Commentary Magazine


Topic: Taliban

Afghan Army Gives Up District Without a Fight

I have long been critical of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, both because emphasis on development and the accompanying infusion of money sparks corrosive corruption, and also because the timeline President Obama announced in 2009 and an embrace of negotiations with the Taliban misreads the Afghan mindset. As I tell military audiences to whom I lecture, it’s important to remember that Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Security of the family trumps fealty to any political force, and so Afghans won’t hesitate to switch sides in a way which to Americans would seem treasonous.

As transition approaches, it seems the State Department, Pentagon, and White House are infused with wishful thinking about how transition might go. If so, today’s events in southern Afghanistan should disabuse them of that notion. According to a tweet from Lt. Mustafa Kazemi, Afghan Army forces surrendered the Sangin district of Helmand without a fight, after being threatened by the Taliban. He elaborated, here.

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I have long been critical of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, both because emphasis on development and the accompanying infusion of money sparks corrosive corruption, and also because the timeline President Obama announced in 2009 and an embrace of negotiations with the Taliban misreads the Afghan mindset. As I tell military audiences to whom I lecture, it’s important to remember that Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Security of the family trumps fealty to any political force, and so Afghans won’t hesitate to switch sides in a way which to Americans would seem treasonous.

As transition approaches, it seems the State Department, Pentagon, and White House are infused with wishful thinking about how transition might go. If so, today’s events in southern Afghanistan should disabuse them of that notion. According to a tweet from Lt. Mustafa Kazemi, Afghan Army forces surrendered the Sangin district of Helmand without a fight, after being threatened by the Taliban. He elaborated, here.

Momentum means everything in Afghanistan. PowerPoint planning doesn’t capture local psychology, no matter what ISAF commanders may believe. Afghans want to side with the strong horse, not the horse that, for domestic political reasons, wants to go home.

If accurate, today’s events foreshadow the post-transition crisis will hit Afghanistan far quicker than military and diplomatic planners expect.

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The American Commitment to Afghanistan

The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

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The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

* Promote multiethnic coalitions—rather than individual candidates—for the 2014 presidential election and, for the eventual winner, encourage the appointment of a cabinet and senior officials that represent Afghanistan’s ethnic and cultural constituencies

* Pursue a foreign internal defense mission that includes between eight thousand and twelve thousand residual American troops, plus additional NATO forces.

* Support Afghan government–led discussions with the Taliban and other groups over prisoner exchanges, local cease-fires, and the reintegration of fighters….But U.S. policymakers  recognize that a comprehensive peace settlement with the Taliban is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

* Foreign donors should continue to provide $5 billion a year in funding to sustain the ANSF. The United States and other international donors should also provide economic assistance of $3.3 billion to $3.9 billion a year through 2017.

One can quibble with this recommendation or that, but on the whole this is a very sensible proposal informed by Jones’s considerable time on the ground working with U.S. Special Operations Forces.

The question is whether these policy options will actually be implemented. The obstacle is not just Karzai’s intransigence; there is a big question as to whether the Obama administration will support a commitment of this size. Given where the conversation stands in Washington, sending 12,000 U.S. troops is as at the high end of what’s possible even though U.S. military commanders have testified that a minimum of 13,000 or so troops is really needed.

I hope that President Obama himself reads the report and especially the section that outlines the stakes in Afghanistan: “A civil war or successful Taliban led insurgency,” the authors rightly warn, “would likely allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network, and Lashkare-Taiba to increase their presence in Afghanistan.” And a civil war or successful Taliban takeover is likely absent the kind of U.S. commitment outlined in the report.

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Is Pakistani Taliban Leader Mehsud Dead?

Several different Pakistani news outlets are reporting that a U.S. drone strike has killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Here, for example, is the report from Karachi’s Dawn:

Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan tribal agency on Friday, intelligence officials and Pakistani Taliban said. Intelligence officials said the Pakistani Taliban supremo was leaving from a meeting at a mosque in Dande Darpakhel area of North Waziristan when the drone targeted their vehicle. Pakistani Taliban militants said that funeral for the TTP chief will be held tomorrow afternoon at an undisclosed location in North Waziristan… Five militants, including Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, both key militant commanders and close aides of the TTP chief, were also killed with two others injured in the drone strike, multiple sources confirmed. Foreign news agency AP reports that a senior US intelligence official confirmed the strike overnight, saying the US received positive confirmation Friday morning that he had been killed.

The Pakistani government is withholding confirmation, and this would not be the first time that Mehsud has been reported killed. Still, if he is dead then kudos to the Obama administration for executing the strike even as diplomatic pressure mounts to halt the tactic.

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Several different Pakistani news outlets are reporting that a U.S. drone strike has killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Here, for example, is the report from Karachi’s Dawn:

Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan tribal agency on Friday, intelligence officials and Pakistani Taliban said. Intelligence officials said the Pakistani Taliban supremo was leaving from a meeting at a mosque in Dande Darpakhel area of North Waziristan when the drone targeted their vehicle. Pakistani Taliban militants said that funeral for the TTP chief will be held tomorrow afternoon at an undisclosed location in North Waziristan… Five militants, including Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, both key militant commanders and close aides of the TTP chief, were also killed with two others injured in the drone strike, multiple sources confirmed. Foreign news agency AP reports that a senior US intelligence official confirmed the strike overnight, saying the US received positive confirmation Friday morning that he had been killed.

The Pakistani government is withholding confirmation, and this would not be the first time that Mehsud has been reported killed. Still, if he is dead then kudos to the Obama administration for executing the strike even as diplomatic pressure mounts to halt the tactic.

Drone strikes are not a magic formula. The risk of blowback is real—especially as terrorists move from the mountains into the urban jungles of southern Punjab and Karachi—and the diplomatic price is high. Still, officials in countries over which drones operate should recognize, before they complain about the practice, that the best way to halt such strikes is to prevent their territory from being used to host terrorists who have declared war on America. To suggest that the violation of sovereignty inherent in drone strikes cancels out the benefit of killing a terrorist is to suggest that preventing speeding on a highway is more important than preventing murder. Nevertheless, targeting the Pakistani Taliban at a time when it and its supporters believe the Americans are in retreat and in defeat does more to bolster the prospects for diplomacy than ill-advised timelines and Afghanistan transitions.

Let us just hope that the Obama administration recognizes that diplomatic processes should never suspend the need to target terrorists, whether they are Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal territories or Afghanistan, or if they are Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen in Syria, or Hezbollah commandos in Lebanon.

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The Mistaken Focus on “Core Al-Qaeda”

President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

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President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

In Nairobi, a squad of gunmen from the Somali group al-Shabab have massacred at least 68 people in an upscale mall while holding others hostage–an attack reminiscent, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, of the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008.

In Iraq, one suicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral in Baghdad, killing at least 16 and wounding more than 30, while another blew up in a residential area of Kirkuk, wounding at least 35 people. These are the latest in a series of terrible attacks in Iraq, which, according to the Associated Press, have seen “more than 4,000 people … killed between April and August, a level of carnage not seen since 2006 to 2008, when Iraq was nearing civil war.”

Yet another suicide attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed at least 78 people, including 34 women and seven children, at a church. This was presumably the handiwork of the Pakistani Taliban.

Oh, and two Israeli soldiers were slain in the West Bank, one by a sniper, the other by a duplicitous Palestinian acquaintance.

All of these attacks do not suggest that Islamist groups are on their way to seizing power in countries from Somalia to Pakistan. Indeed, the Shabab attack was, in many ways, a sign of the group’s weakness in Somalia, where it has suffered defeats on the ground from Kenyan and African Union troops. Shabab is turning to terrorist attacks against soft targets in Uganda and Kenya to remain relevant.

But what these attacks show is that Islamist groups–some of them affiliated with al-Qaeda, others not–are far from defeated. They still have considerable capacity to wreak carnage and, given the weakness of regimes that are fighting them across the Middle East and Africa, they can make substantial inroads into failed states.

President Obama and the American national security establishment have been too focused on “core” al-Qaeda while downplaying the menace from these other groups on the periphery, which continue to pose as big a threat as ever.

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The Next Reset: U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Fresh off one overhyped “achievement”–forcing a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have scant chance of success–Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently eager to achieve any empty triumph, namely a “reset” of relations with Pakistan. In article previewing his trip to Pakistan this week, the Wall Street Journal writes that “it provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.”

Good luck with that. Granted, having fewer U.S. troops and civilians available in Afghanistan to serve as targets for Pakistan-supported terrorists will reduce a flashpoint in the relationship, but it is hard to see Washington and Islamabad finding much common ground. Their interests converge in very few areas, the biggest being the desire by both sides to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from seizing power in Islamabad, which would cut off Pakistan’s existing political and military class from the trough of public spending on which it has grown rich. But there is no indication that Pakistan will give up its support of the Afghan Taliban or the even more noxious Haqqani Network and other Islamist terrorist groups that are viewed by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, as reliable proxies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond.

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Fresh off one overhyped “achievement”–forcing a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have scant chance of success–Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently eager to achieve any empty triumph, namely a “reset” of relations with Pakistan. In article previewing his trip to Pakistan this week, the Wall Street Journal writes that “it provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.”

Good luck with that. Granted, having fewer U.S. troops and civilians available in Afghanistan to serve as targets for Pakistan-supported terrorists will reduce a flashpoint in the relationship, but it is hard to see Washington and Islamabad finding much common ground. Their interests converge in very few areas, the biggest being the desire by both sides to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from seizing power in Islamabad, which would cut off Pakistan’s existing political and military class from the trough of public spending on which it has grown rich. But there is no indication that Pakistan will give up its support of the Afghan Taliban or the even more noxious Haqqani Network and other Islamist terrorist groups that are viewed by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, as reliable proxies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond.

Back in 2011 there was a rare moment of candor in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, normally wrapped in self-serving lies from both sides, when Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bitterly denounced Pakistani complicity in terror. “In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan – and most especially the Pakistani Army and ISI – jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership, but also Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence,” he told the Senate. “By exporting violence, they have eroded their internal security and their position in the region.”

Mullen was right then and nothing has changed today. Pakistan has been happy to pocket nearly $26 billion in U.S. aid between 2002 and 2012 and in return has provided some small concessions such as allowing NATO supplies to cross its territory (with some interruptions) and allowing CIA drones to target al-Qaeda kingpins (with some limitations). But fundamentally the two countries remain far apart on major issues such as Afghanistan, where the U.S. would like to see the continuation of a pro-Western, reasonably democratic regime and the Pakistanis in all likelihood are hoping for a Taliban takeover. Kerry’s visit will change nothing, no matter how many headlines it produces about a supposedly improved relationship.

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Karzai’s Conundrum and the “Zero Option”

Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

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Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

The latest excuse for this pull-out talk, ironically, is something eminently reasonable that Karzai has done. I am no defender of the Afghan president who is mercurial, often impossible to deal with, and complicit in massive corruption. But Karzai was justified to pull out of nascent “peace talks” with the Taliban, who have given every indication that they have little interest in peace and much interest in enhancing their international legitimacy by opening a quasi-embassy in Qatar. But Obama has his heart set on “peace talks” with the Taliban to provide cover for an American pullout, and he is said to be furious at Karzai for throwing sand into the gears of his grand scheme.

Karzai simply can’t win here: Either he agrees to talks that legitimate a faster American pullout–or he refuses to engage in this charade, thereby angering Obama, and spurring, you guessed it, a faster American pullout.

It is Obama’s right as commander in chief to decide he wants nothing more to do with Afghanistan. But if that is in fact the decision he has reached–or at least seriously mulling–perhaps he should explain first to himself and then to the American people, and specifically to the troops that he sent to fight and bleed there, why he once considered it a “necessary” war. Why did he more than triple America’s troop presence, knowing that a certain percentage of those he deployed would not come home unharmed and that some would not come home at all, and why did he pressure America’s allies to similarly step up their commitment–why did he do all this if he decides, in the end, to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban?

Perhaps there is a good explanation for why he is seriously contemplating aborting a war effort that still has a reasonable chance of success, and thereby making worthless the sacrifices of so many American service personnel and their Afghan allies. But pique at Karzai’s refusal to sit down with the Taliban–who are committed to reimposing their totalitarian rule and have given no indication of any interest in suing for peace or giving up their alliance with al-Qaeda–won’t cut it.

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Taliban Again Prove the Obvious

If the Taliban are supposed to be making peace, their suicide bombers don’t seem to have gotten the message.

On Tuesday four suicide bombers, driving coalition-style vehicles and dressed in coalition uniforms complete with fake badges, tried to bluff their way into the presidential palace compound in Kabul–and also allegedly into the CIA headquarters at the Ariana hotel. Three security guards, along with all four attackers, wound up being killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

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If the Taliban are supposed to be making peace, their suicide bombers don’t seem to have gotten the message.

On Tuesday four suicide bombers, driving coalition-style vehicles and dressed in coalition uniforms complete with fake badges, tried to bluff their way into the presidential palace compound in Kabul–and also allegedly into the CIA headquarters at the Ariana hotel. Three security guards, along with all four attackers, wound up being killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

The Taliban proudly claimed credit for the attack while noting that it would not affect “the political track”–i.e., the peace talks which are supposed to happen in Doha. Actually such actions should affect the negotiations because they underline the obvious point–the Taliban aren’t interested in peace. They are doing everything they can to escalate the conflict. It is only a wonder that the Obama administration–desperate for a face-saving way out of Afghanistan–can possibly convince itself otherwise.

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A U.S.-Taliban Prisoner Swap?

Now that peace talks are sort of on again with the Taliban–at least hopes of such talks have risen again, even if Kabul’s outrage at Taliban preening in opening an embassy of sorts in Qatar has blocked the actual start of talks–the air is once again filled with talk of a prisoner exchange. The Taliban would love it if, as a sweetener for the talks and in exchange for the release of the only American prisoner they are holding, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration would release five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo.

The New York Times today has a profile of the five, and it would be hard to imagine a more repugnant bunch. As the Times notes:

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Now that peace talks are sort of on again with the Taliban–at least hopes of such talks have risen again, even if Kabul’s outrage at Taliban preening in opening an embassy of sorts in Qatar has blocked the actual start of talks–the air is once again filled with talk of a prisoner exchange. The Taliban would love it if, as a sweetener for the talks and in exchange for the release of the only American prisoner they are holding, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration would release five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo.

The New York Times today has a profile of the five, and it would be hard to imagine a more repugnant bunch. As the Times notes:

Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to their interrogators.

There is also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking American forces.

If administration officials think they will win Taliban goodwill by releasing this rogue’s gallery, even as the Taliban continue to kill American soldiers, they are dreaming. Detainee releases make sense when it is clear that the movement to which the detainees belong is tired of fighting and seriously interested in making peace. That was the case with most Sunni insurgents in Iraq in 2007, which is why Gen. David Petraeus released so many of them from coalition custody. It’s not the case with the Taliban today: They remain convinced, reportedly, that they will take Kabul “in a week” once U.S. troops pull out. Making peace is not on the Taliban’s agenda in Qatar; gaining international legitimacy is.

Yet for all that, I am not completely opposed to the release of the five Taliban detainees–as long as it is understood that the point is simply to win Sgt. Bergdahl’s release. It is in general not a good policy to deal with terrorists, but democracies such as the U.S. and Israel have a long history of doing just that to win the release of their citizens; such concessions are perhaps inevitable in a liberal democracy which cares so much about its troops in particular. Israel, most recently, released some 1,000 Palestinian detainees to get Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit out of Hamas’s hands. By Israeli standards, the exchange of five Taliban detainees for one American sergeant is a good bargain.

Would the release of the Taliban prisoners increase the risk to American troops in Afghanistan? Possibly, but the difference these five would make would be minimal, especially when so many other Taliban detainees have already been released from coalition and Afghan custody. Many more will be sprung in the future now that the Kabul government, which is notoriously corrupt, has taken control of all detention facilities in Afghanistan from the U.S.

If the administration does decide to make the prisoner swap, at least it should not fool itself that it is helping to bring peace to Afghanistan. It would simply be a gesture of mercy for an imprisoned American soldier.

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The Taliban’s Real Goal in Doha

Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

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Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

Opening their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem, insurgent officials said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, interact with the news media, “improve relations with countries around the world” and, almost as an afterthought, meet “Afghans if there is a need.” They did not mention the Afghan government.

One suspects that the Taliban are far more interested in using these “peace talks” to enhance their credibility and standing than they are in actually negotiating any accord that would result in their disarmament. And why should they make any real concessions when President Obama has already promised that American combat troops will leave in less than 18 months? From the Taliban’s perspective, the advantage on the ground will shift in their favor once the Americans are gone.

Their only incentive to sign a deal is to ensure that the U.S. abandons Afghanistan completely after 2014—just as the U.S. abandoned South Vietnam after signing a deal with Hanoi in 1973—thereby making it easier for the insurgents to take over. Significantly, the Nixon administration excluded the Saigon government from negotiations over its fate. This time around, to its credit, the Obama administration has pledged to include Kabul in the peace talks. As a result, U.S. officials were scrambling yesterday to entice Karzai back into the talks by getting the Taliban to tamp down their gloating in Qatar.

Why bother? The odds of talks succeeding are remote. This is only an exercise in wishful thinking on the part of an administration that is determined to find a fig leaf to cover the departure of U.S. troops. As I’ve noted before, there is nothing inherently wrong with talking, but in this case proceeding with the talks when there is no sign of the Taliban making any significant concessions risks furthering the Taliban’s narrative that the U.S. is abandoning Afghanistan and that the Taliban are destined to take over once again.

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Managing Expectations in Taliban Talks

If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.

There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.

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If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.

There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.

The odds that the talks this time will produce a breakthrough are not high. The best bet would be a change of heart in Islamabad: the Pakistani government, the primary patron of the Taliban, has long feared it would lose influence in Afghanistan if its proxies cut a separate deal with Kabul. Perhaps the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence–the real national-security decision-makers–are rethinking this policy because they fear the rise of fundamentalism represented not only by the Afghan Taliban but the Pakistan Taliban as well. Perhaps. But there is little sign of a substantive rethinking of Pakistan’s policy, which it has consistently pursued since the 1980s if not before, of sponsoring militant Islamist organizations within Afghanistan.

And there is little sign that the Taliban are so war weary that they are ready to give up. Why should they, when they know that, thanks to President Obama’s self-imposed timeline, the bulk of U.S. troops will be gone within a year and a half? Taliban foot soldiers in Afghanistan have suffered serious, though not crippling, setbacks, but their leaders continue to live in safety in Pakistan. If Obama were serious about pursuing negotiations, he would never have announced that timeline and he would have pushed the Taliban much harder militarily by delaying the drawdown of U.S. forces.

History shows that insurgent groups such as the IRA, the Basque ETA, the FMLN in El Salvador, and FARC in Colombia only get serious about making peace when they have lost all hope of a military victory. The Taliban cause, alas, is far from hopeless. There is good reason for Taliban commanders to imagine they might yet attain power at gunpoint–and for that reason it is unlikely that they will lay down their guns.

There is nothing inherently wrong with talking to the Taliban. At the very least it may be possible to gain useful intelligence. But if Karzai, under American pressure, makes major concessions to the Taliban, the likely result will not be peace in our time but rather the revival of Afghanistan’s civil war, because the old Northern Alliance will not accept any deal that cedes significant power to their historic enemies.

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Taliban Strike Exposes Flaw in Proposed Drone Guidelines

In a sign of how little has changed since President Obama’s much-ballyhooed speech last week on counter-terrorism, the latest news is that a suspected U.S. drone strike has killed the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman. He was apparently in Miram Shah, a town in North Waziristan that is also the headquarters for the Haqqani Network–one of the most vicious and effective insurgent groups in Afghanistan. This geographical coincidence indicates how closely linked all of these extremist groups are, and underscores the importance of targeting them to enhance regional stability.

Unfortunately, if Obama is serious about limiting targeting at some point in the future to targets that threaten only U.S. “persons” rather than “interests,” as has been widely reported, that will make it difficult to attack the Pakistani Taliban, which generally plot against the government of Pakistan, not against the United States (although the would-be Times Square bomber of 2010 was linked to the Pakistani Taliban).

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In a sign of how little has changed since President Obama’s much-ballyhooed speech last week on counter-terrorism, the latest news is that a suspected U.S. drone strike has killed the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman. He was apparently in Miram Shah, a town in North Waziristan that is also the headquarters for the Haqqani Network–one of the most vicious and effective insurgent groups in Afghanistan. This geographical coincidence indicates how closely linked all of these extremist groups are, and underscores the importance of targeting them to enhance regional stability.

Unfortunately, if Obama is serious about limiting targeting at some point in the future to targets that threaten only U.S. “persons” rather than “interests,” as has been widely reported, that will make it difficult to attack the Pakistani Taliban, which generally plot against the government of Pakistan, not against the United States (although the would-be Times Square bomber of 2010 was linked to the Pakistani Taliban).

If the U.S. were to stop targeting the Pakistani Taliban, as it may well do after 2014, it would increase the threat to Islamabad and also make it harder for the U.S. to fly drone strikes against al-Qaeda and other groups that directly threaten the U.S. Pakistan is dubious about such strikes and allows them, it is generally believed, as part of a quid pro quo whereby the U.S. also targets the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad does want to fight. Stop targeting the Pakistani Taliban and the consequences could be severe for the broader war on terrorism. That is why I hope there are some classified loopholes in Obama’s new policies that will allow existing counter-terrorism efforts to continue.

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The FARC is Weak; The Taliban is Strong

I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

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I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

The latest news from Havana, where the negotiations are being conducted, suggests they may be right: FARC and the Colombian government have just reached agreement on the first, and most contentious, issue in their talks–land reform designed to benefit poor farmers. This does not guarantee the success of the talks but it is an important breakthrough. As the Wall Street Journal notes:

There are four items left on the agenda that Mr. Santos and the FARC agreed to last year as a road map for the peace talks. The next topic under discussion will be the FARC’s participation in electoral politics. Other items include getting the FARC out of the cocaine trade; reintegrating fighters into civil society; and support for victims and the need to uncover the truth about atrocities allegedly committed by the FARC.

Various Colombian officials told me, however, that land reform was the hardest issue on the table. With that out of the way, the odds of success on the other agenda items greatly increase.

Of course, even if FARC accepts a deal, that will not be binding on every guerrilla commander. Some will no doubt continue to battle on, just as IRA factions have done since the 1998 Good Friday Accord. And, considering the close links between FARC and narco-traffickers, other fighters may simply become full-time drug runners. But it would be a very big deal if the majority of FARC were to lay down its arms. It would be good news not only for Colombia but also for its most important foreign ally–the United States–which has spent considerable resources via Plan Colombia over the past decade to bring about this very outcome.

The Obama administration would love to see a similar breakthrough in talks with the Taliban but it won’t happen anytime soon, because there is a major difference between Colombia and Afghanistan: FARC has suffered far greater blows on the battlefield than the Taliban have. It is impossible to reach accord with a determined insurgency until you can convince its leaders that they will not win at gunpoint. The Taliban, however, evidently remain convinced that they can still prevail with the use of force. And with the U.S. pledging to pull all its combat troops out by the end of 2014, they may very well be right.

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In Pakistan, Expect More of the Same

The fact that 60 percent of Pakistanis voted in parliamentary elections, thereby defying Pakistani Taliban intimidation, is a good sign. So is the likelihood that Pakistan will see the first succession since the country’s founding in 1947 from one elected government to another after the first government had completed its full term in office.

But we should not expect much change in foreign policy from presumptive prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who got his start in politics as a protégé of the Islamist military dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. In the 1990s, during an earlier stint as prime minister, he was a supporter of the Afghan Taliban and has remained cozy with Islamic militant groups ever since; during this campaign he refused to come out strongly against the Pakistani Taliban, which helps to explain why that group did not attack rallies held by his Pakistan Muslim League party. Although Sharif is said to favor better ties with India, his most famous act as prime minister occurred in 1998 when he approved Pakistan’s first nuclear test, thereby ratcheting up tensions with India.

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The fact that 60 percent of Pakistanis voted in parliamentary elections, thereby defying Pakistani Taliban intimidation, is a good sign. So is the likelihood that Pakistan will see the first succession since the country’s founding in 1947 from one elected government to another after the first government had completed its full term in office.

But we should not expect much change in foreign policy from presumptive prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who got his start in politics as a protégé of the Islamist military dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. In the 1990s, during an earlier stint as prime minister, he was a supporter of the Afghan Taliban and has remained cozy with Islamic militant groups ever since; during this campaign he refused to come out strongly against the Pakistani Taliban, which helps to explain why that group did not attack rallies held by his Pakistan Muslim League party. Although Sharif is said to favor better ties with India, his most famous act as prime minister occurred in 1998 when he approved Pakistan’s first nuclear test, thereby ratcheting up tensions with India.

Sharif promises better relations with the United States too, but it is doubtful that he could deliver even if he meant it–and it’s doubtful that he does. As the Indian Express notes: “Sharif has criticized unpopular U.S. drone attacks targeting al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan, and has called the Afghan conflict ‘America’s war.’ The Punjab government, controlled by Sharif’s party, turned down over $100 million in American aid in 2011 to protest the bin Laden raid.”

Even if Sharif were pro-American and secularist (he is neither), he would still not call the shots in Pakistan. Real power, at least when it comes to foreign policy and national security policy, is still held by the army, while in the domestic sphere the judiciary has proved increasingly important of late. President Asif Ali Zardari has been a figurehead. So too with his previous prime ministers. Real power has been increased by the army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the Supreme Court’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who succeeded in removing Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from office last year. Both Kayani and Chaudhry are due to retire this year and their replacements will be more consequential than the change of elected leadership.

In foreign policy, however, there is unlikely to be much change since pretty much the entire army leadership–not just General Kayani–supports Pakistan’s existing policies, which include aiding and abetting groups such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which are killing Americans and their Afghan allies. It is high time we woke up to what Pakistan is up to. Instead of pretending it is a sometimes-wayward ally, we must recognize that Pakistan’s strategic interests–especially in Afghanistan–are squarely at odds with ours, and we must work to counter Pakistani influence as we would do with any other hostile power.

In Pakistan itself, we should work to bolster civil society and the power of civilians in government, but we should not delude ourselves that such efforts will have much impact in the short run–and possibly not even in the long run. Pakistan’s state is deeply dysfunctional and is unlikely to fundamentally change for the better under Nawaz Sharif.

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Karzai, Corruption, and CIA Bags of Cash

You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

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You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

The question in this case is whether the CIA has gotten value for its money. It is hard to know for sure because there is much we do not know about these payments, whose existence was first disclosed by the New York Times last week (while, coincidentally, I happened to be traveling in Afghanistan).

But in general I share the disquiet expressed by veteran Afghanistan watcher Sarah Chayes in this article and this one.

She argues that the payoffs “may well have enabled Karzai’s frequent and theatrical outbursts against U.S. officials and policies, not to mention his collusion with some of his country’s most corrupt and abusive officials. Such payoffs signal to Karzai — or other leaders like him — that he enjoys the unwavering support of the CIA, no matter what he does or says, and embolden him to thumb his nose at the United States whenever he feels like it.”

Particularly troubling is that, as Chayes notes, “the CIA’s bag man was Muhammad Zia Salehi,” the very same Karzai aide who “in July 2010 was arrested by U.S.-mentored Afghan police officers, on charges of influence peddling,” before being released at Karzai’s insistence.

Whatever the CIA was buying with its money, the payments came at a heavy cost–namely, to undermine any hopes of curbing the rampant corruption which has done so much to dissipate confidence in the government and provide an opening to the Taliban. Like Chayes, I was part of a small group of outside advisers who urged General David Petraeus, when he was in Kabul, to make fighting corruption a bigger priority. Petraeus did put more resources into the effort, but it’s hard to escape the conviction that his efforts were undermined by the CIA which, pursuing its own foreign policy, has been paying off officials such as the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half-brother of the president who was a powerbroker in Kandahar, and the president himself.

No doubt the CIA has had good arguments for its payments. I’m sure it could cite intelligence and services provided by the Karzais and other recipients of its largess; Ahmed Wali Karzai, for example, ran a “strike force” of anti-Taliban fighters at the agency’s behest. But I am not sure that these benefits were ever adequately balanced against the heavy cost of, in effect, subsidizing corruption.

Such an accounting would be almost impossible to undertake because the CIA is so secretive about its efforts–I doubt that either the U.S. ambassador or the NATO commander in Kabul have ever been aware of the full range of its activities. The CIA station chief has always been a powerbroker in his own right, often the most important American in the country–at least from the perspective of senior Afghans who have become dependent on CIA subsidies.

In effect, the agency has been pursuing a cynical policy focused, as far as I can tell, on killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders, even at the potential cost of harming Afghanistan’s long-term future, which depends on maintaining popular support for the government. The problem is, unless Afghanistan has a stable and legitimate government, the country will never be strong enough to keep out extremists from al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and other extremist groups barring a massive presence of U.S. troops, which will not last much longer. The tragedy here is that the CIA’s short-term mindset may be undermining our long-run odds of success in Afghanistan.

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Déjà Vu All Over Again in Afghanistan

I am not an optimist when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States lost the Afghan war the second President Obama issued a public timeline for withdrawal and when diplomats offered to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials endorsing such timelines—too often out of political perspicacity rather than military wisdom—are culpable in setting the stage for defeat. Momentum matters in Afghanistan more than spin, as Afghans have never lost a war: they simply defect to the winning side.

The White House may believe its spin, but no one in Afghanistan does. Whereas the Taliban once embraced the narrative of the First Anglo-Afghan War, describing Mullah Omar as Dost Muhammad and Hamid Karzai as Shah Shujah, with the implication that ISAF forces would play the role of the British heading into a disastrous retreat, the historical allusions have changed in recent months as Afghans filter events through the living memory of the Soviet withdrawal. Hence, Hamid Karzai has become Najibullah in the current Afghan narrative. Najibullah, of course, was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. True, Najibullah managed to hold onto power for three years following the Soviet withdrawal, but he fell as soon as the rubles—about $3 billion per year—dried up. Afghans recognize that most of the money promised in the past years’ series of international donor conferences will never get delivered.

Further, when the World Bank estimates the foreign assistance that Afghanistan will require to stay afloat, they too often assume that the Afghan mining industry will be far more advanced than reality will dictate. In the past year, real estate prices have dropped 20 percent in Afghanistan as Afghans recognize that the long-term prospects for rule of law are dim.

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I am not an optimist when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States lost the Afghan war the second President Obama issued a public timeline for withdrawal and when diplomats offered to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials endorsing such timelines—too often out of political perspicacity rather than military wisdom—are culpable in setting the stage for defeat. Momentum matters in Afghanistan more than spin, as Afghans have never lost a war: they simply defect to the winning side.

The White House may believe its spin, but no one in Afghanistan does. Whereas the Taliban once embraced the narrative of the First Anglo-Afghan War, describing Mullah Omar as Dost Muhammad and Hamid Karzai as Shah Shujah, with the implication that ISAF forces would play the role of the British heading into a disastrous retreat, the historical allusions have changed in recent months as Afghans filter events through the living memory of the Soviet withdrawal. Hence, Hamid Karzai has become Najibullah in the current Afghan narrative. Najibullah, of course, was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. True, Najibullah managed to hold onto power for three years following the Soviet withdrawal, but he fell as soon as the rubles—about $3 billion per year—dried up. Afghans recognize that most of the money promised in the past years’ series of international donor conferences will never get delivered.

Further, when the World Bank estimates the foreign assistance that Afghanistan will require to stay afloat, they too often assume that the Afghan mining industry will be far more advanced than reality will dictate. In the past year, real estate prices have dropped 20 percent in Afghanistan as Afghans recognize that the long-term prospects for rule of law are dim.

When the Afghan civil war resumes—and with neighbors like Iran and Pakistan, it will—it will be bloody. If in 1989, the Soviets left Najibullah behind to face the so-called Peshawar-7, the Americans and ISAF appear prepared to leave the country behind with an even greater array of warlords or, as the State Department prefers to say, regional power-brokers. The ill-conceived strategy to prop up local militias will only exacerbate the conflict to come.

Negotiations with the Taliban only make things worse. Let’s forget that the State Department has never conducted a lessons-learned exercise to explain why their previous round of negotiations with the Taliban—between 1995 and 2000—failed so precipitously or why they should expect different results now, when negotiating with many of the same figures.

Those who propose a soft partition, ceding predominantly Pushtun southern Afghanistan to the Taliban, forget that such a system has been tried and failed. After the Taliban consolidated control over southern Afghanistan in 1994, they had agreed not to enter Herat, an overwhelmingly Persian city, but did anyhow the following year. Ditto their entry into Kabul in 1996, against the backdrop of UN power-sharing talks. The only thing the Taliban were interested in sharing, it turned out, was their idea of God’s wrath upon anyone who did not share their twisted interpretations of Islam and culture. 

From early in the Soviet occupation through the Red Army’s withdrawal a quarter century ago, the United Nations worked to broker a withdrawal. Diego Cordovez, Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s special representative, credited the persistence of the United Nations (rather than the arming of the Mujahedin) with achieving the Soviet withdrawal. Again, it’s déjà vu. In 2011 and 2012, respectively, the International Crisis Group and the RAND Corporation published reports calling for UN-led mediation as, in the words of David Cortright, director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, “The U.N. is perhaps the only organization that is able to garner the political clout needed to successfully achieve a peace settlement.” This, of course, is nonsense. It may be dogma for the conflict resolution community, but foisting off responsibility for Afghanistan to UN officials will simply lead to a repeat of the bloodshed that swept over Afghanistan with renewed vigor in 1992.

The United States went into Afghanistan in 2001 to help the Afghan government fill a vacuum in which terrorism thrived, and to help Afghanistan rebuild a military that could monopolize the use of force within its borders. That mission is not yet complete. Perhaps politicians and diplomats will still push forward with withdrawal. As they do so, however, they should recognize that they are not leaving in victory, but rather condemning Afghans to repeat the past.

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Karzai Needs the U.S. More Than the U.S. Needs Him

If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.

In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.

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If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.

In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.

Alissa Rubin, the New York Times‘s knowledgeable bureau chief in Kabul, is surely right that Karzai is trying to salvage his historical reputation–he is “desperately trying to shake his widely held image as an American lackey by appealing to nationalist sentiments and invoking Afghanistan’s sovereignty.”

The problem is that Karzai is paying attention only to Afghan popular opinion–or at least the version of popular opinion that reaches him in the palace where he spends his days–while ignoring American popular opinion and, more specifically, American political opinion.

Karzai seems to think that the U.S. needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the U.S. He couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, the U.S. needs to use bases in Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaeda and its ilk on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier–but the perceived need is less now than it was in the days when Osama bin Laden was still alive. Yet there has been no diminution in the need of Karzai–and his successor, whoever that will be–to have the U.S. continue buttressing his shaky security forces and to continue funding his government (which gets more than 90 percent of its funding from foreign aid).

Without considerable American assistance post-2014, odds are that Afghanistan will sink into a civil war and the Taliban will fight their way back into power. And yet there is little support in the United States–and especially in the administration itself–to continue providing such aid.

President Obama and Secretary Hagel are not viscerally committed to Afghanistan the way that President Bush was to Iraq. In fact, they are looking for an excuse to leave–or if not leave, then at least draw down our commitment as rapidly as possible. If he is not careful, Karzai will give the decision-makers in the White House the excuse they need to write off Afghanistan as ungovernable and unsalvageable.

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Losing Afghanistan

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak Province following reports—rejected by U.S. forces—that they were involved in the disappearance of nine people. Karzai’s decision—and the apparent willingness of U.S. forces to go along with it—really do signal the beginning of the end. U.S. forces will withdraw not with a mission accomplished, but in defeat. Political and military claims to the contrary are nonsense, and show a profound ignorance of Afghanistan and Afghan history more than a decade into our latest involvement in that country. The defeat need not have been though; it was far more a political decision on the part of the White House than the result of any military weakness.  

As my AEI colleague Ahmad Majidyar—hands down the best analyst of Afghan politics there is in the United States right now, and someone not limited by security to ISAF headquarters or our many Forward Operating Base or otherwise sucked into the military-information bubble—notes Wardak is the gateway to Kabul, the path which Taliban fighters use to infiltrate Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks. The security situation in Wardak has been declining in the past year. The Taliban have prioritized moving into Wardak as foreign forces leave.

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Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak Province following reports—rejected by U.S. forces—that they were involved in the disappearance of nine people. Karzai’s decision—and the apparent willingness of U.S. forces to go along with it—really do signal the beginning of the end. U.S. forces will withdraw not with a mission accomplished, but in defeat. Political and military claims to the contrary are nonsense, and show a profound ignorance of Afghanistan and Afghan history more than a decade into our latest involvement in that country. The defeat need not have been though; it was far more a political decision on the part of the White House than the result of any military weakness.  

As my AEI colleague Ahmad Majidyar—hands down the best analyst of Afghan politics there is in the United States right now, and someone not limited by security to ISAF headquarters or our many Forward Operating Base or otherwise sucked into the military-information bubble—notes Wardak is the gateway to Kabul, the path which Taliban fighters use to infiltrate Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks. The security situation in Wardak has been declining in the past year. The Taliban have prioritized moving into Wardak as foreign forces leave.

The reason why the United States or, more specifically, the Central Intelligence Agency was so interested in Hamid Karzai after 9/11 was that he was a man who had a foot in every camp, and a finger in every pie. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher, for example, wanted to reach out to the Taliban in 1995, the Taliban middleman to whom he turned was … Hamid Karzai. The Afghan president personifies the Afghan trait of never losing a war, only defecting to the winning side.

Karzai’s actions—both the ban on Special Forces in Wardak and the prohibition of NATO airstrikes in civilian areas—are meant to bolster the Taliban. Karzai sees the Taliban as winning, and has convinced himself that he can pivot to represent them and their Pakistani patrons rather than the Americans. In this he is wrong: Pakistan’s ISI trust Karzai about as much as Washington should have, and will not hesitate to dispose of him once the Americans are gone.

So what is the American strategy? Talks. There has been no breakthrough in Qatar, however. This should not surprise. We are talking to the same exact Taliban officials who lied their way to 9/11, yet the State Department has never bothered to assess what went wrong with talks in the 1990s. The Taliban are most interested in springing Taliban prisoners, not political compromise. That Taliban members released from detention in Pakistan have rejoined the insurgency should not surprise, nor should the fact that Pakistani authorities didn’t coordinate their prisoner release with Kabul, let alone Washington.

In 2014, against the backdrop of planned Afghan elections, the United States will abandon Afghanistan. Rhetoric about continuing relations fall short given how such promises fell short with Iraq. Afghans are already preparing for the civil war which will follow. Some, like Karzai, will try to pivot and then grovel in the hope of maintaining their position. Others will flee, their money already safely stowed away in Dubai real estate or Swiss banks. Many tribal leaders and officials have sons in both camps, trying desperately to preserve their family’s security come what may. The notion that the Taliban are only interested in predominantly Pushtun areas is silly. Their occupation of Herat in 1995, Kabul in 1996, and Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 and again in 1998 should put to rest the idea that their appetite is satiable.

The coming civil war will be bloody. There are more stake-holders than after the “Peshawar 7” ousted Najibullah in 1992. American officials can claim victory, but they are abandoning our Afghan allies and women in a way which will reverberate far beyond the borders of Afghanistan, and have yet to articulate a strategy to ensure that the vacuum that enabled an al-Qaeda presence doesn’t once again open, endangering U.S. national security.

The most dangerous lessons drawn from the Afghanistan war are those already grasped by our opponents and with which the United States will have to grapple for decades to come: First is the fact that it is easy to outlast America, and second is that embraced by Pakistan—distract America with a proxy, because diplomats will always treat that proxy as an independent actor. Under Obama, we have become like a cat, swatting a string and never bothering to look at who is dangling it.

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re: Obama Emboldened Taliban in SOTU

I fully agree with Max Boot: Obama emboldened the Taliban with his timeline for withdrawal. Such statements may run afoul of the White House spin machine, but it’s important therefore to see how Afghans perceive the speech.  From Kabul’s 1TV in Dari today with a translation from the Open Source Center, here’s former deputy interior minister General Abdol Hadi Khaled:

Insurgency has now spread to almost all parts of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is very insecure. Threats to the security of Afghanistan and the region have increased by a long way. There is a very high level of interference by the neighbors, especially of Pakistan and Iran, in Afghanistan’s affairs. Their withdrawal at this time is a decision they have taken and their decision is not their reaction to the realities on the ground in Afghanistan and the region.

Afghans have never lost a war: They just defect to the winning side. The Taliban may have steamrolled through Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. But they relied more on momentum and defection of their enemies than on their own military prowess. This time, the civil war will likely be worse: There are more power centers, and both Iran and Pakistan are emboldened. Rather than aim for victory, it seems Obama is determined to bring defeat.

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I fully agree with Max Boot: Obama emboldened the Taliban with his timeline for withdrawal. Such statements may run afoul of the White House spin machine, but it’s important therefore to see how Afghans perceive the speech.  From Kabul’s 1TV in Dari today with a translation from the Open Source Center, here’s former deputy interior minister General Abdol Hadi Khaled:

Insurgency has now spread to almost all parts of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is very insecure. Threats to the security of Afghanistan and the region have increased by a long way. There is a very high level of interference by the neighbors, especially of Pakistan and Iran, in Afghanistan’s affairs. Their withdrawal at this time is a decision they have taken and their decision is not their reaction to the realities on the ground in Afghanistan and the region.

Afghans have never lost a war: They just defect to the winning side. The Taliban may have steamrolled through Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. But they relied more on momentum and defection of their enemies than on their own military prowess. This time, the civil war will likely be worse: There are more power centers, and both Iran and Pakistan are emboldened. Rather than aim for victory, it seems Obama is determined to bring defeat.

What’s the alternative? If we strip away the mission creep and the ill-considered efforts at development, we are in Afghanistan for a simple reason: Before 9/11, a vacuum developed in the country and terrorists took root. From their Afghan safe-haven, the reached out and attacked us. The goal of the U.S. mission was to fill that vacuum, creating a government that could control the territory of Afghanistan and security forces capable of monopolizing the use of force.

Former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s desire to strongly centralize the government, however, traded short-term dividends for long-term difficulties for which we are now paying the price as the Karzai government does more harm than good as it chafes provincial leaders. Still, Afghan security forces are a formidable counter-insurgency force–and some units may actually stay together after the U.S. departure–albeit their loyalty to the central government could be more fleeting. Under a best-case scenario, however, the Afghan security forces are challenged tremendously by logistics, triage, and intelligence, without which they will be unable to counter the Pakistan-backed Taliban effectively.  More time training the security forces would help, and the U.S. government could mitigate that expense by withdrawing the ineffective USAID mission and any diplomat whose job does not require them to leave their compound’s perimeter.  But, absent that, the discussion Obama should have is not simply whether to withdraw troops “on schedule” but rather what alternate strategy he has in place to fill the vacuum their withdrawal risks creating.

It is that vacuum that is deadly. It is, after all, the reason why the United States had to become involved in Afghanistan initially.

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Obama’s Timetable Emboldens Taliban

President Obama’s announcement that half of the 66,000 US troops now in Afghanistan would be pulled out over the next year is not as bad as it could have been. He could have announced that the 34,000 troops would be pulled out by September—just as he had previously set a deadline of September 2012 to pull out roughly the same number of surge forces. This would have been especially unfortunate because September is still part of the “fighting season” in Afghanistan and taking them off the battlefield at this time cedes an important advantage to the enemy. 

That is not what Obama did, however: He backloaded the withdrawal, with only 6,000 troops coming out by the end of May, another 8,000 by the end of November, and the remaining 20,000 in February 2014. That at least gives Gen. Joe Dunford, the new US/NATO commander in Kabul, the majority of the existing forces to work with during the 2013 fighting season, even if it does mean that US forces will be so denuded by April 2014 that they will have a hard time securing the presidential election which is scheduled to be held then—and which could prove of great importance to Afghanistan’s long-term stability.

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President Obama’s announcement that half of the 66,000 US troops now in Afghanistan would be pulled out over the next year is not as bad as it could have been. He could have announced that the 34,000 troops would be pulled out by September—just as he had previously set a deadline of September 2012 to pull out roughly the same number of surge forces. This would have been especially unfortunate because September is still part of the “fighting season” in Afghanistan and taking them off the battlefield at this time cedes an important advantage to the enemy. 

That is not what Obama did, however: He backloaded the withdrawal, with only 6,000 troops coming out by the end of May, another 8,000 by the end of November, and the remaining 20,000 in February 2014. That at least gives Gen. Joe Dunford, the new US/NATO commander in Kabul, the majority of the existing forces to work with during the 2013 fighting season, even if it does mean that US forces will be so denuded by April 2014 that they will have a hard time securing the presidential election which is scheduled to be held then—and which could prove of great importance to Afghanistan’s long-term stability.

A corrupt, illegitimate election would undermine the country’s long-term prospects, while a free and fair vote resulting in the election of a strong and honest leader could be the salvation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately the U.S. will be hard-put to guarantee the election but at least there is one more fighting season to try to solidify recent gains and to give a boost to the Afghan National Security Forces.

There are sharp limits, however, to what U.S. troops can achieve in the next year, especially because they are increasingly confined to base and cut off from everyday interactions with their Afghan counterparts by concerns about “friendly fire” attacks. American troops have never carried out the kind of “clear and hold” operations in eastern Afghanistan that they mounted in the south, and now they never will: Thus the bulk of U.S. forces will pull out with the Haqqani Network still enjoying secure sanctuaries an hour’s drive from Kabul.

That makes it all the more imperative that the U.S. maintain a robust commitment in Afghanistan post-2014 to enable the Afghan security forces to cope with the threat presented by a still-dangerous insurgency with secure sanctuaries in Pakistan. Obama did not announce post-2014 troop figures last night because the debate over what they will be is apparently still ongoing. It is a little surreal to read in the Washington Post that generals and senior officials are debating troop figures not only for 2015, but also for 2016, 2017, and beyond. 

The Post reports that “the Pentagon is pushing a plan that would keep about 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan once the NATO military mission there ends in 2014,” while some of “the proposals under consideration call for reducing the U.S. presence by early 2016 to between 3,500 and 6,000 troops” and “one option under serious discussion envisages further reducing troop levels to under 1,000 by early 2017, with most of the personnel operating from the giant U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Why is this surreal? Because no one—not Napoleon, not Alexander the Great, not the Duke of Wellington, and certainly not President Obama—could possibly predict what a war will look like four years into the future. The battlefield is a dynamic environment where things can change markedly in a matter of months. It is the height of folly to lock the U.S. military into ironclad plans today governing troop commitments years from now. Those kinds of decisions should be made much closer to the fact based on battlefield considerations—not on domestic political concerns.

Yet not only is the White House apparently contemplating keeping far fewer forces after 2014 than Gen. John Allen, the recently departed US commander, had judged prudent (he wanted 20,000) but it is also considering telegraphing in advance even steeper reductions. This can only embolden the Taliban whose mantra is “you have the watches, we have the time.” They are already convinced they can wait us out. Obama’s timetable for withdrawal, based on arbitrary numbers divorced from military realities, will only heighten that perception and make it even more difficult for the remaining U.S. troops to achieve anything meaningful.

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Pakistan Should Fear U.S. Afghan Pullout

When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.

The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.

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When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.

The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.

So, as soon as the money dries up—and it will happen faster than Karzai realizes—the Afghanistan National Army will implode. While the Pentagon points to metrics of numbers trained, it does not speak as often about retention. Logistics, triage, and intelligence remain challenges absent U.S. oversight. And while the Afghans have fought ably against Taliban assaults in Kabul and the Afghan special forces are excellent, Afghans have never had an opportunity to prove what they can do (or cannot do) when they are running the Corps level alone. The fact that regional states have reactivated their residual links to warlords should be a sign no one in the White House should ignore.

When the chaos starts, it will be worse in some respects. Just as with the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s, the main victories will not be on the battlefield so much as the result of momentum, and so will catch the West by surprise. During the Soviet era and its aftermath, the fighting was limited to Afghanistan itself. The next round of civil war likely will not be. Pakistan should get ready: It will soon learn the meaning of blowback. There is no doubt that the Pakistanis will face blowback for their support of radicals and Taliban terrorism. The issue is not that various Taliban groups will take their fight into Pakistan. There, the Pakistanis will continue to contain the Taliban’s challenge largely to the tribal region. Rather, with the Americans gone, there will be no more restraint on the reconstituted Northern Alliance. Years ago, I had a conversation with one in a position to actually implement what he said: He argued that the only way to get the Pakistanis to stop interfering in Afghanistan was not to meet them at the diplomatic table or ply them with aid and incentives, but to respond in kind. If a bomb goes off in Kabul, he suggested, then one should go off in Lahore. And if an attack occurs in Jalalabad, then there should be two such attacks in Rawalpindi.

When, back in 1997, I was a teaching assistant for an American political history course at Yale University, I took a colleague’s suggestion and asked the students in my section what their earliest political memory was: The earliest any of the 18-21 year olds had? Michael Dukakis in 1988. Americans’ political memory seldom extends back more than a decade. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is longer. Many Afghans and Pakistanis remember that, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, it was the Afghans who were the aggressors across the border, tearing down Pakistani flags and raising the banner of Pushtunistan. This time, history will repeat, but with far greater lethality against ordinary citizens. Perhaps Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence will rue the day they decided to send terrorists into Afghanistan.

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