There is nothing the Pakistani government would like more than a precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) will jump at the chance to fill the vacuum, much as Iran’s Qods Force and associated militias moved to fill the space in Iraq left by the departing U.S. presence.
Pakistani leaders will never stop supporting the Taliban. After the 1971 secession of Bangladesh, the ISI concluded that radical interpretations of Islam were all that could hold the relatively artificial nation of Pakistan together. The rise of ethnic identity (well, at least among the non-Punjabis) risked creating fissures which could tear the country apart. Perhaps today their paranoia does not match with the reality, but old habits die hard.
As a historian, I am trained to predict the past, and I usually get that right about half the time. One thing, though, that years of reading and travel have engrained in me is the importance of narrative. Every country and culture has its narratives, and these seldom translate well. When I lecture to deploying troops on Afghan history, I often give the example of U.S. election season: Talking heads or anchors on MSNBC might compare President Obama to Abraham Lincoln. Most everyone watching would know immediately that both Obama and Lincoln leaped from Illinois relatively rapidly into the White House.
Someone whose flight is delayed at the airport and watching CNN might hear comparisons between Obama and John F. Kennedy. Whether a critic or a supporter of Obama, it is easy to draw comparisons both to the presidents’ relative youth and to their rhetorical gift. However, commentators on Fox News might compare Obama to Herbert Hoover, an analogy, fair or not, that raises the specter of economic depression. The point for American servicemen is not whether they are fans of Obama or not; neither their job nor mine when I teach is to preach policy. Rather, it is that Lincoln, Kennedy, and Hoover will mean absolutely nothing to the Afghans. Local history matters.
Here’s something you might want to keep in mind while celebrating the U.S.’s pending withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. From Tom Joscelyn at the Weekly Standard:
There is evidence that al Qaeda is already using Afghanistan (once again) to plot attacks against the West.
Earlier this month, for example, Spanish authorities announced that they had broken up a three-man al Qaeda cell that was plotting terrorist attacks on one or more targets. The cell had been trained in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Investigators added that the men had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is headquartered in Pakistan, and had attended the LeT’s training camps inside Afghanistan as well.
Yesterday, at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Obama did his best to defend his foreign policy record as well as to denigrate Mitt Romney’s positions despite never mentioning his name. Though much of the speech was the usual tribute to veterans delivered by public officials at such events, Obama was at pains to refute the one specific criticism that Romney has made about the administration’s conduct in Afghanistan. Obama claimed that his announcement of a withdrawal date for American troops there was necessary because, “When you’re commander in chief, you owe the troops a plan. You owe the country a plan.”
But as with much of Obama’s laundry list of alleged accomplishments, this assertion leaves out the messy details about what happens when you announce in advance when you’re going to bug out of a war: the enemy finds out along with the American people. The Taliban may have been pushed back during the surge the president ordered, but he let them know all they had to do was survive until U.S. troops pulled out in order to prevail. As is the case in Iraq where, against the advice of many of his own advisers, the president withdrew all American forces, he is confusing U.S. withdrawal with the end of the war. The timeline he defended doesn’t conclude the conflict; it gave the Islamist foes who are seeking to reverse the hard-fought victories gained by U.S. troops confidence that they would win out due to the president’s lack of staying power.
While the president covered himself with praise for his “leadership” abroad, an honest look at the situations he touted as illustrating his genius paints a different picture.
Bret Stephens has a devastating column in today’s Wall Street Journal questioning the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton has been a good secretary of state. He goes down a litany of trouble spots and shows that the strategic position of the United States has declined as a direct result of Clinton’s decisions, policy, and direction.
So what will Clinton’s legacy be? Early on in her term, when it appeared that President Obama was delegating primary responsibility for foreign policy crisis management to Vice President Biden and Senator John Kerry, press reports suggested Clinton was prioritizing women’s issues.
As Clinton’s term winds down, women will form the central pillar of her legacy. Alas, Clinton will be remembered not for women’s empowerment, but rather for their betrayal. In short remarks to a gathering of Egyptian women, Clinton said she told Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s new president and a longtime Muslim Brotherhood activist, that democracy has to be inclusive. In her press conference following her meeting, however, her talking points about inclusion seemed to be little more than throw away lines. The fact of the matter is that while feminists might be fighting for new rights, Egyptians feminists appear to now be fighting for rights that are being stripped away.
According to Raymond Ibrahim, calls are starting among a more radical fringe of Islamists to destroy the Pyramids:
According to several reports in the Arabic media, prominent Muslim clerics have begun to call for the demolition of Egypt’s Great Pyramids—or, in the words of Saudi Sheikh Ali bin Said al-Rabi’i, those “symbols of paganism,” which Egypt’s Salafi party has long planned to cover with wax. Most recently, Bahrain’s “Sheikh of Sunni Sheikhs” and President of National Unity, Abd al-Latif al-Mahmoud, called on Egypt’s new president, Muhammad Morsi, to “destroy the Pyramids and accomplish what [Muslim conqueror of Egypt] Amr bin al-As could not.”
The calls to destroy the Pyramids are certainly fringe, and do not represent the vast majority of the Egyptian public or the Egyptian leadership, even amongst the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, that such a fringe and wacky idea gains any voice in Arabic media or on Islamist websites should be cause for concern, given precedent.
Most officers, now deploying to Afghanistan often for their third or fourth time, are far more attuned to political developments and the problems facing that country than the politicians who are ordering them into battle. Based on my experience teaching classes to deploying officers before each unit departs, there is an overwhelming consensus that governance in Afghanistan is fatally flawed. While officers recognize that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is inimical to American security, few officers see how propping up Hamid Karzai’s corrupt plutocracy is a U.S. interest.
Alas, the problem that Karzai has become today is the direct result of a strategy that traded short-term gain for long-term ills. Without doubt, it was important that the United States unseat the Taliban. Simply put, the Taliban can never be a partner for peace and it should have no role in Afghanistan’s future; it must be eliminated. The Clinton administration had tried a negotiated solution with Taliban leaders; the same Taliban representatives with whom Obama’s team now engage promised any number of resolutions, but then as now always failed to deliver.
During the weekend, the only remaining POW in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho, marked three years in captivity.
The details of his capture are still a mystery. In a recent Rolling Stone article, the Bergdahl family released previously unseen emails which detailed Bowe’s discontent with his service in Afghanistan. Many of his fellow soldiers told Rolling Stone they believe he was captured because he deserted his post. The White House and Pentagon have both refused to comment on how the Taliban captured Bergdahl and have given few details about how they have worked to return him to his family. The Pentagon has not classified him as a deserter and gave him promotions while in captivity.
The Washington Post is publishing excerpts of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by its staff writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a decidedly mixed review of the book that I wrote. I won’t repeat my major criticisms here. Rather, I’d like to focus on yesterday’s excerpt in the Post which contained the claim the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban in 2010-2011 at the height of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan because of animus among White House staffers and other officials against special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who favored such a deal. Chandrasekaran writes:
Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.
The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.
That there was animus against Holbrooke, who had, as they say, an outsize personality, is undeniable. That this led the Obama administration to miss a chance to end the war is fanciful speculation unsupported by any evidence I am aware of.
“Taliban to Kids: Drop Dead.” That would be the headline in the NY Daily News or some other tabloid. The New York Times has a more staid approach: “Taliban Block Vaccinations in Pakistan.” But the news contained therein is no less shocking and contemptible: the Pakistani Taliban are going to block UNICEF-administered polo vaccinations in North Waziristan until the U.S. stops its drone attacks in Pakistan which have been heavily focused on North Waziristan.
The Taliban have some small shred of cover for this move due to the fact that the CIA recruited a doctor undertaking vaccinations to try to locate Osama bin Laden’s hideout. (That doctor, Shakil Afridi, is now languishing in a Pakistani jail for the “crime” of helping to uncover a mass murderer.) This fact, along with many others, underlines how deeply intertwined al-Qaeda is with other Pakistan-based radical groups, from the Pakistani Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. And it also shows how heartless these groups are.
Congratulations are due to the CIA, which carried out the strike, and to President Obama, who ordered it (and approved the target personally, as the New York Times has revealed) for the elimination of a major enemy of the United States–Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 commander. Like many of al-Qaeda’s operatives, Libi was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. He was the effective, day-to-day field commander of al-Qaeda, and his death will no doubt cause serious disruption to whatever operations al-Qaeda Central is involved in. The importance of his elimination is somewhat decreased, however, by the fact that so many of the terrorist organization’s operations have migrated outside of Pakistan, to regional affiliates from Mali to Yemen; Libi’s death probably will not have much impact on their operations.
This highlights the declining utility of targeting al-Qaeda Central: the organization has already been severely hurt by the continuous elimination of its top cadres. Such operations must be maintained to keep the pressure on, but they can no longer be the exclusive focus of counter-terrorism operations. It is good to see the drone campaign being ramped up in Yemen, but there are limits to what strikes from the air can achieve. There is a desperate need to expand lawful authority in such ungoverned areas to keep groups such as al-Qaeda from regenerating themselves. If the U.S. government has a plan to accomplish that in Pakistan, Yemen or other countries, from Mali to Libya, I have not heard of it.
What does Sarah Palin have in common with the Muslim Brotherhood? The answer to that question is, of course, absolutely nothing. But don’t tell myriad pundits and academics that. Cheap analogies between the Tea Party and al-Qaeda, Sarah Palin and the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Taliban and the Christian Right have become a bit too commonplace for comfort among those who are supposed to inform public debate or provide expertise. Politicization, intolerance for opposing views, and false moral equivalence each suggest a profound ignorance of what groups like the Taliban and Muslim Brotherhood stand for.
Here are just a few examples:
- MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “So the Muslim Brotherhood has a parallel role here with the Tea Party?”
- John Esposito, Georgetown University: “The political Salafis believe that they have a true vision of Islam and that their version of religion is the one that they practice and the one that other people should practice too in their personal lives. Moreover, they are working to implement this vision in society as a whole… What you see in Christianity is that you have some very conservative Christians, you see them in the U.S. for example, many of them very conservative in their personal lives, and then there is the Christian Right in the U.S. that is involved in politics, another kind of Christianity that tries to impose its own will on other people.”
- Princeton University’s Gregory D. Johnsen: “comparing [Tawakkol] Karman to [hardline Islamist Abdul Majid al-] Zindani is something akin to making Colin Powell responsible for what Sarah Palin says.”
- Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins: “The fundamentalist Christian Right is America’s Taliban.”
- University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole: “The mainstream Republican Party’s view on many social issues thus resembles that of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Muslim Brotherhood and related parties in the Muslim world far more than it does the ‘conservative’ parties of Scandinavia and continental Europe.”
- And, Juan Cole, again: “Is Sarah Palin America’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The two differ in many key respects, of course, but it is remarkable how similar they are. There are uncanny parallels in their biographies, their domestic politics and the way they present themselves — even in their rocky relationships with party elders.”
- Cher: “We talk about how radical Muslims take away the Rights of their woman, but HOW CAN WE LET These RW [right wing American] Misogynistic Cretins take away.”
- Occasional Nation contributor David Lindorff: “But John Walker Lindh… is not the real American Taliban. That title surely belongs to our new Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.”
- Filmmaker Michael Moore: Appearing on “Real Time” with Bill Maher on Friday, film producer Michael Moore said that we should consider people such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin “our Taliban” because “their level of bigotry is so un-American.”
- Markos Moulitsas, Daily Kos founder: “In their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban.”
- New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof: “We tend to think of national security narrowly as the risk of a military or terrorist attack. But national security is about protecting our people and our national strength — and the blunt truth is that the biggest threat to America’s national security … comes from budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home.”
The United Nations has hardly been a cheerleader for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, UN representatives have often been skeptical of the methods and tactics employed by American troops. So it is particularly noteworthy that even the UN is recording a big drop—21 percent–in civilian deaths in the first four months of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago. This tallies with NATO figures showing a drop in insurgent attacks—evidence that the post-2009 surge is working.
Unfortunately, just as American troops and their allies are making demonstrable progress, their political masters are preparing to pull them out. French troops are due to leave this year and more than 20,000 American troops are due to leave in September with more, perhaps, to follow before long. Western politicians would be foolish, now that the coalition actually has the initiative and the Taliban are on their heels, to let up on the pressure. But that is precisely what may happen, allowing the Taliban, Haqqanis, et al., to pull a political victory out of their battlefield defeats.
On Monday, Josh Rogin reported on a “shadow summit for Afghan women” held in Chicago during the NATO summit there, calling attention to the concern that allied withdrawal from the country will leave women in Afghanistan at the mercy of the grotesquely misogynistic Taliban. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth followed by lambasting NATO’s seeming lack of attention to human rights, especially for women in Afghanistan.
Roth noted that “many of the world leaders assembled in Chicago — though, notably, not Karzai — spoke eloquently about their commitment to human rights, particularly for women. But the test of that commitment is whether anybody cares enough to put in place a concrete plan to carry it out.” Human rights advocates are worried that when troops leave, the Taliban will work to delete any and all progress on women’s rights. This morning, the Taliban again answered that concern: they will not wait for the troops to leave:
More than 120 schoolgirls and three teachers have been poisoned in the second attack in as many months blamed on conservative radicals in the country’s north, Afghan police and education officials said on Wednesday….
Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), says the Taliban appear intent on closing schools ahead of a 2014 withdrawal by foreign combat troops….
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education said last week that 550 schools in 11 provinces where the Taliban have strong support had been closed down by insurgents.
Throughout President Bush’s second term, the chief foreign policy mantra of the Democratic Party was to claim the United States was wrong not to concentrate its energy on winning the war in Afghanistan. That was the “good war” as opposed to the war supposedly entered on the basis of lies and which couldn’t be won. The surge President Bush ordered in 2007 undermined the talking point about Iraq being unwinnable, but the idea that Afghanistan was being shorted was heard a great deal in 2008 as Barack Obama was elected president. Once in the White House, the new president was forced to come to a decision about what to do in Afghanistan, and by the summer, he made good on his promise to fight the good war there. But along with his pledge to start a surge that could defeat the Taliban was a provision that critics at the time warned could undo all the good that could come of the new plan.
With the president set to announce at the G8 meetings in Chicago the complete end of American combat operations in 2013 whether or not Afghan forces are prepared to step into the breach, a front-page feature in today’s New York Times provides a helpful explanation of the decision. The piece, adapted from a new book by Times reporter David E. Sanger, makes it clear the administration never had fully backed the surge. Indeed, despite his “good war” rhetoric, Obama clearly never believed in the mission there to rid the country of the Taliban and was looking to back out of his commitment from the moment he made it. Having failed to go “all in” for the surge by not providing as many troops in the beginning as the military asked, the president then did not give the generals the opportunity to persuade him to slow down a planned withdrawal that only served to signal the enemy all they had to do was to hold on until the Americans left.
So another member of the Afghan High Peace Council, charged with striking a deal with the Taliban, has been assassinated. Mullah Arsala Rahmani’s demise, at the hands of an unknown gunman, comes less than a year after the assassination, by a suicide bomber, of the head of the peace council, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.
You would think this would signal, as clearly as anything could, the contempt in which the Taliban hold peace talks. Yet, rest assured, this will not deter policymakers in Washington from making peace talks a central pillar of their Afghanistan policy. This relentless commitment to something so impractical is only the latest manifestation of that all too common Washington phenomenon: making policy based on hope, not reality, and substituting wishful thinking for actual evidence.
The hearts of all Americans go out to the family of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only known U.S. soldier being held captive by the Taliban. Bergdahl was captured by the enemy in June 2009 and is thought to be in the control of the Haqqani network in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. He has never been allowed to send his parents any word nor has he been visited by the Red Cross. He was last seen in a Taliban video, but U.S. officials believe he is still alive. But after years of keeping silent about the ongoing negotiations that the government has attempted to free him, the Bergdahl family went public today and discussed their son’s plight with the New York Times. Their goal is to heighten the pressure on President Obama and his foreign policy team to give in to the demands of the Taliban on the release of prisoners held by the United States and our Afghan allies.
While their frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations is understandable, we can only hope the president will resist the pressure to give in to unreasonable demands not only on the prisoner exchange but concessions that would affect the future of Afghanistan. Though the United States should make every effort to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe return, his situation should not be used as a pretext for handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban and their terrorist allies.
Are the Taliban the sort of people we can successfully negotiate with to guarantee the future of Afghanistan? You would think so based on the number of voices in Washington claiming the Taliban have learned lessons from the past decade and they will not be as dedicated to their hateful agenda in the future. We hear they supposedly are willing to give up their alliance with al-Qaeda, their insistence on enslaving the Afghan people to their fundamentalist philosophy, and so on. If only it were so. Alas, this is all wishful thinking from those who want to pull out of the war but avert their eyes from the consequences of an American pullout.
In reality, there is not a shred of evidence the Taliban have moderated in any way. Witness recent Taliban attacks on those trying to educate Afghan boys and girls. In Ghazni Province, Taliban threats recently forced the closure of a school teaching boys and girls together. Indeed, the Taliban have forced the closing of all schools (about 50 in all) in 14 of 17 districts in that province, where Polish troops have had not had much success in pacification efforts. (A brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division is now coming into Ghazni to increase security.) In Paktika Province, meanwhile, Taliban goons ambushed with bombs and guns a convoy of education officials, killing five and wounding three. Paktika is a province in eastern Afghanistan where there have not been nearly enough American and Afghan troops and where plans for “clear and hold” operations are on hold because of the overly hasty troop drawdown ordered by President Obama.
So much for the “kinder, gentler” Taliban. These latest atrocities expose this conceit for the wishful thinking that it is. The Taliban must be defeated, not accommodated.
I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.
In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.
Today, the Washington Post reported,
The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.
As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.