Commentary Magazine


Topic: Taliban

Only Five for One? The Bergdahl Swap is Actually Worse Than Israeli Prisoner Deals

Speaking today on ABC’s This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the homecoming of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity at the hands of the Taliban as “a joyous day.” No doubt, all Americans are happy that his ordeal is at an end. But as with the most famous of Rice’s previous appearances on the Sunday morning news shows when she wrongly claimed that the Benghazi terror attack was the result of film criticism run amok, the messaging was slightly off kilter. Ransoming Bergdahl is defensible but the notion that what has occurred was not a case of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, as Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel claimed on the same show, is an absurdity. At least when Israel releases terrorists to gain the freedom of one of its soldiers, the country’s leaders have the grace to treat the decision as a regrettable action made out of necessity and nothing to celebrate.

The debate over the Bergdahl swap raises comparisons to Israeli actions, such as its prisoner swap to gain the freedom of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Some congressional Republicans, such as House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, are criticizing the swap for the same reasons many Israelis and Americans denounced the deal in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists to Hamas, including many murderers, for Shalit. Rogers believes that negotiating with the Taliban not only strengthens these Islamist foes of the United States but also sets a high price on hostages that will make it difficult to free others who are held by terrorists and encourage more attacks on Americans.

These are all fair points, but I have to confess that my first reaction to the headline about the five-for-one agreement mediated by officials in Qatar was puzzlement as to how the Obama administration had managed to make such a deal for only five prisoners when the Israelis are routinely forced to release hundreds or more than a thousand terrorists for only one of their own people. Is it that the Israelis are simply too easy a mark in such negotiations? Are Americans better at driving a hard bargain? But the more I’ve read about the five prisoners who have been freed in exchange for Bergdahl, the less impressed I am with the negotiating acumen of the administration. Far from cutting a better deal than the Israelis tend to be able to do, this swap may actually be far worse in terms of the potential danger of the particular individuals involved and the administration’s future attitude toward the conflict. While the Israelis often pay too high a price for their hostages, they do so without conceding defeat in the long-term struggle in which they are engaged. The Bergdahl deal appears to be not just a lopsided swap but also an indication that the U.S. may be conceding defeat to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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Speaking today on ABC’s This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the homecoming of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity at the hands of the Taliban as “a joyous day.” No doubt, all Americans are happy that his ordeal is at an end. But as with the most famous of Rice’s previous appearances on the Sunday morning news shows when she wrongly claimed that the Benghazi terror attack was the result of film criticism run amok, the messaging was slightly off kilter. Ransoming Bergdahl is defensible but the notion that what has occurred was not a case of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, as Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel claimed on the same show, is an absurdity. At least when Israel releases terrorists to gain the freedom of one of its soldiers, the country’s leaders have the grace to treat the decision as a regrettable action made out of necessity and nothing to celebrate.

The debate over the Bergdahl swap raises comparisons to Israeli actions, such as its prisoner swap to gain the freedom of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Some congressional Republicans, such as House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, are criticizing the swap for the same reasons many Israelis and Americans denounced the deal in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists to Hamas, including many murderers, for Shalit. Rogers believes that negotiating with the Taliban not only strengthens these Islamist foes of the United States but also sets a high price on hostages that will make it difficult to free others who are held by terrorists and encourage more attacks on Americans.

These are all fair points, but I have to confess that my first reaction to the headline about the five-for-one agreement mediated by officials in Qatar was puzzlement as to how the Obama administration had managed to make such a deal for only five prisoners when the Israelis are routinely forced to release hundreds or more than a thousand terrorists for only one of their own people. Is it that the Israelis are simply too easy a mark in such negotiations? Are Americans better at driving a hard bargain? But the more I’ve read about the five prisoners who have been freed in exchange for Bergdahl, the less impressed I am with the negotiating acumen of the administration. Far from cutting a better deal than the Israelis tend to be able to do, this swap may actually be far worse in terms of the potential danger of the particular individuals involved and the administration’s future attitude toward the conflict. While the Israelis often pay too high a price for their hostages, they do so without conceding defeat in the long-term struggle in which they are engaged. The Bergdahl deal appears to be not just a lopsided swap but also an indication that the U.S. may be conceding defeat to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Anyone who thinks the U.S. got off cheap, especially in comparison to the lopsided Israeli deals, needs to read the report by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin in the Daily Beast today about the five men who have been sprung from Gitmo for Bergdahl. These are not run-of-the-mill terror operatives but key figures in the war being waged against the U.S. and its allies. As Lake and Rogin wrote:

While not as well known as Guantanamo inmates like 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Taliban 5 were some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror. And their release will end up replenishing the diminished leadership ranks of the Afghan Taliban at a moment when the United States is winding down the war there.

The dossier on their activities is a compendium of involvement in the terror campaign against the U.S. as well as other assorted crimes such as heroin trafficking. But the main point here is that these are not, as was the case with most of the people Israel released, rank-and-file terrorists. Many of those freed by the Israelis are criminals with blood on their hands, including participation in notorious atrocities. But the Israelis have rarely released anyone in the chain of command of groups dedicated to their destruction. As Lake and Rogin detail, the five Taliban operatives are key players in the war against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Though they are not the people who pulled the triggers or exploded the bombs that killed U.S. troops and our allies, they are the people who gave some of the orders for the shedding of American blood and are thus far more important. Seen in that light, some of the outrageously lopsided deals concluded by the Israelis don’t seem quite so ill advised.

But there is more to this controversy than just the price of Bergdahl’s freedom. By releasing these five top Taliban commanders, the U.S. is demonstrating that it is throwing in the towel in the long struggle against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan. It is spinning this mindset as a sign that the war is already either over or coming to an end, as the president said in his West Point speech this week. But the Taliban hasn’t gotten the memo about the end of the conflict. Indeed, the circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan are little different from where they were prior to the president’s correct decision to order a “surge” of U.S. troops to seize the initiative in the war. This administration has done a good job seeking to hunt down al-Qaeda operatives with drone strikes but the notion that it can keep Afghanistan from falling into the hands of these killers while both drawing down U.S. forces to a bare minimum and releasing senior Taliban commanders is laughable. Wars don’t end just because one side decides they are tired of the conflict. The Taliban have been waiting patiently for the end of the U.S. presence in the country and along with their terrorist allies believe their 2001 ouster from Kabul can be reversed.

Rice is right that President Obama had a “sacred obligation” to do whatever he could to gain the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. No American should ever be left behind if they can be rescued. But the problem here is not just the price the U.S. paid for the lone American unaccounted for after more than a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan. Say what you will about the Israel prisoner releases and the unfortunate celebrations in which the Palestinians have celebrated the murderers freed to gain the freedom of hostages or even to restart peace negotiations. But there has never been any doubt about Israel’s determination to continue the struggle against its enemies. The same can’t be said about the Obama administration today.

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Obama’s Split-the-Difference Foreign Policy

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

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Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

At first blush this is a welcome signal of strength from the White House. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with prior administration decisions, the details of the president’s policies can often undermine their stated purpose. So it is again with Afghanistan where, the Washington Post tells us, “The 9,800 troops will be based around Afghanistan until the end of 2015, after which they will be reduced by roughly half and consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram airfield north of the capital. At the end of 2016, most of those remaining troops will be withdrawn and the U.S. military presence will be confined to a defense group at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Keeping around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post 2014 makes sense (although it would be even better to keep more troops to provide a greater margin of safety). Announcing in advance that we will reduce their numbers to 5,000 within a year and remove them altogether within two years–no matter the conditions on the ground–makes no sense.

Has the administration learned no lesson from the Afghan surge whose effectiveness was vitiated by the 18-month timeline imposed on the troops’ deployment, thus encouraging the Taliban to wait us out? Obama is making the same mistake again. What he should be doing is announcing that we will keep U.S. advisers in Afghanistan in unspecified numbers as long as the government of Afghanistan requests their presence and as long as the U.S. government judges that they are needed to prevent the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists from making major inroads. Such an announcement will drain the Taliban of hope and fill hard-pressed Afghan security forces with newfound confidence.

In contrast, Obama’s announcement is so half-hearted that the Taliban will still have good cause to think that they can wait us out. Kudos to Obama for not sending only 5,000 troops next year, as some earlier leaks had indicated might be the case. But while maintaining 10,000 troops is much better, imposing a timeline on them is a serious mistake–one that cannot be explained by references to objective conditions in Afghanistan and which makes sense only as a split-the-difference compromise between administration hawks and doves. The president should have learned by now that splitting the difference in foreign policy and especially in matters of troop deployments doesn’t work.

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Address, Don’t Deny Religious Component to Boko Haram

News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

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News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

The same was true with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The notion that the Central Intelligence Agency created the Taliban is silly, the product of anachronistic and lazy analysis. Some Afghans embraced the Taliban in the years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan because the group promised security, but the group itself was quickly co-opted by Pakistan. Ever since the loss of East Pakistan and its subsequent independence as Bangladesh in 1971, leaders in West Pakistan—or simply Pakistan as it became—embraced religious radicalism as a glue to hold their fissiparous country together. While more than a decade of war has conditioned Americans to see infiltration across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as one way from Pakistan into Afghanistan, throughout much of the last century, Afghan irregulars were infiltrating—if not outright invading—Pakistan.

Because the ethnic fault lines in Pakistan are seldom far beneath the surface of society, sponsoring the Taliban—and thereby prioritizing religion over Pashto identity—was meant to immunize the Northwest Frontier Province from the attractiveness of Pashto nationalism. That it came upon the blood and repression of Afghan women was a price the Pakistani leadership was willing to bear. The shear brutality of the Taliban shocked the world, even though the State Department was more than willing to normalize ties with the group. The Taliban really were a throwback to the twelfth century, albeit harboring a twentieth and now twenty-first century technology to kill.

Any number of other religious radicals has reinterpreted faith to justify horror. The Muslim Brotherhood has justified the murder of those who do not share their vision, and some Brotherhood theologians have contributed directly to the vision embraced by al-Qaeda.

There is a tendency among many to deny the religious component to much modern terrorism. That is what drives, for example, UN bodies to try to criminalize so-called Islamophobia, and also drives local groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to stigmatize and punish free speech and open debate. To do so is a mistake, and to deny that those from Boko Haram’s leaders to 9/11 hijackers to the Beslan child murders were not motivated by Islam, however twisted and irregular an interpretation, is disingenuous.

Too many who deny the role of religion say that Islam is misunderstood. Jihad, for example, means not Holy War but an internal struggle to improve oneself. While it is true that a 21st century interpretation of jihad prioritizes internal struggle or defensive fighting, there is a logical flaw inherent in embracing only the most evolved interpretation of jihad. Islamist radicals dismiss 21st century society as a perversion, corrupted by Western thought and liberalism. They uphold instead an interpretation of centuries past as the golden age of Islamic civilization and so strip away centuries of religious interpretation as illegitimate and corrupt. Just as zealous Christians might have burned a woman at the stake 500 years ago for the sin of publicly reading the Bible, the manner in which Boko Haram treats local girls and women is rooted in an interpretation of Islam that it seeks to revive from the past.

While I fully support the separation of church and state that the U.S. Constitution demands (although I agree with Jonathan’s interpretation here), too many American policymakers use that separation to paralyze the American policy response on the global stage. American diplomats and officials should not promote religion but they cannot ignore it either, as it plays a far greater place in the world than perhaps it does in the fairly elite schools from which many diplomats come. Peoples from Afghanistan to Iran to Nigeria are engaged in a battle of religious interpretation. Those who would deny a relationship between Islam on one hand, at least as practiced by the Taliban and Boko Haram, and terrorism and misogyny on the other simply surrender the battlefield to those promoting extreme interpretations.

Too often, American officials and religious activists, whether out of excessive political correctness or some other motive, dismiss religious motivation to terrorism by decreeing that the actions of those radicals—Taliban stoning women in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda hijacking planes in America, or Boko Haram kidnapping and selling girls in Nigeria—do not represent true Islam. Make no mistake: It is not the job of any American official—from the president on down—to determine what true religion is. We have to accept that religion is what its practitioners believe it to be in any time and place; what the president says, an ambassador says, or a professor of theology says is simply academic.

Denying horror won’t make it go away. Nor is it the place of the United States to preach. But just as radicals in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere promote these horrific groups—the Turkish government has apparently supplied Boko Haram—it behooves the United States to support those seeking to roll them back, be they Egyptian generals, Indonesian Sufis, or Moroccan mourchidat. While America promotes and encourages religious tolerance and seeks to strengthen liberal and moderate interpretations of Islam, those who feed and justify Boko Haram’s ideological hate—even if American allies—must be recognized for what they are: culpable in terrorism.

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No Moderation from the Monstrous Taliban

One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

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One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

The Taliban remain monsters who kill small children–not as the accidental collateral damage from a larger attack but deliberately and at pointblank range. This is the true face of the enemy in Afghanistan, and it is why the civilized world cannot abandon Afghanistan to its fate.

The Afghan security forces are now much bigger and better organized than they once were. They are now taking the lead in 95 percent of all coalition operations in Afghanistan and suffering 95 percent of coalition casualties. But to defeat an insurgency which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, they still need continuing American assistance. If we don’t provide it–and our ability to help will be contingent on Hamid Karzai’s successor signing a Bilateral Security Accord–then we will be leaving Afghanistan and indeed the entire region to the tender mercies of child killers.

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Afghanistan and Diplomacy Unhinged

Next week, my new book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups will officially come out. A major theme of the book is that contrary to the statements of many State Department officials across administrations, it can very much hurt to talk.

Eli Lake has a piece at the Daily Beast that confirms what long has been rumored: U.S. officials have neglected to go after the Haqqani network’s finances because to do so, the Obama administration believed, might undercut diplomacy:

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Next week, my new book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups will officially come out. A major theme of the book is that contrary to the statements of many State Department officials across administrations, it can very much hurt to talk.

Eli Lake has a piece at the Daily Beast that confirms what long has been rumored: U.S. officials have neglected to go after the Haqqani network’s finances because to do so, the Obama administration believed, might undercut diplomacy:

In the last 17 months since the U.S. government financially blacklisted the Haqqani Network, one of the deadliest insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not a single dollar associated with the group has been blocked or frozen, according to U.S. officials and one of the Congressman who oversees the Treasury Department’s financial war on terrorism. But it’s not just the Haqqanis—an ally today in the Taliban’s fight against U.S. troops and the Afghan government—who seem to have been spared from America’s economic attacks. According to a Treasury Department letter written in late November, not a single dollar been seized from the Pakistani Taliban, either, at least for 2012. The reason why, according to a leading Congressman, is that enforcing such sanctions might upset delicate negotiations between America, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups.

The whole article is worth reading. For what it is worth, such inconsistent and counterproductive outreach to the Haqqanis is not limited to the Obama administration, but also extends far back into the Bush administration. Regardless, the episode highlights a consistent problem with U.S. strategy that transcends U.S. administrations and their approach to both terrorist groups and rogue regimes and explains why U.S. diplomacy consistently fails. The idea that ameliorating and offering concessions to adversaries enables successful diplomacy is demonstrably false. Rather, the most successful diplomatic outcomes come when the United States acts from a position of strength and seeks to coerce and weaken its opponents.

Targeting the Haqqani network with an aim to bankrupting it is the only way to succeed. Make no mistake: the conscious decision to allow the Haqqanis access to financial resources results directly in Haqqani terror attacks, as the network tries to leverage violence into a position of greater strength and influence. Never should the United States forfeit its leverage for the sake of hope and wishful thinking. Adversaries will come to the table when they have no other choice, and it should be the policy of the United States government to ensure they have no other choice. It is time to stop holding back when it comes to countering terrorists and rogues, and make their defeat by all prudent means the central pillar of U.S. policy.

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Drones Should Follow the Threat

The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

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The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

Especially when we are dramatically reducing our troop levels in Afghanistan, drones remain one of the few effective ways to strike at our enemies and those of our allies. Indeed the administration would be well advised to expand drone strikes, at least temporarily, within Pakistan to target the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban which, for fear of offending Pakistani sensibilities, has been exempt from drone strikes before. With the Quetta Shura facing less military pressure in Afghanistan, following our troop drawdown, this would be one way to keep this organization off balance.

The question the administration should be addressing is not how quickly it can eliminate drone strikes in Pakistan but how quickly it can expand drone strikes to other areas where al-Qaeda has taken root–in particular western Iraq and northern and eastern Syria. This area, which crosses the Iraq-Syria border, has become a jihadist stronghold in the past year and it is a threat not just to regional governments but to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just testified that there are 26,000 jihadist fighters in Syria alone, including 7,000 foreigners, and that some of them are plotting against the American homeland.

Neither the Syrian nor the Iraqi government has shown much ability to address the problem. In fact, we don’t want the Syrian government to address the problem because Bashar Assad’s preferred approach to counterinsurgency is to perpetuate war crimes. The Iraqi government isn’t as bad but it, too, favors a blunt force approach that usually backfires.

That is why I am so concerned about the administration’s plan to sell Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Baghdad. Those weapons are as likely to be used against Sunni political foes of Prime Minister Maliki as they are against true al-Qaeda terrorists. I would have more confidence in U.S.-operated drones, although there is a question of where they would be based–Iraq? Turkey? Jordan? Israel? Liberated parts of Syria? Saudi Arabia?

Whatever the case, there is an urgent need for action to stop al-Qaeda from developing secure sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq, and drone strikes, assuming that local bases could be established, could be an effective tool in this fight if they are based on good intelligence. If the U.S. is going to shift part of its drone infrastructure out of Afghanistan–and, for the next few years anyway, this is probably a mistake–it should be shifted to the Middle East where the threat is growing every day.

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Yes, the Taliban Are Terrorists

Diplomacy often obstructs moral clarity. After the Clinton administration launched its high-profile engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, State Department officials bent over backwards to ignore the complacency of PLO leaders in financing and ordering acts of terror. As I document in my new book, a comparison of intelligence available to the State Department and the concurrent testimony of senior State Department officials to Congress shows that the diplomats simply lied about the character of their partners in order to avoid U.S. law that would mandate a cessation of aid should the PLO be involved in terror.

For the past five years, both senior military officials (up to and including Gen. David Petraeus) and senior diplomats (up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have advocated for talks with the Taliban. At no time did policymakers consider the Bill Clinton administration’s sorry, five-year experience talking to the Taliban, an episode that caused diplomats to become distracted from the Taliban’s true aims and goals in the years leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

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Diplomacy often obstructs moral clarity. After the Clinton administration launched its high-profile engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, State Department officials bent over backwards to ignore the complacency of PLO leaders in financing and ordering acts of terror. As I document in my new book, a comparison of intelligence available to the State Department and the concurrent testimony of senior State Department officials to Congress shows that the diplomats simply lied about the character of their partners in order to avoid U.S. law that would mandate a cessation of aid should the PLO be involved in terror.

For the past five years, both senior military officials (up to and including Gen. David Petraeus) and senior diplomats (up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have advocated for talks with the Taliban. At no time did policymakers consider the Bill Clinton administration’s sorry, five-year experience talking to the Taliban, an episode that caused diplomats to become distracted from the Taliban’s true aims and goals in the years leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Time launders terrorists, after all. While the press and many policymakers once mocked Secretary of State Colin Powell for wanting to work with “moderate Taliban,” by the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that had effectively become the policy of the White House.

The Taliban’s attack on a Kabul restaurant frequented by foreigners is tragic, but should be a reminder of just who the Taliban are and what they represent. To call them an insurgent force is inaccurate: insurgents battle armies; they do not bomb restaurants and then shoot unarmed civilians. The Taliban are terrorists, plain and simple, and America’s premature withdrawal will empower them. The Taliban are not simply a Pashtun movement, as the late Richard Holbrooke once implied. True, many Taliban might be Pashtun, but not all Pashtun are Taliban and, indeed, many Pashtun have spent decades resisting the ignorant thugs who flocked to the Taliban.

It is time to put objective fact above diplomatic wishful thinking. The Taliban are terrorists, and seeking to include them in any post-withdrawal order is akin to negotiating with terrorists. Negotiating with the Taliban has not worked in the past, and there is no reason to believe any compromise will be possible in the future. Not talking to the Taliban, but allowing them to fill the vacuum created by America’s withdrawal is just as bad. Sometimes, adversaries simply need to be defeated, an accomplishment not possible when the White House constrains the military.

If the Taliban responsible for the restaurant attack had direct links to Pakistan—and they likely did—then it is time to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, no ifs, ands, or buts: diplomatic nicety does not benefit the United States; it makes them think America is weak and risible. Perhaps American diplomats and former senators find such talks sophisticated. Regardless, beyond the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network which are already designated, it is long past time to designate every other Taliban group which conducts attacks on civilians to be terrorists, and their foreign government sponsors to be state sponsors. While the Taliban has said that the attack on the Kabul restaurant was retaliation–a claim picked up and amplified by the New York Times–my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out that the Taliban makes such excuses for external consumption only. What the Taliban did not mention was that it also killed three young civilians in a rocket attack in Kandahar, an attack that had everything to do with the character of the movement and nothing to do with feigned grievance.

Perhaps it will remain the policy of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to compromise with and perhaps even empower terrorists through the policies they advocate. But if so, they should acknowledge it openly and be accountable for the strategic and moral vacuity of their position.

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Cautious Optimism in Afghanistan

With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

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With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

Masses of Taliban foot soldiers attacked this spring and summer in a bid to take over Sangin district; government forces turned them back. Mohammad Rasoul Barakzai, the acting Sangin district governor, describes the year-end situation as “calm,” with only intermittent Taliban attacks.

What holds true in Sangin is true for Helmand Province more broadly: “the Afghans have emerged from the warm-weather fighting season in nominal control of every heavily populated district of Helmand—a result that U.S. and Afghan commanders say should inject optimism into the often-gloomy debate over the country’s future.”

This runs counter to recent reports of the Afghan army doing deals with the Taliban in Sangin. Phillips reports that this was a low-level accommodation reached by junior officers who have since been disciplined.

If his report is right, it is certainly good news, suggesting that Afghanistan has a fighting chance to survive the pullout of most Western forces at the end of this year.

There is, however, a big caveat that must be added. While U.S. troops mostly pulled out of ground combat last year, they continued to provide substantial support to their Afghan partners. As the Journal notes, “the U.S. continues to provide supplies, close air support and air evacuation of the badly wounded.” That’s less significant than the U.S. role in years past but it is still a major enabler of Afghan capability. If you take away that American support, no one knows what will happen.

But even under the best-case scenario–which is that President Karzai finally gets off his duff and signs the security accord he negotiated with Washington–it is unlikely that U.S. forces will continue to provide close air support or medevac. (Instead, U.S. forces are likely to be limited to a few major bases.) The worst-case scenario is that the bilateral security accord falls through and Afghanistan is left entirely on its own.

The Journal report shows that it would be foolish to write off Afghanistan–as long as it continues to receive substantial American assistance. If that assistance isn’t forthcoming, all bets are off and Afghanistan could regress back to the dark days of the 1990s, which led to the takeover of the Taliban and their Arab allies in al-Qaeda.

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Afghan Army Gives Up District Without a Fight

I have long been critical of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, both because emphasis on development and the accompanying infusion of money sparks corrosive corruption, and also because the timeline President Obama announced in 2009 and an embrace of negotiations with the Taliban misreads the Afghan mindset. As I tell military audiences to whom I lecture, it’s important to remember that Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Security of the family trumps fealty to any political force, and so Afghans won’t hesitate to switch sides in a way which to Americans would seem treasonous.

As transition approaches, it seems the State Department, Pentagon, and White House are infused with wishful thinking about how transition might go. If so, today’s events in southern Afghanistan should disabuse them of that notion. According to a tweet from Lt. Mustafa Kazemi, Afghan Army forces surrendered the Sangin district of Helmand without a fight, after being threatened by the Taliban. He elaborated, here.

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I have long been critical of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, both because emphasis on development and the accompanying infusion of money sparks corrosive corruption, and also because the timeline President Obama announced in 2009 and an embrace of negotiations with the Taliban misreads the Afghan mindset. As I tell military audiences to whom I lecture, it’s important to remember that Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Security of the family trumps fealty to any political force, and so Afghans won’t hesitate to switch sides in a way which to Americans would seem treasonous.

As transition approaches, it seems the State Department, Pentagon, and White House are infused with wishful thinking about how transition might go. If so, today’s events in southern Afghanistan should disabuse them of that notion. According to a tweet from Lt. Mustafa Kazemi, Afghan Army forces surrendered the Sangin district of Helmand without a fight, after being threatened by the Taliban. He elaborated, here.

Momentum means everything in Afghanistan. PowerPoint planning doesn’t capture local psychology, no matter what ISAF commanders may believe. Afghans want to side with the strong horse, not the horse that, for domestic political reasons, wants to go home.

If accurate, today’s events foreshadow the post-transition crisis will hit Afghanistan far quicker than military and diplomatic planners expect.

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The American Commitment to Afghanistan

The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

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The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

* Promote multiethnic coalitions—rather than individual candidates—for the 2014 presidential election and, for the eventual winner, encourage the appointment of a cabinet and senior officials that represent Afghanistan’s ethnic and cultural constituencies

* Pursue a foreign internal defense mission that includes between eight thousand and twelve thousand residual American troops, plus additional NATO forces.

* Support Afghan government–led discussions with the Taliban and other groups over prisoner exchanges, local cease-fires, and the reintegration of fighters….But U.S. policymakers  recognize that a comprehensive peace settlement with the Taliban is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

* Foreign donors should continue to provide $5 billion a year in funding to sustain the ANSF. The United States and other international donors should also provide economic assistance of $3.3 billion to $3.9 billion a year through 2017.

One can quibble with this recommendation or that, but on the whole this is a very sensible proposal informed by Jones’s considerable time on the ground working with U.S. Special Operations Forces.

The question is whether these policy options will actually be implemented. The obstacle is not just Karzai’s intransigence; there is a big question as to whether the Obama administration will support a commitment of this size. Given where the conversation stands in Washington, sending 12,000 U.S. troops is as at the high end of what’s possible even though U.S. military commanders have testified that a minimum of 13,000 or so troops is really needed.

I hope that President Obama himself reads the report and especially the section that outlines the stakes in Afghanistan: “A civil war or successful Taliban led insurgency,” the authors rightly warn, “would likely allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network, and Lashkare-Taiba to increase their presence in Afghanistan.” And a civil war or successful Taliban takeover is likely absent the kind of U.S. commitment outlined in the report.

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Is Pakistani Taliban Leader Mehsud Dead?

Several different Pakistani news outlets are reporting that a U.S. drone strike has killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Here, for example, is the report from Karachi’s Dawn:

Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan tribal agency on Friday, intelligence officials and Pakistani Taliban said. Intelligence officials said the Pakistani Taliban supremo was leaving from a meeting at a mosque in Dande Darpakhel area of North Waziristan when the drone targeted their vehicle. Pakistani Taliban militants said that funeral for the TTP chief will be held tomorrow afternoon at an undisclosed location in North Waziristan… Five militants, including Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, both key militant commanders and close aides of the TTP chief, were also killed with two others injured in the drone strike, multiple sources confirmed. Foreign news agency AP reports that a senior US intelligence official confirmed the strike overnight, saying the US received positive confirmation Friday morning that he had been killed.

The Pakistani government is withholding confirmation, and this would not be the first time that Mehsud has been reported killed. Still, if he is dead then kudos to the Obama administration for executing the strike even as diplomatic pressure mounts to halt the tactic.

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Several different Pakistani news outlets are reporting that a U.S. drone strike has killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Here, for example, is the report from Karachi’s Dawn:

Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan tribal agency on Friday, intelligence officials and Pakistani Taliban said. Intelligence officials said the Pakistani Taliban supremo was leaving from a meeting at a mosque in Dande Darpakhel area of North Waziristan when the drone targeted their vehicle. Pakistani Taliban militants said that funeral for the TTP chief will be held tomorrow afternoon at an undisclosed location in North Waziristan… Five militants, including Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, both key militant commanders and close aides of the TTP chief, were also killed with two others injured in the drone strike, multiple sources confirmed. Foreign news agency AP reports that a senior US intelligence official confirmed the strike overnight, saying the US received positive confirmation Friday morning that he had been killed.

The Pakistani government is withholding confirmation, and this would not be the first time that Mehsud has been reported killed. Still, if he is dead then kudos to the Obama administration for executing the strike even as diplomatic pressure mounts to halt the tactic.

Drone strikes are not a magic formula. The risk of blowback is real—especially as terrorists move from the mountains into the urban jungles of southern Punjab and Karachi—and the diplomatic price is high. Still, officials in countries over which drones operate should recognize, before they complain about the practice, that the best way to halt such strikes is to prevent their territory from being used to host terrorists who have declared war on America. To suggest that the violation of sovereignty inherent in drone strikes cancels out the benefit of killing a terrorist is to suggest that preventing speeding on a highway is more important than preventing murder. Nevertheless, targeting the Pakistani Taliban at a time when it and its supporters believe the Americans are in retreat and in defeat does more to bolster the prospects for diplomacy than ill-advised timelines and Afghanistan transitions.

Let us just hope that the Obama administration recognizes that diplomatic processes should never suspend the need to target terrorists, whether they are Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal territories or Afghanistan, or if they are Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen in Syria, or Hezbollah commandos in Lebanon.

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The Mistaken Focus on “Core Al-Qaeda”

President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

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President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

In Nairobi, a squad of gunmen from the Somali group al-Shabab have massacred at least 68 people in an upscale mall while holding others hostage–an attack reminiscent, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, of the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008.

In Iraq, one suicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral in Baghdad, killing at least 16 and wounding more than 30, while another blew up in a residential area of Kirkuk, wounding at least 35 people. These are the latest in a series of terrible attacks in Iraq, which, according to the Associated Press, have seen “more than 4,000 people … killed between April and August, a level of carnage not seen since 2006 to 2008, when Iraq was nearing civil war.”

Yet another suicide attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed at least 78 people, including 34 women and seven children, at a church. This was presumably the handiwork of the Pakistani Taliban.

Oh, and two Israeli soldiers were slain in the West Bank, one by a sniper, the other by a duplicitous Palestinian acquaintance.

All of these attacks do not suggest that Islamist groups are on their way to seizing power in countries from Somalia to Pakistan. Indeed, the Shabab attack was, in many ways, a sign of the group’s weakness in Somalia, where it has suffered defeats on the ground from Kenyan and African Union troops. Shabab is turning to terrorist attacks against soft targets in Uganda and Kenya to remain relevant.

But what these attacks show is that Islamist groups–some of them affiliated with al-Qaeda, others not–are far from defeated. They still have considerable capacity to wreak carnage and, given the weakness of regimes that are fighting them across the Middle East and Africa, they can make substantial inroads into failed states.

President Obama and the American national security establishment have been too focused on “core” al-Qaeda while downplaying the menace from these other groups on the periphery, which continue to pose as big a threat as ever.

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The Next Reset: U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Fresh off one overhyped “achievement”–forcing a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have scant chance of success–Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently eager to achieve any empty triumph, namely a “reset” of relations with Pakistan. In article previewing his trip to Pakistan this week, the Wall Street Journal writes that “it provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.”

Good luck with that. Granted, having fewer U.S. troops and civilians available in Afghanistan to serve as targets for Pakistan-supported terrorists will reduce a flashpoint in the relationship, but it is hard to see Washington and Islamabad finding much common ground. Their interests converge in very few areas, the biggest being the desire by both sides to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from seizing power in Islamabad, which would cut off Pakistan’s existing political and military class from the trough of public spending on which it has grown rich. But there is no indication that Pakistan will give up its support of the Afghan Taliban or the even more noxious Haqqani Network and other Islamist terrorist groups that are viewed by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, as reliable proxies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond.

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Fresh off one overhyped “achievement”–forcing a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have scant chance of success–Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently eager to achieve any empty triumph, namely a “reset” of relations with Pakistan. In article previewing his trip to Pakistan this week, the Wall Street Journal writes that “it provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.”

Good luck with that. Granted, having fewer U.S. troops and civilians available in Afghanistan to serve as targets for Pakistan-supported terrorists will reduce a flashpoint in the relationship, but it is hard to see Washington and Islamabad finding much common ground. Their interests converge in very few areas, the biggest being the desire by both sides to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from seizing power in Islamabad, which would cut off Pakistan’s existing political and military class from the trough of public spending on which it has grown rich. But there is no indication that Pakistan will give up its support of the Afghan Taliban or the even more noxious Haqqani Network and other Islamist terrorist groups that are viewed by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, as reliable proxies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond.

Back in 2011 there was a rare moment of candor in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, normally wrapped in self-serving lies from both sides, when Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bitterly denounced Pakistani complicity in terror. “In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan – and most especially the Pakistani Army and ISI – jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership, but also Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence,” he told the Senate. “By exporting violence, they have eroded their internal security and their position in the region.”

Mullen was right then and nothing has changed today. Pakistan has been happy to pocket nearly $26 billion in U.S. aid between 2002 and 2012 and in return has provided some small concessions such as allowing NATO supplies to cross its territory (with some interruptions) and allowing CIA drones to target al-Qaeda kingpins (with some limitations). But fundamentally the two countries remain far apart on major issues such as Afghanistan, where the U.S. would like to see the continuation of a pro-Western, reasonably democratic regime and the Pakistanis in all likelihood are hoping for a Taliban takeover. Kerry’s visit will change nothing, no matter how many headlines it produces about a supposedly improved relationship.

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Karzai’s Conundrum and the “Zero Option”

Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

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Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

The latest excuse for this pull-out talk, ironically, is something eminently reasonable that Karzai has done. I am no defender of the Afghan president who is mercurial, often impossible to deal with, and complicit in massive corruption. But Karzai was justified to pull out of nascent “peace talks” with the Taliban, who have given every indication that they have little interest in peace and much interest in enhancing their international legitimacy by opening a quasi-embassy in Qatar. But Obama has his heart set on “peace talks” with the Taliban to provide cover for an American pullout, and he is said to be furious at Karzai for throwing sand into the gears of his grand scheme.

Karzai simply can’t win here: Either he agrees to talks that legitimate a faster American pullout–or he refuses to engage in this charade, thereby angering Obama, and spurring, you guessed it, a faster American pullout.

It is Obama’s right as commander in chief to decide he wants nothing more to do with Afghanistan. But if that is in fact the decision he has reached–or at least seriously mulling–perhaps he should explain first to himself and then to the American people, and specifically to the troops that he sent to fight and bleed there, why he once considered it a “necessary” war. Why did he more than triple America’s troop presence, knowing that a certain percentage of those he deployed would not come home unharmed and that some would not come home at all, and why did he pressure America’s allies to similarly step up their commitment–why did he do all this if he decides, in the end, to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban?

Perhaps there is a good explanation for why he is seriously contemplating aborting a war effort that still has a reasonable chance of success, and thereby making worthless the sacrifices of so many American service personnel and their Afghan allies. But pique at Karzai’s refusal to sit down with the Taliban–who are committed to reimposing their totalitarian rule and have given no indication of any interest in suing for peace or giving up their alliance with al-Qaeda–won’t cut it.

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Taliban Again Prove the Obvious

If the Taliban are supposed to be making peace, their suicide bombers don’t seem to have gotten the message.

On Tuesday four suicide bombers, driving coalition-style vehicles and dressed in coalition uniforms complete with fake badges, tried to bluff their way into the presidential palace compound in Kabul–and also allegedly into the CIA headquarters at the Ariana hotel. Three security guards, along with all four attackers, wound up being killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

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If the Taliban are supposed to be making peace, their suicide bombers don’t seem to have gotten the message.

On Tuesday four suicide bombers, driving coalition-style vehicles and dressed in coalition uniforms complete with fake badges, tried to bluff their way into the presidential palace compound in Kabul–and also allegedly into the CIA headquarters at the Ariana hotel. Three security guards, along with all four attackers, wound up being killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

The Taliban proudly claimed credit for the attack while noting that it would not affect “the political track”–i.e., the peace talks which are supposed to happen in Doha. Actually such actions should affect the negotiations because they underline the obvious point–the Taliban aren’t interested in peace. They are doing everything they can to escalate the conflict. It is only a wonder that the Obama administration–desperate for a face-saving way out of Afghanistan–can possibly convince itself otherwise.

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A U.S.-Taliban Prisoner Swap?

Now that peace talks are sort of on again with the Taliban–at least hopes of such talks have risen again, even if Kabul’s outrage at Taliban preening in opening an embassy of sorts in Qatar has blocked the actual start of talks–the air is once again filled with talk of a prisoner exchange. The Taliban would love it if, as a sweetener for the talks and in exchange for the release of the only American prisoner they are holding, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration would release five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo.

The New York Times today has a profile of the five, and it would be hard to imagine a more repugnant bunch. As the Times notes:

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Now that peace talks are sort of on again with the Taliban–at least hopes of such talks have risen again, even if Kabul’s outrage at Taliban preening in opening an embassy of sorts in Qatar has blocked the actual start of talks–the air is once again filled with talk of a prisoner exchange. The Taliban would love it if, as a sweetener for the talks and in exchange for the release of the only American prisoner they are holding, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration would release five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo.

The New York Times today has a profile of the five, and it would be hard to imagine a more repugnant bunch. As the Times notes:

Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to their interrogators.

There is also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking American forces.

If administration officials think they will win Taliban goodwill by releasing this rogue’s gallery, even as the Taliban continue to kill American soldiers, they are dreaming. Detainee releases make sense when it is clear that the movement to which the detainees belong is tired of fighting and seriously interested in making peace. That was the case with most Sunni insurgents in Iraq in 2007, which is why Gen. David Petraeus released so many of them from coalition custody. It’s not the case with the Taliban today: They remain convinced, reportedly, that they will take Kabul “in a week” once U.S. troops pull out. Making peace is not on the Taliban’s agenda in Qatar; gaining international legitimacy is.

Yet for all that, I am not completely opposed to the release of the five Taliban detainees–as long as it is understood that the point is simply to win Sgt. Bergdahl’s release. It is in general not a good policy to deal with terrorists, but democracies such as the U.S. and Israel have a long history of doing just that to win the release of their citizens; such concessions are perhaps inevitable in a liberal democracy which cares so much about its troops in particular. Israel, most recently, released some 1,000 Palestinian detainees to get Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit out of Hamas’s hands. By Israeli standards, the exchange of five Taliban detainees for one American sergeant is a good bargain.

Would the release of the Taliban prisoners increase the risk to American troops in Afghanistan? Possibly, but the difference these five would make would be minimal, especially when so many other Taliban detainees have already been released from coalition and Afghan custody. Many more will be sprung in the future now that the Kabul government, which is notoriously corrupt, has taken control of all detention facilities in Afghanistan from the U.S.

If the administration does decide to make the prisoner swap, at least it should not fool itself that it is helping to bring peace to Afghanistan. It would simply be a gesture of mercy for an imprisoned American soldier.

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The Taliban’s Real Goal in Doha

Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

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Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

Opening their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem, insurgent officials said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, interact with the news media, “improve relations with countries around the world” and, almost as an afterthought, meet “Afghans if there is a need.” They did not mention the Afghan government.

One suspects that the Taliban are far more interested in using these “peace talks” to enhance their credibility and standing than they are in actually negotiating any accord that would result in their disarmament. And why should they make any real concessions when President Obama has already promised that American combat troops will leave in less than 18 months? From the Taliban’s perspective, the advantage on the ground will shift in their favor once the Americans are gone.

Their only incentive to sign a deal is to ensure that the U.S. abandons Afghanistan completely after 2014—just as the U.S. abandoned South Vietnam after signing a deal with Hanoi in 1973—thereby making it easier for the insurgents to take over. Significantly, the Nixon administration excluded the Saigon government from negotiations over its fate. This time around, to its credit, the Obama administration has pledged to include Kabul in the peace talks. As a result, U.S. officials were scrambling yesterday to entice Karzai back into the talks by getting the Taliban to tamp down their gloating in Qatar.

Why bother? The odds of talks succeeding are remote. This is only an exercise in wishful thinking on the part of an administration that is determined to find a fig leaf to cover the departure of U.S. troops. As I’ve noted before, there is nothing inherently wrong with talking, but in this case proceeding with the talks when there is no sign of the Taliban making any significant concessions risks furthering the Taliban’s narrative that the U.S. is abandoning Afghanistan and that the Taliban are destined to take over once again.

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Managing Expectations in Taliban Talks

If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.

There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.

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If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.

There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.

The odds that the talks this time will produce a breakthrough are not high. The best bet would be a change of heart in Islamabad: the Pakistani government, the primary patron of the Taliban, has long feared it would lose influence in Afghanistan if its proxies cut a separate deal with Kabul. Perhaps the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence–the real national-security decision-makers–are rethinking this policy because they fear the rise of fundamentalism represented not only by the Afghan Taliban but the Pakistan Taliban as well. Perhaps. But there is little sign of a substantive rethinking of Pakistan’s policy, which it has consistently pursued since the 1980s if not before, of sponsoring militant Islamist organizations within Afghanistan.

And there is little sign that the Taliban are so war weary that they are ready to give up. Why should they, when they know that, thanks to President Obama’s self-imposed timeline, the bulk of U.S. troops will be gone within a year and a half? Taliban foot soldiers in Afghanistan have suffered serious, though not crippling, setbacks, but their leaders continue to live in safety in Pakistan. If Obama were serious about pursuing negotiations, he would never have announced that timeline and he would have pushed the Taliban much harder militarily by delaying the drawdown of U.S. forces.

History shows that insurgent groups such as the IRA, the Basque ETA, the FMLN in El Salvador, and FARC in Colombia only get serious about making peace when they have lost all hope of a military victory. The Taliban cause, alas, is far from hopeless. There is good reason for Taliban commanders to imagine they might yet attain power at gunpoint–and for that reason it is unlikely that they will lay down their guns.

There is nothing inherently wrong with talking to the Taliban. At the very least it may be possible to gain useful intelligence. But if Karzai, under American pressure, makes major concessions to the Taliban, the likely result will not be peace in our time but rather the revival of Afghanistan’s civil war, because the old Northern Alliance will not accept any deal that cedes significant power to their historic enemies.

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Taliban Strike Exposes Flaw in Proposed Drone Guidelines

In a sign of how little has changed since President Obama’s much-ballyhooed speech last week on counter-terrorism, the latest news is that a suspected U.S. drone strike has killed the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman. He was apparently in Miram Shah, a town in North Waziristan that is also the headquarters for the Haqqani Network–one of the most vicious and effective insurgent groups in Afghanistan. This geographical coincidence indicates how closely linked all of these extremist groups are, and underscores the importance of targeting them to enhance regional stability.

Unfortunately, if Obama is serious about limiting targeting at some point in the future to targets that threaten only U.S. “persons” rather than “interests,” as has been widely reported, that will make it difficult to attack the Pakistani Taliban, which generally plot against the government of Pakistan, not against the United States (although the would-be Times Square bomber of 2010 was linked to the Pakistani Taliban).

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In a sign of how little has changed since President Obama’s much-ballyhooed speech last week on counter-terrorism, the latest news is that a suspected U.S. drone strike has killed the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman. He was apparently in Miram Shah, a town in North Waziristan that is also the headquarters for the Haqqani Network–one of the most vicious and effective insurgent groups in Afghanistan. This geographical coincidence indicates how closely linked all of these extremist groups are, and underscores the importance of targeting them to enhance regional stability.

Unfortunately, if Obama is serious about limiting targeting at some point in the future to targets that threaten only U.S. “persons” rather than “interests,” as has been widely reported, that will make it difficult to attack the Pakistani Taliban, which generally plot against the government of Pakistan, not against the United States (although the would-be Times Square bomber of 2010 was linked to the Pakistani Taliban).

If the U.S. were to stop targeting the Pakistani Taliban, as it may well do after 2014, it would increase the threat to Islamabad and also make it harder for the U.S. to fly drone strikes against al-Qaeda and other groups that directly threaten the U.S. Pakistan is dubious about such strikes and allows them, it is generally believed, as part of a quid pro quo whereby the U.S. also targets the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad does want to fight. Stop targeting the Pakistani Taliban and the consequences could be severe for the broader war on terrorism. That is why I hope there are some classified loopholes in Obama’s new policies that will allow existing counter-terrorism efforts to continue.

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The FARC is Weak; The Taliban is Strong

I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

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I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

The latest news from Havana, where the negotiations are being conducted, suggests they may be right: FARC and the Colombian government have just reached agreement on the first, and most contentious, issue in their talks–land reform designed to benefit poor farmers. This does not guarantee the success of the talks but it is an important breakthrough. As the Wall Street Journal notes:

There are four items left on the agenda that Mr. Santos and the FARC agreed to last year as a road map for the peace talks. The next topic under discussion will be the FARC’s participation in electoral politics. Other items include getting the FARC out of the cocaine trade; reintegrating fighters into civil society; and support for victims and the need to uncover the truth about atrocities allegedly committed by the FARC.

Various Colombian officials told me, however, that land reform was the hardest issue on the table. With that out of the way, the odds of success on the other agenda items greatly increase.

Of course, even if FARC accepts a deal, that will not be binding on every guerrilla commander. Some will no doubt continue to battle on, just as IRA factions have done since the 1998 Good Friday Accord. And, considering the close links between FARC and narco-traffickers, other fighters may simply become full-time drug runners. But it would be a very big deal if the majority of FARC were to lay down its arms. It would be good news not only for Colombia but also for its most important foreign ally–the United States–which has spent considerable resources via Plan Colombia over the past decade to bring about this very outcome.

The Obama administration would love to see a similar breakthrough in talks with the Taliban but it won’t happen anytime soon, because there is a major difference between Colombia and Afghanistan: FARC has suffered far greater blows on the battlefield than the Taliban have. It is impossible to reach accord with a determined insurgency until you can convince its leaders that they will not win at gunpoint. The Taliban, however, evidently remain convinced that they can still prevail with the use of force. And with the U.S. pledging to pull all its combat troops out by the end of 2014, they may very well be right.

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