Commentary Magazine


Topic: Taliban

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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Forgotten POW Marks 3 Years of Captivity

During the weekend, the only remaining POW in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho, marked three years in captivity.

The details of his capture are still a mystery. In a recent Rolling Stone article, the Bergdahl family released previously unseen emails which detailed Bowe’s discontent with his service in Afghanistan. Many of his fellow soldiers told Rolling Stone they believe he was captured because he deserted his post. The White House and Pentagon have both refused to comment on how the Taliban captured Bergdahl and have given few details about how they have worked to return him to his family. The Pentagon has not classified him as a deserter and gave him promotions while in captivity.

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During the weekend, the only remaining POW in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho, marked three years in captivity.

The details of his capture are still a mystery. In a recent Rolling Stone article, the Bergdahl family released previously unseen emails which detailed Bowe’s discontent with his service in Afghanistan. Many of his fellow soldiers told Rolling Stone they believe he was captured because he deserted his post. The White House and Pentagon have both refused to comment on how the Taliban captured Bergdahl and have given few details about how they have worked to return him to his family. The Pentagon has not classified him as a deserter and gave him promotions while in captivity.

Despite the murky details of his capture, Bergdahl has, according to reports, attempted to escape as recently as late last year. The Daily Beast reported on his heroic attempt after years of gaining his captors’ trust:

Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” [Afghan militant Hafiz] Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances.

Soon after publishing this blog post in May about Taliban prisoner exchanges, it became clear Bergdahl was the centerpoint of secret (and stalled) negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. government. The Bergdahl family released the details of the negotiations in an attempt to pressure the Obama administration into action. Robert Bergdahl, Bowe’s father, has also reached out to insurgents himself and is in “regular e-mail contact with a man he believes is a member of the Taliban with accurate knowledge of his son.” The Bergdahl family have told the media  they feel abandoned by the Obama administration and feel the need to try to secure their son’s release themselves.

The piece in Rolling Stone speculated, while naming anonymous sources, that there are elements within the Pentagon who are loathe to exchange prisoners from Guantanamo Bay for a potential deserter. Rolling Stone also speculated that the reluctance to negotiate on the part of the Obama administration is due to their not wanting to be seen negotiating with terrorists during an election year.

Whatever the reason for the breakdown in negotiations, one would hope the Pentagon and Obama administration’s number one priority remains the safety of an American soldier held captive by a terrorist organization as ruthless as the Taliban. During his imprisonment, Bergdahl’s health has visibly deteriorated as demonstrated on videos released by his captors. The anniversary of his capture was marked locally by friends and family in a massive Crossfit workout in honor of the missing soldier but was largely absent from the national consciousness. Going into his fourth year of captivity his family released a statement, which closed with:

We’d also like to ask each of you as individuals and as a nation for your continued awareness as Bowe begins his fourth year as a prisoner. We want this to be the year we see our only son safely returned home.

We owe it to Bergdahl and his family to keep his name in our hearts and minds as we, as a nation, prioritize his release as we would if Bowe were our own son or brother.

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America’s Missed Chance for Afghan Deal

The Washington Post is publishing excerpts of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by its staff writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a decidedly mixed review of the book that I wrote. I won’t repeat my major criticisms here. Rather, I’d like to focus on yesterday’s excerpt in the Post which contained the claim the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban in 2010-2011 at the height of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan because of animus among White House staffers and other officials against special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who favored such a deal. Chandrasekaran writes:

Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.

That there was animus against Holbrooke, who had, as they say, an outsize personality, is undeniable. That this led the Obama administration to miss a chance to end the war is fanciful speculation unsupported by any evidence I am aware of.

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The Washington Post is publishing excerpts of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by its staff writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a decidedly mixed review of the book that I wrote. I won’t repeat my major criticisms here. Rather, I’d like to focus on yesterday’s excerpt in the Post which contained the claim the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban in 2010-2011 at the height of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan because of animus among White House staffers and other officials against special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who favored such a deal. Chandrasekaran writes:

Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.

That there was animus against Holbrooke, who had, as they say, an outsize personality, is undeniable. That this led the Obama administration to miss a chance to end the war is fanciful speculation unsupported by any evidence I am aware of.

Can Chandrasekaran point to any actual signs the Taliban were ever likely to sign a peace deal? As he mentions in passing in his book, in 2010 Pakistan actually locked up the No. 2 Taliban official, Mullah Abdual Ghani Baradar, precisely because Islamabad feared he would be open to a negotiated settlement that could cause the Taliban to drift out of Pakistan’s control. More recently, the White House expressed willingness to release five senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay as a “confidence-building” measure for peace talks. Nothing came of that deal.

The calculation of military commanders in Afghanistan was that as they ramped up pressure on the Taliban, there would be more defections from their ranks, which has indeed occurred, but that there would be no chance of reaching a meaningful peace deal with the Taliban–one that did not grant them so many concessions that the old Northern Alliance would recreate itself and launch a new civil war–until the insurgents had suffered significant battlefield defeats.

The insurgency has indeed suffered real defeats in southern Afghanistan, as even Chandrasekaran concedes, but the potential for meaningful negotiations has been to a large extent lost because of President Obama’s ill-advised move to set deadlines on America’s military involvement–first for the removal of surge troops and now for the removal of the bulk of other troops. Those deadlines have undermined the ability of our troops to have strategic effects and have undoubtedly made the Taliban less likely to negotiate in seriousness because they figure they can simply wait us out. That, rather than any snubs Holbrooke may have suffered, helps to account for the failure of peace talks.

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Taliban Consign Children to Polio Risk

“Taliban to Kids: Drop Dead.” That would be the headline in the NY Daily News or some other tabloid. The New York Times has a more staid approach: “Taliban Block Vaccinations in Pakistan.” But the news contained therein is no less shocking and contemptible: the Pakistani Taliban are going to block UNICEF-administered polo vaccinations in North Waziristan until the U.S. stops its drone attacks in Pakistan which have been heavily focused on North Waziristan.

The Taliban have some small shred of cover for this move due to the fact that the CIA recruited a doctor undertaking vaccinations to try to locate Osama bin Laden’s hideout. (That doctor, Shakil Afridi, is now languishing in a Pakistani jail for the “crime” of helping to uncover a mass murderer.) This fact, along with many others, underlines how deeply intertwined al-Qaeda is with other Pakistan-based radical groups, from the Pakistani Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. And it also shows how heartless these groups are.

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“Taliban to Kids: Drop Dead.” That would be the headline in the NY Daily News or some other tabloid. The New York Times has a more staid approach: “Taliban Block Vaccinations in Pakistan.” But the news contained therein is no less shocking and contemptible: the Pakistani Taliban are going to block UNICEF-administered polo vaccinations in North Waziristan until the U.S. stops its drone attacks in Pakistan which have been heavily focused on North Waziristan.

The Taliban have some small shred of cover for this move due to the fact that the CIA recruited a doctor undertaking vaccinations to try to locate Osama bin Laden’s hideout. (That doctor, Shakil Afridi, is now languishing in a Pakistani jail for the “crime” of helping to uncover a mass murderer.) This fact, along with many others, underlines how deeply intertwined al-Qaeda is with other Pakistan-based radical groups, from the Pakistani Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. And it also shows how heartless these groups are.

The Pakistani Taliban are, in effect, consigning 160,000 children to the risk of getting polio because of their war with the United States. Nothing could make more clear the barbarous nature of such groups–and the need for them to be defeated. Pakistan’s generals should, at the very least, toss and turn a little at night as they think about their own role in fostering and promoting these monsters.

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Unleash Drones Against Our Enemies

Congratulations are due to the CIA, which carried out the strike, and to President Obama, who ordered it (and approved the target personally, as the New York Times has revealed) for the elimination of a major enemy of the United States–Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 commander. Like many of al-Qaeda’s operatives, Libi was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. He was the effective, day-to-day field commander of al-Qaeda, and his death will no doubt cause serious disruption to whatever operations al-Qaeda Central is involved in. The importance of his elimination is somewhat decreased, however, by the fact that so many of the terrorist organization’s operations have migrated outside of Pakistan, to regional affiliates from Mali to Yemen; Libi’s death probably will not have much impact on their operations.

This highlights the declining utility of targeting al-Qaeda Central: the organization has already been severely hurt by the continuous elimination of its top cadres. Such operations must be maintained to keep the pressure on, but they can no longer be the exclusive focus of counter-terrorism operations. It is good to see the drone campaign being ramped up in Yemen, but there are limits to what strikes from the air can achieve. There is a desperate need to expand lawful authority in such ungoverned areas to keep groups such as al-Qaeda from regenerating themselves. If the U.S. government has a plan to accomplish that in Pakistan, Yemen or other countries, from Mali to Libya, I have not heard of it.

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Congratulations are due to the CIA, which carried out the strike, and to President Obama, who ordered it (and approved the target personally, as the New York Times has revealed) for the elimination of a major enemy of the United States–Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 commander. Like many of al-Qaeda’s operatives, Libi was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. He was the effective, day-to-day field commander of al-Qaeda, and his death will no doubt cause serious disruption to whatever operations al-Qaeda Central is involved in. The importance of his elimination is somewhat decreased, however, by the fact that so many of the terrorist organization’s operations have migrated outside of Pakistan, to regional affiliates from Mali to Yemen; Libi’s death probably will not have much impact on their operations.

This highlights the declining utility of targeting al-Qaeda Central: the organization has already been severely hurt by the continuous elimination of its top cadres. Such operations must be maintained to keep the pressure on, but they can no longer be the exclusive focus of counter-terrorism operations. It is good to see the drone campaign being ramped up in Yemen, but there are limits to what strikes from the air can achieve. There is a desperate need to expand lawful authority in such ungoverned areas to keep groups such as al-Qaeda from regenerating themselves. If the U.S. government has a plan to accomplish that in Pakistan, Yemen or other countries, from Mali to Libya, I have not heard of it.

Admittedly, it would not be easy to design or implement such a strategy. Much easier, however, would be to expand the drone strikes to a group that has been curiously exempt from such attacks: namely the Taliban. There have been a few drone strikes on the Haqqani Network in and around Waziristan, Pakistan, but none, so far as I am aware, on the Taliban leadership headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan–nor on the operational Taliban hub at Chaman, Pakistan, just across the border from southern Afghanistan. These groups are actively killing Americans all the time–more than al-Qaeda Central can boast of these days. Yet we have not unleashed the CIA and Special Operations Forces to do to them what they have done to al-Qaeda. Why not? Largely because of the sensitivities of the Pakistani government which is an active sponsor of the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

But so what? The Pakistanis have declining leverage over us; they have kept their supply line to Afghanistan closed since last fall and it has not seriously disrupted NATO operations. The administration needs to figure out whether it’s serious about leaving a more stable Afghanistan behind when the bulk of U.S. troops are withdrawn. If it is, it will unleash the Reapers against the Taliban and Haqqanis–not just against al-Qaeda.

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Liberals Comparing Conservatives to the Muslim Brotherhood?

What does Sarah Palin have in common with the Muslim Brotherhood? The answer to that question is, of course, absolutely nothing. But don’t tell myriad pundits and academics that. Cheap analogies between the Tea Party and al-Qaeda, Sarah Palin and the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Taliban and the Christian Right have become a bit too commonplace for comfort among those who are supposed to inform public debate or provide expertise. Politicization, intolerance for opposing views, and false moral equivalence each suggest a profound ignorance of what groups like the Taliban and Muslim Brotherhood stand for.

Here are just a few examples:

  •  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “So the Muslim Brotherhood has a parallel role here with the Tea Party?”
  • John Esposito, Georgetown University:  “The political Salafis believe that they have a true vision of Islam and that their version of religion is the one that they practice and the one that other people should practice too in their personal lives. Moreover, they are working to implement this vision in society as a whole… What you see in Christianity is that you have some very conservative Christians, you see them in the U.S. for example, many of them very conservative in their personal lives, and then there is the Christian Right in the U.S. that is involved in politics, another kind of Christianity that tries to impose its own will on other people.”
  • Princeton University’s Gregory D. Johnsen: “comparing [Tawakkol] Karman to [hardline Islamist Abdul Majid al-] Zindani is something akin to making Colin Powell responsible for what Sarah Palin says.”
  • Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins: “The fundamentalist Christian Right is America’s Taliban.”
  • University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole: “The mainstream Republican Party’s view on many social issues thus resembles that of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Muslim Brotherhood and related parties in the Muslim world far more than it does the ‘conservative’ parties of Scandinavia and continental Europe.”
  • And, Juan Cole, again: “Is Sarah Palin America’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The two differ in many key respects, of course, but it is remarkable how similar they are. There are uncanny parallels in their biographies, their domestic politics and the way they present themselves — even in their rocky relationships with party elders.”
  • Cher: “We talk about how radical Muslims take away the Rights of their woman, but HOW CAN WE LET These RW [right wing American] Misogynistic Cretins take away.”
  • Occasional  Nation contributor David Lindorff: “But John Walker Lindh… is not the real American Taliban. That title surely belongs to our new Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.”
  • Filmmaker Michael Moore:  Appearing on “Real Time” with Bill Maher on Friday, film producer Michael Moore said that we should consider people such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin “our Taliban” because “their level of bigotry is so un-American.”
  • Markos Moulitsas, Daily Kos founder: “In their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban.”
  • New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof: “We tend to think of national security narrowly as the risk of a military or terrorist attack. But national security is about protecting our people and our national strength — and the blunt truth is that the biggest threat to America’s national security … comes from budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home.”

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What does Sarah Palin have in common with the Muslim Brotherhood? The answer to that question is, of course, absolutely nothing. But don’t tell myriad pundits and academics that. Cheap analogies between the Tea Party and al-Qaeda, Sarah Palin and the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Taliban and the Christian Right have become a bit too commonplace for comfort among those who are supposed to inform public debate or provide expertise. Politicization, intolerance for opposing views, and false moral equivalence each suggest a profound ignorance of what groups like the Taliban and Muslim Brotherhood stand for.

Here are just a few examples:

    •  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “So the Muslim Brotherhood has a parallel role here with the Tea Party?”
    • John Esposito, Georgetown University:  “The political Salafis believe that they have a true vision of Islam and that their version of religion is the one that they practice and the one that other people should practice too in their personal lives. Moreover, they are working to implement this vision in society as a whole… What you see in Christianity is that you have some very conservative Christians, you see them in the U.S. for example, many of them very conservative in their personal lives, and then there is the Christian Right in the U.S. that is involved in politics, another kind of Christianity that tries to impose its own will on other people.”
    • Princeton University’s Gregory D. Johnsen: “comparing [Tawakkol] Karman to [hardline Islamist Abdul Majid al-] Zindani is something akin to making Colin Powell responsible for what Sarah Palin says.”
    • Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins: “The fundamentalist Christian Right is America’s Taliban.”
    • University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole: “The mainstream Republican Party’s view on many social issues thus resembles that of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Muslim Brotherhood and related parties in the Muslim world far more than it does the ‘conservative’ parties of Scandinavia and continental Europe.”
    • And, Juan Cole, again: “Is Sarah Palin America’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The two differ in many key respects, of course, but it is remarkable how similar they are. There are uncanny parallels in their biographies, their domestic politics and the way they present themselves — even in their rocky relationships with party elders.”
    • Cher: “We talk about how radical Muslims take away the Rights of their woman, but HOW CAN WE LET These RW [right wing American] Misogynistic Cretins take away.”
    • Occasional  Nation contributor David Lindorff: “But John Walker Lindh… is not the real American Taliban. That title surely belongs to our new Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.”
    • Filmmaker Michael Moore:  Appearing on “Real Time” with Bill Maher on Friday, film producer Michael Moore said that we should consider people such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin “our Taliban” because “their level of bigotry is so un-American.”
    • Markos Moulitsas, Daily Kos founder: “In their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban.”
    • New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof: “We tend to think of national security narrowly as the risk of a military or terrorist attack. But national security is about protecting our people and our national strength — and the blunt truth is that the biggest threat to America’s national security … comes from budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home.”

Since the Arab Spring, Muslim Brotherhood activists have called for the eradication of national borders to form a global Islamic state and in recent weeks, a Muslim Brotherhood rally in Egypt called for armed insurrection should the election not go their way. The Brotherhood’s website is rife with anti-Semitism. Other examples are here. The United States and, more broadly, the West, will be paying the price for the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt, and we have already paid the price for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Arguing, in effect, that such groups have parallels on the American political spectrum is both dishonest, destructive, and bolsters an illusion that such groups hold pragmatic politics above intolerant ideology.

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Political Victory Out of Battlefield Defeats

The United Nations has hardly been a cheerleader for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, UN representatives have often been skeptical of the methods and tactics employed by American troops. So it is particularly noteworthy that even the UN is recording a big drop—21 percent–in civilian deaths in the first four months of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago. This tallies with NATO figures showing a drop in insurgent attacks—evidence that the post-2009 surge is working.

Unfortunately, just as American troops and their allies are making demonstrable progress, their political masters are preparing to pull them out. French troops are due to leave this year and more than 20,000 American troops are due to leave in September with more, perhaps, to follow before long. Western politicians would be foolish, now that the coalition actually has the initiative and the Taliban are on their heels, to let up on the pressure. But that is precisely what may happen, allowing the Taliban, Haqqanis, et al., to pull a political victory out of their battlefield defeats.

The United Nations has hardly been a cheerleader for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, UN representatives have often been skeptical of the methods and tactics employed by American troops. So it is particularly noteworthy that even the UN is recording a big drop—21 percent–in civilian deaths in the first four months of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago. This tallies with NATO figures showing a drop in insurgent attacks—evidence that the post-2009 surge is working.

Unfortunately, just as American troops and their allies are making demonstrable progress, their political masters are preparing to pull them out. French troops are due to leave this year and more than 20,000 American troops are due to leave in September with more, perhaps, to follow before long. Western politicians would be foolish, now that the coalition actually has the initiative and the Taliban are on their heels, to let up on the pressure. But that is precisely what may happen, allowing the Taliban, Haqqanis, et al., to pull a political victory out of their battlefield defeats.

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Our Shameful Afghanistan Legacy

On Monday, Josh Rogin reported on a “shadow summit for Afghan women” held in Chicago during the NATO summit there, calling attention to the concern that allied withdrawal from the country will leave women in Afghanistan at the mercy of the grotesquely misogynistic Taliban. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth followed by lambasting NATO’s seeming lack of attention to human rights, especially for women in Afghanistan.

Roth noted that “many of the world leaders assembled in Chicago — though, notably, not Karzai — spoke eloquently about their commitment to human rights, particularly for women. But the test of that commitment is whether anybody cares enough to put in place a concrete plan to carry it out.” Human rights advocates are worried that when troops leave, the Taliban will work to delete any and all progress on women’s rights. This morning, the Taliban again answered that concern: they will not wait for the troops to leave:

More than 120 schoolgirls and three teachers have been poisoned in the second attack in as many months blamed on conservative radicals in the country’s north, Afghan police and education officials said on Wednesday….

Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), says the Taliban appear intent on closing schools ahead of a 2014 withdrawal by foreign combat troops….

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education said last week that 550 schools in 11 provinces where the Taliban have strong support had been closed down by insurgents.

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On Monday, Josh Rogin reported on a “shadow summit for Afghan women” held in Chicago during the NATO summit there, calling attention to the concern that allied withdrawal from the country will leave women in Afghanistan at the mercy of the grotesquely misogynistic Taliban. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth followed by lambasting NATO’s seeming lack of attention to human rights, especially for women in Afghanistan.

Roth noted that “many of the world leaders assembled in Chicago — though, notably, not Karzai — spoke eloquently about their commitment to human rights, particularly for women. But the test of that commitment is whether anybody cares enough to put in place a concrete plan to carry it out.” Human rights advocates are worried that when troops leave, the Taliban will work to delete any and all progress on women’s rights. This morning, the Taliban again answered that concern: they will not wait for the troops to leave:

More than 120 schoolgirls and three teachers have been poisoned in the second attack in as many months blamed on conservative radicals in the country’s north, Afghan police and education officials said on Wednesday….

Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), says the Taliban appear intent on closing schools ahead of a 2014 withdrawal by foreign combat troops….

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education said last week that 550 schools in 11 provinces where the Taliban have strong support had been closed down by insurgents.

Perhaps it would be worse if officials pretended to care, because that would create expectations. But it’s worth remembering that, as Jamie Fly wrote in the April edition of COMMENTARY, concern about the treatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban predated 9/11:

The year was 1998 and Hollywood was up in arms over a new social cause: the plight of Afghan women under the repressive rule of the Taliban. Mavis Leno, wife of Jay Leno and chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, told members of Congress, “The U.S. bears some responsibility for the conditions of women in Afghanistan. For years our country provided weapons to the mujahideen groups to fight the Soviets.” Leno and the Feminist Majority pushed an extensive U.S. campaign to delegitimize the Taliban until the rights of female Afghans were recognized.

The Taliban enforced a strict morality code for both men and women, but women and girls bore the brunt of the most brutal repression… It is not surprising that such a moral wasteland came to serve as the staging ground for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as they planned the attacks of 9/11. Bin Laden’s ideology and that of his Taliban hosts sprang from the same vile swamp.

And to that “moral wasteland”–and the security threat it poses–Afghanistan may soon return. Fly argued for reversing cutbacks to Afghan security forces and renewed focus on negotiating with and strengthening the Afghan government, not the Taliban. Roth suggested the two sides “establish an independent mechanism — some sort of national ombudsman — where civilians could file complaints about the use of abusive force, and where officials would be authorized to investigate and, if appropriate, recommend prosecution.” He added that American aid to the Karzai government can be used as leverage.

But he also said that when he talked to officials about it during the NATO summit, everyone liked the idea, and no one expressed the least bit of interest in actually proposing it or fighting for it. The women of Afghanistan won’t soon forget the brief window of opportunity they had, nor will they forget our apparent apathy as it is taken from them.

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Obama Abandons the “Good War”

Throughout President Bush’s second term, the chief foreign policy mantra of the Democratic Party was to claim the United States was wrong not to concentrate its energy on winning the war in Afghanistan. That was the “good war” as opposed to the war supposedly entered on the basis of lies and which couldn’t be won. The surge President Bush ordered in 2007 undermined the talking point about Iraq being unwinnable, but the idea that Afghanistan was being shorted was heard a great deal in 2008 as Barack Obama was elected president. Once in the White House, the new president was forced to come to a decision about what to do in Afghanistan, and by the summer, he made good on his promise to fight the good war there. But along with his pledge to start a surge that could defeat the Taliban was a provision that critics at the time warned could undo all the good that could come of the new plan.

With the president set to announce at the G8 meetings in Chicago the complete end of American combat operations in 2013 whether or not Afghan forces are prepared to step into the breach, a front-page feature in today’s New York Times provides a helpful explanation of the decision. The piece, adapted from a new book by Times reporter David E. Sanger, makes it clear the administration never had fully backed the surge. Indeed, despite his “good war” rhetoric, Obama clearly never believed in the mission there to rid the country of the Taliban and was looking to back out of his commitment from the moment he made it. Having failed to go “all in” for the surge by not providing as many troops in the beginning as the military asked, the president then did not give the generals the opportunity to persuade him to slow down a planned withdrawal that only served to signal the enemy all they had to do was to hold on until the Americans left.

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Throughout President Bush’s second term, the chief foreign policy mantra of the Democratic Party was to claim the United States was wrong not to concentrate its energy on winning the war in Afghanistan. That was the “good war” as opposed to the war supposedly entered on the basis of lies and which couldn’t be won. The surge President Bush ordered in 2007 undermined the talking point about Iraq being unwinnable, but the idea that Afghanistan was being shorted was heard a great deal in 2008 as Barack Obama was elected president. Once in the White House, the new president was forced to come to a decision about what to do in Afghanistan, and by the summer, he made good on his promise to fight the good war there. But along with his pledge to start a surge that could defeat the Taliban was a provision that critics at the time warned could undo all the good that could come of the new plan.

With the president set to announce at the G8 meetings in Chicago the complete end of American combat operations in 2013 whether or not Afghan forces are prepared to step into the breach, a front-page feature in today’s New York Times provides a helpful explanation of the decision. The piece, adapted from a new book by Times reporter David E. Sanger, makes it clear the administration never had fully backed the surge. Indeed, despite his “good war” rhetoric, Obama clearly never believed in the mission there to rid the country of the Taliban and was looking to back out of his commitment from the moment he made it. Having failed to go “all in” for the surge by not providing as many troops in the beginning as the military asked, the president then did not give the generals the opportunity to persuade him to slow down a planned withdrawal that only served to signal the enemy all they had to do was to hold on until the Americans left.

As Sanger writes:

By early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit from Afghanistan. This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.

The key decisions had essentially been made already when Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his last months as commander in Afghanistan, arrived in Washington with a set of options for the president that called for a slow withdrawal of surge troops. He wanted to keep as many troops as possible in Afghanistan through the next fighting season, with a steep drop to follow. Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban. He said he “believed that we had a more limited set of objectives that could be accomplished by bringing the military out at a faster clip,” an aide reported.

Given the difficulties in fighting in Afghanistan for more than a decade and the enormous shortcomings of our local allies, especially President Hamid Karzai, fatigue with the war is understandable. But in light of the revelations about the president’s decision-making process, it is now apparent that the administration lacked the one thing any country needs in war: a commitment to victory. Without it, the Afghan surge was just a blip on the radar screen and, unlike the Iraqi insurgents who knew President Bush meant business during the U.S. surge in that war, the Taliban were right to discount the possibility that President Obama was just as tough-minded. Even at the outset of the new surge it’s clear now  the president saw it as merely a bloody prelude to a withdrawal with, as Sanger notes, no provision for what would happen if the Taliban start their own surge after the Americans leave.

The administration gives itself credit for having rethought strategy and concentrated instead on the real “good war” — fighting al-Qaeda in Pakistan. But if, as Sanger reports, the administration had concluded that there had never been a coherent U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the same is certainly true of American objectives in Pakistan. In truth, the U.S. has no strategy in Pakistan other than to keep attacking terrorists in the tribal areas with drones, a tactic that is deadly but has no chance of ridding the area of trouble or maintaining Pakistan as an ally in the war against the Islamists. The only thing that recommends this plan is that it requires few American troops and allows the president to adopt the “lead from behind” posture with which he is so comfortable.

President Obama’s 2009 decision to stay the course in Afghanistan and use a surge to fight the Taliban was the sort of responsible action that gave the lie to his detractors’ assertion that he had little understanding of the strategic imperatives of fighting the country’s Islamist foes. But, as we now know, the applause he earned then was largely undeserved. His only real goal was to bug out of Afghanistan but to do so without having lost the country before he ran for re-election in 2012.

The result is a plan that is a disaster in the making which will create a mess that will be all too apparent in the years to come. That’s something he’s willing to live with if he is re-elected. Whether it is one that can be reversed by his successor, either in 2013 or 2017, remains to be seen.

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Killing is Grim Reminder of Stymied Progress in Talks with Taliban

So another member of the Afghan High Peace Council, charged with striking a deal with the Taliban, has been assassinated. Mullah Arsala Rahmani’s demise, at the hands of an unknown gunman, comes less than a year after the assassination, by a suicide bomber, of the head of the peace council, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

You would think this would signal, as clearly as anything could, the contempt in which the Taliban hold peace talks. Yet, rest assured, this will not deter policymakers in Washington from making peace talks a central pillar of their Afghanistan policy. This relentless commitment to something so impractical is only the latest manifestation of that all too common Washington phenomenon: making policy based on hope, not reality, and substituting wishful thinking for actual evidence.

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So another member of the Afghan High Peace Council, charged with striking a deal with the Taliban, has been assassinated. Mullah Arsala Rahmani’s demise, at the hands of an unknown gunman, comes less than a year after the assassination, by a suicide bomber, of the head of the peace council, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

You would think this would signal, as clearly as anything could, the contempt in which the Taliban hold peace talks. Yet, rest assured, this will not deter policymakers in Washington from making peace talks a central pillar of their Afghanistan policy. This relentless commitment to something so impractical is only the latest manifestation of that all too common Washington phenomenon: making policy based on hope, not reality, and substituting wishful thinking for actual evidence.

Perhaps, before we pour any more energy into the “peace talks” boondoggle, someone could actually point to some concrete evidence that the Taliban leaders are actually interested in laying down their arms? Or is that too much to ask for?

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Taliban Exploits Grief of U.S. POW Family

The hearts of all Americans go out to the family of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only known U.S. soldier being held captive by the Taliban. Bergdahl was captured by the enemy in June 2009 and is thought to be in the control of the Haqqani network in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. He has never been allowed to send his parents any word nor has he been visited by the Red Cross. He was last seen in a Taliban video, but U.S. officials believe he is still alive. But after years of keeping silent about the ongoing negotiations that the government has attempted to free him, the Bergdahl family went public today and discussed their son’s plight with the New York Times. Their goal is to heighten the pressure on President Obama and his foreign policy team to give in to the demands of the Taliban on the release of prisoners held by the United States and our Afghan allies.

While their frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations is understandable, we can only hope the president will resist the pressure to give in to unreasonable demands not only on the prisoner exchange but concessions that would affect the future of Afghanistan. Though the United States should make every effort to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe return, his situation should not be used as a pretext for handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban and their terrorist allies.

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The hearts of all Americans go out to the family of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only known U.S. soldier being held captive by the Taliban. Bergdahl was captured by the enemy in June 2009 and is thought to be in the control of the Haqqani network in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. He has never been allowed to send his parents any word nor has he been visited by the Red Cross. He was last seen in a Taliban video, but U.S. officials believe he is still alive. But after years of keeping silent about the ongoing negotiations that the government has attempted to free him, the Bergdahl family went public today and discussed their son’s plight with the New York Times. Their goal is to heighten the pressure on President Obama and his foreign policy team to give in to the demands of the Taliban on the release of prisoners held by the United States and our Afghan allies.

While their frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations is understandable, we can only hope the president will resist the pressure to give in to unreasonable demands not only on the prisoner exchange but concessions that would affect the future of Afghanistan. Though the United States should make every effort to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe return, his situation should not be used as a pretext for handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban and their terrorist allies.

To its credit, the Times had not previously run a story on the effort to free Bergdahl because it was understood that publicity did not enhance his safety and merely aided the Taliban’s negotiating position. But the recent decision of the Taliban to break off the talks about Bergdahl prompted his family to go to the Times with their complaint that the administration isn’t being sufficiently accommodating to their son’s captors. The Bergdahls are worried that pressure from Congress not to negotiate with terrorists is influencing the president to be too tough. They hope by going public with their son’s story, they can generate pressure on the administration to give in. Moreover, the Times seems to think there are some in the government who welcome this pressure as they, too, would like to craft a deal with the Taliban that would effectively sell Afghanistan out.

I don’t fault the Bergdahls. The fact that, as the Times reports, they are Ron Paul supporters who oppose the war in Afghanistan is irrelevant to their mission to push for any deal to get their son back. Their only interest is in getting him home in one piece. The future of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the security interests of the region or the United States isn’t their concern–but it is the responsibility of the administration. As Bethany noted earlier this week, the administration has considered releasing Taliban prisoners without seeking the release of Sergeant Bergdahl in return.

If the Bergdahl case was like the lopsided prisoner exchanges conducted by Israel in order to obtain the release of prisoners like Gilad Shalit, drastic concessions would be understandable if regrettable, as it could be defended as part of the commander-in-chief’s duty not to leave any soldier behind. But as the Times makes clear, the Taliban’s goal is not so much to extract the highest possible price in prisoners for Bergdahl as it is to enhance its diplomatic efforts to force a peace deal that would bring them back to power. That is not something the administration should countenance. Nor should ordinary Americans who sympathize with the Bergdahls allow their emotions to cloud their reason.

Far from helping to free their son, the Bergdahls’ publicity offensive and any pressure they can help generate on the administration will only strengthen the bargaining position of Islamist terrorists. Much as Hamas and Hezbollah used Israeli prisoner families to make it harder for Jerusalem to negotiate, the Taliban will ruthlessly use the Bergdahls as long as it suits them.

The president should do everything in his power to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home including the paying of a ransom of some sort. But he cannot allow the family’s publicity efforts to influence him to sacrifice everything Americans have fought for in Afghanistan in the last decade.

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There Is No “Kinder, Gentler” Taliban

Are the Taliban the sort of people we can successfully negotiate with to guarantee the future of Afghanistan? You would think so based on the number of voices in Washington claiming the Taliban have learned lessons from the past decade and they will not be as dedicated to their hateful agenda in the future. We hear they supposedly are willing to give up their alliance with al-Qaeda, their insistence on enslaving the Afghan people to their fundamentalist philosophy, and so on. If only it were so. Alas, this is all wishful thinking from those who want to pull out of the war but avert their eyes from the consequences of an American pullout.

In reality, there is not a shred of evidence the Taliban have moderated in any way. Witness recent Taliban attacks on those trying to educate Afghan boys and girls. In Ghazni Province, Taliban threats recently forced the closure of a school teaching boys and girls together. Indeed, the Taliban have forced the closing of all schools (about 50 in all) in 14 of 17 districts in that province, where Polish troops have had not had much success in pacification efforts. (A brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division is now coming into Ghazni to increase security.) In Paktika Province, meanwhile, Taliban goons ambushed with bombs and guns a convoy of education officials, killing five and wounding three. Paktika is a province in eastern Afghanistan where there have not been nearly enough American and Afghan troops and where plans for “clear and hold” operations are on hold because of the overly hasty troop drawdown ordered by President Obama.

So much for the “kinder, gentler” Taliban. These latest atrocities expose this conceit for the wishful thinking that it is. The Taliban must be defeated, not accommodated.

 

Are the Taliban the sort of people we can successfully negotiate with to guarantee the future of Afghanistan? You would think so based on the number of voices in Washington claiming the Taliban have learned lessons from the past decade and they will not be as dedicated to their hateful agenda in the future. We hear they supposedly are willing to give up their alliance with al-Qaeda, their insistence on enslaving the Afghan people to their fundamentalist philosophy, and so on. If only it were so. Alas, this is all wishful thinking from those who want to pull out of the war but avert their eyes from the consequences of an American pullout.

In reality, there is not a shred of evidence the Taliban have moderated in any way. Witness recent Taliban attacks on those trying to educate Afghan boys and girls. In Ghazni Province, Taliban threats recently forced the closure of a school teaching boys and girls together. Indeed, the Taliban have forced the closing of all schools (about 50 in all) in 14 of 17 districts in that province, where Polish troops have had not had much success in pacification efforts. (A brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division is now coming into Ghazni to increase security.) In Paktika Province, meanwhile, Taliban goons ambushed with bombs and guns a convoy of education officials, killing five and wounding three. Paktika is a province in eastern Afghanistan where there have not been nearly enough American and Afghan troops and where plans for “clear and hold” operations are on hold because of the overly hasty troop drawdown ordered by President Obama.

So much for the “kinder, gentler” Taliban. These latest atrocities expose this conceit for the wishful thinking that it is. The Taliban must be defeated, not accommodated.

 

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A Case for Tactical Prisoner Releases

I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

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I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

We do not have the full story of prisoner releases in Afghanistan, but based on the evidence presented in the Post article, the program appears to be modeled on the one in Iraq–and to be based, as in Iraq, on a hard-headed calculation by local commanders of what incentives they need to offer to local tribes and factions to come over to the government’s side. The only release actually described in the Post article involved a local leader of Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin in Wardak province whose followers had agreed to start fighting against the Taliban–another insurgent faction. This was precisely the type of “split the insurgency” mentality that made possible the success of the surge in Iraq. Under those circumstances, it would seem reasonable to release a HiG leader as a reward for his cooperation against our mutual enemies.

This type of release, made in return for real cooperation on the ground, is very different from the deal being contemplated by the Obama administration for the release of senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo in return, it would seem, for nothing more than a willingness of the Taliban to engage in peace talks. That would appear to be a one-sided exchange which would signal weakness to our enemies who are far from defeated–and very different from the type of tactical prisoner releases that make sense when erstwhile enemies are prepared to switch sides or stop fighting.

 

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Why Are We Releasing, Not Exchanging, Taliban Prisoners?

Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

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Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

Almost exactly four years ago, in May 0f 2008 during an address before the Israeli Knesset then-candidate Barack Obama stated,

George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.

Besides a general easing of tension which this policy is trying to foster, there is one very real concession that the president has seemed to ignore in his concessions to the devil (they’re only called deals if you get something in return, which we have not).

On June 30, 2009, almost three years ago, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho was kidnapped by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. He is the only prisoner of war currently held by the Taliban and recent video releases seem to indicate that he is being kept alive for ransom by the group. A month after his capture the president issued a statement, explaining that he was “heartbroken” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s situation and vowed to bring him home. In three years, this seems to be the only public statement made by the President about Bergdahl.

In December, The Daily Beast was the only outlet to report on a heroic escape attempt by the sergeant. After working for over two years to gain the trust of his captors, Bergdahl jumped out of a first-story window, running into the wilderness. The Daily Beast tells the story,

Mullah Sangin and his brother Mullah Balal, who had been put in charge of the prisoner, organized a search as soon as the escape was discovered. Nevertheless, the sources say, Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances.

This is the caliber of soldier that the United States and its military produces, the American that the president seems to have forgotten about for almost three years.

Shortly before Bergdahl’s kidnapping, the United States was comfortable negotiating the release of terrorists in exchange for British hostages. Andrew McCarthy at National Review made the connection:

And although the administration has attempted to pass off Laith Qazali’s release as a necessary compromise of American national interests for the purportedly greater good of Iraqi reconciliation, the camouflage is thin indeed. Transparently, the terrorist has been freed as a quid pro quo for the release of British hostages. According to the New York Times, Sami al-Askari, another Maliki mouthpiece, told an interviewer:

This is a very sensitive topic because you know the position that the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British governments, and all the governments do not accept the idea of exchanging hostages for prisoners. . . . So we put it in another format, and we told them that if they want to participate in the political process they cannot do so while they are holding hostages. And we mentioned to the American side that they cannot join in the political process and release their hostages while their leaders are behind bars or imprisoned.

In 2008 it was Barack Obama’s policy not to engage with terrorists under any circumstances. In 2009, his administration was comfortable exchanging American prisoners for British hostages. In 2012, it has become clear it was the long-standing policy of the administration to release American-held terrorist prisoners while asking for nothing in exchange, not even an American POW.

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Voters Reject Idea War on Terror is Over

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.

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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.

Will President Obama’s speech last night, hailing the beginning of the end of the “time of war” (formerly known as the Global War on Terror) convince the American people the terror threat is behind us? Despite all that has been accomplished since 2001, including the crippling blows to al-Qaeda that Obama emphasized last night, it’s often difficult to be optimistic. We’re about to enter the bloodiest time of year in Afghanistan. The Taliban may be weakened and desperate, but it is still capable, as we saw from last night’s suicide bombing and last week’s attack in Kabul. And after the spate of attacks on American troops by Afghan soldiers and police, handing off U.S. responsibilities to Afghan security forces seems like an insurmountable challenge.

Obama sounded hopeful last night when he talked about “the light of a new day on the horizon.” But the American public seems to realize that, contrary to the ’60s cliché, war isn’t over just because you want it to be.

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Bring the War to the Taliban

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.

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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.

Dialogue is an important tool in the U.S. strategic arsenal, but if misapplied, it can extract a high cost. Before engaging in dialogue with enemies, it is important to set the right circumstances. When President Ronald Reagan engaged Mikhail Gorbachev, he did so only after ensuring he could do so from a position of strength.

Alas, the Foreign Service Institute may preach peace and dialogue, but it fails at its job to inculcate strategy. At present, the Taliban see America as desperate, hoping to strike a deal before fleeing, Obama’s speech notwithstanding. The United States has allowed the Taliban to open an office in Qatar—not only giving the group diplomatic legitimacy but also opening new fundraising opportunities—and has offered a series of unilateral concessions to the group, including releasing terrorists and human rights abusers from Guantanamo Bay. In exchange, the United States has gotten absolutely nothing. It should not surprise that the Taliban do not see the Americans as strong.

If the Obama administration wants the Taliban to take diplomacy seriously, it must convince Mullah Omar that the alternative is far worse. If the Taliban seeks to bolster its negotiating position by launching attacks, it is time for American forces to do likewise—not precise attacks to take out a single high value target, but missions to slaughter hundreds of Taliban fighters regardless of their rank and wherever they seek to hide. If diplomacy is to work—and, with an ideological adversary like the Taliban I strongly doubt it will—it is time to presage it with a slaughter, the likes of which the Taliban has never experienced.

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Obama Spiking the Football Before Forfeiting the Game

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.

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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.

At present, the Afghans get perhaps $15 billion per year in foreign aid. The Afghan government estimates it needs $10 billion per year from donors after 2014. It will take $6 billion per year to finance a 352,000-man Afghan army and police force; extracting savings by shrinking the force is self-defeating. The World Bank has predicted an unmanageable fiscal crisis if Afghanistan has to finance its own security forces.

Beyond the lack of certainty regarding Afghanistan’s finances and American willingness to support Afghanistan and its mercurial president, the Obama team’s outreach to the Taliban promises to accelerate defeat. Hasht-e Sobh (8 a.m.),  Afghanistan’s newspaper of record, has published an article suggesting the following, according to an Open Source Center translation:

Reports said a few days ago that the United States will release former Taliban Interior Minister Mullah Khairkhwah and another key Taliban prisoner from Guantanamo prison. According to reports, these prisoners will be released as a confidence-building measure so that talks between the United States and Taliban can resume. Mullah Khairkhwah will be transferred to Qatar, the reports said. A number of MPs, who wished to remain anonymous, had even said that he might be sent to Kabul.

Colin Powell once famously proposed reaching out to “moderate Taliban.” Khairkhwah is no moderate.  As a key Taliban security official prior to 9/11, he protected bin Laden and has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands.

Hasht-e Sobh continues:

A number of Pakistani media have also reported that the United States has asked the Taliban to issue a statement and declare their separation from Al-Qa’ida. The Taliban, however, have rejected to do so.

Celebrating the new U.S.-Afghan Agreement is premature; it is written in smoke rather than ink. Punting discussion of details and funding to the future will be no more successful than past administrations which celebrated Arab-Israeli breakthroughs while final status issues remained untouched and unresolved. Had Obama stopped there, perhaps no harm would have been done. However, the combination of a timeline and outreach to the Taliban is a noxious mix that destines any American strategy to defeat.  Until and unless the commander-in-chief is willing to sign on to a strategy to defeat the Taliban completely rather than co-opt and flee, he is simply spiking the football at halftime, before forfeiting the game.

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Afghans Question Karzai’s Loyalty

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.”

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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.”

I disagree with Max Boot that the attacks on Kabul are a sign of weakness (would the reverse logic, a lack of attacks on Kabul then be a sign of Taliban strength?), Boot is absolutely correct to highlight how well the Afghan security forces have availed themselves in defending the city and repulsing the attacks. Unfortunately, the Afghans are up against not only the Taliban, but also the Obama’s administration’s self-defeating timelines and an Afghan president who, believing American staying power to be a mirage, is actively becoming an impediment to victory rather than the hope for the future.

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The Hypocrisy of the LA Times

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.

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.

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Kabul Attack Hardly a Sign of Strength

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.

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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.

For the sake of comparison look at this description from the Encyclopedia Britannica of the 1968 Tet Offensive:

“On January 31 … the communists launched an offensive throughout South Vietnam. They attacked 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals, five of the six major cities, and more than two dozen airfields and bases. Westmoreland’s Saigon headquarters came under attack, and a VC squad even penetrated the compound of the U.S. embassy. In Hue, the former imperial Vietnamese capital, communist troops seized control of more than half the city and held it for nearly three weeks.”

Now that was an attack indicating insurgent strength, even if much of that strength was decimated in the robust U.S.-South Vietnamese offensive. The fact that Vietnamese capitals were able to attack dozens of cities with roughly 80,000 men showed impressive capabilities; they were even able to hold the city of Hue for a few weeks before being expelled by U.S. Marines. The fact that the Haqqanis were able to muster 40 gunmen to attack seven sites–not so impressive.

 

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