, hated his country and abandoned his post on the field of battle.

Yet as the debate continues to rage about Bergdahl, the administration’s defenders have been able to put forward one coherent argument. If the Israelis can trade more than 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit, one of their soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hamas, what’s so terrible about Obama bartering five Taliban prisoners for one American? As I wrote on Sunday, there are good arguments to be made that the seniority of the five released Taliban operatives as well as the implication that the U.S. is bugging out of the conflict in Afghanistan makes the American swap look even more lopsided than the Shalit deal. But the nature of the two redeemed hostages should also have told the White House that it was a mistake for them to expect to garner the applause that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got for his decision on Shalit.

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Did President Obama expect to be showered with praise for his exchange of five senior Taliban terrorists for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? The president defended the swap today while speaking in Europe as simply part of his obligation to leave no American behind on the field of battle, a position that is eminently defensible. But given the public splash made by the White House about this story over the weekend, it’s clear that some in the West Wing thought the retrieval of Bergdahl would dovetail nicely with the president’s West Point speech extolling his decision to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The return of the only missing American soldier from that conflict would put a period on the war Democrats once extolled as the “good war” in contrast to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq.

If a Bergdahl photo op with the prisoner’s parents at the White House was not quite the moral equivalent of the Situation Room photos on the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing, it’s possible that some in the presidential echo chamber believed it would still boost Obama’s image in a second term badly in need of a triumph. But only two days after the president walked arm-in-arm with the Bergdahl family at the White House, those expectations have been exploded.

News stories about the anger felt by Bergdahl’s army comrades who allege that he deserted rather than being captured have tainted any good feelings about the exchange. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s tone deaf comments on ABC’s This Week claiming Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” now look to be as big a lie as her September 2012 Sunday show blitz about the Benghazi attack being the reaction to a video rather than terrorism. Congress is rightly grousing about the executive branch violating the law by not informing them of the prisoner exchange and many voices are being raised questioning the wisdom of releasing five top Taliban officials likely to return to the war against America for the freedom of a man who, if reports are correct, hated his country and abandoned his post on the field of battle.

Yet as the debate continues to rage about Bergdahl, the administration’s defenders have been able to put forward one coherent argument. If the Israelis can trade more than 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit, one of their soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hamas, what’s so terrible about Obama bartering five Taliban prisoners for one American? As I wrote on Sunday, there are good arguments to be made that the seniority of the five released Taliban operatives as well as the implication that the U.S. is bugging out of the conflict in Afghanistan makes the American swap look even more lopsided than the Shalit deal. But the nature of the two redeemed hostages should also have told the White House that it was a mistake for them to expect to garner the applause that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got for his decision on Shalit.

At the time of the Shalit exchange, many in both Israel and the United States for the deal with Hamas blasted Netanyahu. He was reminded of his own writings on the subject of such prisoner swaps which spoke of the harm they do in encouraging terrorism and undermining his country’s ability to deter its enemies. But despite these compelling arguments, the overwhelming majority of Israelis cheered his decision. Gilad Shalit was a typical conscript who was merely doing his duty along with thousands of other young men and women when he was snatched by terrorists who crossed into Israeli territory. There was no question of misconduct on his part and concern about his welfare during his years of captivity became a national obsession. Shalit was considered every Israeli’s son. Leaving him in the hands of Hamas, even if the cost was the freedom of hundreds of terrorists, was unthinkable.

But unfortunately for Obama, Bergdahl is not an American version of Shalit. The emails he wrote damning the United States and the U.S. Army undermine sympathy for his plight. So do the angry denunciations of his fellow soldiers who not only resent his abandonment of his post but also point out that six Americans were killed trying to rescue a man who wasn’t loyal to his comrades. That the freedom of such a person was bought with the release of dangerous terrorists only makes it worse.

Rather than Bergdahl’s release being a cause for celebration as Rice foolishly described it, it is developing into yet another scandal dragging down the president’s public standing. And rather than diminishing in the days to come, it will only get worse as the Army is forced to begin an investigation of his behavior that is not likely to have a happy outcome for Bergdahl or his commander-in-chief.

It would have been far better for all concerned for the swap to be treated as an unfortunate necessity rather than a cause for cheering. The president didn’t have to host the Bergdahls—whose bizarre statements have only added to the embarrassment—or send Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel onto the Sunday news shows to tell the American people things that were obviously not true. Obama may have thought he would bask in the applause of a grateful public like Netanyahu did after Shalit was freed, but that was never going to happen. It is arguable that had the administration done this deal without trying to sell it as a triumph, it might have come across less like another public deception. But in the days, weeks, and months to come, they will continue to pay for yet another unforced error that revealed their lack of honesty.

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Can the White House Be Trusted on Iran Deal?

President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

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President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

Given the detachment of the White House from reality, perhaps it’s time now to double down on the demand that the White House not be trusted to make a deal with Iran without Congress carefully vetting the terms of that deal. The United States and regional states will have to live with whatever Obama’s negotiators decide, but Obama’s team has clearly demonstrated that they have little sense of strategic consequences. Perhaps if there’s any lesson that can be learned from the Bergdahl debacle, it can be that it provides warning that Obama left to his own devices uses secrecy to shield himself from criticism, but is prone to damaging American credibility. What’s at stake with Iran’s nuclear program is simply too important to defer to Obama’s judgment alone.

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How Not to Handle a Prisoner Swap

Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

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Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

If only the president and his team showed as much passion about actually winning the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, it appears that the handling of this whole issue is symptomatic of the administration’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Their emphasis has always been on bringing the troops home, no matter the price, not on making sure that the troops accomplish their objectives.

In the case of Bergdahl the price includes encouraging the Taliban (and other Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda) to think that we are weak and can be rolled–to think that they can win American concessions if they take Americans hostage. This makes a mockery of our criticism of allies such as France, Italy, and South Korea, which have provided payoffs to get their hostages released. And it exposes our troops to greater danger down the line, once the Guantanamo releasees return to the fight–as they surely will, even if Qatar sticks by its pledge to keep them out of trouble for a year.

And what makes it all the more annoying is that Bergdahl is hardly a hero as he is now being portrayed. We still don’t have a definitive accounting of how he was captured, but members of his unit believe he was a deserter who walked off his guard post. And they’re angry about the whole situation–as former army officer Nathan Bradley Bethea writes in the Daily Beast

Bethea served in the same battalion as Bergdahl and participated in attempts to free him in the summer of 2009. Bethea is upset, and understandably so, because good men died trying to free Bergdahl–not only in the search itself but, he argues, indirectly, because the search pulled in so many intelligence and surveillance assets that other units were left exposed to Taliban attack. Bethea writes: “The truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

If those assertions are true, then Bergdahl, now that he’s freed, should be court-martialed, because desertion in the face of the enemy is a serious offense. Whatever his ultimate fate, Bergdahl deserves our sympathy for his ordeal. His parents deserve sympathy for what they have had to endure too. But he should not be canonized and the administration should not treat his release as a high point of its foreign policy. Because surely they must have some more worthy achievements to boast of. Right?

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Only Five for One? The Bergdahl Swap is Actually Worse Than Israeli Prisoner Deals

Speaking today on ABC’s This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the homecoming of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity at the hands of the Taliban as “a joyous day.” No doubt, all Americans are happy that his ordeal is at an end. But as with the most famous of Rice’s previous appearances on the Sunday morning news shows when she wrongly claimed that the Benghazi terror attack was the result of film criticism run amok, the messaging was slightly off kilter. Ransoming Bergdahl is defensible but the notion that what has occurred was not a case of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, as Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel claimed on the same show, is an absurdity. At least when Israel releases terrorists to gain the freedom of one of its soldiers, the country’s leaders have the grace to treat the decision as a regrettable action made out of necessity and nothing to celebrate.

The debate over the Bergdahl swap raises comparisons to Israeli actions, such as its prisoner swap to gain the freedom of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Some congressional Republicans, such as House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, are criticizing the swap for the same reasons many Israelis and Americans denounced the deal in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists to Hamas, including many murderers, for Shalit. Rogers believes that negotiating with the Taliban not only strengthens these Islamist foes of the United States but also sets a high price on hostages that will make it difficult to free others who are held by terrorists and encourage more attacks on Americans.

These are all fair points, but I have to confess that my first reaction to the headline about the five-for-one agreement mediated by officials in Qatar was puzzlement as to how the Obama administration had managed to make such a deal for only five prisoners when the Israelis are routinely forced to release hundreds or more than a thousand terrorists for only one of their own people. Is it that the Israelis are simply too easy a mark in such negotiations? Are Americans better at driving a hard bargain? But the more I’ve read about the five prisoners who have been freed in exchange for Bergdahl, the less impressed I am with the negotiating acumen of the administration. Far from cutting a better deal than the Israelis tend to be able to do, this swap may actually be far worse in terms of the potential danger of the particular individuals involved and the administration’s future attitude toward the conflict. While the Israelis often pay too high a price for their hostages, they do so without conceding defeat in the long-term struggle in which they are engaged. The Bergdahl deal appears to be not just a lopsided swap but also an indication that the U.S. may be conceding defeat to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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Speaking today on ABC’s This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the homecoming of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity at the hands of the Taliban as “a joyous day.” No doubt, all Americans are happy that his ordeal is at an end. But as with the most famous of Rice’s previous appearances on the Sunday morning news shows when she wrongly claimed that the Benghazi terror attack was the result of film criticism run amok, the messaging was slightly off kilter. Ransoming Bergdahl is defensible but the notion that what has occurred was not a case of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, as Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel claimed on the same show, is an absurdity. At least when Israel releases terrorists to gain the freedom of one of its soldiers, the country’s leaders have the grace to treat the decision as a regrettable action made out of necessity and nothing to celebrate.

The debate over the Bergdahl swap raises comparisons to Israeli actions, such as its prisoner swap to gain the freedom of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Some congressional Republicans, such as House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, are criticizing the swap for the same reasons many Israelis and Americans denounced the deal in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists to Hamas, including many murderers, for Shalit. Rogers believes that negotiating with the Taliban not only strengthens these Islamist foes of the United States but also sets a high price on hostages that will make it difficult to free others who are held by terrorists and encourage more attacks on Americans.

These are all fair points, but I have to confess that my first reaction to the headline about the five-for-one agreement mediated by officials in Qatar was puzzlement as to how the Obama administration had managed to make such a deal for only five prisoners when the Israelis are routinely forced to release hundreds or more than a thousand terrorists for only one of their own people. Is it that the Israelis are simply too easy a mark in such negotiations? Are Americans better at driving a hard bargain? But the more I’ve read about the five prisoners who have been freed in exchange for Bergdahl, the less impressed I am with the negotiating acumen of the administration. Far from cutting a better deal than the Israelis tend to be able to do, this swap may actually be far worse in terms of the potential danger of the particular individuals involved and the administration’s future attitude toward the conflict. While the Israelis often pay too high a price for their hostages, they do so without conceding defeat in the long-term struggle in which they are engaged. The Bergdahl deal appears to be not just a lopsided swap but also an indication that the U.S. may be conceding defeat to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Anyone who thinks the U.S. got off cheap, especially in comparison to the lopsided Israeli deals, needs to read the report by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin in the Daily Beast today about the five men who have been sprung from Gitmo for Bergdahl. These are not run-of-the-mill terror operatives but key figures in the war being waged against the U.S. and its allies. As Lake and Rogin wrote:

While not as well known as Guantanamo inmates like 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Taliban 5 were some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror. And their release will end up replenishing the diminished leadership ranks of the Afghan Taliban at a moment when the United States is winding down the war there.

The dossier on their activities is a compendium of involvement in the terror campaign against the U.S. as well as other assorted crimes such as heroin trafficking. But the main point here is that these are not, as was the case with most of the people Israel released, rank-and-file terrorists. Many of those freed by the Israelis are criminals with blood on their hands, including participation in notorious atrocities. But the Israelis have rarely released anyone in the chain of command of groups dedicated to their destruction. As Lake and Rogin detail, the five Taliban operatives are key players in the war against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Though they are not the people who pulled the triggers or exploded the bombs that killed U.S. troops and our allies, they are the people who gave some of the orders for the shedding of American blood and are thus far more important. Seen in that light, some of the outrageously lopsided deals concluded by the Israelis don’t seem quite so ill advised.

But there is more to this controversy than just the price of Bergdahl’s freedom. By releasing these five top Taliban commanders, the U.S. is demonstrating that it is throwing in the towel in the long struggle against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan. It is spinning this mindset as a sign that the war is already either over or coming to an end, as the president said in his West Point speech this week. But the Taliban hasn’t gotten the memo about the end of the conflict. Indeed, the circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan are little different from where they were prior to the president’s correct decision to order a “surge” of U.S. troops to seize the initiative in the war. This administration has done a good job seeking to hunt down al-Qaeda operatives with drone strikes but the notion that it can keep Afghanistan from falling into the hands of these killers while both drawing down U.S. forces to a bare minimum and releasing senior Taliban commanders is laughable. Wars don’t end just because one side decides they are tired of the conflict. The Taliban have been waiting patiently for the end of the U.S. presence in the country and along with their terrorist allies believe their 2001 ouster from Kabul can be reversed.

Rice is right that President Obama had a “sacred obligation” to do whatever he could to gain the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. No American should ever be left behind if they can be rescued. But the problem here is not just the price the U.S. paid for the lone American unaccounted for after more than a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan. Say what you will about the Israel prisoner releases and the unfortunate celebrations in which the Palestinians have celebrated the murderers freed to gain the freedom of hostages or even to restart peace negotiations. But there has never been any doubt about Israel’s determination to continue the struggle against its enemies. The same can’t be said about the Obama administration today.

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Obama’s Split-the-Difference Foreign Policy

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

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Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

At first blush this is a welcome signal of strength from the White House. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with prior administration decisions, the details of the president’s policies can often undermine their stated purpose. So it is again with Afghanistan where, the Washington Post tells us, “The 9,800 troops will be based around Afghanistan until the end of 2015, after which they will be reduced by roughly half and consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram airfield north of the capital. At the end of 2016, most of those remaining troops will be withdrawn and the U.S. military presence will be confined to a defense group at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Keeping around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post 2014 makes sense (although it would be even better to keep more troops to provide a greater margin of safety). Announcing in advance that we will reduce their numbers to 5,000 within a year and remove them altogether within two years–no matter the conditions on the ground–makes no sense.

Has the administration learned no lesson from the Afghan surge whose effectiveness was vitiated by the 18-month timeline imposed on the troops’ deployment, thus encouraging the Taliban to wait us out? Obama is making the same mistake again. What he should be doing is announcing that we will keep U.S. advisers in Afghanistan in unspecified numbers as long as the government of Afghanistan requests their presence and as long as the U.S. government judges that they are needed to prevent the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists from making major inroads. Such an announcement will drain the Taliban of hope and fill hard-pressed Afghan security forces with newfound confidence.

In contrast, Obama’s announcement is so half-hearted that the Taliban will still have good cause to think that they can wait us out. Kudos to Obama for not sending only 5,000 troops next year, as some earlier leaks had indicated might be the case. But while maintaining 10,000 troops is much better, imposing a timeline on them is a serious mistake–one that cannot be explained by references to objective conditions in Afghanistan and which makes sense only as a split-the-difference compromise between administration hawks and doves. The president should have learned by now that splitting the difference in foreign policy and especially in matters of troop deployments doesn’t work.

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Address, Don’t Deny Religious Component to Boko Haram

News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

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News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

The same was true with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The notion that the Central Intelligence Agency created the Taliban is silly, the product of anachronistic and lazy analysis. Some Afghans embraced the Taliban in the years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan because the group promised security, but the group itself was quickly co-opted by Pakistan. Ever since the loss of East Pakistan and its subsequent independence as Bangladesh in 1971, leaders in West Pakistan—or simply Pakistan as it became—embraced religious radicalism as a glue to hold their fissiparous country together. While more than a decade of war has conditioned Americans to see infiltration across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as one way from Pakistan into Afghanistan, throughout much of the last century, Afghan irregulars were infiltrating—if not outright invading—Pakistan.

Because the ethnic fault lines in Pakistan are seldom far beneath the surface of society, sponsoring the Taliban—and thereby prioritizing religion over Pashto identity—was meant to immunize the Northwest Frontier Province from the attractiveness of Pashto nationalism. That it came upon the blood and repression of Afghan women was a price the Pakistani leadership was willing to bear. The shear brutality of the Taliban shocked the world, even though the State Department was more than willing to normalize ties with the group. The Taliban really were a throwback to the twelfth century, albeit harboring a twentieth and now twenty-first century technology to kill.

Any number of other religious radicals has reinterpreted faith to justify horror. The Muslim Brotherhood has justified the murder of those who do not share their vision, and some Brotherhood theologians have contributed directly to the vision embraced by al-Qaeda.

There is a tendency among many to deny the religious component to much modern terrorism. That is what drives, for example, UN bodies to try to criminalize so-called Islamophobia, and also drives local groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to stigmatize and punish free speech and open debate. To do so is a mistake, and to deny that those from Boko Haram’s leaders to 9/11 hijackers to the Beslan child murders were not motivated by Islam, however twisted and irregular an interpretation, is disingenuous.

Too many who deny the role of religion say that Islam is misunderstood. Jihad, for example, means not Holy War but an internal struggle to improve oneself. While it is true that a 21st century interpretation of jihad prioritizes internal struggle or defensive fighting, there is a logical flaw inherent in embracing only the most evolved interpretation of jihad. Islamist radicals dismiss 21st century society as a perversion, corrupted by Western thought and liberalism. They uphold instead an interpretation of centuries past as the golden age of Islamic civilization and so strip away centuries of religious interpretation as illegitimate and corrupt. Just as zealous Christians might have burned a woman at the stake 500 years ago for the sin of publicly reading the Bible, the manner in which Boko Haram treats local girls and women is rooted in an interpretation of Islam that it seeks to revive from the past.

While I fully support the separation of church and state that the U.S. Constitution demands (although I agree with Jonathan’s interpretation here), too many American policymakers use that separation to paralyze the American policy response on the global stage. American diplomats and officials should not promote religion but they cannot ignore it either, as it plays a far greater place in the world than perhaps it does in the fairly elite schools from which many diplomats come. Peoples from Afghanistan to Iran to Nigeria are engaged in a battle of religious interpretation. Those who would deny a relationship between Islam on one hand, at least as practiced by the Taliban and Boko Haram, and terrorism and misogyny on the other simply surrender the battlefield to those promoting extreme interpretations.

Too often, American officials and religious activists, whether out of excessive political correctness or some other motive, dismiss religious motivation to terrorism by decreeing that the actions of those radicals—Taliban stoning women in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda hijacking planes in America, or Boko Haram kidnapping and selling girls in Nigeria—do not represent true Islam. Make no mistake: It is not the job of any American official—from the president on down—to determine what true religion is. We have to accept that religion is what its practitioners believe it to be in any time and place; what the president says, an ambassador says, or a professor of theology says is simply academic.

Denying horror won’t make it go away. Nor is it the place of the United States to preach. But just as radicals in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere promote these horrific groups—the Turkish government has apparently supplied Boko Haram—it behooves the United States to support those seeking to roll them back, be they Egyptian generals, Indonesian Sufis, or Moroccan mourchidat. While America promotes and encourages religious tolerance and seeks to strengthen liberal and moderate interpretations of Islam, those who feed and justify Boko Haram’s ideological hate—even if American allies—must be recognized for what they are: culpable in terrorism.

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No Moderation from the Monstrous Taliban

One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

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One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

The Taliban remain monsters who kill small children–not as the accidental collateral damage from a larger attack but deliberately and at pointblank range. This is the true face of the enemy in Afghanistan, and it is why the civilized world cannot abandon Afghanistan to its fate.

The Afghan security forces are now much bigger and better organized than they once were. They are now taking the lead in 95 percent of all coalition operations in Afghanistan and suffering 95 percent of coalition casualties. But to defeat an insurgency which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, they still need continuing American assistance. If we don’t provide it–and our ability to help will be contingent on Hamid Karzai’s successor signing a Bilateral Security Accord–then we will be leaving Afghanistan and indeed the entire region to the tender mercies of child killers.

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Afghanistan and Diplomacy Unhinged

Next week, my new book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups will officially come out. A major theme of the book is that contrary to the statements of many State Department officials across administrations, it can very much hurt to talk.

Eli Lake has a piece at the Daily Beast that confirms what long has been rumored: U.S. officials have neglected to go after the Haqqani network’s finances because to do so, the Obama administration believed, might undercut diplomacy:

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Next week, my new book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups will officially come out. A major theme of the book is that contrary to the statements of many State Department officials across administrations, it can very much hurt to talk.

Eli Lake has a piece at the Daily Beast that confirms what long has been rumored: U.S. officials have neglected to go after the Haqqani network’s finances because to do so, the Obama administration believed, might undercut diplomacy:

In the last 17 months since the U.S. government financially blacklisted the Haqqani Network, one of the deadliest insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not a single dollar associated with the group has been blocked or frozen, according to U.S. officials and one of the Congressman who oversees the Treasury Department’s financial war on terrorism. But it’s not just the Haqqanis—an ally today in the Taliban’s fight against U.S. troops and the Afghan government—who seem to have been spared from America’s economic attacks. According to a Treasury Department letter written in late November, not a single dollar been seized from the Pakistani Taliban, either, at least for 2012. The reason why, according to a leading Congressman, is that enforcing such sanctions might upset delicate negotiations between America, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups.

The whole article is worth reading. For what it is worth, such inconsistent and counterproductive outreach to the Haqqanis is not limited to the Obama administration, but also extends far back into the Bush administration. Regardless, the episode highlights a consistent problem with U.S. strategy that transcends U.S. administrations and their approach to both terrorist groups and rogue regimes and explains why U.S. diplomacy consistently fails. The idea that ameliorating and offering concessions to adversaries enables successful diplomacy is demonstrably false. Rather, the most successful diplomatic outcomes come when the United States acts from a position of strength and seeks to coerce and weaken its opponents.

Targeting the Haqqani network with an aim to bankrupting it is the only way to succeed. Make no mistake: the conscious decision to allow the Haqqanis access to financial resources results directly in Haqqani terror attacks, as the network tries to leverage violence into a position of greater strength and influence. Never should the United States forfeit its leverage for the sake of hope and wishful thinking. Adversaries will come to the table when they have no other choice, and it should be the policy of the United States government to ensure they have no other choice. It is time to stop holding back when it comes to countering terrorists and rogues, and make their defeat by all prudent means the central pillar of U.S. policy.

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Drones Should Follow the Threat

The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

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The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

Especially when we are dramatically reducing our troop levels in Afghanistan, drones remain one of the few effective ways to strike at our enemies and those of our allies. Indeed the administration would be well advised to expand drone strikes, at least temporarily, within Pakistan to target the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban which, for fear of offending Pakistani sensibilities, has been exempt from drone strikes before. With the Quetta Shura facing less military pressure in Afghanistan, following our troop drawdown, this would be one way to keep this organization off balance.

The question the administration should be addressing is not how quickly it can eliminate drone strikes in Pakistan but how quickly it can expand drone strikes to other areas where al-Qaeda has taken root–in particular western Iraq and northern and eastern Syria. This area, which crosses the Iraq-Syria border, has become a jihadist stronghold in the past year and it is a threat not just to regional governments but to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just testified that there are 26,000 jihadist fighters in Syria alone, including 7,000 foreigners, and that some of them are plotting against the American homeland.

Neither the Syrian nor the Iraqi government has shown much ability to address the problem. In fact, we don’t want the Syrian government to address the problem because Bashar Assad’s preferred approach to counterinsurgency is to perpetuate war crimes. The Iraqi government isn’t as bad but it, too, favors a blunt force approach that usually backfires.

That is why I am so concerned about the administration’s plan to sell Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Baghdad. Those weapons are as likely to be used against Sunni political foes of Prime Minister Maliki as they are against true al-Qaeda terrorists. I would have more confidence in U.S.-operated drones, although there is a question of where they would be based–Iraq? Turkey? Jordan? Israel? Liberated parts of Syria? Saudi Arabia?

Whatever the case, there is an urgent need for action to stop al-Qaeda from developing secure sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq, and drone strikes, assuming that local bases could be established, could be an effective tool in this fight if they are based on good intelligence. If the U.S. is going to shift part of its drone infrastructure out of Afghanistan–and, for the next few years anyway, this is probably a mistake–it should be shifted to the Middle East where the threat is growing every day.

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Yes, the Taliban Are Terrorists

Diplomacy often obstructs moral clarity. After the Clinton administration launched its high-profile engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, State Department officials bent over backwards to ignore the complacency of PLO leaders in financing and ordering acts of terror. As I document in my new book, a comparison of intelligence available to the State Department and the concurrent testimony of senior State Department officials to Congress shows that the diplomats simply lied about the character of their partners in order to avoid U.S. law that would mandate a cessation of aid should the PLO be involved in terror.

For the past five years, both senior military officials (up to and including Gen. David Petraeus) and senior diplomats (up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have advocated for talks with the Taliban. At no time did policymakers consider the Bill Clinton administration’s sorry, five-year experience talking to the Taliban, an episode that caused diplomats to become distracted from the Taliban’s true aims and goals in the years leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

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Diplomacy often obstructs moral clarity. After the Clinton administration launched its high-profile engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, State Department officials bent over backwards to ignore the complacency of PLO leaders in financing and ordering acts of terror. As I document in my new book, a comparison of intelligence available to the State Department and the concurrent testimony of senior State Department officials to Congress shows that the diplomats simply lied about the character of their partners in order to avoid U.S. law that would mandate a cessation of aid should the PLO be involved in terror.

For the past five years, both senior military officials (up to and including Gen. David Petraeus) and senior diplomats (up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have advocated for talks with the Taliban. At no time did policymakers consider the Bill Clinton administration’s sorry, five-year experience talking to the Taliban, an episode that caused diplomats to become distracted from the Taliban’s true aims and goals in the years leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Time launders terrorists, after all. While the press and many policymakers once mocked Secretary of State Colin Powell for wanting to work with “moderate Taliban,” by the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that had effectively become the policy of the White House.

The Taliban’s attack on a Kabul restaurant frequented by foreigners is tragic, but should be a reminder of just who the Taliban are and what they represent. To call them an insurgent force is inaccurate: insurgents battle armies; they do not bomb restaurants and then shoot unarmed civilians. The Taliban are terrorists, plain and simple, and America’s premature withdrawal will empower them. The Taliban are not simply a Pashtun movement, as the late Richard Holbrooke once implied. True, many Taliban might be Pashtun, but not all Pashtun are Taliban and, indeed, many Pashtun have spent decades resisting the ignorant thugs who flocked to the Taliban.

It is time to put objective fact above diplomatic wishful thinking. The Taliban are terrorists, and seeking to include them in any post-withdrawal order is akin to negotiating with terrorists. Negotiating with the Taliban has not worked in the past, and there is no reason to believe any compromise will be possible in the future. Not talking to the Taliban, but allowing them to fill the vacuum created by America’s withdrawal is just as bad. Sometimes, adversaries simply need to be defeated, an accomplishment not possible when the White House constrains the military.

If the Taliban responsible for the restaurant attack had direct links to Pakistan—and they likely did—then it is time to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, no ifs, ands, or buts: diplomatic nicety does not benefit the United States; it makes them think America is weak and risible. Perhaps American diplomats and former senators find such talks sophisticated. Regardless, beyond the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network which are already designated, it is long past time to designate every other Taliban group which conducts attacks on civilians to be terrorists, and their foreign government sponsors to be state sponsors. While the Taliban has said that the attack on the Kabul restaurant was retaliation–a claim picked up and amplified by the New York Times–my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out that the Taliban makes such excuses for external consumption only. What the Taliban did not mention was that it also killed three young civilians in a rocket attack in Kandahar, an attack that had everything to do with the character of the movement and nothing to do with feigned grievance.

Perhaps it will remain the policy of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to compromise with and perhaps even empower terrorists through the policies they advocate. But if so, they should acknowledge it openly and be accountable for the strategic and moral vacuity of their position.

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Cautious Optimism in Afghanistan

With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

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With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

Masses of Taliban foot soldiers attacked this spring and summer in a bid to take over Sangin district; government forces turned them back. Mohammad Rasoul Barakzai, the acting Sangin district governor, describes the year-end situation as “calm,” with only intermittent Taliban attacks.

What holds true in Sangin is true for Helmand Province more broadly: “the Afghans have emerged from the warm-weather fighting season in nominal control of every heavily populated district of Helmand—a result that U.S. and Afghan commanders say should inject optimism into the often-gloomy debate over the country’s future.”

This runs counter to recent reports of the Afghan army doing deals with the Taliban in Sangin. Phillips reports that this was a low-level accommodation reached by junior officers who have since been disciplined.

If his report is right, it is certainly good news, suggesting that Afghanistan has a fighting chance to survive the pullout of most Western forces at the end of this year.

There is, however, a big caveat that must be added. While U.S. troops mostly pulled out of ground combat last year, they continued to provide substantial support to their Afghan partners. As the Journal notes, “the U.S. continues to provide supplies, close air support and air evacuation of the badly wounded.” That’s less significant than the U.S. role in years past but it is still a major enabler of Afghan capability. If you take away that American support, no one knows what will happen.

But even under the best-case scenario–which is that President Karzai finally gets off his duff and signs the security accord he negotiated with Washington–it is unlikely that U.S. forces will continue to provide close air support or medevac. (Instead, U.S. forces are likely to be limited to a few major bases.) The worst-case scenario is that the bilateral security accord falls through and Afghanistan is left entirely on its own.

The Journal report shows that it would be foolish to write off Afghanistan–as long as it continues to receive substantial American assistance. If that assistance isn’t forthcoming, all bets are off and Afghanistan could regress back to the dark days of the 1990s, which led to the takeover of the Taliban and their Arab allies in al-Qaeda.

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