Commentary Magazine


Topic: Taliban

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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Radical Islamists vs. the People of Mali

Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:

First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.

Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

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Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:

First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.

Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Such draconian decrees are hardly popular with ordinary Malians who practice a tolerant brand of Islam. Bennoune quotes the acting principal of a coed high school “who had been attending public punishments to document the atrocities. This meant repeatedly watching his fellow citizens get flogged. He has seen what it looks like when a ‘convict’ has his foot sawed off. Close to tears, he said: ‘No one can stand it, but it is imposed on us. Those of us who attend, we cry.’ ”

Such sentiments are hardly surprising to anyone who has ever visited Afghanistan or Iraq’s Anbar Province–two more places where a harsh brand of Salafism was once imposed at gunpoint. In both places the people turned against the self-proclaimed religious enforcers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Iraq, respectively. Now in Mali they are happy to turn against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups, provided the French army protects them from the terrorists’ retribution.

The only way that such extremists can gain power is at gunpoint–something that is unfortunately easy to do in countries such as post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, post-Taliban Afghanistan, and post-coup Mali where the security services are weak to nonexistent and social order is breaking down. In such circumstances Islamists can at least claim that they are restoring law and order. But when the people see what their “law and order” consists of, they invariably recoil and pray that someone will rescue them from these theocratic tyrants.

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Congratulations to Malala Yousufzai

Malala Yousufzai, the Pashtun schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in Pakistan’s tribal region, today has left the hospital. Her recovery is not yet complete, and she will also undergo facial reconstruction surgery. The Pakistani government—which once tried to cut a deal with the same groups that targeted Malala and tried to deny her and her peers education solely on the basis of their gender—did the right thing by appointing her father to the Pakistani consulate so that the family might stay in the United Kingdom for the near future.

Malala’s ordeal should be a wake up call for the West. Momentum matters. Obama’s plans to withdraw “on schedule” from Afghanistan will imbue the Taliban with power they have not seen for more than a decade. They will claim that they have defeated two superpowers, and no amount of White House spin or historical fact-checking will change that perception among their Islamist followers. The idea that the Afghan government will stand on its own replicates the Soviet dream that Najibullah would last forever. As Najibullah learned, as soon as the foreign money runs out and the international community starts negotiating with his enemies, all is lost.

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Malala Yousufzai, the Pashtun schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in Pakistan’s tribal region, today has left the hospital. Her recovery is not yet complete, and she will also undergo facial reconstruction surgery. The Pakistani government—which once tried to cut a deal with the same groups that targeted Malala and tried to deny her and her peers education solely on the basis of their gender—did the right thing by appointing her father to the Pakistani consulate so that the family might stay in the United Kingdom for the near future.

Malala’s ordeal should be a wake up call for the West. Momentum matters. Obama’s plans to withdraw “on schedule” from Afghanistan will imbue the Taliban with power they have not seen for more than a decade. They will claim that they have defeated two superpowers, and no amount of White House spin or historical fact-checking will change that perception among their Islamist followers. The idea that the Afghan government will stand on its own replicates the Soviet dream that Najibullah would last forever. As Najibullah learned, as soon as the foreign money runs out and the international community starts negotiating with his enemies, all is lost.

Malala’s struggle also highlights international naivete about the Muslim Brotherhood. Malala deserved the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize; what we got instead was pap. In 2011, the Nobel Peace Prize went, in part, to Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni political activist from a Muslim Brotherhood background. It was the latter rather than the former which swayed the Nobel Committee: The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

The true stance of the Muslim Brotherhood and their offshoots with regard to democracy should now be glaringly obvious, be it in Turkey, in Egypt, in Gaza, or elsewhere. Karman was given the Nobel Prize not only to be a voice for women in Yemen, but also elsewhere. Despite her frequent travels, she did not bother to visit Malala, however, let alone condemn the atrocity perpetrated against her by militant Islamists. Silence can be deafening, especially when it comes from a bully pulpit.

Let us hope that Malala continues her recovery, continues her advocacy, and makes her voice strong. She is more worthy as a bully pulpit and embraces a good cause. Her voice and those of many like her will be sadly needed as Afghans again prepare to face a movement that seeks to drive the status of women back centuries.

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The Murder of Birgitta Almby

Who, you ask? Were it not for the valiant agency Morning Star News, which specializes in documenting the persecution of Christians around the world, even fewer news consumers would know the name of this angelic-looking, 71-year-old Swedish lady who was gunned down in the Pakistani city of Lahore:

Shot by two armed men outside her house in Lahore’s upscale Model Town as she returned from her Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA) office in the Kot Lakhpat area, Almby died at about 10 p.m. Pakistan Standard Time at Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, FGA Bible School Principal Liaqat Qaiser told Morning Star News.

Almby, director at the FGA Technical Training Institute and also a teacher at the FGA Bible School, was shot in the chest, and the bullet damaged her left lung. Initially she was taken to Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital, where doctors removed the bullet and said her condition was critical because of excessive bleeding.

She had served the Pakistani Christian community for 38 years.

“Almby will be missed dearly,” Qaiser said. “She spent a long time serving the poor and downtrodden Christians in Pakistan, and every Christian is very sad at her demise. But she is in a much better place now.”

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Who, you ask? Were it not for the valiant agency Morning Star News, which specializes in documenting the persecution of Christians around the world, even fewer news consumers would know the name of this angelic-looking, 71-year-old Swedish lady who was gunned down in the Pakistani city of Lahore:

Shot by two armed men outside her house in Lahore’s upscale Model Town as she returned from her Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA) office in the Kot Lakhpat area, Almby died at about 10 p.m. Pakistan Standard Time at Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, FGA Bible School Principal Liaqat Qaiser told Morning Star News.

Almby, director at the FGA Technical Training Institute and also a teacher at the FGA Bible School, was shot in the chest, and the bullet damaged her left lung. Initially she was taken to Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital, where doctors removed the bullet and said her condition was critical because of excessive bleeding.

She had served the Pakistani Christian community for 38 years.

“Almby will be missed dearly,” Qaiser said. “She spent a long time serving the poor and downtrodden Christians in Pakistan, and every Christian is very sad at her demise. But she is in a much better place now.”

Who would commit such a monstrous act? According to the local police superintendent, Ijaz Shafi Dogar, the lack of witnesses means that it’s hard to figure out the motive behind Almby’s murder. But Qaiser, Almeby’s colleague, is in no doubt that the responsibility lies with Islamist terrorists. “Who else would want to murder someone as apolitical and harmless as Almby, who had dedicated her life to serving humanity?” he asked. Superintendent Dogar, meanwhile, is making every effort to dampen speculation over the Punjabi Taliban’s involvement in the murder, on the grounds that “there was no word from them regarding the attack on the Swede.”

There is much that can be said about the significance of Almby’s murder. To begin with, it is a particularly horrific example of the violence meted out towards Christians in the Islamic world, whether natives or foreigners, from Egypt to Indonesia. Additionally, Superintendent Dogar’s statements are yet more confirmation that, whether through fear or collusion or a combination of the two, every Pakistani security agency appears to crumble at the mere mention of the Taliban. As The Washington Post reported this week, a new report on Afghanistan issued by The Pentagon “included stark language on Pakistan,” noting the country’s “passive acceptance of insurgent sanctuaries [and] selectivity in counterinsurgency operations that target only Pakistan militants.”

Yet what stands out most of all is the media silence around the killing of Birgitta Almby. Outside of Swedish press outlets like Aftonbladet, which published a heart-rending photograph of Almby with one of her young charges, no media organization of any significance has yet picked up the story.

There is no need, here, for a detailed reprisal of the arguments as to why the slightest offense against the Quran garners world headlines. Nor is it necessary to ask why those Western commentators who hang on every syllable of Muslim anger continue to ignore the plight of Christians in the same part of the world. However, as someone who follows this issue closely, I have to ask whether atrocities like the Almby murder are no longer considered newsworthy.

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The Taliban’s Advice to Obama

On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued the Islamist movement’s official statement in Pashto, which the Open Source Center translated:

1. Obama should fully utilize the new opportunity preventing the United States from acting as world police, focusing on solving own problems, and not allowing the country to burn in the fire of world’s hatred.

2. Obama realizes that Americans are now tired of the war and useless military expenditure. Therefore, he should take into account the demands and expectations of his people, and end the meaningless war. He should not let the United States become notorious by committing more war crimes.

3. Obama realizes that the American nation is tired of the war losses and back-breaking economic crisis. Therefore, he should immediately withdraw his troops from the country and prevent deaths of more US troops.

4. The elements who are currently supporting the United States in our country are indeed the most disgraceful and unwanted faces. Relying on such elements will cost the United States more financial and human losses.

5. Perhaps Obama has now realized well that he has lost the battle in Afghanistan. Therefore, instead of wasting time and telling lies, he should immediately leave our sacred soil and think about his country and people’s lives.

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On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued the Islamist movement’s official statement in Pashto, which the Open Source Center translated:

1. Obama should fully utilize the new opportunity preventing the United States from acting as world police, focusing on solving own problems, and not allowing the country to burn in the fire of world’s hatred.

2. Obama realizes that Americans are now tired of the war and useless military expenditure. Therefore, he should take into account the demands and expectations of his people, and end the meaningless war. He should not let the United States become notorious by committing more war crimes.

3. Obama realizes that the American nation is tired of the war losses and back-breaking economic crisis. Therefore, he should immediately withdraw his troops from the country and prevent deaths of more US troops.

4. The elements who are currently supporting the United States in our country are indeed the most disgraceful and unwanted faces. Relying on such elements will cost the United States more financial and human losses.

5. Perhaps Obama has now realized well that he has lost the battle in Afghanistan. Therefore, instead of wasting time and telling lies, he should immediately leave our sacred soil and think about his country and people’s lives.

When Obama was first campaigning for president back in 2007, he argued that the Iraq war was a diversion from U.S. national interests, and that the legitimate war—the one which the United States needed to win—was in Afghanistan. His policy since has been to talk back the idea of victory in Afghanistan. By enunciating an artificial deadline for transition and withdrawal, Obama demoralized American allies amongst the Afghans and convinced both Pakistan and the Taliban that their strategy was working.

It is quite telling when one reads the Taliban statement that the first three points effectively encapsulate Obama’s policy: (1) Surrender leadership; (2) Cut the military; and (3) Withdraw, regardless of consequence. Point (4) underlines the fallacy of bringing the Taliban into any political coalition, and suggests the Taliban will turn on and purge pro-Western Afghans as soon as the last American troop departs Afghanistan. Obama may dispute (5), but the idea that Taliban terrorism defeated a superpower is what every Islamist, from Minneapolis to Mogadishu and from Tehran to Timbuktu will conclude, as they plot their future strategy and tactics in their ideological confrontation with Western liberalism.

Eleven years after 9/11, how sad it is that rather than to laugh off the Taliban statement as ridiculous bluster, White House strategy now appears to affirm it.

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Afghans Don’t Want Taliban Rule

 The joy with which residents of Kabul have greeted a championship boxing match in their city–won by Hamid Rahimi, a German of Afghan extraction–is further evidence that there is little desire in Afghanistan for a return to Taliban rule. The Taliban, after all, were the crackpots who banned boxing, music, kite flying, and other forms of entertainment. They did allow soccer matches, but would come out at halftime to execute or amputate their victims–a poor alternative to marching bands and cheerleaders.

Amid all of Afghanistan’s problems, its people are embracing professional soccer, boxing, and other amusements that would be unthinkable under Taliban control. Admittedly, Kabul is hardly representative of the entire country–it has always been the most Westernized of Afghan cities. But cities like Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad and even Kandahar are no more friendly to the resumption of Taliban control. The Taliban do have some support in the Pashtun countryside, but even there the Taliban’s draconian edicts–such as forbidding schooling for girls–go too far even for most conservative farmers.

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 The joy with which residents of Kabul have greeted a championship boxing match in their city–won by Hamid Rahimi, a German of Afghan extraction–is further evidence that there is little desire in Afghanistan for a return to Taliban rule. The Taliban, after all, were the crackpots who banned boxing, music, kite flying, and other forms of entertainment. They did allow soccer matches, but would come out at halftime to execute or amputate their victims–a poor alternative to marching bands and cheerleaders.

Amid all of Afghanistan’s problems, its people are embracing professional soccer, boxing, and other amusements that would be unthinkable under Taliban control. Admittedly, Kabul is hardly representative of the entire country–it has always been the most Westernized of Afghan cities. But cities like Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad and even Kandahar are no more friendly to the resumption of Taliban control. The Taliban do have some support in the Pashtun countryside, but even there the Taliban’s draconian edicts–such as forbidding schooling for girls–go too far even for most conservative farmers.

The Taliban have no chance of winning a popular election. They can only shoot their way into power–and only if the West abandons the government of Afghanistan and its security forces after 2014.

A new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan makes clear that the Afghan forces still have considerable deficiencies in logistics and other areas. Those gaps are currently being filled by the U.S. and its allies–and they will need to continue filling them after 2014, or else the barbarous Taliban will return to power, and they will not only terrorize the people of Afghanistan, they will make Afghanistan once again a haven for their pals in al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups.

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Fragile Gains in Forgotten Afghan Corners

Why do reporters bother to write formal news stories? The best, most illuminating accounts I read are those in which the reporter dispenses with the conventions of “objective” journalism and writes in the first person, telling readers what he or she saw. Exhibit A is this blog post by New York Times Kabul bureau chief Alyssa Rubin. Rubin had earlier published a news story attempting to get to the bottom of what happened recently when American and Afghan soldiers exchanged fire with one another, killing six men. She could not figure out the real story–were the Americans simply jumpy or were the Afghans actually trying to kill them?–and so the story was inherently unsatisfying. But her blog post on how she reported the story is the best single snapshot I have seen of real security conditions in Kabul and its environs.

She begins by noting that living in Kabul, as she does, can give a misleading impression because, “despite the blast walls and checkpoints and rubble, there’s still some normalcy there,” with “restaurants that cater to us [Westerners], clothing shops, grocers — even a couple of neighborhoods where you might run into each other on the street.” But if you drive just 35 miles out of the capital into Wardak Province, an area that has never been truly pacified, the scene changes alarmingly: “The road empties out, and the few trucks and minibuses bounce over the scars of I.E.D. blasts every mile or two. ” Further, she writes:

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Why do reporters bother to write formal news stories? The best, most illuminating accounts I read are those in which the reporter dispenses with the conventions of “objective” journalism and writes in the first person, telling readers what he or she saw. Exhibit A is this blog post by New York Times Kabul bureau chief Alyssa Rubin. Rubin had earlier published a news story attempting to get to the bottom of what happened recently when American and Afghan soldiers exchanged fire with one another, killing six men. She could not figure out the real story–were the Americans simply jumpy or were the Afghans actually trying to kill them?–and so the story was inherently unsatisfying. But her blog post on how she reported the story is the best single snapshot I have seen of real security conditions in Kabul and its environs.

She begins by noting that living in Kabul, as she does, can give a misleading impression because, “despite the blast walls and checkpoints and rubble, there’s still some normalcy there,” with “restaurants that cater to us [Westerners], clothing shops, grocers — even a couple of neighborhoods where you might run into each other on the street.” But if you drive just 35 miles out of the capital into Wardak Province, an area that has never been truly pacified, the scene changes alarmingly: “The road empties out, and the few trucks and minibuses bounce over the scars of I.E.D. blasts every mile or two. ” Further, she writes:

There were Taliban watchers everywhere, of course: little boys, old men, they squatted by the roadside just looking into each car. I was wearing local clothes, but began to fear that they could see through it and tell I was American, and then we would all be at risk. A couple of times we passed small groups of men with Kalashnikov rifles, lounging by the side of the road. Some wore traditional clothing, others the khaki uniforms of private security firms, and there was no clear hint of their intent or loyalty.

When she finally reaches her destination, a small base occupied by the battalion involved in the “green on blue” incident, she must conduct her interviews not far from a burning fuel tanker–set on fire by the Taliban just as she arrived with an Afghan colleague. She finds an Afghan battalion commander who is trying to cope with the deep resentment felt by his men at the petty slights they have suffered at the hands of oblivious American troops yet fearful of what will happen if those Americans leave. “It will be more difficult in the future when you leave us alone,” he told her. “We don’t have heavy weapons, we don’t have heavy artillery, we don’t have enough ammunition. We don’t have night vision, we don’t have an air force. This post doesn’t even have electricity — we use oil lamps at night.”

Like most great reporting, this dispatch is subject to multiple interpretations. To me, it shows the problems inherent in the chosen American strategy of drawing down our combat forces and mentoring the Afghans–there are undoubtedly deep cultural divisions between Americans and Afghans that are hard to pierce, especially in the current atmosphere of distrust because of the green on blue shootings. But it also shows the necessity of continuing to support the Afghan security forces, for without our support areas like Wardak Province, located just a few miles outside of Kabul, will fall quickly into Taliban hands. U.S. commanders had hoped to pacify this area after the completion of operations in southern Afghanistan, but President Obama’s overly hasty withdrawal of surge troops makes that impossible, leaving Afghan forces in a precarious position as we continue our drawdown. If we continue to withdraw too quickly, Kabul itself, which is relatively peaceful at the moment, will be endangered by the Taliban.

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Mullah Omar’s Triumphalism

On Wednesday, Mullah Omar, the elusive leader of the Taliban, released a message for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which this year falls on October 26. Omar’s message is well worth reading, especially against the backdrop of Obama administration efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.

As Ahmad Majidyar—probably the most astute Afghanistan analyst in the United States—points out, Mullah Omar used his address to redouble his commitment to a complete military victory. “We will continue to wage Jihad against the invaders who have invaded our country until the occupation ends completely,” he declared. Obama and Governor Romney might both have reaffirmed the 2014 pullout date during their most recent debate, but let us hope that they did so fully cognizant that no amount of spin will convince Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbors that the withdrawal is anything but a Taliban victory.

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On Wednesday, Mullah Omar, the elusive leader of the Taliban, released a message for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which this year falls on October 26. Omar’s message is well worth reading, especially against the backdrop of Obama administration efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.

As Ahmad Majidyar—probably the most astute Afghanistan analyst in the United States—points out, Mullah Omar used his address to redouble his commitment to a complete military victory. “We will continue to wage Jihad against the invaders who have invaded our country until the occupation ends completely,” he declared. Obama and Governor Romney might both have reaffirmed the 2014 pullout date during their most recent debate, but let us hope that they did so fully cognizant that no amount of spin will convince Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbors that the withdrawal is anything but a Taliban victory.

Mullah Omar celebrates the “Green on Blue” attacks which have brought the Taliban to the verge of victory. I’ve addressed the ideological motivation behind the “Green on Blue” attacks, here. The Pentagon continues to hamper itself by rooting insider attacks more in grievance than in jihadist ideology. Hopefully, Mullah Omar’s message will put a rest to that silly notion:

We call on the Afghans who still stand with the stooge regime to turn to full-fledged cooperation with their Mujahid people like courageous persons in order to protect national interests and to complete independence of the country. Jihadic activities inside the circle of the State militias are the most effective stratagem. Its dimension will see further expansion, organization and efficiency if God willing. I urge every brave Afghan in the ranks of the foreign forces and their Afghan hirelings who may find an opportunity to utilize this opportunity effectively and quash the enemies of Islam and country in their centers and use all possible means, opportunities and tactics to strike them. This is because Jihad is an obligation enjoined on every one. It is the duty of every individual of the nation from religious perspective and on the basis of his conscious to strive for the liberation and independence of his country.

Likewise, it is essential the Obama administration and the State Department pay attention to what Mullah Omar says of negotiations and diplomacy, especially as that has become the central pillar of the Obama administration’s exit strategy. Omar makes no secret that his goal in talks is the release of prisoners—not peace with the Afghan government. He assures Afghans that the Taliban is “neither thinking of monopolizing power nor [do we] intend to spark off domestic war,” but any Afghan knows to take such assurances at his peril. After all, Mullah Omar made the same assurances upon taking Kandahar in 1994 and again in 1996, right before the Taliban seized Kabul and purged all opposition.

Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. At a dinner party a month ago, a CIA operative who recently returned from Afghanistan said she thought that soft-partition was going to be the best possible outcome. Partition—soft or hard—will be impossible in Afghanistan, however, because it ignores the importance of momentum. Mullah Omar appreciates what the CIA doesn’t. “Our Jihadic momentum has reached a phase that enjoys comprehensive global Islamic support.”

Jihadists issue declarations all the time. They are not without meaning. Some are defensive, and others are fantastical. Mullah Omar’s tone and statements, however, are illustrative of his goals and strategy. Let us hope that a desire to withdraw “on schedule” will not affirm Mullah Omar’s triumphalism.

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Why Was Malala Yousafzai Missing from the Debate?

Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ right to education, has done more to de-legitimize Taliban rule and the radical Islamist ideology for which it stands than any Western diplomat or multimillion dollar de-radicalization program. How disappointing it was, then, that in last night’s debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney saw fit to pay tribute and provide a shout-out to this bold little girl.

Obama argued that his administration strategy was predicated on fighting radicalism:

Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engaged these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their governments aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they’re treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

The words are empty, however, as the Taliban declares itself on the verge of a great victory, and when the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to send women back centuries. Even in Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of Obama’s closest friends, has seen the situation of women decline precipitously. To this, Obama appears oblivious.

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Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ right to education, has done more to de-legitimize Taliban rule and the radical Islamist ideology for which it stands than any Western diplomat or multimillion dollar de-radicalization program. How disappointing it was, then, that in last night’s debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney saw fit to pay tribute and provide a shout-out to this bold little girl.

Obama argued that his administration strategy was predicated on fighting radicalism:

Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engaged these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their governments aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they’re treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

The words are empty, however, as the Taliban declares itself on the verge of a great victory, and when the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to send women back centuries. Even in Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of Obama’s closest friends, has seen the situation of women decline precipitously. To this, Obama appears oblivious.

Romney, for his part, affirmed Obama’s political deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan: “Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014, and when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014,” he said. Regarding Pakistan, he added:

We’re going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a more stable government and rebuild the relationship with us. And that means that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met.

Romney also had the perfect opportunity during his discussion of radicalization and the Arab Spring:

A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the — the world reject these — these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this: One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we — we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law.

The fact of the matter is that Malala is not some contrived campaign anecdote which both candidates use to appear more down-to-earth. She is a truly powerful symbol whose very name delegitimizes the extremists. Just as Chechen jihadists saw popular support for their cause collapse when they attacked the school at Beslan, so too the Pakistani Taliban realize what a terrible mistake they have made. That neither Obama nor Romney take advantage of their mistake to embrace this symbol of resistance against Islamist tyranny reflects badly on their vision and on their commitment to win the ideological war, which may very well define the 21st century.

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Afghan Bugout Will Have Consequences

One of the more frustrating exchanges in the vice presidential debate this past week was the one about Afghanistan. Vice President Biden thinks he won the point by insisting that the United States was simply pulling out: “We are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. There is no ifs, ands or buts.” By contrast, Paul Ryan’s position was more nuanced, expressing a clear desire to end the American military role in the war there but criticizing the administration’s decision to announce a firm deadline for the pullout that has told the Taliban that all they need to do to triumph is to just wait for the U.S. to bug out. Ryan has the better argument, but at a time when fatigue with foreign wars is high, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Biden’s position might be more popular.

That sentiment reflects not merely the wish to extricate U.S. troops from a bloody and difficult task but a desire to ignore what happens to Afghanistan and its people and to treat the conflict as irrelevant to American interests. That position was more fully articulated in today’s lengthy lead editorial in the New York Times. The piece, titled “Time to Pack Up,” takes the position that the United States should not even wait until 2014 to abandon Afghanistan but flee within the next 12 months leaving the country to the tender mercies of the Taliban. Ironically, the Times underlines Ryan’s fears about what the administration is about to do in Afghanistan. The paper, which in this case probably speaks for most liberals on the issue, treats the Taliban’s eventual victory as perhaps regrettable but unavoidable. They concede defeat to the Islamists but seem to think that admitting this will strengthen rather than hurt American interests in the region. They could not be more mistaken.

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One of the more frustrating exchanges in the vice presidential debate this past week was the one about Afghanistan. Vice President Biden thinks he won the point by insisting that the United States was simply pulling out: “We are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. There is no ifs, ands or buts.” By contrast, Paul Ryan’s position was more nuanced, expressing a clear desire to end the American military role in the war there but criticizing the administration’s decision to announce a firm deadline for the pullout that has told the Taliban that all they need to do to triumph is to just wait for the U.S. to bug out. Ryan has the better argument, but at a time when fatigue with foreign wars is high, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Biden’s position might be more popular.

That sentiment reflects not merely the wish to extricate U.S. troops from a bloody and difficult task but a desire to ignore what happens to Afghanistan and its people and to treat the conflict as irrelevant to American interests. That position was more fully articulated in today’s lengthy lead editorial in the New York Times. The piece, titled “Time to Pack Up,” takes the position that the United States should not even wait until 2014 to abandon Afghanistan but flee within the next 12 months leaving the country to the tender mercies of the Taliban. Ironically, the Times underlines Ryan’s fears about what the administration is about to do in Afghanistan. The paper, which in this case probably speaks for most liberals on the issue, treats the Taliban’s eventual victory as perhaps regrettable but unavoidable. They concede defeat to the Islamists but seem to think that admitting this will strengthen rather than hurt American interests in the region. They could not be more mistaken.

The editorial acknowledges that the paper, like many liberals, used to think of Afghanistan as the “good war” that needed to be pursued to victory as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq. But that has long since been exposed as a cheap rhetorical device whose intent was to bash President George W. Bush rather than a sincere desire to ensure that the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies did not regain control of Afghanistan. The Times claims that any chance of victory was lost because of Iraq but fails to explain why that is so since they believe no amount of counter-insurgency efforts would root out the Taliban.

Advocates of quick withdrawal blame the situation there on the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. On that score, Karzai and his corrupt regime have much to answer for. But the willingness of the Taliban and other Islamists to go on fighting until victory would not be diminished even were the Kabul government to be led by saints. For far too long, America has not treated victory over the Taliban as its priority and the result is an unsatisfying stalemate. But what will follow American withdrawal will be a disaster as even the Times notes:

We are not arguing that everything will work out well after the United States leaves Afghanistan. It will not. The Taliban will take over parts of the Pashtun south, where they will brutalize women and trample their rights. Warlords will go on stealing. Afghanistan will still be the world’s second-poorest country. Al Qaeda may make inroads, but since 9/11 it has established itself in Yemen and many other countries.

The only problem with this assessment is that it may be too optimistic. If the Afghan people believe the government is no longer the “strong horse” in the country, the Taliban and Al Qaeda may achieve far more than a takeover of the south. The result will be ruinous for the people we have sought to protect there, a point on which the Times editors shed few tears. The Times writes as if the end of the Vietnam War was a worthy model for the U.S. to pursue in Afghanistan. Given the toll in human suffering in terms of mass executions, hundreds of thousands sent to “reeducation camps” and or made to flee as boat people, that’s an immoral position. But it is also wrong about the strategic effects of defeat in Afghanistan.

The end in Vietnam did lead to collapse and genocide in Cambodia, but Southeast Asia was always a strategic backwater in America’s Cold War against the Soviet Union. By contrast Afghanistan’s fall would not only reinvigorate an al-Qaeda that the Obama administration pretends to have defeated. It will impact the stability of non-Islamist regimes throughout the Middle East and reduce the chances that a democratic government in Iraq will survive in the long run.

The Times also foolishly asserts that such an outcome would strengthen America’s hand in Pakistan, but it is difficult to see how a victory for their Taliban allies across the border would make Karachi any more amenable to U.S. interests.

It should also be noted that the editorial concludes with a passage that is factually incorrect. Dwight Eisenhower did negotiate an end to the fighting in Korea but he did not leave Korea as the Times asserts. American troops are there to this day guaranteeing the survival of the peace that Ike made. The absence of such a tough-minded peace doomed Vietnam to a totalitarian nightmare and may yet be felt in Iraq. The Times’s claim that what follows our defeat will be, “likely to be more presentable than North Korea, less presentable than Iraq and perhaps about the same as Vietnam.” That demonstrates ignorance of the differences between the Vietnamese communists and our foes in Afghanistan. But if Americans willingly allow the nation that launched 9/11 to fall back into the hands of those who aided and abetted that crime then it will reduce our prestige and harm our interests far more than advocates of withdrawal seem to understand.

Unlike Southeast Asia in the 1970s, America cannot pretend as if the Middle East is on a different planet. The costs of trying to do so will not only be immoral but will also make the United States and the world far less safe.

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A Horrifying Reminder of Taliban Mentality

The barbarism of the Taliban is occasionally disguised but never very effectively and never for long. The latest example of them showing their true colors is the horrifying assault on Malala Yousafzai, a precocious 14-year-old-girl from the Swat Valley of Pakistan, who has emerged as an outspoken champion of girls’ education–which is anathema to this violent fundamentalist movement. Taliban gunmen answered her temerity with a bullet to the head, leaving her in critical condition. What makes this heinous act even more shocking is that the Taliban took no effort to hide their involvement. As the New York Times reports:

A Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed by phone Tuesday that Ms. Yousafzai had been the target, calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.”

“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” Mr. Ehsan said, adding that if she survived, the militants would certainly try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson.”

So in the eyes of the Taliban, advocating for women’s education is a capital crime.

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The barbarism of the Taliban is occasionally disguised but never very effectively and never for long. The latest example of them showing their true colors is the horrifying assault on Malala Yousafzai, a precocious 14-year-old-girl from the Swat Valley of Pakistan, who has emerged as an outspoken champion of girls’ education–which is anathema to this violent fundamentalist movement. Taliban gunmen answered her temerity with a bullet to the head, leaving her in critical condition. What makes this heinous act even more shocking is that the Taliban took no effort to hide their involvement. As the New York Times reports:

A Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed by phone Tuesday that Ms. Yousafzai had been the target, calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.”

“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” Mr. Ehsan said, adding that if she survived, the militants would certainly try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson.”

So in the eyes of the Taliban, advocating for women’s education is a capital crime.

As it happens this attack was carried out by the Pakistani Taliban (a.k.a. the Tehrik-i-Taliban). But they are animated by the same ideology as their Afghan counterparts, which are fighting U.S., Afghan, and other foreign troops. While organizational structures may differ slightly, the Pashtun extremists operating on both sides of the artificial Durand Line separating Pakistan from Afghanistan are otherwise very similar, and a victory for one translates into greater gains for the other. Therefore, it is imperative that the Western powers that made a commitment to fight the Taliban in 2001 show sustained commitment and hold off on further troop withdrawals until Afghan security forces are strong enough to take on the Taliban with decreasing levels of outside assistance.

Otherwise, these savages are likely to shoot their way back into power, with unspeakable consequences for girls like Malala Yousafzai who aspire to something more noble than chattel slavery.

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“Green on Blue” Deadlier than Pentagon Lets On

We can be thankful that most Obama administration officials have finally abandoned their silly notion that an inane and bigoted film was responsible for the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and the well-coordinated assault on several American embassies and consulates. The attacks were premeditated and motivated more by ideology than by grievance.

Perhaps it’s time the Pentagon accept that the same holds true with “Green on Blue” violence or “insider attacks,” in the new Pentagon parlance. (As an aside, it’s always a bad sign when the Pentagon spends more time fighting over what to call American enemies than to defeating them; the amount of time spent during the Iraq war arguing about whether the insurgents were “insurgents,” “anti-Iraqi forces,” “terrorists,” or “jihadists” was downright silly).

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We can be thankful that most Obama administration officials have finally abandoned their silly notion that an inane and bigoted film was responsible for the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and the well-coordinated assault on several American embassies and consulates. The attacks were premeditated and motivated more by ideology than by grievance.

Perhaps it’s time the Pentagon accept that the same holds true with “Green on Blue” violence or “insider attacks,” in the new Pentagon parlance. (As an aside, it’s always a bad sign when the Pentagon spends more time fighting over what to call American enemies than to defeating them; the amount of time spent during the Iraq war arguing about whether the insurgents were “insurgents,” “anti-Iraqi forces,” “terrorists,” or “jihadists” was downright silly).

I recently returned from a couple of weeks in Germany and Romania working with both U.S. and NATO units deploying to Afghanistan. The “Green on Blue” problem loomed large. It is absolutely essential U.S. and NATO troops treat Afghans with respect; we are guests in their country, after all. And it is also true that mindless acts such as burning the Koran are self-defeating, as is any incident which publicly humiliates Afghan soldiers. Afghans and Americans do not share the same interpretations of honor. It may be comforting to believe that if only American soldiers were more culturally sensitive, then Green on Blue attacks would disappear, but that is not the case. While the Pentagon keeps track of such attacks where Americans and our NATO partners are killed, we too often ignore the fact that just as many, if not more, Afghans are killed by fellow Afghans in such attacks. Surely that suggests the problem is not culture or respect, but rather something different. That something is a radical Islamist ideology preached by the Taliban.

The number of Green on Blue attacks is also under-counted for two reasons: Generally, the Pentagon only counts successful attacks. And also, when an Afghan-on-Afghan attack occurs, seldom will the attackers’ colleagues acknowledge any suspicion that they were Taliban and instead attribute motivation to insanity. The reason is simple: To acknowledge that the guy bunking next to you was working for the enemy could lead suspicious Americans to detain you as well.

There needs to be a greater discussion about the Green on Blue phenomenon and how it can be stopped. Certainly, something is very wrong in the vetting process and perhaps also in training. The Taliban’s strategy is successful because it undercuts U.S. and NATO willingness to move forward with the train-and-assist mission, which was supposed to be the centerpiece of the post-2014 strategy. False statements of progress wear thin, however, because the metrics the Pentagon bases them on are increasingly irrelevant to the strategy the Taliban pursues.

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On Afghanistan, Obama Must Speak Up

It’s been a tough few days in Afghanistan.

On September 14, the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion—a giant Anglo-American base in Helmand Province—and managed to destroy six Marine Harrier jets on the ground and to kill a Harrier squadron commander. This was a well-planned, well-executed attack that caused more than a hundred million dollars in damage.

On September 18, a suicide bomber rammed a bus near the Kabul airport, killing 12 people, mostly foreign crew members working on charter flights to support USAID and other agencies in Afghanistan.

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It’s been a tough few days in Afghanistan.

On September 14, the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion—a giant Anglo-American base in Helmand Province—and managed to destroy six Marine Harrier jets on the ground and to kill a Harrier squadron commander. This was a well-planned, well-executed attack that caused more than a hundred million dollars in damage.

On September 18, a suicide bomber rammed a bus near the Kabul airport, killing 12 people, mostly foreign crew members working on charter flights to support USAID and other agencies in Afghanistan.

And in the meantime there have been more “green on blue” attacks in which Afghan security personnel attacked coalition troops, bringing the total number of fatalities from such attacks this year to 51—a record high. As a result, the NATO command in Kabul has temporarily suspended most joint operations between American and Afghan troops, or, to be more precise, it has given regional two-star headquarters the prerogative to suspend such operations if the amount of risk incurred is judged to be unacceptable. Such operations, which are commonplace, will require a two-star general’s approval for the time being—at least until the current storm over the anti-Islam video, which has been much denounced and little watched, blows over. Advisory work at the battalion and above level will remain unaffected, and, with any luck, the temporary ban on lower-level operations can be lifted soon.

Partnering between U.S. and Afghan units, which necessarily involves sharing the hardship and danger of combat, is the single most effective way to improve the Afghans’ combat capabilities—and thus to ensure that the U.S. can draw down our troops without leading to a complete collapse of the country. If partnering is ended indefinitely, the results will be calamitous—for Afghanistan and for American interests in Afghanistan. Even a temporary halt to partnering will have an adverse impact on security, especially coming, as it does, just as commanders are completing an ill-advised drawdown ordered by President Obama to just 68,000 U.S. troops.

I don’t want to make too much (or too little) of these setbacks. There are, after all, losses and failures in all wars. The enemy, despite some setbacks in the south, remains far from defeated and is capable of audacious and professional operations. The Taliban strategy of encouraging insider attacks on coalition forces is proving particularly effective. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, notes, “It is a very serious threat to the campaign.”

You would think that under those circumstances it would be all the more important for Obama, the commander-in-chief, to go on television so that he can explain what is happening to the American (and Afghan) people and reassure them that his plan for Afghanistan remains on track—or else to explain what modifications in his plans he is making to deal with the present situation. If the suspension of partnered operations is only temporary, he should make that clear so that the Taliban cannot claim that they are chasing us out. If the suspension is to be more long-lasting, he must explain what impact this will have on his exit strategy.

Instead, of course, we are treated to more radio silence from the White House over this forgotten war. Little wonder that public support for the war effort continues to crater: When there is no alternative narrative to counterbalance the gloomy reports in the news, the public naturally believes that all is lost. I don’t think that’s the case, based on what I have seen during my own visits to Afghanistan. But the battle for hearts and minds on the home front is certainly being lost—or rather not contested by a White House that clearly has other priorities.

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Pakistani Taliban Threaten Nuke Facility

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.

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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.

After the Pakistani government signed a deal with the Pakistani Taliban to allow the Taliban to administer Islamic law in certain tribal districts, Taliban presence in the neighboring Swat district nearly doubled. The Pakistani Army responded when a Taliban column marched on Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad but, just as they sheltered Usama Bin Laden, the ISI continues to treat the Pakistani Taliban with kid gloves.

The situation is becoming more dangerous. According to the Pakistani press, the Pakistani Taliban are increasingly threatening Pakistan’s nuclear sites. According to Pakistan’s Express Tribune:

LAHORE. It could be the first-ever security threat to a nuclear facility in Pakistan, and the Army and security forces are taking no risks. Following ‘serious’ security threats from the homegrown Taliban, the Army and Punjab police have deployed heavy forces at one of Pakistan’s largest nuclear facilities in Dera Ghazi Khan (DG Khan), credible sources told The Express Tribune. Besides the deployment inside and around the nuclear installation, three divisions in South Punjab have also been asked to launch a crackdown against banned outfits, sources added. “DG Khan houses one of the largest nuclear facilities in the country, and has faced the first-ever serious security threat from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP),” said a high ranking military officer currently serving at the installation.

The U.S. election may revolve on the economy, but sometimes problems ignored metastasize. An emboldened Pakistan will be detrimental to U.S. interests. Abandoning the fight against Islamist radicalism is not an option, nor is allowing state failure in Pakistan. President Obama and Governor Romney may not want to talk Pakistan, but Pakistan might easily provide the crisis which will define Obama’s next term or the next presidency. It would be good to hear a real debate on how to address and, if possible, head off grave and growing threats to Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure.

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Why Afghan History Matters

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.

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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.

How frustrating it is, then, to see NATO and U.S. forces fall so in love with American and European narratives that they never consider just how the Afghans interpret them. When the British began negotiating with the Taliban (several years before the Americans got on board), British officials cited their talks with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to justify outreach to the Taliban. The problem was that few Afghans knew about the IRA and fewer cared. Mullah Omar, however, used the British outreach to make an analogy any Afghan would understand: That of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

In December 1841, General William George Keith Elphinstone negotiated with insurgents and struck a deal: The British would leave Kabul for Jalalabad, and in exchange the insurgents would recognize Shah Shuja, a British ally, on the throne. Of the 16,000 British men, women, and children who left Kabul, only one made it to Jalalabad (two, for the Flashman fans out there). It was Britain’s worst military defeat in their history and would remain so until they lost Singapore in 1942. He described himself as Dost Mohammad, the Afghan nationalist king who took the throne upon the British defeat. That would make Hamid Karzai out to be Shah Shuja. All Afghans understood Omar to suggest that the British were again on their way to a historic defeat.

The Americans are just as guilty. The American military hierarchy in Afghanistan justifies their support of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in the supposed success of the Sahwa Councils in Iraq. Those Sunni groups defected to help push back al-Qaeda inroads during the surge. Afghans know little about the surge in Iraq, and care less. When they see the American military supporting the ALP in Afghanistan, they draw parallels to the Soviet pre-withdrawal strategy of forming local militias. Rather than signaling a commitment to defeat insurgency, then, the American strategy is convincing Afghans about America’s looming defeat. Seldom has American ego-centrism been so self-defeating.

Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Until Americans convince Afghans that momentum is on the side of the United States and not on the side of the Taliban, then there can be no outcome that will not be severely detrimental to U.S. interests. Alas, until American officials look through the Afghan lens, rather than convince themselves that their own spin matters, we will not win the battle of perception.

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Guess Who Won’t Leave Afghanistan When We Do

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.

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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.

After the United States helped push the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s, American indifference to the fate of the that country turned immediately into neglect. A decade later, we went into Afghanistan because the ruling Taliban were hosting and protecting the terrorists behind 9/11. In 2014, we’ll leave Afghanistan—Taliban, al Qaeda plots, and all—because “it’s time for nation building at home” is a catchy slogan.

Must we really learn this lesson again? Mark Twain said famously that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. He was wrong; it repeats itself.

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Obama Didn’t Owe Taliban a Victory Plan

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.

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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.

Rather than his “leadership” on the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran showing the administration’s strength, it demonstrates the feckless reliance on failed diplomacy. North Korea successfully bamboozled the Clinton and Bush administrations into deals that allowed them to go nuclear. Iran is following the same pattern. The sanctions that Obama reluctantly and belatedly imposed on Tehran are riddled with exemptions and non-enforcement. As even some of his more candid admirers admit, the president’s only strategy is to kick the can down the road until after he is re-elected, when he might have the “flexibility” to avoid keeping his promise to prevent Iran from gaining nukes.

The hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy has been undermining allies such as Israel, Britain and Poland (not by coincidence, the three nations Romney will visit this week).

As for standing for freedom abroad, it has been a generation since there has been a president who was less interested in promoting human rights than Obama. His favorite tactic of “leading from behind” — a phrase he avoided in his VFW speech — has allowed Syria to disintegrate into chaos and presents a danger to the entire Middle East. The toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the one instance where his tactic can be said to have worked, has led to trouble in neighboring Mali.

Nevertheless, no part of his speech was as disingenuous as his claim that he has strengthened the military. His budget cuts are gutting the capabilities of our armed forces. For him to blame these policies on the budget standoff with congressional Republicans is the height of chutzpah. The game of chicken he’s been playing with the GOP has led to the sequestration disaster that will hurt defense. But even without that dangerous tactic that he pursued for partisan purposes, the intent of his administration to downgrade defense was already clear. Indeed, he said as much in his speech when he spoke of a mythical post-Iraq and Afghanistan peace dividend he claims will pay down the deficit.

For Obama, even the most serious questions of war and peace always boil down to partisan politics. While Romney has much to prove when it comes to foreign policy (he will be speaking at the same convention this afternoon), Obama’s demonstrated lack of leadership provides his opponent plenty of room for justified criticism.

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Hillary Clinton’s Legacy

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.

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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.

Clinton’s actions regarding the rehabilitation of the Taliban are far more shameful. Clinton has made reconciliation of the Taliban a central pillar of her political strategy to end the Afghanistan war. Wars can end in either victory or defeat. Reinstalling the Taliban—who remain as ferociously opposed to women’s rights as ever—is nothing other than embracing defeat. The idea promoted by her diplomats in emails to Afghan officials that the Taliban simply reflect Pushtun culture is an argument less rooted in fact than in a desire to excuse the Taliban’s worst excesses by embracing cultural relativism.

President Obama has named Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as among his closest international friends. That’s all well and good. But it should be no reason to speak out against the purging of women from the civil society, or a murder rate of women that, according to Turkey’s own statistics, has increased more than 1,000 percent during Erdoğan’s rule.

Clinton may cloak herself in the feminist mantle, but her record is something else. Legacies rest more on fact than on handlers and sympathetic journalists. The simple fact is that under Clinton’s watch—and largely because of her policies and silence—women in the Islamic world have suffered their worst setbacks in generations.

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Islamists Calling for Pyramids’ Destruction?

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.

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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.

In March 2001, the Taliban dynamited the great Buddhas at Bamian, a UNESCO world heritage site. Their destruction came after repeated assurances that no such action would be taken. The destruction of the 1,500-year-old Buddhas came six years after the Clinton administration began its initiative to diplomatically engage the Taliban to bring the group into the community of nations. There were even calls within the State Department to recognize the Taliban who, diplomats reasoned, were no worse than the Saudis and controlled 90 percent of Afghan territory. Fortunately, George W. Bush put a stop to that.

Currently, Islamists in northern Mali are destroying historic Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, sites I was fortunate enough to visit a decade ago as a tourist. The logic of the Islamists is the same. Embracing a radical interpretation of Islam promoted on the back of Saudi petrodollars, the Islamists claim that the shrines which have stood for centuries during periods when even the most religious Muslims understood tolerance, somehow contradict the tenets of Islam by promoting worship of saints.

It is this same logic that has led Saudi architect and archaeologist Sami Angawi to bury and hide archaeological sites he has excavated from the time and, indeed, life of the Prophet Muhammad as Saudi authorities have destroyed 95 percent of Mecca’s ancient and historical buildings.

So, under such circumstances, what should the United States do?  There is little direct action, of course, and UNESCO is more concerned with playing Palestinian politics than pursuing its preservation function. Still, diplomacy matters. And so does stigma. Anyone who engages in such behavior should be so far beyond the pale that there can be no redemption. Alas, by talking to the Taliban—the same figures responsible for unleashing this wave of destruction against world heritage—diplomats have signaled that there can be, in effect, redemption after such action and, by so doing, have reduced the cost and stigma of such activity. Perhaps it’s time to decide what actions—terrorism, wanton cultural destruction, genocide—put groups so far beyond the pale of civilized society that there can be no recourse but for their complete destruction.

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Paying the Price in Afghanistan

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.

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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.

When Operation Enduring Freedom began, the problem was not just the Taliban but rather, more broadly, the warlords or, in diplomat-speak, “regional power brokers.” When Operation Enduring Freedom began, Afghanistan had been without an army or professional police force for years. Warlords ruled the country. The United States was not in a position to subdue every single warlord; Afghanistan was not logistically capable of handling the huge numbers of U.S. forces that would be necessary for such a mission; the country did not have the extensive networks of bases such as those Saddam Hussein had left behind in Iraq.

The strategy hatched by Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American on Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council (and future ambassador to Afghanistan), was to co-opt as many Afghan warlords as possible by giving them posts in the new Afghan government, thereby removing them from their regional power base, all the while building up the new Afghan security forces. To enable this strategy to work, American officials needed a strong central government, with a president able to appoint not only ministers, but also governors and other regional officials.

Karzai certainly did not object to a strong presidency, and played along. He appointed Ismail Khan—a major Iranian-backed warlord from Herat—to be minister of energy. Notorious Afghan Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum became chief of staff to commander of the Afghan National Army, a largely ceremonial position.  The new Afghan government transferred Gul Agha Sherzai to be governor, first of Kandahar and then Nangarhar. Initially, the strategy paid off. By the time the warlords recognized their power had been surpassed by the national army, it was too late for them.

The payback, however, is now: The central government has become a major source of grievance. Karzai is mercurial and his family notoriously corrupt. If a basis of the U.S. counterinsurgency is to win hearts and minds at a local level, then Karzai and the centralized model implemented during the Bush years becomes the major problem. Afghan villagers and townsmen want leaders to whom they can turn who look like them, speak like them, and are representative of the population in the district in which they live. But, if the appointees and decisions are coming from above, then ultimately the only way to fight city hall is to fight the central government.

So what to do? The short-term strategy achieved its goal—the power of the warlords was undercut—but the bill is now coming due. Unless there is a concerted effort by all international partners to encourage a new loyal jirga to reconsider the structure of government, then Afghanistan is headed once again to chaos. Success will depend on empowering local officials beneath the banner of a loose central government. Alas, the United States has no standing now to rectify either problem, nor does Karzai have an interest in loosening the grip of his family. Obama’s timeline for withdrawal has undercut what little leverage American policymakers have.

The whole situation adds up to a frustrating mess for our soldiers, who are putting their lives on the line for a noble goal betrayed by a diplomatic fiction they all can see through. It is time our politicians treated our troops with the respect they deserve. They are willing to answer the call, but they must see that the problems so glaringly obvious in Afghanistan are being addressed rather than swept under the rug.

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