Commentary Magazine


Topic: Taliban

Attacks in Kabul Show Taliban’s Weakness

“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.

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“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.

Just look at the casualty count: Apparently two Afghan police officers were killed in the attacks and 14 injured along with some 30 civilians. There were no reports of any serious casualties to Americans or other international forces. The attackers failed to gain possession of the Parliament building or any other target, and they were swiftly defeated by Afghan Security Forces who needed minimal assistance from coalition forces. Gen. John Allen, the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan, said: “I am enormously proud of how quickly Afghan security forces responded to today’s attacks in Kabul. They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained.”

Any imputation that the insurgents are on the verge of taking Kabul–or even seriously destabilizing it–is far off the mark. I visited the capital two weeks ago and found, as I have previously noted, that the streets are thronged with people: hardly the sign of a city under siege. I remember Baghdad in the dark days of 2006-2007 when entire neighborhoods were ghost towns. There is nothing like that going on in Kabul. That is not to deny the seriousness of the insurgency but simply to note that it is not a major, ongoing threat in Kabul. Otherwise, the residents of the capital would not feel safe to move around as freely as they do. There has not been a major insurgent attack in the capital in half a year. If this is the best the Haqqanis could do for a comeback, their efforts are indicative of the growing weakness of the insurgency and the growing strength of the security forces.

That is not to say that a positive outcome in Afghanistan is inevitable–it is anything but. However, it does indicate that if we lose, it will be because of our ardent desire to pull out–not because the Taliban have the capacity to evict us or to defeat our Afghan allies. This is so as long as they receive a reasonable amount of aid to counterbalance the aid the insurgents receive from Pakistan.

 

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Time to Take Action in Pakistan

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.

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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.

Yet why does the U.S. still insist on treating Pakistan as a wayward ally—a difficult friend but a friend nevertheless? It is well past time to wake up from this delusion and start to take actions the Pakistani army may adamantly oppose—such as using drone strikes to target Haqqani and Afghan Taliban leaders living in Pakistan—but that are essential to protect our troops in Afghanistan and our interests in the region.

Instead, we continue to subsidize the very Pakistani state which is making war on us and our friends. As commentator Sarah Chayes noted in an article about Afghanistan (which I took some exception with): “Imagine Washington openly financing North Vietnam in 1970.”

 

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Despite Mistakes by U.S. Military, Still Not Time to Pull Out of Afghanistan

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.”

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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.”

In support of this provocative claim, Chayes cites various incidents where international troops have accidentally killed other Afghan civilians–including her fellow cooperative workers–and inflicted damage property in the course of their war against the Taliban. The war, she argues, is “chewing up the villagers”–and the men who are called upon to leave their homes to fight in Afghanistan. Men like Bales. She writes:

Never before has so much been asked of such a small segment of the American population. A startling proportion of the troops I’ve seen in Afghanistan have deployed three or more times: They make up less than 12 percent of the less than 1 percent of us in uniform. They endure multiple tours, layering scars on top of scars, becoming strangers to their children, unable to readjust to family life before shipping out again, bearing physical and psychological wounds in aching loneliness.

Chayes is absolutely right about the cost of the war on all concerned and about the serious mistakes made by the coalition, including not taking seriously enough the issue of corruption–a concern Chayes has repeatedly and courageously and correctly raised. Where I dissent is in her implication that Bales was a victim of a misguided war policy or that the mistakes that have been made could justify simply pulling out of Afghanistan–not a contention that Chayes makes in her article but a conclusion some will surely take away from it.

However much we ask of men like Bales who have deployed to combat on multiple occasions–however much stress we place on these men or, perhaps more accurately because they are all volunteers, however much stress they place on themselves–it can in no way justify or even explain his terrible acts. Tens of thousands of other veterans have served just as much if not longer in ground combat than Bales has, and they have not turned into homicidal monsters. In fact, their restraint in the use of force and empathy for civilians–exemplified by the recent story of a soldier who gave his life to save an Afghan child–has been exemplary by any standard. No doubt many soldiers have experienced stress and various traumas; but no one has done anything as heinous as what Bales is accused of doing. His act of evil cannot be cited as an example of combat stress. It is sui generis.

As for the Afghan victims of American and other international mistakes: I feel for them, but we must never forget that the international presence is the only thing keeping a far greater evil from taking power–namely the Taliban. Chayes knows better than I do the terrible cruelty inflicted by the Taliban during their years of rule. If we pull out prematurely there is unfortunately a good chance the Taliban will come back into power and  Afghanistan will be plunged into another terrible civil war as it was in the 1990s. By contrast, U.S. troops, for all their faults, have managed to push the Taliban out of many of their sanctuaries in Helmand and Kandahar and have given Afghans a chance at a better life. Kabul, for what it’s worth, is a bustling city full of street life, as I saw for myself for the umpteenth time a few days ago–it is a far cry from the devastated metropolis of the 1990s.

I sympathize with Chayes’ laments about American mistakes and the suffering of the Afghan people. But it would be to compound the errors of the past and to increase their suffering of the Afghans for the U.S. to leave prematurely.

 

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The Afghan Protests Over Koran Burnings

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.

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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.

That tallies with what I wrote in this Wall Street Journal oped in which I argued based on polling data that most Afghans don’t hate America and don’t want our troops to leave while a Pakistan-backed insurgency continues to rage. Given the relatively small size, and and political motivations of, the protests, they do little to suggest that there has been any reversal in the thinking of most Afghans. But there is no doubt that, Koran burning or no Koran burning, the Taliban tactic of encouraging members of the security forces to turn their guns on American troops has been an effective one–not because it poses a serious danger to our troops’ ability to accomplish the mission but primarily because it (wrongly) sends a signal to Americans back home that we have no reliable allies in Afghanistan.

This sense of disgust with the Afghans and despair about the state of the war effort add momentum to the efforts of those in the administration, led by Vice President Biden, who want to pull out troops out more quickly. But it is hard to see why their preferred approach, focusing on a small number of Special Operations Forces and advisers, is any better. A smaller number of troops will be be able to exert less control and will not be able to defend themselves as well as our force of nearly 100,000 can today. In fact, the faster we withdraw, the more likely it is there will be more shocking incidents of violence including “green on blue” attacks with Afghan soldiers killing American troops.

That, in turn, will feed into even greater opposition to the war effort back home and make it impossible for us to achieve any of our objectives in Afghanistan, even the most minimal.

It would be a tragedy if, after being driven out of their safe havens in Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban were able to stage a comeback because of the willingness of a handful of killers wearing Afghan uniforms to ambush unsuspecting American advisers. It’s not much of a tactic for a conventional war but as a tactic for information warfare–in many ways the dominant battlefield today–it is fiendishly effective.

 

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Time to Target Insurgents in Pakistan

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.

 

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.

 

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What Diplomats Can Learn from the Military

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.

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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.

It’s no secret the State Department is poor at negotiations. In recent years, the North Koreans, Russians, and Iranians have outmaneuvered their American counterparts to the detriment of U.S. national security. Top-level negotiators edit junior diplomats’ cables and memorandums of conversation to substitute what was said with what they wished they had said. Seldom do ambassadors tolerate independent process observers.

Perhaps the State Department should take a lesson from their comrades in uniform. After every negotiating session, officials should identify what they won, what they lost, what they might have done better, and be merciless in identifying pivotal mistakes. Any new diplomat entering a region should be required to read and drill in the detail of the negotiations and their after-action reports, rather than simply taking the last agreement as a starting point.

Take the efforts to negotiate with the Taliban: While these negotiations have become the central pillar for Obama’s efforts to extricate America from Afghanistan, they are hardly new, yet there has never been a State Department effort to review their previous, unsuccessful negotiations, to determine what went wrong. I wrote about the 1995-2000 Taliban talks for COMMENTARY, but I was glad to see Karl Inderfurth, a participant in those earlier negotiations, revisit his experience in Foreign Policy. He counseled better preparation for negotiations:

“Several probing questions need to be asked of Taliban representatives,” he wrote:

  • Do the Taliban accept a political solution to the Afghanistan conflict, and what is their vision of it?
  • Do the Taliban have a political and economic plan for the future of Afghanistan?
  • Will they accept the international instruments to which Afghanistan has acceded, particularly with regard to human rights?
  • Will they honor and enforce the rights of women, minorities and ethnic groups?
  • Will they respect the role of shuras (tribal councils): local, provincial and national?
  • Are they willing to support and abide by internationally acceptable mechanisms of legitimization, like elections, referendums or tribal consensus?

None of these questions, he related, could be answered affirmatively in the 1990s. “Can they be [answered affirmatively] today?” he asked.

Without undertaking extensive reviews of lessons learned, regular role-playing exercises—the diplomatic equivalent of war games with seasoned experts playing adversaries—and preparing extensively ahead of meetings, American diplomats, no matter how capable they might be, will get played.

Diplomacy can’t be done off the cuff, and failed episodes should never be forgotten. Inderfurth concludes his article by quoting Winston Churchill’s famous quip that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” There’s a reason, however, why the United States has the most powerful military in the world, but at present lags behind in effective diplomacy.

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Operations in Afghanistan Can’t End Early

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.

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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.

The specifics of the downsizing matter less than the signal it sends—a signal of American irresolution. Already housing prices are falling in Kabul and Afghans who are able to do so are moving their assets offshore. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters interrogated by the coalition are confident of victory after 2014. In this climate there is little to no chance peace talks will succeed at doing anything except providing a Nixonian fig leaf covering the American abandonment of an embattled ally.

Obama may claim he is ending the war, but he is actually widening it by making much more likely a resumption of the large-scale civil war that tore Afghanistan apart and led to the rise of the Taliban, which, for all the mindless chatter about their supposed “moderation,” remains as closely linked as ever to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Having begun his administration with a buildup in Afghanistan, the president is now busy dismantling that strategy and substituting for it—what? A policy of hope and sleight-of-hand whose bankruptcy is likely to be brutally revealed in the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 

 

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Taliban Far From Ready to Give Up Struggle to Take Over Afghanistan

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.

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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.

There is also the concrete prospect of the U.S. releasing senior Taliban prisoners to facilitate talks. This article has a rundown on some of the detainees who may be released as part of this process–it makes for dismaying reading because of all the atrocities they have committed. I am not opposed to prisoner releases per se, but they should only be undertaken when there is concrete evidence of goodwill on the other side. That was apparent in Iraq where Sunnis switched sides and began fighting against al-Qaeda in 2007. I am still waiting for any evidence of Pashtuns defecting en masse from the Taliban and being willing to take up arms against their former comrades. Until that happens, I suspect, peace negotiations will result in more war–not peace.

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Marines Mess Up Mission in 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.

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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.

The Marines often speak of the “strategic corporal”–the notion being that decisions made even by a lowly corporal can have high-level repercussions. This is a perfect example; indeed, one of the urinating Marines was a corporal. Now everyone from the secretary of defense to the secretary of state has to rush out to try to clean up the mess made by these leathernecks.

How bad a mess it is remains to be seen. This is no Abu Ghraib. It is not even of the same magnitude as the acts committed by a small group of U.S. soldiers who in 2010 killed three Afghan civilians for “sport.” One might even argue there is even some potential benefit in the Marines’ actions–that they are exhibiting a kind of machismo common among warriors in all wars, and one that Afghans schooled in a hard way of war can appreciate and respect. But even if this is a relatively minor scandal, it is no excuse for criminally unprofessional behavior beneath the high standards of the Marine Corps. These are actions that should be met with punishment accordingly.

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New Intelligence Estimates on Afghanistan

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.

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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.

I would not say, as the NIE apparently does, the war effort is mired in a “stalemate.” There has been palpable progress especially in the south, which I have seen with my own eyes. That doesn’t mean this NIE is all wrong. It raises legitimate doubts about the administration’s preferred policies in Afghanistan.

According to the Times, it “asserts that the Afghan government in Kabul may not be able to survive as the U.S. steadily pulls out its troops and reduces military and civilian assistance.” It also says recent offensives “haven’t diminished the Taliban’s will to keep fighting.” Both of those judgments sound credible to me—which is why I find it so incredible that so much hope is once again being placed in peace talks with the Taliban, who are opening an office in Qatar. A negotiated settlement will supposedly enable the U.S. to withdraw our troops by 2014 without risking a collapse in Kabul.

As the NIE makes clear, this is wishful thinking: the Taliban aren’t about to give up, and any settlement they agree to now is more likely to trigger a civil war than to end the fighting.

 

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A Faux Peace with the Taliban Is No Excuse for Pulling the Plug on Afghanistan

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.

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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.

It would hardly be surprising if the Taliban are interested in pursuing a similar strategy today. If I were Mullah Omar that is precisely what I would do: Sign some peace of paper promising an end to support for international terrorism and perhaps to domestic terrorism as well, then, after the U.S. has pulled out (as we have signaled we will do by the end of 2014 in any case), march on Kandahar and then Kabul. The large segment of Afghan society that fears a resurgence of Taliban rule–especially among the Tajiks, Hazaras and other ethnic minorities–is afraid of precisely this scenario, which is why they mutter about the prospects of civil war whenever negotiations with the Taliban appear to be heating up. Far from guaranteeing peace, an agreement with the Taliban–if made before they are actually defeated–would most likely be consigning Afghanistan to the same kind of hellish Hobbesian struggle the country saw in the 1990s.

None of this is an argument against talking to the Taliban; we talked to the Soviets throughout the Cold War, and there is always some value in sounding out one’s adversaries. But it is an argument for not inflating our expectations and especially for not using a faux peace with the Taliban as an excuse for pulling the plug on our commitment to Afghanistan’s future.

 

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For Whom Does the Taliban Ring Tone Toll?

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.
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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.

Kabul, by contrast, is relatively secure — notwithstanding the occasional Haqqani Network atrocity. Many of the surrounding areas are secure too, e.g. Parwan Province to the northwest, whose Tajik and HAZARA population is immune to the lure of the Taliban. The trouble really starts in the east and south where coalition forces have not been present in enough density to guarantee security. In particular Logar, Wardak and Ghazni provinces, all south of Kabul, have been and remain prime Taliban areas because so few American troops have been deployed there.

The NATO plan was always to secure Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south and then transition the main effort to eastern Afghanistan and to the area around the capital itself. If Gen. John Allen is given the forces he needs, there is little doubt that he can implement this plan with considerable success. But there is considerable doubt now as to whether he will get the forces he needs — or whether President Obama will declare a premature pullout which will leave the Taliban in control of areas an hour’s drive from Kabul. If we do depart too soon it will be a disaster — and those Taliban checkpoints will start inexorable closing in on Kabul itself.

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Obama’s Muddled Thinking on Afghanistan

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:

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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:

President Obama has already ordered the withdrawal by September of the 33,000 troops he sent to Afghanistan last year. “The big debate,” a Defense official said, is “can you come up with another number for what happens over the next 12 months” after that drawdown. “The argument will once again be the military saying let’s keep it at 68,000,” the number of troops who will remain in September, “and [Vice President] Biden saying let’s get it down to 20,000 really quickly, with the reality somewhere in between.”

Although Biden lost the argument over the surge in late 2009, officials said the internal administration balance has shifted toward a steeper glide path that would put the Afghans in charge sooner rather than later, in conjunction with a political settlement.

This is a fair description, I believe, of the president’s deeply muddled thinking on the future of Afghanistan. It suggests that he will make future decisions as he made decisions in the past: on a split-the-difference model. In 2010, he tacitly endorsed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request to pursue a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy but provided the minimal amount of resources required—only about 30,000 extra troops, which was at the “high risk” side of the options offered by McChrystal. This was in essence an attempt to compromise between McChrystal and Joe Biden, who advocated sending even fewer troops and pursuing a lesser, counterterrorism-focused mission. Then in June of this year, Obama ordered the premature withdrawal of those 30,000+ troops—they will be pulled out by September 2012, well ahead of the recommendations of military commanders. Now, with military commanders asking to keep at least 68,000 troops through 2014, President Obama seems set to draw down much faster than they recommend—although not to the extent advocated by the most strident anti-war voices.

You can see the political logic of what Obama is doing: He is trying to please both hawks and doves. Unfortunately, war is not a realm where half measures are likely to succeed. Adopting an ambitious strategy, as we’ve done in Afghanistan, but not resourcing it adequately, as Obama has also done, is a recipe for slow-motion failure. It is a high-risk strategy that is likely to get a lot of troops killed and for no good reason. Paradoxically, sending more troops would actually reduce casualties by making it easier to dominate the battlefield.

Not only does this make little sense strategically, it makes little sense politically: Obama will get just as much flak for keeping 50,000 troops in Afghanistan
as he would for 68,000. But the higher number provides a greater chance of success; more troops still would heighten our chances even more. If we are going to fight in Afghanistan, Obama needs to go “all in” as President Bush did during the surge in Iraq. He should not pin his hopes on peace talks which are unlikely to go anywhere.

 

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Biden on the Taliban: They Call it “Strategery”

Michael Rubin and Max Boot rightly take the Obama administration to task for Vice President Biden’s assertion that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” Max, charitably, believes the comment illustrates the administration’s ability to confuse friend and foe, while Michael draws the broader conclusion that American diplomats — unlike the U.S. military – have demonstrated a persistent inability to learn from, or even to know about, the history of their failures, in this case the history of failed U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.

My own take is different. Biden is basically correct in saying that “there is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.”

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Michael Rubin and Max Boot rightly take the Obama administration to task for Vice President Biden’s assertion that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” Max, charitably, believes the comment illustrates the administration’s ability to confuse friend and foe, while Michael draws the broader conclusion that American diplomats — unlike the U.S. military – have demonstrated a persistent inability to learn from, or even to know about, the history of their failures, in this case the history of failed U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.

My own take is different. Biden is basically correct in saying that “there is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.”

Indeed, as far back as early 2009, in his speech before a joint session of Congress, President Obama spoke about combating al-Qaeda, but failed to mention the Taliban. Not to pat myself on the back, but this was what I wrote at the time:

The comprehensive strategy that he promises may be one that seeks to reconcile with the Taliban while continuing isolated strikes against terrorist safe havens. Indeed, his strongest promise of all on national security issues was his assurance that he would not allow such safe havens to plot against the U.S. That promise, firm in isolation, foreshadows a return to the Clinton-era policy of counter-terrorism by cruise missile, just as his promise of “swift and certain justice” for captured terrorists implies a return to the view that terrorism is largely a law enforcement issue. If so, he will be returning to a well-trodden and failed path, one that led directly to 9/11.

Almost three years later, that looks like a good prediction. So I think my friends are selling this administration short when they blame Vice President Biden’s statements on confusion or ignorance. That gives the administration too little credit. These statements represent, instead, the next phase in a strategy that the administration has had in mind from the very beginning: to get out of Afghanistan as rapidly as politically possible by separating – in the minds of the American people if not in reality – al-Qaeda from the Taliban.

Contrary to Michael, the problem is not that Obama and Biden are uninterested in the evidence of our failed efforts to engage the Taliban. The problem is that – as Max notes in another context – they want to get out of Afghanistan, and they believe that they can facilitate this in the American political context by depicting the Taliban as irrelevant to our security interests. And sadly, the evidence of the steadily-declining popular support for the war during the past year suggests that, politically, this calculation is correct.

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Biden Says the Taliban Are Not the Enemy?

One of the greatest differences between the State and Defense Departments is the amount of time the latter spends on self-criticism to determine lessons learned, and the former’s refusal to do so. It is one of the reasons we have the strongest militaries in the world, and some of the least effective diplomacy.

For example, many diplomats say that negotiation with the Taliban is worth trying. Secretary of State Clinton has gone so far as to compare the U.S. officials’ willingness to sit with their Soviet counterparts to the Obama administration’s outreach to Mullah Omar. While negotiation with the Taliban may now be a central pillar of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, such State Department efforts to negotiate with the Taliban are not new. In the years before 9/11, American diplomats and senior Clinton administration officials met the Taliban on almost three dozen occasions. Never have the State Department (let alone the Obama administration) conducted lessons learned on how the State Department’s best and brightest allowed the Taliban to string American officials along during these years with false declarations of sincerity and promises to resolve the terrorism problem through negotiation. All the while, the Taliban protected the training camps in which 9/11 hijackers trained.

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One of the greatest differences between the State and Defense Departments is the amount of time the latter spends on self-criticism to determine lessons learned, and the former’s refusal to do so. It is one of the reasons we have the strongest militaries in the world, and some of the least effective diplomacy.

For example, many diplomats say that negotiation with the Taliban is worth trying. Secretary of State Clinton has gone so far as to compare the U.S. officials’ willingness to sit with their Soviet counterparts to the Obama administration’s outreach to Mullah Omar. While negotiation with the Taliban may now be a central pillar of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, such State Department efforts to negotiate with the Taliban are not new. In the years before 9/11, American diplomats and senior Clinton administration officials met the Taliban on almost three dozen occasions. Never have the State Department (let alone the Obama administration) conducted lessons learned on how the State Department’s best and brightest allowed the Taliban to string American officials along during these years with false declarations of sincerity and promises to resolve the terrorism problem through negotiation. All the while, the Taliban protected the training camps in which 9/11 hijackers trained.

Against this backdrop, as Max noted earlier, Vice President Joseph Biden’s declaration that the Taliban are not necessarily America’s enemy is as distressing as it is foolish. The statement may be designed to promote further engagement, but Biden is ignorant that such statements and redefinitions have been tried before. The Taliban underlined its disdain for negotiations when it assassinated former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was Afghanistan President Karzai’s point man for reconciliation. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who assumed command of al-Qaeda upon bin Laden’s death, also called attempts to engage the Taliban “a sign of the government weakness.” A columnist for the pan-Arabic daily ­al-Hayat noted that “The message that others can infer from the ‘diplomacy of dialogue’ pursued by the Obama administration is that extremism is the most effective way to attract the United States’ attention.” The website of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a fierce Islamist allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, has described Obama’s offer to negotiate with moderate Taliban as a sign of U.S. defeat.

The evidence that negotiation with the Taliban has backfired is overwhelming; there is no evidence it has achieved any positive results. Alas, neither Obama nor Biden is interested in evidence. Their policy is made in a vacuum, detached from reality, and is destined once again to reverse America’s gains and to condemn America to strategic defeat.

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Major Confusion in the Administration

There is some major confusion pervading the senior layers of the Obama administration when it comes to defining and understanding who our enemies are. At least that’s the only conclusion one can draw from a couple of recent quotes a friend pointed out to me.

Exhibit A: In this interview with my Council colleague Les Gelb, Vice President Biden had this to say: “Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.” That’s quite a statement to make about a terrorist/guerrilla group U.S. forces have been fighting since the fall of 2001–a group that is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and other trans-national extremist groups and that is making a violent assault on every liberal, decent value that Americans hold dear.

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There is some major confusion pervading the senior layers of the Obama administration when it comes to defining and understanding who our enemies are. At least that’s the only conclusion one can draw from a couple of recent quotes a friend pointed out to me.

Exhibit A: In this interview with my Council colleague Les Gelb, Vice President Biden had this to say: “Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.” That’s quite a statement to make about a terrorist/guerrilla group U.S. forces have been fighting since the fall of 2001–a group that is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and other trans-national extremist groups and that is making a violent assault on every liberal, decent value that Americans hold dear.

Exhibit B: Wendy Sherman, the No. 3 official in the State Department, had this to say of the late Kim Jong Il: “He was smart and a quick problem-solver. He is also witty and humorous. Our overall impression was very different from the way he was known to the outside world.” That’s quite a statement to make about one of the most odious dictators to rule any country since World War II–a man who presided over the deaths of millions of his own people from an artificial famine and who developed nuclear weapons that could yet wreak devastation on American soil or the soil of one of our allies.

I would not want to read too much into two stray comments. And I would not want to suggest that Biden is a fan of the Taliban or that Sherman was an acolyte of Kim Jong Il. (Biden did cover himself somewhat, at the risk of intellectual incoherence, when he said in the very next sentence after the one I previously quoted: “If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us.”)  But at the very least, these statements reveal a troubling tendency to see the best in our foes–which prevents us from making an accurate assessment of the threats we actually face and mobilizing the appropriate resources and determination to confront those threats.

 

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More on the Freedom Agenda

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

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Who Is Najib Miqati?

So Hezbollah did it. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been replaced with Najib Miqati, a man billed as a “compromise” leader who is time zones away from being a Hezbollah member but who nevertheless agrees with Hezbollah on the few things — which ultimately add up to everything — that matter most.

Miqati says he’s an independent centrist who disagrees with Hezbollah as much as he disagrees with everyone else in Lebanon. I believe him, actually, so long as he’s referring to the number of things he disagrees with Hezbollah about. He’s a Sunni and therefore obviously not a cheerleader for the parochial Shia sectarian interests that Hezbollah champions. There’s no chance he endorses the Iranian government’s reigning ideology of Velayat-e faqih, the totalitarian theocratic system Hezbollah would love to impose on Lebanon if it had the strength — which it doesn’t. Miqati is a billionaire businessman and does not even remotely share Hezbollah’s cartoonish paranoia about global capitalism and how it’s supposedly a nefarious Jewish-American plot.

What Miqati will do, however, is safeguard “the resistance,” as he has promised — meaning he won’t ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to the authorities — which is one of only two things Hezbollah requires of him. The second is repudiate the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Everyone now expects the tribunal to indict Hezbollah for the assassination of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that may severely damage Hezbollah’s standing in the majority-Sunni Arab world even if it does have a prominent Sunni willing to provide some cover.

Hezbollah also needs, and will get, the same from Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Suleiman. Anything else these two leaders do in their official capacities is irrelevant from Hezbollah’s perspective.

Lebanon won’t likely ever resemble Gaza, which is under the complete control of an Islamist terrorist army. Hamas rules that beleaguered territory as the virtual Taliban of the eastern Mediterranean, but the Lebanese will blow their country to hell and gone all over again before submitting to something like that. Hezbollah knows it, as do the Syrians and the Iranians. They also know, or at least think they know, that they can bully the rest of the country into surrendering on the two most crucial items on its agenda, the ones that give Hezbollah the latitude to do whatever it wants in the Shia-majority areas that it does control directly.

We’re about to find out if that’s actually true. We’ll also most likely find out how true it remains if Israel takes the gloves off the next time there’s war.

So Hezbollah did it. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been replaced with Najib Miqati, a man billed as a “compromise” leader who is time zones away from being a Hezbollah member but who nevertheless agrees with Hezbollah on the few things — which ultimately add up to everything — that matter most.

Miqati says he’s an independent centrist who disagrees with Hezbollah as much as he disagrees with everyone else in Lebanon. I believe him, actually, so long as he’s referring to the number of things he disagrees with Hezbollah about. He’s a Sunni and therefore obviously not a cheerleader for the parochial Shia sectarian interests that Hezbollah champions. There’s no chance he endorses the Iranian government’s reigning ideology of Velayat-e faqih, the totalitarian theocratic system Hezbollah would love to impose on Lebanon if it had the strength — which it doesn’t. Miqati is a billionaire businessman and does not even remotely share Hezbollah’s cartoonish paranoia about global capitalism and how it’s supposedly a nefarious Jewish-American plot.

What Miqati will do, however, is safeguard “the resistance,” as he has promised — meaning he won’t ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to the authorities — which is one of only two things Hezbollah requires of him. The second is repudiate the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Everyone now expects the tribunal to indict Hezbollah for the assassination of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that may severely damage Hezbollah’s standing in the majority-Sunni Arab world even if it does have a prominent Sunni willing to provide some cover.

Hezbollah also needs, and will get, the same from Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Suleiman. Anything else these two leaders do in their official capacities is irrelevant from Hezbollah’s perspective.

Lebanon won’t likely ever resemble Gaza, which is under the complete control of an Islamist terrorist army. Hamas rules that beleaguered territory as the virtual Taliban of the eastern Mediterranean, but the Lebanese will blow their country to hell and gone all over again before submitting to something like that. Hezbollah knows it, as do the Syrians and the Iranians. They also know, or at least think they know, that they can bully the rest of the country into surrendering on the two most crucial items on its agenda, the ones that give Hezbollah the latitude to do whatever it wants in the Shia-majority areas that it does control directly.

We’re about to find out if that’s actually true. We’ll also most likely find out how true it remains if Israel takes the gloves off the next time there’s war.

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Time for Our Allies to Ante Up in Funding Afghan Security Forces

It’s good to hear that the Afghan government and the international community are signing off on a plan to increase the size of the Afghan Security Forces from today’s level of 266,000 soldiers and police up to 378,000 by October 2012. Such an increase is vital if Afghan forces are to have any hope of controlling their own territory. A good rule of thumb, laid out in the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, is that it takes one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians to defeat an insurgency. Given that Afghanistan has a population of 30 million, that suggests the need for 600,000 security personnel — a milestone that Iraq has already passed.

Even with 378,000 personnel, the Afghan security forces will still fall short, but remember that there are also 140,000 foreign troops in the country. Their presence (assuming that current force levels don’t fall) will bring the total to 518,000 — within shooting distance of the benchmark. That should be more than enough, at least for the time being, considering that the insurgency is isolated among the Pashtuns, who make up less than 50 percent of the population. Of course, if foreign force levels fall by the fall of 2012, the anti-Taliban coalition will find itself  hard-pressed to continue recent battlefield gains, which is another reason why it’s important that the administration and its allies not reduce their forces prematurely.

The gains in the size and effectiveness of the Afghan Security Forces are in large measure a tribute to U.S. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell and his superb team at the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan. They have brought newfound vigor and skill to the “train and assist” mission that had been lagging, along with the rest of the war effort, in past years. Their work isn’t cheap, as the Times notes:

[T]he planned increase will mean billions more in spending to train and maintain the security forces, and 95 percent of that cost is borne by the United States. Between 2003 and 2009, the United States spent $20 billion to finance the Afghan Army and police. A growing force, pay increases that were intended to retain soldiers and police officers, and the costs of improved training and equipment drove the total to $9 billion in 2010, and $11.6 billion is budgeted for this year.

But that’s still a lot cheaper than sending more American troops into harm’s way. What irritates me about the whole situation is that it is the U.S. that has to pick up the tab. Our troops are already doing the bulk of the fighting. Why don’t our rich allies — e.g., Japan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Italy, Germany, Britain — pay for more of the cost of training? Some of those countries have made sizable troop contributions; others haven’t. But the U.S. has done more than any of them in terms of fighting the Taliban directly. Why do we have to do so much more than the rest of them in financing the Afghan Security Forces too?

I should note that their failure to ante up should not be an excuse for us to walk away. This is not an act of altruism; it is very much in America’s national-security interest to have a functional and effective security force in Afghanistan to prevent a Taliban/al-Qaeda takeover. Our security perimeter runs right through the Hindu Kush. But that is also true for many of our allies who would also face severe repercussions from a Taliban takeover. They should be doing more to avert that catastrophe.

It’s good to hear that the Afghan government and the international community are signing off on a plan to increase the size of the Afghan Security Forces from today’s level of 266,000 soldiers and police up to 378,000 by October 2012. Such an increase is vital if Afghan forces are to have any hope of controlling their own territory. A good rule of thumb, laid out in the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, is that it takes one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians to defeat an insurgency. Given that Afghanistan has a population of 30 million, that suggests the need for 600,000 security personnel — a milestone that Iraq has already passed.

Even with 378,000 personnel, the Afghan security forces will still fall short, but remember that there are also 140,000 foreign troops in the country. Their presence (assuming that current force levels don’t fall) will bring the total to 518,000 — within shooting distance of the benchmark. That should be more than enough, at least for the time being, considering that the insurgency is isolated among the Pashtuns, who make up less than 50 percent of the population. Of course, if foreign force levels fall by the fall of 2012, the anti-Taliban coalition will find itself  hard-pressed to continue recent battlefield gains, which is another reason why it’s important that the administration and its allies not reduce their forces prematurely.

The gains in the size and effectiveness of the Afghan Security Forces are in large measure a tribute to U.S. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell and his superb team at the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan. They have brought newfound vigor and skill to the “train and assist” mission that had been lagging, along with the rest of the war effort, in past years. Their work isn’t cheap, as the Times notes:

[T]he planned increase will mean billions more in spending to train and maintain the security forces, and 95 percent of that cost is borne by the United States. Between 2003 and 2009, the United States spent $20 billion to finance the Afghan Army and police. A growing force, pay increases that were intended to retain soldiers and police officers, and the costs of improved training and equipment drove the total to $9 billion in 2010, and $11.6 billion is budgeted for this year.

But that’s still a lot cheaper than sending more American troops into harm’s way. What irritates me about the whole situation is that it is the U.S. that has to pick up the tab. Our troops are already doing the bulk of the fighting. Why don’t our rich allies — e.g., Japan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Italy, Germany, Britain — pay for more of the cost of training? Some of those countries have made sizable troop contributions; others haven’t. But the U.S. has done more than any of them in terms of fighting the Taliban directly. Why do we have to do so much more than the rest of them in financing the Afghan Security Forces too?

I should note that their failure to ante up should not be an excuse for us to walk away. This is not an act of altruism; it is very much in America’s national-security interest to have a functional and effective security force in Afghanistan to prevent a Taliban/al-Qaeda takeover. Our security perimeter runs right through the Hindu Kush. But that is also true for many of our allies who would also face severe repercussions from a Taliban takeover. They should be doing more to avert that catastrophe.

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Al-Qaeda Training New Wave of Western Terrorists

Al-Qaeda is making progress on its plan to train and unleash Islamic terrorists that it’s recruited from Western countries, Asia Times Online reports today:

With the Afghan war entering its 10th year, completely undeterred by the American drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal region, al-Qaeda is putting the final touches to plans to recruit, train and launch Western Caucasians in their countries; the aim is to spread the flames of the South Asian war theater to the West.

Al-Qaeda began planning the operation in 2002, after the fall in late 2001 of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the group had been given sanctuary. Al-Qaeda had regrouped in Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan, and used this base to developed propaganda media structures to recruit in the West.

Taliban sources told Asia Times that there are currently 12 Canadians training in North Waziristan, on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jihadis from the U.S., Britain, and Germany can also reportedly be found in the training grounds of North Waziristan.

Not only is this a discouraging bit of news for the progress in Afghanistan; it’s also another worrisome sign that NATO countries have been unable to prevent terror recruitment on their own soil:

According to available information, the Canadians joined the Egyptian militant organization Jihad al-Islami (JAI), which then helped them reach Afghanistan. The head of the group goes by the alias of Abu Shahid. The 30-year-old, who sports a golden beard, converted to Islam in 2007 and joined the JAI, with which he works to collect funds for the organization. Shahid is responsible for all of the activities of the Canadians in North Waziristan. According to Taliban sources, the 12 will remain in the tribal belt until it is felt that they are sufficiently trained to successfully carry out terror activities in Canada. Shahid apparently is confident he can recruit more Canadians.

Al-Qaeda has become extremely creative with its recruitment methods since the Sept. 11 attacks. From Anwar al-Awlaki’s YouTube videos to Inspire magazine, it’s made extensive use of online media platforms to get its message across to impressionable young people. So far, our response to this type of radicalization has been reactive, which is only useful in cases where the terrorist is caught before the attack is carried out. Stories like this one are just further evidence that we need to increase our focus on the prevention of homegrown radicalization.

Al-Qaeda is making progress on its plan to train and unleash Islamic terrorists that it’s recruited from Western countries, Asia Times Online reports today:

With the Afghan war entering its 10th year, completely undeterred by the American drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal region, al-Qaeda is putting the final touches to plans to recruit, train and launch Western Caucasians in their countries; the aim is to spread the flames of the South Asian war theater to the West.

Al-Qaeda began planning the operation in 2002, after the fall in late 2001 of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the group had been given sanctuary. Al-Qaeda had regrouped in Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan, and used this base to developed propaganda media structures to recruit in the West.

Taliban sources told Asia Times that there are currently 12 Canadians training in North Waziristan, on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jihadis from the U.S., Britain, and Germany can also reportedly be found in the training grounds of North Waziristan.

Not only is this a discouraging bit of news for the progress in Afghanistan; it’s also another worrisome sign that NATO countries have been unable to prevent terror recruitment on their own soil:

According to available information, the Canadians joined the Egyptian militant organization Jihad al-Islami (JAI), which then helped them reach Afghanistan. The head of the group goes by the alias of Abu Shahid. The 30-year-old, who sports a golden beard, converted to Islam in 2007 and joined the JAI, with which he works to collect funds for the organization. Shahid is responsible for all of the activities of the Canadians in North Waziristan. According to Taliban sources, the 12 will remain in the tribal belt until it is felt that they are sufficiently trained to successfully carry out terror activities in Canada. Shahid apparently is confident he can recruit more Canadians.

Al-Qaeda has become extremely creative with its recruitment methods since the Sept. 11 attacks. From Anwar al-Awlaki’s YouTube videos to Inspire magazine, it’s made extensive use of online media platforms to get its message across to impressionable young people. So far, our response to this type of radicalization has been reactive, which is only useful in cases where the terrorist is caught before the attack is carried out. Stories like this one are just further evidence that we need to increase our focus on the prevention of homegrown radicalization.

Read Less




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