From a Rasmussen poll taken late last week:
Voters overwhelmingly reject the idea that the war on terror is over one year after the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, although most feel his al-Qaeda terrorist group is weaker today. But a majority also still thinks a terrorist attack is possible in the next year.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 11 percent of Likely U.S. Voters think the war on terror is over. Seventy-nine percent say that war, declared after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America, is not over. Another 11 percent are undecided.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made diplomacy with the Taliban the cornerstone of their diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan. Never mind that neither the late Richard Holbrooke nor his successor Marc Grossman have ever bothered to conduct lessons learned from the Clinton administration’s disastrous experience talking to the Taliban.
The Taliban launched another attack on the Western presence in Afghanistan overnight as they attacked the Green Village, a major compound housing thousands of Western contractors and NGOs. Rather than being weak, the Taliban are demonstrating renewed vigor and operational capacity in the heart of ISAF territory. The same Taliban groups with whom the Americans and British now negotiate have, since the beginning of dialogue, attacked hotels in Kabul, the British and American embassies, and Afghan government buildings. There appears to be a direct correlation between the urgency of State Department outreach and the boldness of Taliban attacks.
President Obama made a tough call to order the hit on Osama bin Laden. Had the operation failed, pundits and press would have fallen over themselves to liken him to Jimmy Carter and the ham-handed hostage rescue operation in Iran. And, contrary to Mitt Romney’s suggestion that anyone would have made the same call, even Carter, that’s clearly not true: When the U.S. intelligence community and military had bin Laden in its sights, Bill Clinton did not have the political courage to make the call.
Celebrating the much-ballyhooed strategic partnership deal finalized last month between the United States and Afghanistan is premature, however. With the smoke clears, details of the agreement are short, and Obama’s timeline continues to erode confidence in the wisdom of the alliance where it matters, among Afghans.
While Americans continue to self-flagellate for our own self-inflicted wounds in Afghanistan, be they Quran burnings, shootings of civilians, or grisly trophy photographs—the conversation among Afghans remains sharply different. In the wake of the well-coordinated Taliban attacks inside Kabul, Afghan anger is riding high at President Hamid Karzai, who had referred to the Taliban as “our brothers.”
Social media is important, and the following image has gone viral in Afghanistan, transferred from cell phone to cell phone, and across Afghans’ Facebook pages. On the left, it shows a member of the Taliban captured in women’s clothes. The caption in Dari above reads “Karzai’s brother.” On the right is an image of an Afghan soldier wounded in the leg defending the city. The caption above reads, “Our brother.”
In explaining their decision to publish photos of American troops posing with the bodies of alleged Taliban terrorists, despite the fact that the photos are two years old and guaranteed to inflame violence, the editors of the Los Angeles Times explained, “At the end of the day, our job is to publish information that our readers need to make informed decisions.”
Perhaps the editors would then like to explain why they continue to sit on a videotape of Barack Obama reportedly toasting former PLO Beirut spokesman and University of Chicago buddy Rashid Khalidi? Isn’t that necessary for readers to make informed decisions? I’m not sure whether the editors could provide a more glaring example of their own hypocrisy.
I respectfully dissent from the conclusion reached by some U.S. officials and outside analysts who claim to see Sunday’s assaults in Afghanistan as a show of strength and not weakness by the insurgency. No question there was an intelligence failure in not anticipating and preventing the attack. But no security force, no matter how formidable, can possibly stop every terrorist attack before it happens. Afghan and coalition forces have disrupted countless Haqqani attempts to attack Kabul in the past. Indeed, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack in the capital since September. But no defense can be full-proof.
It is hardly a sign of insurgent strength that some 40 Haqqani operatives managed to strike a series of Afghan and coalition targets in Kabul and a few other sites in eastern Afghanistan. It is not all that difficult to smuggle AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades into Kabul–but then it’s not so difficult to smuggle such weapons into the United States either. But once again, as in September, the insurgents had to stage their attacks from abandoned buildings, which suggests they do not have too much support in the capital. Certainly they were not able to infiltrate the parliament or other targets–they were not even able to penetrate the perimeter as far as I can tell. And Afghan forces responded quickly, managing to kill almost all the attackers while limiting civilian casualties.
I’m not as sanguine as Max Boot that the Taliban’s well-coordinated attacks are really a sign of weakness. During my first trip to Afghanistan in 1997, I visited the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The frontline with the Taliban was hundreds of miles away. The next day, we were fleeing for our lives as the Taliban advanced on Mazar-i-Sharif. The reason for the Taliban’s rapid advance was not the group’s military prowess, but rather a quirk of Afghan culture: Afghans never lose a war; they just defect to the winning side. A neighboring warlord had decided to make accommodation with the Taliban, offering them free passage. A few hours after I left, the city fell.
It is against this context that the attack on Kabul worries me greatly. The problem isn’t simply a Taliban “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone but rather the Obama administration symbolically standing down the defense with his repeated offers to negotiate with the radical Islamist group.
“This is our new tactic and is indicative of our strength.”
So said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid about Sunday’s insurgent attacks in Kabul and several other locations around Afghanistan. He was more right than he intended, for the attacks showed the Taliban’s weakness rather than their strength. For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible.
David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.
Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.
There are few if any Afghanistan experts I respect more than Sarah Chayes. A former NPR reporter, she came to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but unlike most journalists, she did not immediately leave for some other hot spot. She stayed. And she left journalism to make a difference. She founded a cooperative business in Kandahar, Arghand, employing Afghanistan’s lush fruits and herbs to produce first-class soaps and lotions which were then exported abroad, creating a source of employment other than drug production. She also wrote a first-rate book about post-Taliban Afghanistan, “The Punishment of Virtue,” and went on to serve as an adviser to senior U.S. generals. I got to know Chayes during my own trips to Afghanistan and even worked with her briefly on an advisory team in Kabul, and came away tremendously impressed by her depth of knowledge of, and her empathy for, the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.
Yet I must respectfully dissent, just a bit, from this op-ed she just published in the Washington Post which reflects her understandable frustration with the many mistakes made by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. (I should note that I just left Afghanistan after another visit with U.S. troops and their Afghan allies.) She writes that both Staff Sgt. Robert Bales–the soldier who killed 17 civilians in the Panjwai district of southern Afghanistan–and the innocent Afghans he killed are both victims “of a war whose basis in falsehood and self-deception is growing daily more untenable.”
The protests over the Koran burnings appear to be over in Afghanistan–knock on wood. The violence directed against American personnel by insurgents, some of whom have managed to infiltrate the Afghan Security Forces (or been turned by the Taliban after joining in good faith, or simply become deranged), is, sadly, not over. But as emotions calm down it is worth taking a closer look at the protests and “friendly fire” killings and what they mean. That is just what two analysts at the Institute for the Study of War–Isaac Hock and Paraag Shukla–have done. They have produced a valuable backgrounder on the protests whose first paragraph is worth reproducing here:
Protests emerged in stages across small regions of Afghanistan following the accidental burning of Islamic religious texts at Bagram Airfield on February 20, 2012. Most of the protests are not spontaneous or self- organizing outbursts of anti-Americanism, but rather organized violence orchestrated by insurgent groups, Iran, and Afghan political factions aiming to harm their local rivals. Neighboring Iran has utilized its media outlets, especially radio, to influence Afghan demonstrators to be destructive during their protests. The Taliban have issued multiple statements encouraging violent actions. President Karzai and his administration, in contrast, have actively tried to quell violence.
Gen. Jack Keane, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq, is always a font of good sense when it comes to America’s wars. Thus, it is worth listening—and acting on his advice—when he suggests that our drone strikes in Pakistan be expanded beyond al-Qaeda targets to focus on the Taliban and related insurgent groups. The Washington Times quotes him as follows: “If we don’t start targeting the Taliban leadership now … the risk is much too high in terms of our ability to sustain the successes that we’ve had. We cannot let that Afghan Taliban leadership that lives in Pakistan continue to preside over this war and recruit and provide resources.”
He is absolutely right, and it is imperative to follow his advice even at the risk of further blowback from Pakistan, because there is no other way to achieve any degree of success in Afghanistan while pulling back as quickly as the Obama administration wants to do—namely a switch from combat to advising in 2013 and a complete pull-out in 2014. Even with stepped up drone strikes, the Obama timeline is probably a prescription for disaster and defeat. But if we at least do more to target the insurgent leadership which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, our forces can somewhat increase their odds of success notwithstanding the rapid collapse of political will in the White House to prosecute this war to a successful conclusion.
I’m spending the week in frigid Wiesbaden, where the V Corps is preparing to take over the mission in Afghanistan. As is often the case, there is much more learning outside the classroom than inside it. Indeed, there are few organizations in government as dedicated to learning as the U.S. military. The State Department may have its Foreign Service Institute where diplomats can take classes to prepare for new jobs, but in embassies and the State Department, learning does not occur on a day-to-day basis as it does in the military.
Before any exercise, for example, soldiers and sailors study precedents. After -action reviews often take longer than exercises or missions themselves. Non-Commissioned Officers take their roles seriously to ensure that soldiers recognize mistakes and more importantly, learn from them; they have no equivalent in the Foreign Service.
The Obama administration seems to think it can stop American combat operations a year earlier than expected—in 2013—while also downsizing the Afghan Security Forces and still strike a peace deal with the Taliban. Only in some alternative universe is this a winning strategy. In the world we actually inhabit it is a recipe for a slow-motion—or maybe not so slow—catastrophe.
It is hard to know exactly what the announcement that the U.S. is ending combat operations in 2013 means because the dividing line between “combat” and “advising” can be thin to the point of non-existent. But at the very least it signals some pull back of the American commitment. And before long I suspect we are going to hear that the number of U.S. troops—already insufficient—will be cut back some more so as to allow President Obama to run for reelection claiming to have ended one war and to be on his way to ending another. The Afghan Security Forces will be hard-pressed to pick up the slack, because they will need extensive training and support for years to come. The only way they will have any chance of success is if the U.S. maintains a substantial force in Afghanistan after 2014—say at least 40,000 troops. But that is highly unlikely if Obama stays in office. He seems determined to downsize as fast as possible.
Typically, peace negotiations are successful when one side has decided it cannot win on the battlefield. That was the case with insurgent groups as disparate as the IRA in Northern Ireland and the FMLN in El Salvador. Is it the case with the Taliban in Afghanistan? The administration would like us to think so because it has invested such high hopes in peace talks that would allow us to withdraw our troops as fast as possible. Unfortunately, there is plentiful evidence the Taliban are far from ready to give up their struggle to take over Afghanistan.
The latest data point is this report compiled by NATO forces based on interrogations of thousands of Taliban detainees. According to the AP’s summary, “The Taliban believe they will return to power after the U.S.-led coalition ends its combat role in Afghanistan in 2014″; they “also believed they were receiving support from Pakistan and that they were doing well on the battlefield.” Does this sound like a group ready to put aside its weapons? Hardly. So why engage in peace talks? Negotiations have many advantages from the Taliban’s standpoint–they could hasten America’s withdrawal and provide some breathing space for a movement battered by a U.S.-led offensive on its homeground in southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s moral standing to be complaining about the desecration of corpses is, to put it mildly, rather limited. Recall, after all, the fate suffered by former Afghan ruler Najibullah at the hands of the Taliban in 1996. First he was castrated, then dragged through the streets by a car before his corpse was finally left dangling from a lamppost. Yet there is no question that U.S. troops are held to a higher standard and the decision by four Marines to urinate on the corpses of Taliban fighters–and then videotape it!–could do harm to the American mission in Afghanistan.
It is, after all, a war crime and a violation of religious dictates to desecrate war dead. More than that it is stupid and pointless if perhaps understandable as a venting of stress after battle. The desecration of the enemy after death has been common in all wars–even “good wars” like World War II, where GIs and Marines often took Japanese skulls, teeth or other body parts or articles of uniform home as souvenirs. It is hardly surprising that the Afghan War should be no exception. What is different today is that the act was videotaped and then witnessed around the world. Another difference is the Marines are fighting not a total war but a counterinsurgency in which their goal is not only to militarily defeat the enemy but to win over the population. This could potentially make that job harder.
It is perhaps unfair to comment on a document you haven’t read, but then National Intelligence Estimates aren’t typically released to the public. So I have to form my conclusions based on news reports such as this one about the latest NIE on Afghanistan.
At the very least it should put to rest any concerns—or any hopes—that David Petraeus, in his new job as director of Central Intelligence, would adjust the intelligence community’s outlook to be more in line with the military’s. Apparently, if the Los Angeles Times reporting can be believed, the new NIE is just as gloomy as the one last year to which Petraeus, as the top military commander, filed a written dissent. This year his successor, Gen. John Allen, and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, have filed their own dissents. I trust their judgment a lot more than I do the NIE-writers in Washington. Allen and Crocker are known as straight-shooters and are much more intimately involved in the war effort than are the faraway intelligence analysts who compiled these reports which are meant to reflect a consensus of the intelligence community—something that inevitably produces lowest common denominator thinking.
News that the Taliban have agreed to open an office in Qatar is being greeted as a breakthrough in negotiating an end to the Afghan war. It is supposedly a sign the Taliban are genuinely committed to peace talks. Perhaps so, but count me as skeptical.
It is worth recalling the North Vietnamese government was hardly averse to negotiating even while its troops and Viet Cong proxies were battling U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. Indeed, Hanoi was even willing to sign the 1973 Paris Peace Accord supposedly ending the Vietnam war. But that was not a sign the Communists had given up their goal of dominating the South. It was merely a sign they were willing to use talk of peace along with acts of war to achieve their objectives. The Paris Peace Accord turned out to be the best move they ever made, because it terminated U.S. aid to Saigon. Just two years later, buttressed by aid from China and the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon.
How alarmed should we be by this Wall Street Journal article reporting on the brisk sale of Taliban songs and ring tones in Kabul? Even anti-Taliban residents of the capital feel compelled to have them on their cell phones in case they are stopped by a Taliban checkpoint which, the article claims, are common only an hour’s drive from the city center. The Journal reporters note:
“If you are going 30 or 60 miles outside of Kabul, you will surely find Taliban on the road,” said a member of President Hamid Karzai’s government. “If you have Indian music or Afghan music ringtones, they will tell you that you are not obeying Islamic rules and, in most cases, break our mobiles.”
This official said that whenever he leaves Kabul, he routinely carries two SIM cards for his cell phone. One contains the numbers of Afghan leaders, Western officials, military officers and other contacts he needs to do his job. The other is the Taliban-safe SIM card that he pops into his phone outside the capital.
Obviously this is cause for concern — but hardly panic. After all in Iraq, during the bad years (roughly 2004-2007), it was common for insurgent hit squads and checkpoints (sometimes under the color of Iraqi police units) to operate right in the capital city itself. Baghdad was in fact one of the biggest killing fields in the entire country before the surge took effect.
The Washington Post has an article today about the umpteenth instance of failed talks with the Taliban, with the U.S. apparently offering to release Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in return for a (worthless) promise from the Taliban to renounce international terrorism. The deal was scuttled, according to the Post, by (legitimate) objections from Hamid Karzai, but it is not clear if the administration could have carried out its end anyway because of domestic opposition to releasing more hardened terrorists from Gitmo.
What was really fascinating to me in this article was a section from the middle: