The Ghosts of Gandamak

THE name Gandamak means little in the West today. Yet this small Afghan village was once famous for the catastrophe that took place there during the First Anglo-Afghan War in January 1842, arguably the greatest humiliation ever suffered by a Western army in the East.

The course of that distant Victorian war followed a trajectory that is beginning to seem distinctly familiar. In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan on the basis of dubious intelligence about a nonexistent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul, the Afghan capital, was manipulated by a group of ambitious hawks to create a scare about a phantom Russian invasion, thus bringing about an unnecessary, expensive and wholly avoidable conflict.

Initially, the British conquest proved remarkably easy and bloodless; Kabul was captured within a few months and a pliable monarch, Shah Shuja, placed on the throne. Then an insurgency began which unraveled that first heady success, first among the Pashtuns of Kandahar and Helmand, then slowly moving northward until it reached the capital.

What happened next is a warning of how bad things could yet become: a full-scale rebellion against the British broke out in Kabul, and the two most senior British envoys were murdered, making the British occupation impossible to sustain. On the disastrous retreat that followed, as many as 18,000 East India Company troops and maybe half again as many Indian camp followers (estimates vary), were slaughtered by Afghan marksmen waiting in ambush amid the snow drifts and high passes, shot down as they trudged through the icy depths of the Afghan winter.

The last 50 or so survivors made their final stand at Gandamak. As late as the 1970s, fragments of Victorian weaponry could be found lying in the screes above the village; even today, the hill is covered with bleached British bones. Only one man, Thomas Souter, lived to tell the tale. It is a measure of the increasingly pertinent parallels between the events of 1842 and today’s that one of the main NATO bases in Afghanistan is named Camp Souter.

For the Victorian British, Gandamak became a symbol of the country’s greatest ever imperial defeat, as well as a symbol of gallantry: William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated painting of the Last Stand of the 44th Foot — a group of ragged but determined British soldiers standing in a circle behind their bayonets as the Pashtun tribesmen close in — was one of the era’s most famous images.

For the Afghans themselves, Gandamak became a symbol of freedom, and their determination to refuse to be controlled by any foreign power. It is again no accident that the diplomatic quarter of Kabul is named after the Afghan resistance leader who oversaw the British defeat at Gandamak, Wazir Akbar Khan.

A week or so ago, while doing research for a book on the disaster of 1842, I only narrowly avoided the fate of my Victorian compatriots.

Gandamak backs onto the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border, an area that has always been a Taliban center. I was trying to follow the route of the British retreat, but had been advised not to attempt to visit the Gandamak area without local protection. So I set off in the company of a local tribal leader who is also a sports minister in the Karzai government, Anwar Khan Jigdalek. A mountain of a man, Anwar Khan is a former wrestling champion who made his name as the mujaheddin commander against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

We left Kabul — past the blast walls of the NATO barracks that were built on the very site of the British cantonment of 170 years ago — and headed into the line of bleak mountain passes that link Kabul with the Khyber Pass. At Sarobi we left the main road, and moved into Taliban territory; five trucks full of Anwar Khan’s old mujaheddin comrades, all brandishing rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to escort us.

At Jigdalek, on the 12th of January, 1842, 200 frostbitten British soldiers found themselves surrounded by several thousand Pashtun tribesmen. The two highest-ranking British soldiers were taken hostage. It was 50 of those infantrymen who later managed to break out under cover of darkness to make the final passage to Gandamak. Our own welcome to the village was, thankfully, somewhat warmer.

It was Anwar Khan’s first visit to his home since he had become a minister, and the villagers treated us to a feast, Mughal style, in an apricot orchard. We sat on carpets next to bubbling irrigation runnels, under a trellis of vine and pomegranate blossoms, as course after course of kebabs and mulberry-scented rice were laid in front of us.

It was nearly 5 p.m. before the final pieces of naan bread were cleared away, and our hosts decided it was too late to head on to Gandamak. Instead, we went that evening to the nearest big city, Jalalabad, where we discovered that we’d had a narrow escape: there had been a huge battle at Gandamak that day between government forces and a group of villagers and Taliban fighters. Our gluttony had saved us from driving straight into an ambush.

The battle had taken place on exactly the site of the British last stand. In Afghanistan, imperial history seems to be repeating itself with almost uncanny precision.

The following morning I attended a jirga, or assembly of tribal elders, to which the graybeards of Gandamak had come, under a flag of truce, to discuss what had happened the day before. The story was typical of all I had heard about the current government, and revealed how a mixture of corruption and incompetence had helped give an opening for the return of the once-hated Taliban.

The elders related how the previous year, government troops had turned up to destroy the opium harvest. The troops promised the villagers full compensation, and were allowed to burn the crops; but the money never came. Before the planting season, the villagers again went to Jalalabad and asked the government if they could be provided with assistance to grow other crops. Promises were made; again nothing was delivered.

So, desperate, the villagers planted poppies, informing the local authorities that if anyone tried to burn the crop, they would have no option but to resist: they had children to feed. When the troops turned up, about the same time as we were arriving at Jigdalek, the villagers were waiting for them, and had called in the local Taliban to assist. In the fighting that followed, we were told, nine policemen were killed, six vehicles were destroyed and 10 police hostages taken.

Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the close parallels between the fix that NATO now faces in Afghanistan, and that faced by the British more than 150 years ago. Then as now, the problem is not hatred of the West, per se, so much as a dislike of foreign troops ordering people around in their own country.

There has always been an absolute refusal by the Afghans to be ruled by foreigners, or to accept any government perceived as being imposed on them. Then as now, the puppet ruler installed by the West has proved inadequate for the job: simultaneously corrupt and weak, and forced to turn on his puppeteers in order to retain a fragment of legitimacy in the eyes of his people.

Then as now, there have been few tangible signs of improvement under the Western-backed regime: despite the billions of dollars sent to Afghanistan, Kabul’s streets are still more rutted than those in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan. There is little health care: for any serious medical problem, patients have to fly to India.

Then as now, the presence of large numbers of well-paid foreign troops has caused the cost of food and provisions to rise, and living standards to fall; Afghans feel they are getting poorer, not richer. Then as now, there has been an attempt at a last show of force in order to save face before withdrawal. As in 1842, this year’s surge has achieved little except civilian casualties, further alienating the Afghans.

It is not, however, too late to learn some lessons from the mistakes of the British in 1842. Then, the British officials in Kabul continued to send out dispatches of delusional optimism as the insurgents moved ever closer to Kabul. Those officials believed there was a straightforward military solution to the problem, and that if only they could recruit enough Afghans to their army, they could eventually march home and leave the pliable regime in place. By the time they realized they had to negotiate and reach a compromise with their enemy, their power had ebbed too far, and the only thing the insurgents were willing to talk about was an unconditional surrender.

Today, too, there is no easy military solution to Afghanistan: even if we proceed with the current plan to spend billions equipping an Afghan Army of half a million troops, that force will never be able to guarantee security or shore up such a discredited regime. Every day, despite the military muscle of the United States, the security gets worse, and the area under government control contracts.

The only answer is to negotiate a political solution while we still have enough power to do so — which in some form or other means talking with the Taliban. Otherwise, we may yet be faced with a replay of 1842. George Lawrence, a veteran of that war, issued a prescient warning in The Times of London just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the 1870s. “A new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country,” he wrote. “Although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however successful in a military point of view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless.”

William Dalrymple, the author of the forthcoming “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India,” is writing a book on the First Anglo-Afghan War.


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The Karzai Fiasco

Echoes of Vietnam in a spat that only helps the Taliban.

President Obama isn’t faring too well at converting enemies to friends, but he does seem to have a talent for turning friends into enemies. The latest spectacle is the all-too-public and counterproductive war of words between the White House and our putative ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The only winner so far in this spat is the Taliban.

The Obama Administration seems to have had it out for Mr. Karzai from the day it took office, amid multiple reports based on obvious U.S. leaks that Vice President Joe Biden or some other official had told the Afghan leader to shape up. The tension escalated after Mr. Karzai’s tainted but ultimately recognized re-election victory last year, and it reached the name-calling stage late last month when President Obama met Mr. Karzai on a trip to Kabul and the White House let the world know that the American had lectured the Afghan about his governing obligations.

The public rebuke was a major loss of face for Mr. Karzai, who later returned fire at the U.S., reportedly even saying at a private meeting that if the Americans kept it up, he might join the Taliban. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs kept up the schoolyard taunts yesterday by suggesting that Mr. Obama might not meet with Mr. Karzai as scheduled in Washington on May 12.

“We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes, as to whether it is constructive to have that meeting,” said Mr. Gibbs, in a show of disdain he typically reserves for House Republicans.

The kindest word for all of this is fiasco. American troops are risking their lives to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that requires winning popular support in Afghanistan, and the main message from America’s Commander in Chief to the Afghan people is that their government can’t be trusted. That ought to make it easier to win hearts and minds.

Mr. Karzai has been disappointing as a nation-builder, has tolerated corrupt officials and family members, and can be arrogant and crudely nationalistic. Presumably, however, Mr. Obama was well aware of these defects last year when he recognized the Afghan election results and then committed 20,000 more U.S. troops to the theater.

You go to war with the allies you have, and it’s contrary to any diplomatic principle to believe that continuing public humiliation will make Mr. Karzai more likely to cooperate. On the evidence of the last week, such treatment has only given the Afghan leader more incentive to make a show of his political independence from the Americans.

All the more so given that Mr. Karzai has already heard Mr. Obama promise that U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan as early as July 2011. This shouting spectacle will also embolden the Taliban, who after being run out of Marjah have every reason to tell the citizens of Kandahar that even the Americans don’t like the Afghan government and are short-timers in any case.

This treatment of an ally eerily echoes the way the Kennedy Administration treated Ngo Dinh Diem, the President of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. On JFK’s orders, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge refused to meet with Diem, and when U.S. officials got word of a coup against Diem they let it be known they would not interfere. Diem was executed, and South Vietnam never again had a stable government.

By contrast, President George W. Bush decided to support and work closely with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during the 2007 U.S. military surge in Iraq. The Maliki government was sectarian and sometimes incompetent, and some of its officials were no doubt corrupt, but Mr. Bush understood that the larger goal was to defeat al Qaeda and to stabilize the country. From FDR to Reagan, Presidents of both parties have had to tolerate allied leaders of varying talents and unsavory qualities in the wartime pursuit of more important foreign-policy goals.

Coming on the heels of the U.S. public chastisement of Israel’s government, the larger concern over the Karzai episode is what it reveals about Mr. Obama’s diplomatic frame of mind. With adversaries, he is willing to show inordinate patience, to the point of muffling his objections when opposition blood ran in the streets of Tehran. With allies, on the other hand, the President is unforgiving and insists they follow his lead or face his public wrath. The result will be that our foes fear us less, and that we have fewer friends.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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How to Save Afghanistan From Karzai

IN February, the Taliban sanctuary of Marja in southern Afghanistan was attacked in the largest operation of the war. Last week, President Obama flew to Afghanistan and declared, “Our troops have pushed the Taliban out of their stronghold in Marja …. The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something.”

But what is that “something”? And, equally important, does Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, have to be a part of it?

The United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, was guilty of understatement last fall when he told Washington that “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” Still, getting rid of Mr. Karzai at this point wouldn’t be easy, and any major upheaval would clearly imperil President Obama’s plan to start withdrawing American troops next summer.

The Marja offensive, however, may have shown us an alternative approach to the war. For one thing, it demonstrated that our Karzai problem is part of a broader failure to see that our plans for Afghanistan are overambitious.

The coalition is pursuing a political-military strategy based on three tasks. First, “clear” the guerrillas from populated areas. Second, “hold” the areas with Afghan forces. Third, “build” responsible governance and development to gain the loyalty of the population for the government in Kabul. To accomplish this, the coalition military has deployed reconstruction teams to 25 provinces. We may call this a counterinsurgency program, but it’s really nation-building.

The problem with building a new and better Afghanistan is that, above the local level, President Karzai has long held the levers of political power by controlling provincial finances and leadership appointments, including those of police chiefs. Regardless of the coalition’s success at the district level, an obdurate and erratic Mr. Karzai is an obstacle to progress.

The success in Marja, however, changed the dynamics of the conflict. It now seems that the planned surge of 30,000 additional troops will likely achieve progress in “clearing and holding” Kandahar and other Taliban-controlled areas by mid-2011. At that time, the force ratio will be one coalition soldier for every three Afghan soldiers and policemen, and the Afghan Army will still rely upon us for firepower and moral support.

Ideally, we could then begin to withdraw major American units and leave behind small task forces that combine advisory and combat duties, leading to a new ratio of about one American to 10 Afghans. Not only would this bring our troops home, but it would shift the responsibility for nation-building to Afghan forces.

At the same time, we would have to pivot our policy in two ways. First, Mr. Karzai should be treated as a symbolic president and given the organizational “mushroom treatment” — that is, we should shut off the flows of information and resources directly to the national government.

President Ronald Reagan did something similar with another erratic ally, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. In February 1986, Reagan warned Marcos that if government troops attacked opposition forces holed up on the outskirts of Manila, it would cause “untold damage” to his relations with the United States — meaning the aid spigot would be turned off. When his countrymen saw that he was stripped of prestige and support, they forced Marcos into exile.

Second, the coalition must insist that the Afghan military play a primary role in the governance of the districts and provinces, including in the allocation of aid and the supervision of the police. We should work directly with those local and provincial leaders who will act responsibly, and cut off those who are puppets of Kabul.

This is happening, to some extent, in Helmand Province, site of the Marja battle, where the coalition has independent control over $500 million in reconstruction aid and salaries. We have been fortunate that the provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, while a Karzai appointee, has proved an innovative partner. But in any case, we know that coalition aid need not flow through Kabul.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in the region, already seems to be considering this approach as the battle for Kandahar gains intensity. “One of the things we’ll be doing in the shaping is working with political leaders to try to get an outcome that makes sense” including “partnering inside the city with the Afghan National Police,” he told reporters last month.

Although isolating Mr. Karzai will strike many as a giant step backward, the truth is that we don’t have a duty to impose democracy on Afghanistan. The advancement of liberty doesn’t necessitate a “one person, one vote” system, as the 1.5 million fraudulent votes cast for Mr. Karzai in last summer’s sham election showed. We cannot provide democracy if we desire it more than the Afghans.

The Philippines — and South Korea as well — evolved into thriving democracies at their own pace, well after American aid helped to beat back the military threats facing them. It was enough to prevent the Communist takeovers and leave behind governments controlled in the background by a strong military. We didn’t spend tens of billions of dollars on material projects to inculcate democratic principles.

Similarly, a diminished Hamid Karzai can be left to run a sloppy government, with a powerful, American-financed Afghan military insuring that the Taliban do not take over.

Admittedly, this risks the emergence of the Pakistan model in Afghanistan — an army that has a country rather than a country that has an army. But we are not obliged to build a democratic nation under a feckless leader. We need to defend our interests, and leave the nation-building to the Afghans themselves.

Bing West, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, has reported on the Afghan war since 2001.


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Publicly criticizing the Afghan president hurts the U.S.

Just four days after President Obama’s surprise visit to Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave a major speech complaining heavy-handed international actions tarnished last year’s presidential election, diminished his legitimate status as clear winner and risked making the foreign military presence resemble the imperialist invaders of yesteryear.

Karzai went too far. His comments were unfair and risked encouraging critics of the Afghanistan mission who want to portray foreign forces as unwelcome. But his remarks were also a predictable result of American browbeating. Historically, negative treatment of the Afghan leader has produced these sorts of reactions. Kabul and Washington are partners in the effort to create a stable, democratic state; they should understand that public displays of rancor are best avoided.

The immediate catalyst for Karzai’s outburst appears to have been comments by Obama’s national security adviser. En route to Kabul, Gen. Jim Jones predicted to journalists on the record that Obama would pressure Karzai about corruption in governance and said that Karzai had made no progress on this front since his Nov. 19 inauguration.

Jones’s concerns were not without foundation. Even as the latest wave of U.S. troops began arriving en masse, and NATO forces, with limited Afghan help, were clearing towns such as Marja in Helmand province and preparing for a major operation in Kandahar city, the ruling elites in Kabul allegedly refused to clean up their self-serving approach to governance. Allegations of malfeasance have been reinforced by concerns about the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a major power broker in Kandahar. His system of patronage and favoritism has been a concern for allied forces, who see it as angering local tribes that are on the outs — and thereby helping the Taliban’s efforts to recruit followers.

In the past year, Vice President Biden and other U.S. officials have strongly criticized the Afghan leader in public. But whatever one thinks of Afghan governance, and it’s true that it’s not improving fast enough, Jones’s remarks were flawed and self-defeating.

First, Karzai was largely a U.S. pick. Through the Bonn process that followed the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, this country led an international effort to make him Afghanistan’s leader. His “big tent” approach to governance was seen as the most practical way to engender support from tribal leaders, warlords and other power brokers as the United States sought to maintain a light footprint in Afghanistan and avoided building up a strong central state. Circumstances have changed since 2001, but Karzai remains largely the same man. Moreover, some aspects of his strategy of inclusiveness resemble the American desire for reconciliation with elements of the Afghan insurgency. We have grounds to debate and criticize Karzai on many issues, but such conversations need to happen with an attitude of respect, an appreciation of nuance, and an awareness that 80 percent of Afghans still like him as their leader.

Second, Jones was wrong that no notable progress has been made against corruption since November. The pace of progress remains too slow, but Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Discussions continue about how to dilute Ahmed Karzai’s influence in Kandahar. But delays reflect disagreement among NATO governments about how to proceed, not just nepotistic interference from Kabul.

Third, browbeating Karzai, especially in public, does not work. A more respectful approach has proved effective. While keeping much of his counsel private, Sen. John Kerry was direct in meetings with Karzai last fall. Kerry persuaded Karzai to accept a second round of voting to determine the presidency, and though that second round was not implemented, Karzai’s willingness to approve it did much to shore up his legitimacy at home and abroad. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s discreet approach to Karzai and his cabinet has generated cooperation with key ministers on reform of Afghan security forces. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presence at Karzai’s second inauguration is part of a State Department effort to make diplomacy and development more effective, in part by reaching out to regional and local Afghan leaders in key places. Perhaps the professional rapport he seems to have with Clinton is an indication that Karzai responds to such efforts.

A transcript of the Obama-Karzai meeting was not released. Our guess is that it had a more balanced tone than much of the trip’s public remarks. To be fair, Jones may have underestimated how his comments could reinforce negative perceptions in Afghanistan and the United States and set the stage for another period of acrimony. But we are fighting a war. Our leaders need to stop relearning lessons about U.S.-Afghan diplomacy every few months. There is no time to waste.

Michael O’Hanlon is director of research and a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. Hassina Sherjan is an Afghan businesswoman and director of the nonprofit group Aid Afghanistan for Education. They are co-authors of “Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.”


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This Time We Really Mean It

This newspaper carried a very troubling article on the front page on Monday. It detailed how President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan had invited Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Kabul — in order to stick a thumb in the eye of the Obama administration — after the White House had rescinded an invitation to Mr. Karzai to come to Washington because the Afghan president had gutted an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in his re-election last year.

The article, written by two of our best reporters, Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler, noted that “according to Afghan associates, Mr. Karzai recently told lunch guests at the presidential palace that he believes the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region, and that they pose an obstacle to striking a peace deal with the Taliban.”

The article added about Karzai: “ ‘He has developed a complete theory of American power,’ said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. ‘He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.’ ”

That is what we’re getting for risking thousands of U.S. soldiers and having spent $200 billion already. This news is a flashing red light, warning that the Obama team is violating at least three cardinal rules of Middle East diplomacy.

Rule No. 1: When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go. See dictionary for Vietnam: Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky.

When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?

Our envoy in Kabul warned us of this before the election, but in his case, too, we were told to look the other way. On Nov. 6, the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, wrote to Washington in a cable that was leaked: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” he warned. “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.”

One reason you violate Rule No. 1 is because you’ve already violated Rule No. 2: “Never want it more than they do.”

If we want good governance in Afghanistan more than Karzai, he will sell us that carpet over and over. How many U.S. officials have flown to Kabul — the latest being President Obama himself — to lecture Karzai on the need to root out corruption in his administration? Do we think he has a hearing problem? Or do we think he believes he has us over a barrel and, in the end, he can and will do whatever serves his personal power needs because he believes that we believe that he is indispensable for confronting Al Qaeda?

This rule applies equally to the Israeli prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. There is something wrong when we are chasing them — two men who live in biking distance from one another — begging, cajoling and pressuring them to come to a peace negotiation that should ostensibly serve their interests as much as our own.

Which leads to Rule No. 3: In the Middle East, what leaders tell you in private in English is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language.

When Karzai believes that the way to punish America for snubbing him is by inviting Iran’s president to Kabul — who delivered a virulently anti-U.S. speech from inside the presidential palace — you have to pay close attention to that. It means Karzai must think that anti-Americanism plays well on the streets of Afghanistan and that by dabbling in it himself — as he did during his presidential campaign — he will strengthen himself politically. That is not a good sign.

As Filkins and Landler noted, “During the recent American-dominated military offensive in the town of Marja — the largest of the war — Mr. Karzai stood mostly in the shadows.” And if Karzai behaves like this when he needs us, when we’re there fighting for him, how is he going to treat our interests when we’re gone?

We have thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan and more heading there. Love it or hate it, we’re now deep in it, so you have to want our engagement there to build something that is both decent and self-sustaining — so we can get out. But I still fear that Karzai is ready to fight to the last U.S. soldier. And once we clear, hold and build Afghanistan for him, he is going to break our hearts.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times


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Five myths about the war in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is in its ninth year, and even officials supportive of the U.S. presence there acknowledge the challenges that remain. “People still need to understand there is some very hard fighting and very hard days ahead,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during his trip to Afghanistan last week. But the conflict is not hopeless, nor it is eternal. If we want to develop realistic expectations about the war — how it might unfold from here and when it could begin to wind down — it would help to dispel some of the popular mythologies that have emerged about the Afghans, the enemy we’re fighting and the U.S. commitment.

1. Afghans always hate and defeat their invaders.

The Afghans drove the British Empire out of their country in the 19th century and did the same to the Soviet Union in the 20th century. They do fight fiercely; many American troops who have been deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have asserted that the Afghans are stronger natural fighters.

Yet, the people of Afghanistan do not despise foreigners. Despite downward trends in recent years, Afghans are far more accepting of an international presence in their country than are Iraqis, for example, who typically gave the U.S. presence approval ratings of 15 to 30 percent in the early years of the war in that country. Average U.S. favorability ratings in recent surveys in Afghanistan are around 50 percent, and according to polls from ABC, the BBC and the International Republican Institute, about two-thirds of Afghans recognize that they still need foreign help.

And before we mythologize the Afghan insurgency, it is worth remembering some history. In the 1980s, the United States, Saudi Arabia and others gave enormous financial and military assistance to the Afghan resistance movement that eventually forced the Soviets out. That group grew to about 250,000 in strength in the mid-1980s. But today, the Taliban and other resistance groups receive substantial help only from some elements in Pakistan — and diminishing help at that — and collectively, they number about 25,000 fighters.

Finally, though U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, today’s international presence there does not amount to an invasion. Foreign forces are present at the invitation of the host government, which two-thirds of Afghans consider legitimate, if somewhat corrupt.

2. The situation in Afghanistan is much more difficult than the one in Iraq.

The U.S. goals in both countries are similar — establishing better security and governance and eventually passing total control to domestic authorities — and there are certainly ways in which Afghanistan poses a tougher challenge than Iraq. There are more tribes to contend with, the drug problem is worse, literacy rates are lower, national institutions such as the security forces and the judiciary are weaker, and the economy is less advanced.

But Afghanistan’s history of violence and its relative underdevelopment also make its people realistic about the future; they are grateful for even incremental progress, as polls show. And consider the following signs of improvement: Seven million children are now in school (compared with fewer than 1 million under the Taliban), and some 8 million cellphones are in use among a population of about 30 million — compared with virtually zero before 2001. Health care is also getting better.

Also, the violence in Afghanistan today is far less severe than it was in Iraq. Before the troop surge in 2007, more Iraqi civilians were killed every month than have been killed from war-related violence in Afghanistan each year. In other words, Afghanistan is less than a tenth as violent as the Iraq of 2004-07. Communities were displaced and sectarian tensions were inflamed far more in Iraq than they have been in Afghanistan.

3. The U.S. military is for war-fighting, not nation-building.

This was a core philosophy for the incoming Bush administration in 2001 — until the tide of history made George W. Bush the president most preoccupied with nation-building since Harry Truman.

The debate about whether the U.S. armed forces should be involved in nation-building was big in the 1990s, but the nation-builders have won the argument hands down. The terminology has shifted, to be sure, from “nation-building” to “stabilization and reconstruction” missions, but these include efforts to improve governance and the economy as well as security and stability.

Among top civilian and military leaders, there is no real disagreement about whether the armed forces should engage in these types of activities — at least not in situations such as Afghanistan, where the weakness of a state threatens American security. While Gen. David Petraeus led the writing of the new counterinsurgency field manual, with its emphasis on protecting local populations and helping build up indigenous institutions, it was then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who, in a November 2005 directive, wrote that “stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that the Department of Defense shall be prepared to conduct and support.” He added that such operations will receive a “priority comparable to combat operations.” That remains U.S. policy.

4. We should negotiate with the Taliban.

There is nothing wrong with negotiating with elements of the Afghan resistance, especially at the local level. If they are willing to renounce violence and accept the authority of the central government as well as the temporary presence of international forces, we can allow them to rejoin society, obtain jobs and perhaps, in some cases, hold government positions. Many insurgents who are motivated less by ideology than by money, opposition to the government or tribal rivalries may fit this bill.

But a major compromise with the central Taliban leadership is not only unlikely — it’s a bad idea. The Taliban is not interested in negotiation and is not the sort of organization with which the Afghan government or the United Sates should ever compromise. Its extremist ideology is misogynous and intolerant, and its history in Afghanistan is barbaric. Most important, the Taliban is extremely unpopular among Afghans.

President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly stated his willingness to negotiate with Taliban leaders willing to renounce insurgency, while British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has called for some form of political settlement with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, provided that our core interests are protected. But in general, NATO and Afghan forces will have to establish more battlefield momentum before widespread negotiations become plausible. Any talks must be pursued from a position of strength, so that deals will involve convincing the Taliban to lay down arms rather than pretending that it could share power while clinging to its current ideology.

5. There is no exit strategy or exit schedule.

Some Afghans (and Pakistanis) listened to President Obama’s Dec. 1 West Point speech, in which he promised that U.S. forces in Afghanistan would start to withdraw by July 2011, and worried that America’s commitment is weak. Many Americans, though, have the opposite concern — that this war is open-ended.

But if the new strategy being implemented by Gen. Stanley McChrystal is successful, we will see clear evidence of that by late 2010 or 2011. We should then be able to contemplate major reductions in the U.S. military presence starting in 2012.

There are two main reasons for large NATO and U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan today. The first is to clear and hold key strategic areas, as with the current operation in Marja. This effort will largely culminate in 2010 and 2011. The second is to train Afghan forces. Given schedules for recruiting, training and forming Afghan units, this process will be most demanding through 2012 or so.

Put the pieces together and, while a rapid reduction in U.S. forces starting next summer is unlikely, the United States should be able to cut its presence by perhaps 20,000 troops per year thereafter. This is hardly a quick exit — at least not as fast as Congress or Obama might want — and such a time table implies that the United States will still have 60,000 or more troops in Afghanistan when Obama faces voters in 2012. But it is not unending, nor is it unrealistic.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Hassina Sherjan is the president of Aid Afghanistan for Education, a nonprofit group in Kabul. They are the co-authors of “Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.”


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A Karzai Lament

Afghanistan’s president becomes a NATO scold.

Since U.S., British and Afghan troops began pushing into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah two weeks ago, they have gone to unprecedented lengths to minimize civilian casualties. Among other restrictions, they are forbidden from calling in air strikes until they have confirmed that targets pose a legitimate threat and that collateral damage can be minimized. Such caution may have its benefits in winning over the population, but it also has its price: As of Sunday, 13 coalition troops have been killed in the operation. Another 80 have died since the start of the year.

One would think Afghan President Hamid Karzai would applaud the sacrifice being made by his foreign allies as they seek to put cities like Marjah under his government’s control. Instead he has chosen to play the scold. At the opening session of the Afghan parliament last weekend, he held up a picture of a young girl whose family was killed in a Valentine’s Day strike and criticized the U.S. And this week, his cabinet blamed and condemned an air strike launched by U.S. Special Forces on Sunday that left 27 civilians dead, including four women and a child.

Nobody on the allied side of the war effort is indifferent to these tragedies, least of all U.S. Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal, who yesterday went on Afghan TV to apologize for the accident. NATO also expressed its condolences—the second time it has done so since the Marjah offensive began.

But if moral responsibility belongs anywhere it is with the Taliban, which uses civilians as human shields while taking every opportunity to exploit their deaths for propaganda purposes. Mr. Karzai’s politically opportunistic carping only helps to validate their strategy.

We have always been of the view that Mr. Karzai’s failings as a leader should not serve as an alibi to withdraw from Afghanistan. The case would be easier to make if Mr. Karzai devoted more of his time to standing up for the allies who are standing up for his country.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Blunder on the Mountain

Flying over the waves of snow-covered mountains that make Afghanistan a natural fortress and a sinkhole for empires, it’s impossible not to think of Osama’s escaping from Tora Bora as one of the greatest bungled opportunities in history.

Unlike the Bushies, who tried to play down Osama’s importance the longer he was on the lam, Gen. Stanley McChrystal acknowledged in recent Congressional hearings that “he is an iconic figure.”

“It would not defeat Al Qaeda to have him captured or killed,” he said, “but I don’t think that we can finally defeat Al Qaeda until he is captured or killed.”

I asked Bob Gates, as we flew over the notorious terrain, if he had any insights into why such a bellicose team as W., Cheney and Rummy flinched at the very moment they could have captured our mortal enemy. Gates, who said there hasn’t been any good intelligence on Osama’s whereabouts in years, said “it’s just hard to find somebody who has a sympathetic network and local support.”

(It seems hard to believe the C.I.A. can’t infiltrate terrorist networks, given all the Americans who keep popping up as wannabe jihadis.)

During the climactic showdown at Tora Bora, Rummy distracted Gen. Tommy Franks by demanding that he freshen up an Iraq invasion plan. The insufficient number of troops at Tora Bora was a harbinger of things to come in Afghanistan, as the Bush administration heedlessly moved on to Iraq.

“Afghanistan was a vastly underresourced operation because, as some of the generals say in the Pentagon, we were just out of Schlitz,” Gates said. “We didn’t have any more troops to send.”

Noting that the dad of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a Hollywood publicist whose clients included Julie Andrews, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett and Anthony Quinn, and his mom was an assistant for a time to Jimmy Durante, I said that if this were a movie, an elite Rambo team would have gone into the Pakistan border area long ago to fulfill W.’s empty threat to get Osama “dead or alive.”

I wondered why Bush and Obama officials went along with the mythological geological alibi of “impassable” mountains. Health care has often seemed impassable. Lots of things are difficult. But in America, given all our resources, we pride ourselves on achieving the difficult.

Gates told U.S. soldiers in Kirkuk that, in essence, we went to war twice in Afghanistan: a brief one in 2001 that America won, and one that started at the end of 2005 when the Taliban regenerated.

“What we didn’t realize,” he said, “was that, particularly beginning toward the end of 2005, the deals that the Pakistanis cut with the tribes to back off and leave them alone created the space in which the Taliban were able to come back.”

The Bush administration may not have realized that, but common sense told you the deal was lousy, giving those who hated us a sanctuary in which to rejuvenate.

In a compelling cover story in the current New Republic called “The Battle for Tora Bora,” Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert, reconstructs the debacle, calling it “one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.” He reports that Tommy Franks rebuffed the C.I.A. request for 800 Army Rangers from nearby bases to assault the complex of caves where Osama was hiding and block his escape. In the end, Bergen notes, there were more journalists there than Western soldiers.

General Franks told the C.I.A. he wanted to keep a light-footprint approach.

(Curiously, Gates — who is known in the Obama administration as “the man who leaves no footprints” — decided to support the heavy-footprint surge after McChrystal made the argument that it’s not the size of the footprint, but how hard the foot comes down.)

Franks and Rummy were risk averse about American troop casualties at the very moment they could have decapitated Al Qaeda. Instead, Osama’s myth grew with his escape as a 15,000-pound Daisy Cutter bomb and a series of 500-pound bombs rained down on the caves.

Bergen writes that bin Laden’s son, Omar, said “bin Laden would routinely hike from Tora Bora into neighboring Pakistan on walks that could take anywhere between seven and 14 hours. ‘My brothers and I all loathed these grueling treks that seemed the most pleasant of outings to our father,’ Omar bin Laden later recalled. Bin Laden told his sons they had to memorize every rock on the routes to Pakistan. ‘We never know when war will strike,’ he instructed them. ‘We must know our way out of the mountains.’ ”

Eight years after Tora Bora, the failure there poses the question at the heart, or Achilles’ heel, of President Obama’s strategy: What if victory over Al Qaeda and other terrorists lies in Pakistan, not Afghanistan?

Are we going to go get them in Pakistan or not? Osama’s evading us and ending up in Pakistan is the perfect humiliating symbol of our failure to deal with that question.

Maureen Dowd, New York Times


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Doubts About Certitude

It is the greatest example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

In a bit of unpoetic justice, Bob Gates helped create the mess in Afghanistan decades ago and now has to try to clean it up.

At the C.I.A. in the ’80s, Gates conspired with Charlie Wilson and the Saudis to help the insurgents in Afghanistan turn back the occupation of a superpower. Now he’s guiding the attempt of the occupying superpower to turn back the insurgents, some of whom are the same ones he armed to defeat the Soviet Union.

Trying to do a good thing that also seemed like a strategically brilliant thing — help the Afghan Davids repel the raw aggression of the Soviet Goliaths — we created the monsters that have come back to haunt us, and we learned how little control we have over history.

We trained a whole generation of jihadists and armed them. We paved the way for the Taliban takeover and the rise of Osama bin Laden. We created the Islamist power in the northwest frontier of Pakistan, swelled by millions of Afghan refugees. We enabled the conditions for bin Laden’s safe haven. We contributed to the instability of Pakistan.

On a rainy day in Kabul last week, I watched Gates climb into the cockpit of a Soviet-era helicopter that Americans use to teach Afghans how to fly. The defense secretary was in one of the same style Mi-17s that he once provided Stinger missiles to shoot down. The absurdity was not lost on Gates, an avid history reader who feels our foreign policy has too often been “an exercise in misread history.”

Gates promised that America would not repeat its disappearing act of 1989. Flying from Kabul to Iraq, I asked him if, like Paul Wolfowitz with the Iraqi Shiites, he was driven to war because of guilt at abandoning people we had promised to stand by.

“I don’t feel guilt about it, but we made a strategic mistake,” he said. “And it wasn’t just the Afghans. At almost the same time, we basically cut off our relationship with the Pakistanis. And the mistrust that exists today is a reflection of that action on our part.”

I asked what he learned in the exhaustive White House review. He said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, convinced him that “it was less the size of the force footprint than what the forces did on the ground.” The Soviets, he added, “invaded a country.” Well, so did we. But the Soviets, he said, killed a million Afghans and tried to impose “an alien culture.”

But Gates knows messy conflicts get messier. When we were in Kabul, a senior NATO commander conceded that civilians may have been killed during a joint military operation with Afghan forces.

There is a brief window of opportunity when a benign occupying power can accomplish some good before it is regarded with resentment and resistance.

I showed Gates an article in the newspaper Stars and Stripes reporting that U.S. trainers considered Afghan soldiers and police a long way from ready, and that some Afghans in a new unit in Baghlan Province cower in ditches, steal U.S. fuel and weapons and are suspected of collaborating with the Taliban.

Capt. Jason Douthwaite, a logistics officer in Baghlan, told the military paper that he felt more like an investigating officer than a mentor: “It’s not, ‘Let me teach you your job.’ It’s more like, ‘How much did you steal from the American government today?’ ”

Given the warping effect of ego in Washington, I asked the defense secretary how he ensures that he doesn’t turn into Robert McNamara?

“I’ve never believed that I was the smartest guy in the room,” he said. “I want people around me to tell me if they think I’m headed in the wrong direction. And I read a lot.”

Gates laughs at being called an Eeyore, but he believes “too often there is a desire for certitude where it’s not possible.” Harking back to Cold Warriors who thought there could be a limited nuclear war, he demurred, “once things start, how you get control of it or keep control of it struck me as just inherently a problem.”

W. said invading Iraq could help break the cycle of supporting corrupt dictators. But watching the Karzais acting like a mob family going to the mattresses, how do we know we’re not simply creating and propping up another corrupt dictator?

“You have to be realistic about the fact that developments of the kind we want to see take time,” Gates replied. “If we can re-empower the traditional local centers of authority, the tribal shuras and elders and things like that and put an overlay of human rights on that, isn’t that a step in the right direction?

“I’m leery of trying to change history in dramatic, short strokes. I think it’s very risky.”

Maureen Dowd, New York Times


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Not much time for good decisions on Afghanistan

The speedy surge into Afghanistan isn’t going to be quite as rapid as the White House recently suggested — further complicating President Obama’s hopes for a quick in-and-out fix.

As one of the selling points of the plan to send an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, rather than the full 40,000 troops Gen. Stanley McCrystal requested, the president’s aides touted the idea that the extra forces would be sent in the next six months, rather than over the full year that McChrystal originally thought necessary.

But a top military planner says the actual timetable will be closer to what McChrystal proposed.

I asked Lt Gen. David Rodriquez, the No. 2 US commander here, in a briefing tonight how long the deployment of the extra 30,000 would take. He answered that “it will happen between nine and eleven months,” starting in January 2010. Which means that some troops might not arrive until November 2010.

The next month after that, December 2010, is when Obama plans to assess how well the troops are doing — so he can decide how many to pull out when the withdrawal begins in July 2011. That doesn’t give him much time to make good decisions.

Am I the only person who worries that “fuzzy math” is being used here?

Obama was so eager to make his policy look different from what McChrystal proposed that he moved forward the up ramp, and the down ramp — compressing what McChrystal advised should be a longer, slower process of escalation.

The problem is the laws of physics. As Rodriguez said in tonight’s briefing, you can move people only so fast into to a landlocked battlefield half a world away from the U.S. McChrystal’s original finishing point for adding 40,000 troop was March 2011. Now it has been “rushed” to November 2010 for 30,000 troops.

Bottom line from Kabul: The White House’s accelerated timetable offers scant time for Obama to make good decisions about what’s working for a U.S. military force that, in some cases, will only have been on the ground a few months.

David Ignatius, Washington Post


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To Beat Al Qaeda, Look to the East

IN testimony last week before Congress, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, insisted that President Obama’s revised war strategy will “build support for the Afghan government,” while Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander there, vowed that it will “absolutely” succeed in disrupting and degrading the Taliban.

Confidence is important, but we also have to recognize that the decision to commit 30,000 more troops to a counterinsurgency effort against a good segment of the Afghan population, with the focus on converting a deeply unpopular and corrupt regime into a unified, centralized state for the first time in that country’s history, is far from a slam dunk. In the worst case, the surge may push General McChrystal’s “core goal of defeating Al Qaeda” further away.

Al Qaeda is already on the ropes globally, with ever-dwindling financial and popular support, and a drastically diminished ability to work with other extremists worldwide, much less command them in major operations. Its lethal agents are being systematically hunted down, while those Muslims whose souls it seeks to save are increasingly revolted by its methods.

Unfortunately, this weakening viral movement may have a new lease on life in Afghanistan and Pakistan because we are pushing the Taliban into its arms. By overestimating the threat from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we are making it a greater threat to Pakistan and the world. Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan are unlike Iraq, the ancient birthplace of central government, or 1960s Vietnam, where a strong state was backing the Communist insurgents. Afghanistan and Pakistan must be dealt with on their own terms.

We’re winning against Al Qaeda and its kin in places where antiterrorism efforts are local and built on an understanding that the ties binding terrorist networks today are more cultural and familial than political. Consider recent events in Southeast Asia.

In September, Indonesian security forces killed Noordin Muhammad Top, then on the F.B.I.’s most-wanted terrorist list. Implicated in the region’s worst suicide bombings — including the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton bombings in Jakarta last July 17 — Noordin Top headed a splinter group of the extremist religious organization Jemaah Islamiyah (he called it Al Qaeda for the Malaysian Archipelago). Research by my colleagues and me, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, reveals three critical factors in such groups inspired by Al Qaeda, all of which local security forces implicitly grasp but American counterintelligence workers seem to underestimate.

What binds these groups together? First is friendship forged through fighting: the Indonesian volunteers who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan styled themselves the Afghan Alumni, and many kept in contact when they returned home after the war. The second is school ties and discipleship: many leading operatives in Southeast Asia come from a handful of religious schools affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah. Out of some 30,000 religious schools in Indonesia, only about 50 have a deadly legacy of producing violent extremists. Third is family ties; as anyone who has watched the opening scene from “The Godfather” knows, weddings can be terrific opportunities for networking and plotting.

Understanding these three aspects of terrorist networking has given law enforcement a leg up on the jihadists. Gen. Tito Karnavian, the leader of the strike team that tracked down Noordin Top, told me that “knowledge of the interconnected networks of Afghan Alumni, kinship and marriage groups was very crucial to uncovering the inner circle of Noordin.”

Consider Noordin Top’s third marriage, which cemented ties to key suspects in the lead-up to the recent hotel bombings. His father-in-law, who founded a Jemaah Islamiyah-related boarding school, stashed explosives in his garden with the aid of another teacher at the school. Using electronic intercepts and tracing family, school and alumni ties, police officers found the cache in late June 2009. That discovery may have prompted Noordin Top to initiate the hotel attacks ahead of a planned simultaneous attack on the residence of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In addition, an Afghan Alumnus and nephew of Noordin Top’s father-in-law was being pursued by the police for his role in a failed plot to blow up a tourist cafe on Sumatra. Unfortunately, Noordin Top struck the hotels before the Indonesian police could penetrate the entire network, in part because another family group was still operating under the police radar. This group included a florist who smuggled the bombs into the hotels and a man whose eventual arrest led to discovery of the plot against the president. Both terrorists were married to sisters of a Yemeni-trained imam who recruited the hotel suicide bombers, and of another brother who had infiltrated Indonesia’s national airline.

Had the police pulled harder on the pieces of social yarn they had in hand, they might have unraveled the hotel plot earlier. Still, their work thwarted attacks planned for the future, including that on the president.

Similarly, security officials in the Philippines have combined intelligence from American and Australian sources with similar tracking efforts to crack down on their terrorist networks, and as a result most extremist groups are either seeking reconciliation with the government — including the deadly Moro Islamic Liberation Front on the island of Mindanao — or have devolved into kidnapping-and-extortion gangs with no ideological focus. The separatist Abu Sayyaf Group, once the most feared force in the region, now has no overall spiritual or military leaders, few weapons and only a hundred or so fighters.

So, how does this relate to a strategy against Al Qaeda in the West and in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Al Qaeda’s main focus is harming the United States and Europe, but there hasn’t been a successful attack in these places directly commanded by Osama bin Laden and company since 9/11. The American invasion of Afghanistan devastated Al Qaeda’s core of top personnel and its training camps. In a recent briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. case officer, said that recent history “refutes claims by some heads of the intelligence community that all Islamist plots in the West can be traced back to the Afghan-Pakistani border.” The real threat is homegrown youths who gain inspiration from Osama bin Laden but little else beyond an occasional self-financed spell at a degraded Qaeda-linked training facility.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq encouraged many of these local plots, including the train bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. In their aftermaths, European law and security forces stopped plots from coming to fruition by stepping up coordination and tracking links among local extremists, their friends and friends of friends, while also improving relations with young Muslim immigrants through community outreach. Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have taken similar steps.

Now we need to bring this perspective to Afghanistan and Pakistan — one that is smart about cultures, customs and connections. The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure. Reading a thousand years of Arab and Muslim history would show little in the way of patterns that would have helped to predict 9/11, but our predicament in Afghanistan rhymes with the past like a limerick.

A key factor helping the Taliban is the moral outrage of the Pashtun tribes against those who deny them autonomy, including a right to bear arms to defend their tribal code, known as Pashtunwali. Its sacred tenets include protecting women’s purity (namus), the right to personal revenge (badal), the sanctity of the guest (melmastia) and sanctuary (nanawateh). Among all Pashtun tribes, inheritance, wealth, social prestige and political status accrue through the father’s line.

This social structure means that there can be no suspicion that the male pedigree (often traceable in lineages spanning centuries) is “corrupted” by doubtful paternity. Thus, revenge for sexual misbehavior (rape, adultery, abduction) warrants killing seven members of the offending group and often the “offending” woman. Yet hospitality trumps vengeance: if a group accepts a guest, all must honor him, even if prior grounds justify revenge. That’s one reason American offers of millions for betraying Osama bin Laden fail.

Afghan hill societies have withstood centuries of would-be conquests by keeping order with Pashtunwali in the absence of central authority. When seemingly intractable conflicts arise, rival parties convene councils, or jirgas, of elders and third parties to seek solutions through consensus.

After 9/11, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, assembled a council of clerics to judge his claim that Mr. bin Laden was the country’s guest and could not be surrendered. The clerics countered that because a guest should not cause his host problems, Mr. bin Laden should leave. But instead of keeping pressure on the Taliban to resolve the issue in ways they could live with, the United States ridiculed their deliberation and bombed them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda. Pakistani Pashtuns then offered to help out their Afghan brethren.

American-sponsored “reconciliation” efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban may be fatally flawed if they include demands that Pashtun hill tribes give up their arms and support a Constitution that values Western-inspired rights and judicial institutions over traditions that have sustained the tribes against all enemies.

THE secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, suggest that victory in Afghanistan is possible if the Taliban who pursue self-interest rather than ideology can be co-opted with material incentives. But as the veteran war reporter Jason Burke of The Observer of London told me: “Today, the logical thing for the Pashtun conservatives is to stop fighting and get rich through narcotics or Western aid, the latter being much lower risk. But many won’t sell out.”

Why? In part because outsiders who ignore local group dynamics tend to ride roughshod over values they don’t grasp. My research with colleagues on group conflict in India, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories found that helping to improve lives materially does little to reduce support for violence, and can even increase it if people feel such help compromises their most cherished values.

The original alliance between the Taliban and Al Qaeda was largely one of convenience between a poverty-stricken national movement and a transnational cause that brought it material help. American pressure on Pakistan to attack the Taliban and Al Qaeda in their sanctuary gave birth to the Pakistani Taliban, who forged their own ties to Al Qaeda to fight the Pakistani state.

While some Taliban groups use the rhetoric of global jihad to inspire ranks or enlist foreign fighters, the Pakistani Taliban show no inclination to go after Western interests abroad. Their attacks, which have included at least three assaults near nuclear facilities, warrant concerted action — but in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. As Mr. Sageman, the former C.I.A. officer, puts it: “There’s no Qaeda in Afghanistan and no Afghans in Qaeda.”

Pakistan has long preferred a policy of “respect for the independence and sentiment of the tribes” that was advised in 1908 by Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India who established the North-West Frontier Province as a buffer zone to “conciliate and contain” the Pashtun hill tribes. In 1948, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, removed all troops from brigade level up in Waziristan and other tribal areas in a plan aptly called Operation Curzon.

The problem today is that Al Qaeda is prodding the Pakistani Taliban to hit state institutions in the hopes of provoking a full-scale invasion of the tribal areas by the Pakistani Army; the idea is that such an assault would rally the tribes to Al Qaeda’s cause and threaten the state. The United States has been pushing for exactly that sort of potentially disastrous action by Islamabad. But holding to Curzon’s line may still be Pakistan’s best bet. The key in the Afghan-Pakistani area, as in Southeast Asia, is to use local customs and networks to our advantage. Of course, counterterrorism measures are only as effective as local governments that execute them. Afghanistan’s government is corrupt, unpopular and inept.

Besides, there’s really no Taliban central authority to talk to. To be Taliban today means little more than to be a Pashtun tribesman who believes that his fundamental beliefs and customary way of life are threatened. Although most Taliban claim loyalty to Afghanistan’s Mullah Omar, this allegiance varies greatly. Many Pakistani Taliban leaders — including Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed by an American drone in August, and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud — rejected Mullah Omar’s call to forgo suicide bombings against Pakistani civilians.

In fact, it is the United States that holds today’s Taliban together. Without us, their deeply divided coalition could well fragment. Taliban resurgence depends on support from those notoriously unruly hill tribes in Pakistan’s border regions, who are unsympathetic to the original Taliban program of homogenizing tribal custom and politics under one rule.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Taliban were to sever ties to Mr. bin Laden if he became a bigger headache to them than America. Al Qaeda may have close relations to the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan Taliban leader living in Pakistan, and the Shabi Khel branch of the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan, but it isn’t wildly popular with many other Taliban factions and forces.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Taliban are interested in their homeland, not ours. Things are different now than before 9/11. The Taliban know how costly Osama bin Laden’s friendship can be. There’s a good chance that enough factions in the loose Taliban coalition would opt to disinvite their troublesome guest if we forget about trying to subdue them or hold their territory. This would unwind the Taliban coalition into a lot of straggling, loosely networked groups that could be eliminated or contained using the lessons learned in Indonesia and elsewhere. This means tracking down family and tribal networks, gaining a better understanding of family ties and intervening only when we see actions by Taliban and other groups to aid Al Qaeda or act outside their region.

To defeat violent extremism in Afghanistan, less may be more — just as it has been elsewhere in Asia.

Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, John Jay College and the University of Michigan, is the author of the forthcoming “Listen to the Devil.”


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A Game That’s Not So Great

Puppets just aren’t what they used to be.

Or maybe a trillion dollars doesn’t buy the same felicitous level of obsequiousness it once did.

Visiting Afghanistan and Iraq in an attempt to shore up our wobbly wards, Bob Gates could not seem to get the respect due the man running the world’s best military, a force that has been protecting and propping up our two occupied territories for most of this decade.

At a joint press conference Tuesday at the presidential palace in Kabul, Hamid Karzai surprised the usually unflappable Gates when he knocked down President Obama’s attempt to get out of Dodge.

Needling his American sugar daddy, the Afghan peacock observed: “For another 15 to 20 years, Afghanistan will not be able to sustain a force of that nature and capability with its own resources.”

Gates and Obama may have wanted to “light a fire,” as Gates put it, under the corrupt Afghan president and warn that the A.T.M. is closing, but Karzai called their bluff. He knows, as do the leaders in Iraq and Pakistan, that America is stuck bailing them out with billions every year, even when they dawdle, disappoint and deceive.

Gates and his generals in Afghanistan talked a lot last week about “partnering” with and “mentoring” the Afghan Army and police. But given the Flintstones nature of the country, it’s more basic. Americans have to teach the vast majority of Afghan recruits to read and write before they can get to security training. It’s hard to arrest people if you can’t read them their rights and take names.

It seems late to realize this, but Gates told reporters he had only recently learned the “eye-opener” that the Taliban were able to attract so many fighters because they paid more. Generals in Afghanistan said the Taliban dole out $250 to $300 a month, while the Afghan Army paid about $120. So Gates has made sure that recruits get a raise to $240.

The American solution is always to throw more money at a problem; now we’re in a bidding war with the Taliban, which doesn’t bode well for the democracy manqué.

Gates promised that America would not leave until the Afghan and Iraqi forces stand up — even when he gets stood up, as he did by Nuri Kamal al-Maliki Thursday night.

The Iraqi prime minister blew off a planned meeting with Gates because he was in a scorching closed-door six-hour meeting with Iraqi lawmakers, being taken to task for his failure to stop five bombings that ripped into government buildings Tuesday, killing 127 people and wounding hundreds more.

The defense secretary’s aides tried to spin the snub, noting that their guy was merely an appointed official while Maliki was an elected leader. When the prime minister finally agreed to reschedule the meeting for 7:50 a.m. Friday, Gates’s aides gleefully noted that, given Maliki’s preference for sleeping late, it was a diplomatic triumph, even if the Iraqi had on pajamas under his suit.

After four days of preaching a message of love — Gates said it was “a myth” that America likes war and called it the first time in military history that an occupying force was in Afghanistan “on behalf of the Afghans rather than to conquer” — he finally got some back.

“You look very young — you look much older on TV,” Maj. Gen. Turhan Abdul Rahman, the leather-clad Kirkuk provincial director of police, told the manicured Gates.

If Rummy had been dissed by our inglorious glove puppets, he would have blown his top. But the disciplined, analytical, pragmatic, introverted Gates is no Rummy (nor does he call his predecessor). His form of ego is not to show ego. When a much-anticipated trip to see an Army Stryker brigade in Kandahar was canceled because of fog, he dryly told us: “As Clint Eastwood said, ‘A man’s got to know his limitations.’ ”

The Cold Warrior who helped persuade the Reluctant Warrior to do the Afghan surge has sometimes been on the wrong side of history — with the Soviet Union, the Iran-contra scandal and the 1989 desertion of Afghanistan.

But unlike Rummy, Cheney and Wolfie, he doesn’t seem driven to make up for past disappointments by manipulating present history. “Where I do think I bring something unusual is, I think I have uncommon common sense, whether it’s growing up in Kansas or just my life experience,” he told me, sitting in The Silver Bullet, a secure Airstream trailer on his C-17 that looks like a big toaster oven.

Asked about the Democratic lawmakers who felt the president had been rolled by the generals, Gates snapped: “That’s ridiculous.”

So how does Gates make a decision that will determine his reputation and that of the young president he serves?

“Anybody who reads history has to approach these things with some humility because you can’t know,” he said. “Nobody knows what the last chapter ever looks like.”

Maureen Dowd, New York Times


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A sharp turn toward another Vietnam

As a U.S. senator during the 1960s, I agonized over the badly mistaken war in Vietnam. After doing all I could to save our troops and the Vietnamese people from a senseless conflict, I finally took my case to the public in my presidential campaign in 1972. Speaking across the nation, I told audiences that the only upside of the tragedy in Vietnam was that its enormous cost in lives and dollars would keep any future administration from going down that road again.

I was wrong. Today, I am astounded at the Obama administration’s decision to escalate the equally mistaken war in Afghanistan, and as I listen to our talented young president explain why he is adding 30,000 troops — beyond the 21,000 he had added already — I can only think: another Vietnam. I hope I am incorrect, but history tells me otherwise.

Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all believed that the best way to save the government in Saigon and defeat Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Cong insurgents was to send in U.S. troops. But the insurgency only grew stronger, even after we had more than 500,000 troops fighting and dying in Vietnam.

We have had tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan for several years, and we have employed an even larger number of mercenaries (or “contractors,” as they’re called these days). As in Vietnam, the insurgent forces are stronger than ever, and the Afghan government is as corrupt as the one we backed in Saigon.

Why do we send young Americans to risk life and limb on behalf of such worthless regimes? The administration says we need to fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But the major al-Qaeda forces are in Pakistan.

The insurgency in Afghanistan is led by the Taliban. Its target is its own government, not our government. Its only quarrel with us is that its members see us using our troops and other resources to prop up a government they despise. Adding more U.S. forces will fuel the Taliban further.

Starting in 1979, the Soviets tried to control events in Afghanistan for nearly a decade. They lost 15,000 troops, and an even larger number of soldiers were crippled or wounded. Their treasury was exhausted, and the Soviet Union collapsed. A similar fate has befallen other powers that have tried to work their will on Afghanistan’s collection of mountain warlords and tribes.

We have the best officers and combat troops in the world, but they are weary after nearly a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why waste these fine soldiers any longer?

Even if we had a good case for a war in Afghanistan, we simply cannot afford to wage it. With a $12 trillion debt and a serious economic recession, this is not a time for unnecessary wars abroad. We should bring our soldiers home before any more of them are killed or wounded — and before our national debt explodes.

In 1964, Johnson asked several senators who were not running for reelection that year if we would campaign for him. He assured those of us who were opposed to the war in Vietnam that he had no plans to expand the U.S. presence. Johnson won the election in a landslide, telling voters he sought no wider war. “We are not about to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” he assured during his campaign.

But once elected, Johnson began to pour in more troops until American forces reached exceeded 500,000. All told, more than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and many more were crippled in mind and body. This is to say nothing of the nearly 2 million Vietnamese who died under U.S. bombardment.

Johnson had a brilliant record in domestic affairs, but Vietnam choked his dream of a Great Society. The war had become unbearable to so many Americans — civilian and military — that the landslide victor of 1964 did not seek reelection four years later.

Obama has the capacity to be a great president; I just hope that Afghanistan will not tarnish his message of change. After half a century of Cold War and hot wars, it is time to rebuild our great and troubled land. By closing down the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can divert the vast sums being spent there to revitalizing our own nation.

In 1972, I called on my fellow citizens to “Come home, America.” Today, I commend these words to our new president.

George McGovern, a former senator from South Dakota and a decorated World War II combat veteran, was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972.


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Just Stick to It

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S critics argue that his plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan starting in July 2011 signals a fatal lack of resolve, inviting the Taliban to wait out a feckless America, or else has no credibility. In fact, the deadline is crucial to the strategy. Yes, there are many reasons to be skeptical of the prospects for the new plan, from the hopeless corruption in Kabul to the difficulties of state-building. But a clearly communicated timeline increases the odds of success.

The July 2011 date should be understood as an inflection point, not as the end of the American military mission. There is no “mission accomplished” here. The American commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue. The pace and location of withdrawals will be dictated by conditions on the ground and, indeed, the date itself was carefully chosen based on the military’s best calculations of improved security and political conditions. It was not drawn from a hat, or determined by the domestic political calendar.

The deadline is essential politically because it will provide the necessary urgency for Afghans to make the institutional reforms that will ensure their own survival. An open-ended commitment creates a terrible moral hazard in which Afghan leaders, assuming American troops will always be there to protect them, may make risky or counterproductive decisions. A limited, conditional commitment creates the leverage needed to generate the institutional transformation necessary to cement any gains made by the military.

Just as in the Iraq debate, hawks who insist on an open-ended commitment to “victory” misunderstand the strategic incentives created by an unconditional military promise. Contrary to prevailing myths of the Iraq surge, Iraqi politicians began to make serious moves toward overcoming their political and sectarian divides only in mid-2008, when it became likely that an Obama electoral victory would lead to an end of the unconditional American commitment.

President Obama’s deadline will not compromise the military mission. The surge of troops is meant to blunt the momentum of the Taliban, establish security and provide space for the spread of governance and legitimacy. Should the Taliban choose to retreat and wait out the American mission, this would be a blessing, not a curse. It would allow America to establish control more easily and help build effective local and national governments.

The greater problem for the Obama administration will be to make the commitment to the drawdown credible. Many expect that the military will come back in a year asking for more troops and time. The blizzard of conflicting messages coming from Washington this week did little to diminish the expectation. This is troubling, because the political logic of the deadline works only if Afghans on both sides believe in it.

Skeptics among the public and in Congress can provide an essential service by carefully monitoring progress and supporting the strategy while making it clear that there will be no tolerance for future escalations or open-ended commitments.

Marc Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, writes the Abu Aardvark blog for Foreign Policy magazine.


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A Deadline We Can Believe In?

President Obama said that troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will begin in 18 months. Some of his advisers have hinted that the deadline is flexible. So, should we stick to the timeline or not? Here are three opinions from experts on the subject.


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Military Time, Civilian Time

THE problem with public military timelines is that if they are too short, your enemy will wait you out, and if they are too long, your enemy will drive you out. President Obama has come under fire for saying that United States forces would begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011. Was this a good idea?

From a purely military perspective, announcing a timeline makes no sense. It gives our adversaries insight into our plans, dulling the edge of strategic ambiguity. But changing the trajectory of this war requires much more than killing and capturing Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Progress depends on two political developments: inducing the administration of President Hamid Karzai to govern effectively, and persuading Pakistan that militant groups within its borders pose as great a threat to Islamabad as they do to Kabul. A limit to America’s commitment may actually help us meet these goals. (The Democratic victories in the 2006 midterm elections, for example, convinced Iraqi Sunni leaders that the United States was on its way out, inspiring them to join the Awakening movement that led to better security across the country.) The strategic benefits of setting a timeline, in this case, may outweigh its tactical costs.

Whether these political objectives are met will be the best measure of the effectiveness of the administration’s plan. President Karzai must be held to the commitments he made in his November inaugural speech to build security forces that can secure the entire country within five years, reduce civilian casualties and enact laws to fight corruption.

And the Pakistani Army must crack down on militants in its country who operate in Afghanistan, namely the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani network, with the same commitment it brings to the fight against more direct threats like the Pakistani Taliban. This is increasingly important as NATO forces in Afghanistan focus more on securing cities, and less on the border with Pakistan.

Announcing the timeline was risky, and it could turn out to be our undoing. The president delivered two intertwined messages in his speech at West Point outlining his Afghan policy: one to his American audience (“I see the way out of this war”), and one to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Taliban (“I’m in to win”). The danger of dual messages, of course, is that each may find the other audience, with Americans hearing over-commitment and Afghans hearing abandonment.

The only way to reassure both is to show demonstrable progress on the ground. A credible declaration of American limits may, paradoxically, be the needed catalyst.

Nathaniel Fick, the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, was a Marine Corps infantry officer in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 and 2002 and trained Afghan Army and police officers in Afghanistan in 2007.


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Advantage: Taliban

WHILE President Obama deliberated three months before releasing his new Afghan surge strategy, his decision actually muddied the waters as far as American credibility in Afghanistan and Pakistan is concerned, and created misapprehensions in Europe.

Many NATO allies were thunderstruck at the deadline announcement. The British, who have the second-largest contingent in Afghanistan, have said their 10,000-troop presence in Helmand Province will not be affected by any timeline. Senior administration officials have spent the last week in Europe and in Afghanistan and Pakistan rowing back on what the president said, insisting that the plan is flexible.

In the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, most people are of two minds. They would like the Americans to leave soon, but don’t want to lose their front-line status in the war on terrorism, which brings vast amounts of American aid. Despite widespread anti-Americanism on the streets, the ruling elites are nervous about being dumped by America, as they were in 1989 after the Soviets withdrew.

Much of the confusion was the fault of President Obama himself. He should have devoted far more time in his West Point speech to thoroughly explaining the 18-month timeline. It seems almost as though his speechwriters got no input from the Afghan experts working for Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy here, who could have told them how poorly it would play in the region.

On the battlefield, there is no doubt that extra troops deployed in the east and south of Afghanistan will help in retaking areas now held by the Taliban. But the fear is that the Taliban will melt into the north and west of the country, where NATO troops operate under caveats that limit their ability to go on the offensive. Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai has contradicted the Obama plan by saying that the Afghan Army and police will not be ready for five years.

Nor has President Obama outlined exactly what the civilian surge hopes to achieve. He has ruled out nation-building, but that is precisely what Afghanistan needs. Most important is building a functional Afghan economy with permanent jobs in place of the temporary positions provided by the present donor-driven development projects.

Pakistan remains the biggest problem. While President Asif Ali Zardari has said all the things Washington wants to hear, there is no agreement as yet from the Pakistan military to go after the Afghan Taliban strongholds in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Provinces. The Pakistan military is unlikely to act unless there is a parallel movement by the Americans to defuse Indo-Pakistani tensions over Kashmir, and unless India is more willing to reduce its forces on Pakistan’s eastern border.

We can understand the president’s serious domestic constraints — the economy, health care and Congressional elections next year. But this is all the more reason to make sure that the United States and NATO can deliver success in the next 18 months and get all the nations in this region to back their efforts. All this could have been done without an arbitrary timeline.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of “Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia” and “Descent Into Chaos.”


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McChrystal’s ‘victory’ dance

“Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be.”

– Winston Churchill, 1940

“It could be similar to politics, where you defeat the other party in an election but you don’t wipe them out.”

– Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Tuesday, explaining what it means to “defeat” the Taliban

Before arriving in Afghanistan on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would tell U.S. soldiers there that “we are in this thing to win.”

That formulation ( in addition to echoing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “I’m in to win” presidential campaign theme) was striking because it was very different from what Gates’s top general in the Afghanistan war, Stanley McChrystal, was saying on the very same day. Where Gates was Churchillian, McChrystal, testifying before a pair of congressional committees, was a one-man army of qualifiers.

“If it’s a war of necessity, then I would think, by definition, we have to win it,” supposed Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

“I believe it’s important that we be successful,” McChrystal clarified.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) was still not clear. “We do intend to defeat the Taliban?”

“Sir, the military term, in fact, without parsing that too tightly, we — we intend to prevent them from doing what they want to do,” McChrystal replied.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) asked for further clarification of the war aim: “Is that to win?”

“I believe it’s to let the Afghan people win,” the general hedged.

Clearly McChrystal was in a no-win situation. He managed to get through three hours of testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday morning and four hours more before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the afternoon without once uttering the word “victory.”

This careful linguistic dance was typical of McChrystal’s long-awaited testimony before Congress. He proved himself to be a capable technocrat, if not necessarily an inspiring war leader. When Gen. David Petraeus came before Congress under similar circumstances two years ago to defend the “surge” in Iraq, he became an instant hero on Capitol Hill. But McChrystal, with his too-big reading glasses and his talk of risk mitigation, came across as more careful and less charismatic.

We shall fight on the beaches? No. “We will remain partnered with the Afghan security forces in a supporting role to consolidate and solidify their gains.” We shall fight on the landing grounds? Not exactly. “We may demonstrate progress towards measurable objectives,” McChrystal said.

It’s appropriate that McChrystal’s performance was more Bill Kristol than Billy Crystal. Still, the general’s testimony on Capitol Hill was a letdown. Lawmakers have for months demanded his appearance as he showed up instead on “60 Minutes” and at a London think tank, where he disagreed publicly with Vice President Biden. His leaked request for as many as 80,000 troops helped to build pressure on President Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

But in the flesh, McChrystal was loyal to his civilian masters, departing from the policy only when he said of Obama’s July 2011 date to begin a pullout: “I don’t believe that is a deadline at all.”

Describing his hopes for victory, the general was a study in circumspection. Defeating al-Qaeda is a “core goal,” he said, but when it comes to the Taliban, he said, the aim is merely to “disrupt and degrade.”

In arriving at that modest goal, the general said, the brass had a lengthy debate over what “defeat” means. “In military terms, defeat actually means render an enemy incapable of accomplishing his mission,” he explained. It “does not mean that you eradicate that enemy down to the last individual.” The goal, he added, is to “lower their capacity.”

Kline was puzzled. “Are we asking them to go over and win?” he asked of the 30,000 additional troops.

“We are asking them to go over and be on the winning team,” McChrystal parried, “and the reason I parse this is because the Afghans are the ultimate winners here.”

“I don’t understand why we’re parsing these words ‘success’ and ‘victory’ and ‘win,’ ” Kline protested. “Is there some guidance from somewhere to all of you that says we can’t use the words ‘win’ or ‘victory’?”

McChrystal must have taken this complaint to heart. After lunch, when he reprised his testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee, he finally found his winning attitude.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cited Gates’s “in this thing to win” comment and asked McChrystal: “Do you agree with this statement?”

“I agree with the secretary’s statement. We are in it to win,” McChrystal replied. The dam was broken, and the “w” word poured out. “The most important thing we will have done by the summer of 2011 is convince the majority of the Afghan people that in fact, we are going to win. We and the Afghan government are going to win. . . . I believe this force wants to win.”

It was a small victory — for declarative sentences.

Dana Milbank, Washington Post


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The War in Pashtunistan

ON PATROL G.I.’s in the Korengal Valley last April had to fight off an attack on their way to meet with tribal elders.

The plan President Obama unveiled last week for Years 9 and 10 of the war in Afghanistan left a basic question begging for an answer: If Al Qaeda is the threat, and Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, why send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan?

In his address Tuesday night, the president mentioned Pakistan and the Pakistanis some 25 times, and called Pakistan and Afghanistan collectively “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda.”

But he might have had an easier time explaining what he was really proposing had he set the national boundaries aside and told Americans that the additional soldiers and marines were being sent to another land altogether: Pashtunistan.

That land is not on any map, but it’s where leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban both hide. It straddles 1,000 miles of the 1,600-mile Afghan-Pakistani border. It is inhabited by the ethnic Pashtuns, a fiercely independent people that number 12 million on the Afghan side and 27 million on the Pakistani side. They have a language (Pashto), an elaborate traditional code of legal and moral conduct (Pashtunwali), a habit of crossing the largely unmarked border at will, and a centuries-long history of foreign interventions that ended badly for the foreigners.

Whether Mr. Obama will have better luck there than President George W. Bush, the Soviet Politburo and British prime ministers back to the early 19th century remains to be seen. But it is there that the war will be fought, because it is there that the Taliban were spawned and where they now regroup, attack and find shelter, for themselves and their Qaeda guests.

Today, the enemies of the United States are nearly all in Pashtunistan, an aspirational name coined long ago by advocates of an independent Pashtun homeland. From bases in the Pakistani part of it — the Federally Administered Tribal Areas toward the north and Baluchistan province in the south — Afghan Taliban leaders, who are Pashtuns, have plotted attacks against Afghanistan. It is also from the Pakistani side of Pashtunistan that Qaeda militants have plotted terrorism against the West.

And the essential strategic problem for the Americans has been this: their enemy, so far, has been able to draw advantage from the border between the two nation-states by ignoring it, and the Americans have so far been hindered because they must respect it.

That is because Pakistan and Afghanistan care deeply about their sovereign rights on either side of the line, but the Pashtuns themselves have never paid the boundary much regard since it was drawn by a British diplomat, Mortimer Durand, in 1893. “They don’t recognize the border,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. “They never have. They never will.”

And that has enormously complicated the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Taliban can plan an attack from Pakistan and execute it in Afghanistan. Their fighters — or Al Qaeda’s leaders — can slip across the border to flee, or to rejoin the battle. At the same time, the Americans can fight openly only in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan, and the Taliban know it.

An American military officer who served at the border in 2003 and 2004 recalled Taliban fighters waving their rifles from the Pakistani side to taunt the Americans. “Our rules said we couldn’t follow them and we couldn’t shoot at them unless they shot at us,” the officer said. “But when we saw them over the border, we knew we should expect an attack that night. The only ones who recognized the border were us, with our G.P.S.”

That has been changing all year, however, and it is about to change even more, as the Americans gear up for an intensified war on both sides of the line simultaneously. The dispatch of 30,000 additional Americans to the Afghan side of the border will occur simultaneously with more intensive missile strikes from drone aircraft and Pakistani army offensives on the other side.

Ever since Osama bin Laden escaped American forces in December 2001, crossing the mountains of Tora Bora from Afghanistan into Pakistan, American strategists have spoken of a “hammer and anvil” strategy to crush the militants. Until now, the border has proven so porous, and Pakistani governments so squeamish about a fight, that the American hammer in Afghanistan was pounding Taliban fighters there against a Pakistani pillow, not an anvil.

Now, Mr. Obama’s added troops are likely to be concentrated in the Taliban stronghold in Helmand and Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, and near Khost in the east. At the same time, the president has approved a major intensification of drone strikes in Pakistan, even as the Pakistani army continues a campaign against the militants launched this fall in South Waziristan, following on a counterattack that swept militants last spring from the Swat Valley.

“We finally have an opportunity to do a real hammer-and-anvil strategy on the border,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who follows the Afghan war. “We’ve never done it before because we’ve had insufficient strength on both sides of the border or insufficient political will on the Pakistani side.” For years, in fact, Pakistani intelligence has played a double game with Islamist extremists, nurturing them as a force to use against Pakistan’s archrival India in the disputed territory of Kashmir and helping create the Taliban as a buffer against Indian influence in Afghanistan.

But as the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s later turned on their American benefactors, so some militants in Pakistan have begun attacking the state that once encouraged them. Many in the Pakistani elite were stunned by the emergence in 2007 of the Pakistani Taliban and by the subsequent campaign of terrorist attacks against Pakistan’s power structure, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, suicide bombings in cities and an attack on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi in October.

On Friday, the militants struck again, storming a mosque near the army headquarters, spraying the crowd at Friday prayers with gunfire, hurling grenades and blowing themselves up. At least 36 worshippers were killed, including several high-ranking military officials.

The slaughter has changed the attitude of many Pakistanis, including government officials, about the wisdom of tolerating radical groups. And since last year, Pakistan has offered quiet but crucial support for the C.I.A.’s use of missile-firing drones, including intelligence on militants’ whereabouts.

“Now the Pakistanis are convinced they’ve crossed the Rubicon,” said one former C.I.A. officer with long experience in the region. “They know they can’t do half measures.”

Still, Pakistan is deeply divided, conditioned for decades to focus its security concerns on India. Popular opinion runs strongly against the United States. And Obama administration officials say they have not yet won Islamabad’s support for major elements of the new war strategy.

Most significantly, Pakistan has yet to agree to go after the leaders of the Afghan Taliban, or to permit American drones to hunt them in the province of Baluchistan, across the border from their former Afghani base in Kandahar. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the cleric to whom even Mr. bin Laden has pledged fealty, operates now from near the Pakistani city of Quetta, as he helps oversee the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

And history offers unnerving precedent for the Americans. In Waziristan, the patch of Pakistan where the Central Intelligence Agency now kills militants with missiles fired from drones, the British conducted what may have been history’s first counterinsurgency air campaign, bombing from biplanes between 1919 and 1925.

Mr. Nawaz, of the Atlantic Council, whose grandfather fought with the British in Waziristan in 1901, said he saw in the shifting American policies an echo of the British experience; the British found themselves caught for decades in a cycle of rebellion, brutal suppression, payoffs for tribal leaders, and then a period of peace followed by a new rebellion.

Given the realistic time limits to American involvement, he said, the best possible outcome may be modest: “to force the Taliban to come to terms and allow the U.S. an exit.”

But even the prospect of an exit has hazards for the United States. The long Pashtun experience with war has taught them to favor those who look like winners, which is why the Taliban’s successes in the last few years have lured fighters to their side. “Our best hope for success,” said Andrew M. Exum, who fought in Afghanistan as an Army captain in 2002 and 2004 and returned as a civilian adviser this year, “is to fundamentally alter the balance of power in a way that favors the Afghan security forces over the Afghan Taliban.”

In other words, the fate of Mr. Obama’s surge depends a lot on the hearts and minds of the Pashtuns — and who seems a winner.

In Congressional testimony last week, Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary, said that was where the American interest comes in: A Taliban victory, he said, could give Al Qaeda not just a physical haven but a philosophical victory with profound consequences. “The lesson of the Taliban’s revival for Al Qaeda is that time and will are on their side, that with a Western defeat they could regain their strength and achieve a major strategic victory,” Mr. Gates said. “Rolling back the Taliban is now necessary, even if not sufficient, to the ultimate defeat of Al Qaeda.”

Scott Shane, New York Times


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Obama’s COIN toss

In Afghanistan, we have a plan — but that’s not the same as a strategy

It is impolite, but probably true, to say that when President Obama announced in March that he had a “comprehensive, new strategy” for victory in Afghanistan, he had no precise idea what he was talking about. In Washington parlance, the word “strategy” usually means “to-do list” or at best “action plan.” As for “comprehensive” and “new,” they usually mean merely “better than whatever my predecessors did.”

So now, even after his speech Tuesday night at West Point, does the president really have a strategy for the Afghan war? What is a strategy anyway, in a war without fronts, one that might drag on for decades and that shades off into banditry at one end and terrorism at another?

Strategy is the art of choice that binds means with objectives. It is the highest level of thinking about war, and it involves priorities (we will devote resources here, even if that means starving operations there), sequencing (we will do this first, then that) and a theory of victory (we will succeed for the following reasons). That is the job of wartime presidents; it’s why they have the title commander in chief.

Obama set out his objectives for Afghanistan, focused on thwarting al-Qaeda, and enumerated some of the means, chiefly a 30,000-troop, 18-month surge. But what about the hard part: setting priorities, establishing a sequencing and laying out a theory of victory?

By supporting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation to knock the Taliban back and protect the population, by devoting additional resources to development, and by surging civilians as well as soldiers, Obama has made his choice: counterinsurgency warfare, or COIN, as insiders like to call it. And counterinsurgency warfare has a theory of strategy, as preached and practiced by a relatively small group of soldiers, historians and social scientists.

The COIN sect has its heroes — from British guerrilla adventurer T.E. Lawrence to legendary Vietnam adviser John Paul Vann to Gen. David Petraeus. It also has its canon, written by British veterans of Malaya such as Robert Thompson, French participants in the Algerian war such as David Galula and more recently American veterans of Vietnam such as Bing West. It exhibits, at least in the Western world, a remarkable consensus about strategy.

Counterinsurgency experts agree with McChrystal: Start with security for the population. Without security, neither governance nor development can move forward. The counterinsurgent must keep the sequencing tight; after the “clear” phase must come “hold” and “build,” often in the same operation. In counterinsurgency, the dominant force wins all the firefights but loses if it does not stay to administer effectively.

The theory of victory lies in a competition for effective rule and legitimacy — local political outcomes that are enabled by, yet distressingly independent of, military success. If you fight on behalf of a local ally, the key to success is building up your host’s forces and capacity for governance, not your own.

A straightforward enough strategic language, one might think. Indeed, anyone can (and in Washington pretty much now does) learn enough to speak pidgin COIN, as it were. In the 1960s, the U.S. military studied the problem carefully, and the resulting manuals and surveys retain remarkable value. After Vietnam, however, counterinsurgency dropped from the curricula of war colleges and all but niche specialties within the armed services, such as U.S. Army Special Forces. In the latest Iraq war, some commanders — H.R. McMaster, Petraeus and James Mattis to name just three — applied the old ideas, adjusting for new technology and local circumstances. Now McChrystal’s concept for Afghanistan reflects the knowledge relearned in Iraq.

However, a senior official slinging COIN argot (“oil spot tactics,” “combined action platoons” and the like) at meetings far from the fight is one thing. An infantry captain plunked down in the mountains of Nurestan, figuring out how to control rugged terrain with a few American platoons, a larger force of questionable Afghan soldiers and police, and a mistrustful, war-weary population is something very different. With counterinsurgency, as with all military matters, implementing doctrine proves much more difficult than discussing it.

Perhaps in response to the strategy’s newfound salience, several new books seek to study or further explain counterinsurgency, with varying degrees of success. James Arnold’s “Jungle of Snakes” is useful to learn the fundamentals, competently summarizing past counterinsurgency campaigns in the Philippines, Algeria, Malaya and Vietnam, but offering few striking insights. Read it if you want to learn the basics of the American CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) program in Vietnam, for example, or learn who tortured whom in the Battle of Algiers.

Meanwhile, the Rand Corp. has recently released its own COIN study, “Reconstruction Under Fire.” Rand has long provided much of the government’s semiofficial thinking about counterinsurgency, and during the 1950s and 1960s it published some remarkable works. But this new book typifies much of the contemporary Rand product: brief, lots of bullets and diagrams, thumbnail sketches of conflicts, and a conclusion pleading for further research.

History, more than theory, offers a better guide to COIN. David Ucko’s “The New Counterinsurgency Era” is a dense, scholarly and useful work on how the American military adapted to counterinsurgency during the Iraq war, both on the ground and in the classrooms of Fort Leavenworth, where most of the Army’s thinking gets done. The book captures the Army’s self-inflicted amnesia about counterinsurgency in the wake of Vietnam and the difficult steps needed to relearn old lessons.

In this light, the much-heralded Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, published in December 2006 and influenced most by Petraeus, deserved its status as a landmark document. But in many ways it merely recovered older wisdom. What has made it so difficult to put these straightforward and broadly accepted strategic concepts into effect in America’s current wars?

Organizational preference, for one thing. The U.S. military, like most armies, orients itself to conventional warfare: direct, bloody and waged if possible in a desert or some other wilderness. Historically, conventional warfare dominates military training and education; a well-trained soldier’s first and overwhelming instinct is to close with the enemy and kill or capture him. That’s laudable when confronting the Wehrmacht, but less so when you’re fighting the Taliban. The strategic first principles of counterinsurgency — control and protect the population rather than chase bad guys, build your ally and give him the credit, remember that it’s all about governance, not just tactical victories — require painful relearning, from generals to sergeants.

Not all can adapt or have the qualities needed. Mark Moyar’s “A Question of Command” explores this problem, and this brilliant young scholar of the Vietnam War reminds us that it takes a special kind of soldier — reflective, patient, creative — to lead counterinsurgency operations.

It takes a special kind of civilian, too. Todd Greentree, the author of “Crossroads of Intervention,” is an active diplomat who participated in American counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador in the 1980s. (Full disclosure: He wrote this book while a fellow in my strategic studies program at Johns Hopkins University.) His book weaves together personal knowledge and scholarly study and reminds us of forgotten conflicts in Central America that still have much teach us about small wars. As miserably unpopular as the Salvadoran conflict was, and as doomed as many considered the U.S. effort there, it succeeded in defeating a communist insurgency that once stood on the verge of success.

If El Salvador is one of our obscure wars, then the one never to be forgotten, the one that looms over politicians and generals, the one that pundits raid shamelessly for supposed lessons, is Vietnam. The balanced and well-researched “Vietnam Declassified” by Thomas Ahern, a former CIA operations officer, describes the agency’s role in Vietnam. But, like so much history of that war, it barely deals with the Vietnamese; it’s all about us. And herein lies the greatest weakness of the COIN literature: It often lacks deep knowledge of the other side.

Of course, insurgents rarely keep archives (hard to do in rice paddies and caves), and the Western experts usually lack the time or inclination to master the languages their opponents speak, whether Tagalog, Pashto or Vietnamese. Most contemporary anthropologists abhor the idea of working for the military, but the shrewdest counterinsurgents turn to that discipline for insights. Some, like Australian soldier David Kilcullen, whom I hired to work in the State Department, have doctorates in the field. Without hard thinking about and intricate knowledge of the other side of the hill, counterinsurgency can become a kind of military art form, dangerously abstracted from real life.

In every such war, the counterinsurgents learn the need for local knowledge: language first, and from it, all they can discover about authority structures, grievances, customs and local politics. The broad principles melt away because, as one colonel told me in 2008 while flying over eastern Afghanistan, the counterinsurgent soon realizes that “it’s a valley-by-valley war.”

The kind of specific knowledge needed does not lend itself to treatises, much less bestsellers. It requires the time and effort that British political officers took to learn the ins and outs of Pashtun tribes in the North-West Frontier province of India in the 19th century. In a world of rotating military and diplomatic assignments, three-month think tank projects and moving on to the next hot topic, it is difficult to develop that expertise.

Making COIN work in real time, therefore, requires the right kinds of practitioners, vast patience and local knowledge of a kind that is difficult to build up and easily perishable in large organizations. As Obama will discover, even setting the strategy seems easy by comparison.

Eliot A. Cohen is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of “Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Wartime Leadership.” He was State Department counselor from 2007 to 2009, advising on counterinsurgency issues.


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Prisoner of context

President Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan meets the tests of strategic necessity abroad and political equilibrium at home. He can reasonably hope that his surge will buy time for things to improve, particularly in Pakistan, the war’s vital theater.

But even the dispatch of 30,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan does not buy the president the power to change things there on his own. He is still the prisoner of context, an area he neglected in explaining his revised Afghan strategy last week.

Obama fights the invisible enemies of time and distance as well as the fanatics of al-Qaeda. Polls show falling support for the war, which can only reflect a lessening of the grip that the memory of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, exerts on Americans.

Many of us experience this lessening, I suspect, even if we resist it. As I walked along the Potomac on a sparkling recent November morning, a familiar double-edged thought occurred to me: The sky is as clear as it was Sept. 11. Will a new horror befall us on another such day? Then I realized I had been walking for 10 minutes before that chilling specter arrived.

For a long time, the first glimpse or two of a pristine cloudless sky over the Federal City would take me instantly back to the day that shaped the rest of the decade. Now, memory takes its own time to appear, becoming more a matter of reflection than reflex. We adjust even to this, I think unhappily.

Einstein suggested that the splitting of the atom changed everything except the way we think. Perhaps the same will be true of Sept. 11. In his speech, the president recognized the challenge presented to his policies by the passage of time:

“It’s easy to forget that when this war began, we were united — bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack. . . . I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again.”

But his speech did not immediately have that unifying effect. Most members of Congress quickly found points on which to disagree and, while not attacking Obama, take self-protective distance from the president’s surge. Politically, Obama got away with selling a new strategy that deserves to be tried — for a while.

He also received modest support from NATO, led by Italy’s contribution of 1,000 new soldiers and new Polish and British deployments. But Germany stalled, and France said that it could not spare any more of its overstretched forces. Left unsaid was the fact that President Nicolas Sarkozy is in no mood to do Obama favors after a series of ill-advised rebuffs by the U.S. leader to the Frenchman, who went out of his way to help Obama during the 2008 U.S. campaign.

More significantly, Sarkozy is increasingly concerned about the “Americanization” of the war in Afghanistan. The new influx of GIs will compound command-and-control problems for the other foreign units and make them even more dependent on American tactics and strategy.

That is part of the context that Obama’s new strategy does not directly address. An even more striking omission Tuesday night was any in-depth discussion of the civilian surge that is supposed to accompany the military buildup and provide improved living conditions and better governance.

The subject was minimized, I suspect, because there is not yet agreement among the president’s advisers or NATO members on how the present ineffective flow of financial aid and technical support from abroad for President Hamid Karzai’s government should be reorganized.

Progress has been made on establishing an international watchdog agency in Kabul to fight corruption. But there are strong head winds from Europe against administration suggestions that one strong U.S.-led authority should now take charge of and coordinate civilian programs, including those of the United Nations, in Afghanistan.

Finally, the president’s new strategy fails to emphasize that the context of the events of Sept. 11 endures, and constrains his actions, even as the force of that day’s events fades.

It is a context of Islamic extremism nurtured not only in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan but also in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and other countries that the United States finds impossible to invade or strike. We are condemned to fight al-Qaeda on the ground in Afghanistan with greater and greater force because we cannot fight it directly on the battlefield elsewhere. Welcome to Obama’s Catch-22.

Jim Hoagland, Washington Post


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The president’s other insurgency

On the same evening last week that President Obama went to West Point to outline his plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the four Massachusetts Democratic candidates hoping to win Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat met in a televised debate.

All four — including the favorite in Tuesday’s primary, state Attorney General Martha Coakley — said that they opposed the president’s decision to escalate. Referring to Obama’s promise to begin bringing an unspecified number of the “surge” forces home by July 2011, Coakley said, “It seems to me it’s impractical, given what we think the mission is, the number of troops we’re sending over.

“We really won’t be able to be finished in 18 months and start an exit strategy there.”

The rejection of Obama’s argument by the leading candidate in an overwhelmingly Democratic state shows how much the president has failed to convince his fellow partisans that he is right about the biggest national security policy decision of his tenure.

It is symptomatic of a bigger problem; Coakley and her rivals are emblematic of widespread Democratic dissent on Afghanistan.

Listen, for example, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, normally the lead voice for Obama’s programs on Capitol Hill. When asked at her Thursday news conference about her pre-speech warning that there was little support for escalation on the Democratic side of the aisle, she reiterated that view and added that she wanted more briefings on Obama’s rationale and plans before members have to vote on funding for the war.

Carefully avoiding any words that could be interpreted as support for Obama’s policy, she said, “I think we have to handle it with care, listen to what they present and then members will make their decision. Some have already made their decisions, and they have been outspoken on the subject.”

Indeed, many of her closest allies in the House, such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, have declared that they will oppose paying for Obama’s program. “It will be very difficult for me to support funding for an increased military commitment to fight the Taliban and various insurgent groups that are bringing instability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly when we do not appear to have a credible partner in the Karzai government and are trying to bring stability to one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” DeLauro said.

That was not the universal reaction. Centrist and conservative Democrats and those who serve on the Armed Services Committee tended to be more supportive of Obama’s decision. Next year, when the additional troops are in the field and the first bills come due, there will probably be enough Democrats willing to join the vast majority of Republicans in funding the Afghan surge.

But the lessons of a previous land war in Asia cannot be forgotten. When Lyndon Johnson escalated in Vietnam, initially both Republicans and Democrats gave him their support — and public opinion was more positive than it is now for Afghanistan.

The defections began on the Democratic left — where the opposition to Obama is most visible today — and by the end, most Democrats and many of the Republicans had abandoned Johnson to his political fate.

A president who wages a war supported mainly by his political foes and opposed by large numbers of his own party runs a huge political risk. Even if he prevails for a time, he pays a price: the loss of his most loyal supporters.

Obama can rightfully claim that he made clear throughout his campaign that he saw a vital need to fight on in Afghanistan. But he obviously has not convinced many of his important followers as yet that they should endorse his views. And nothing short of success on the battlefield is likely to convince them that he is right.

David S. Broder, Washington Post


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May It All Come True

President Obama certainly showed leadership mettle in going against his own party’s base and ordering a troop surge into Afghanistan. He is going to have to be even more tough-minded, though, to make sure his policy is properly executed.

I’ve already explained why I oppose this escalation. But since the decision has been made — and I do not want my country to fail or the Obama presidency to sink in Afghanistan — here are some thoughts on how to reduce the chances that this ends badly. Let’s start by recalling an insight that President John F. Kennedy shared in a Sept. 2, 1963, interview with Walter Cronkite:

Cronkite: “Mr. President, the only hot war we’ve got running at the moment is, of course, the one in Vietnam, and we have our difficulties there.”

Kennedy: “I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the [Vietnamese] government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them; we can give them equipment; we can send our men out there as advisers. But they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists. We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don’t think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort and, in my opinion, in the last two months, the [Vietnamese] government has gotten out of touch with the people. …”

Cronkite: “Do you think this government still has time to regain the support of the people?”

Kennedy: “I do. With changes in policy and perhaps with personnel I think it can. If it doesn’t make those changes, the chances of winning it would not be very good.”

What J.F.K. understood, what L.B.J. lost sight of, and what B.H.O. can’t afford to forget, is that in the end it’s not about how many troops we send or deadlines we set. It is all about our Afghan partners. Afghanistan has gone into a tailspin largely because President Hamid Karzai’s government became dysfunctional and massively corrupt — focused more on extracting revenues for private gain than on governing. That is why too many Afghans who cheered Karzai’s arrival in 2001 have now actually welcomed Taliban security and justice.

“In 2001, most Afghan people looked to the United States not only as a potential mentor but as a model for successful democracy,” Pashtoon Atif, a former aid worker from Kandahar, recently wrote in The Los Angeles Times. “What we got instead was a free-for-all in which our leaders profited outrageously and unapologetically from a wealth of foreign aid coupled with a dearth of regulations.”

Therefore, our primary goal has to be to build — with Karzai — an Afghan government that is “decent enough” to earn the loyalty of the Afghan people, so a critical mass of them will feel “ownership” of it and therefore be ready to fight to protect it. Because only then will there be a “self-sustaining” Afghan Army and state so we can begin to get out by the president’s July 2011 deadline — without leaving behind a bloodbath.

Focus on those key words: “decent enough,” “ownership” and “self-sustaining.” Without minimally decent government, Afghans will not take ownership. If they don’t take ownership, they won’t fight for it. And if they won’t fight for it on their own, whatever progress we make will not be self-sustaining. It will just collapse when we leave.

But here is what worries me: The president’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said flatly: “This can’t be nation-building.” And the president told a columnists’ lunch on Tuesday that he wants to avoid “mission creep” that takes on “nation-building in Afghanistan.”

I am sorry: This is only nation-building. You can’t train an Afghan Army and police force to replace our troops if you have no basic state they feel is worth fighting for. But that will require a transformation by Karzai, starting with the dismissal of his most corrupt aides and installing officials Afghans can trust.

This surge also depends, the president indicated, on Pakistan ending its obsession with India. That obsession has led Pakistan to support the Taliban to control Afghanistan as part of its “strategic depth” vis-à-vis India. Pakistan fights the Taliban who attack it, but nurtures the Taliban who want to control Afghanistan. So we now need this fragile Pakistan to stop looking for strategic depth against India in Afghanistan and to start building strategic depth at home, by reviving its economy and school system and preventing jihadists from taking over there.

That is why Mr. Obama is going to have to make sure, every day, that Karzai doesn’t weasel out of reform or Pakistan wiggle out of shutting down Taliban sanctuaries or the allies wimp out on helping us. To put it succinctly: This only has a chance to work if Karzai becomes a new man, if Pakistan becomes a new country and if we actually succeed at something the president says we won’t be doing at all: nation-building in Afghanistan. Yikes!

For America’s sake, may it all come true.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Post


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Obama’s Logic Is No Match for Afghanistan

AFTER the dramatic three-month buildup, you’d think that Barack Obama’s speech announcing his policy for Afghanistan would be the most significant news story of the moment. History may take a different view. When we look back at this turning point in America’s longest war, we may discover that a relatively trivial White House incident, the gate-crashing by a couple of fame-seeking bozos, was the more telling omen of what was to come.

Obama’s speech, for all its thoughtfulness and sporadic eloquence, was a failure at its central mission. On its own terms, as both policy and rhetoric, it didn’t make the case for escalating our involvement in Afghanistan. It’s doubtful that the president’s words moved the needle of public opinion wildly in any direction for a country that has tuned out Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq alike while panicking about where the next job is coming from.

You can think the speech failed without questioning Obama’s motives. I don’t buy the criticism that he contrived a cynical political potpourri to pander to every side in the debate over the war. Nor was his decision to escalate mandated by his campaign stand positing Afghanistan as a just war in contrast to the folly of Iraq. Nor was he intimidated by received Beltway opinion, which, echoing Dick Cheney, accused him of dithering. (“The urgent necessity is to make a decision — whether or not it is right,” wrote the Dean of D.C. punditry, David Broder.)

Obama’s speech struck me as the sincere product of serious deliberations, an earnest attempt to apply his formidable intelligence to one of the most daunting Rubik’s Cubes of foreign policy America has ever known. But some circles of hell can’t be squared. What he’s ended up with is a too-clever-by-half pushmi-pullyu holding action that lacks both a credible exit strategy and the commitment of its two most essential partners, a legitimate Afghan government and the American people. Obama’s failure illuminated the limits of even his great powers of reason.

The state dinner crashers delineated those limits too. This was the second time in a month — after the infinitely more alarming bloodbath at Fort Hood — that a supposedly impregnable bastion of post-9/11 American security was easily breached. Yes, the crashers are laughable celebrity wannabes, but there was nothing funny about what they accomplished on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Their ruse wasn’t “reality” television — it was reality, period, with no quotation marks. It was a symbolic indication (and, luckily, only symbolic) of how unbridled irrationality harnessed to sheer will, whether ludicrous in the crashers’ case or homicidal in the instance of the Fort Hood gunman, can penetrate even our most secure fortifications. Both incidents stand as a haunting reproach to the elegant powers of logic with which Obama tried to sell his exquisitely calibrated plan to vanquish Al Qaeda and its mad brethren.

For all the overheated debate about what Obama meant in proposing July 2011 as a date to begin gradual troop withdrawals, the more significant short circuit in the speech’s internal logic lies elsewhere. The crucial passage came when Obama systematically tried to dismantle the Vietnam analogies that have stalked every American foreign adventure for four decades. “Most importantly,” the president said, “unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.” This is correct as far as it goes, but it begs a number of questions.

“Along its border,” of course, means across the border — a k a Pakistan. Obama never satisfactorily argued why more troops in Afghanistan, where his own administration puts the number of Qaeda operatives at roughly 100, will help vanquish the far more substantial terrorist strongholds in Pakistan. But even if he had made that case and made it strongly, a larger issue remains: If the enemy in Afghanistan, whether Taliban or Qaeda, poses the same existential threat to America today that it did on 9/11, why is the president settling for half-measures?

It’s not just that Obama is fielding somewhat fewer troops than the maximum Gen. Stanley McChrystal requested. McChrystal himself didn’t ask for enough troops to fight a proper counterinsurgency in Afghanistan in the first place. Using the metrics outlined in the sacred text on the subject, Gen. David Petraeus’s field manual, we’d need a minimal force of 568,000 for Afghanistan’s population of 28.4 million. After the escalation, allied forces will reach barely a quarter of that number.

If the enemy in Afghanistan today threatens the American homeland as the Viet Cong never did, we should be all in, according to Obama’s logic. So why aren’t we? The answer is not merely that Afghans don’t want us as occupiers. It’s that such a mission would require a commensurate national sacrifice. One big difference between the war in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan that the president conspicuously left unmentioned on Tuesday is the draft. Given that conscription is not about to be revived, we’d have to spend money, lots more money, to recruit the troops needed for the full effort Obama’s own argument calls for.

Which again leads us back to the ghosts of Vietnam. As L.B.J. learned the hard way, we can’t have both guns and the butter of big domestic projects, from health care to desperately needed jobs programs. We have to make choices. Obama paid lip service to that point, but the only sacrifice he cited in the entire speech was addressed to his audience at West Point, not the general public — the burden borne by the military and military families. While the president didn’t tell American civilians to revel in tax cuts and go shopping, as his predecessor did after 9/11, that may be a distinction without a difference. Obama’s promises to accomplish his ambitious plans for nation building at home while pursuing an expanded war sounded just as empty.

In this, he’s like most of the war’s supporters, regardless of party. On Fox News last Sunday, two senators, the Republican Jon Kyl and the Democrat Evan Bayh, found rare common ground in agreeing that an expanded Afghanistan effort should never require new taxes. It’s this bipartisan mantra that more war must be fought without more sacrifice — rather than Obama’s tentative withdrawal timeline — that most loudly signals to the world the shallowness of the American public’s support for any Afghanistan escalation. This helps explain why, as Fred Kaplan pointed out in Slate, the American share of allied troops in Afghanistan is rising (to 70 percent from under 50 percent at the time George Bush left office) despite Obama’s boast of an enthusiastic new coalition of the willing.

To his credit, Obama’s speech did eschew Bush-Cheneyism at its worst. He conceded some counterarguments to his policy: that the Afghanistan government is corrupt, mired in drugs and in “no imminent threat” of being overthrown. He framed his goals in modest and realistic terms, rather than trying to whip up the audience with fear-mongering, triumphalist sloganeering and jingoistic bravado. He talked of “success,” not “victory.”

But the president’s own method for rallying public support — a plea to “summon that unity” of 9/11 again — fell flat. There are several reasons why. First, 9/11 has been cheapened by the countless politicians who have exploited it, culminating with Rudy Giuliani. The sole achievement of America’s Former Mayor’s farcical presidential campaign was to render the evil of 9/11 banal. Second, 9/11 is eight years in the past. Looking at the youthful faces of the cadets in Obama’s audience on Tuesday, you realized that they were literally children on that horrific day, and that the connection between 9/11/01 and the newest iteration of the war they must fight in a new decade is something of an abstraction.

Finally, the notion that we are still fighting in Afghanistan because the 9/11 attacks originated there is based on the fallacy that our terrorist enemies are so stupid they have remained frozen in place since 2001. Most Americans know that they are no more static than we are. Obama acknowledged as much in citing such other Qaeda havens as Somalia (the site of a devastating insurgent suicide bombing on Thursday) and Yemen.

Americans want our country to be secure. Most want Obama to succeed. And so we hope that we won’t get bogged down in Afghanistan while our adversaries regroup elsewhere, that the casualties and costs can be contained, that the small, primitive Afghan Army (ravaged by opium, illiteracy, incompetence and a 25 percent attrition rate) will miraculously stand up so we can stand down. We want to believe that Obama’s marvelous powers of reason can check a ruthless enemy and reverse decades of tragic history in one of the world’s most treacherous backwaters.

That’s the bet Obama made. As long as our wars remain sacrifice-free, safely buried in the back pages behind Tiger Woods and reality television stunts, he’ll be able to pursue it. But I keep returning to the crashers at the gates, who have no respect for our president’s orderliness of mind and action. All it takes is a few of them at the wrong time and wrong place, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan or America or sites unknown, and all bets will be off.

Frank Rich, New York Times


Full article and photo:

Al Qaeda in the Crosshairs

President Obama is firing 30,000 more troops at the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and according to The Times’s Scott Shane,  they aren’t the only incoming threats:

The White House has authorized an expansion of the C.I.A.’s drone program in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, officials said this week, to parallel the president’s decision, announced Tuesday, to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time — a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas — because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide.

By increasing covert pressure on Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, while ground forces push back the Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan, American officials hope to eliminate any haven for militants in the region.

Hmmm … this follows pretty quickly on the heels of this morning’s Times Op-Ed article by Seth G. Jones, which argued that “The United States and Pakistan must target Taliban leaders in Baluchistan” by hitting them “with drone strikes, as the United States and Pakistan have done so effectively in the tribal areas.”

Drone strikes in Pakistan may hit the terrorists, but will they hurt America’s cause more in the end?

Anyway, in an age where a golf pro’s car accident at the end of his own driveway becomes the a topic of national conversation, you can bet the idea of lobbing blast-fragmentation warheads into the sovereign territory of a longstanding military ally disjointed a few noses. Jerome Armstrong’s was among them. “It is basically an expansion of the Bush Doctrine that of preemptive war or military strikes within a country within we are not at war, through the CIA with US military drones in Pakistan,” he writes at MyDD. “The Bush Doctrine, perhaps the most radical un-American legacy of George Bush, is not going away. Yea, right now, its pretty easy to celebrate that the ‘warheads on foreheads’ is military technology which only the CIA holds, and is only being used by the US against terrorists in Pakistan. But how long do you think it will be until that utopian use of military technology is bought or attained by aggressive military forces which have their own design on using the Drone technology toward their own ends?”

Scarecrow at FireDogLake considers this passage in the Shane article — “The political consensus in support of the drone program, its antiseptic, high-tech appeal and its secrecy have obscured just how radical it is. For the first time in history, a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out a military mission, selecting people for killing in a country where the United States is not officially at war” — and takes umbrage:

I don’t think that’s correct in any meaningful sense, even if you don’t count B-52s bombing countries in the 1970s as “robots.” The only technical change is the use of robots. If you substituted the word “agents” or “assassins,” there’s nothing new about the practice of some countries sending them into other countries to murder people, and to do so completely outside any legal framework.

What’s new is the public acknowledgment that this is what we do, and how we behave, that it’s routine, and the implicit acceptance that it’s okay. And all that has occurred with no recognition whatsoever that if an agent from another country did that here, it would be called a terrorist act carried out by a people without soul or morality.

At Commentary, Max Boot’s acceptance is more than implicit, it’s downright celebratory.

For years the U.S. has been carrying out Predator strikes against Islamist terrorists in Pakistan — but only in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The rest of Pakistan has been out of bounds, including Baluchistan, where in the city of Quetta, the Afghan Taliban have established their operational headquarters. That may be changing. The New York Times reports today: “American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time — a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas — because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide.”

It’s about time. In a Times op-ed today, RAND’s Seth Jones quotes a Marine he met in Helmand Province: “The Taliban sanctuary in Baluchistan is catastrophic for us. Local Taliban fighters get strategic and operational guidance from across the border, as well as supplies and technical components for their improvised explosive devices.”

I heard similar sentiments when I was in Afghanistan in October. Indeed, one senior American officer told me that many Afghans can’t figure out why we are giving a pass to Mullah Omar and the senior Afghan Taliban leadership when we are targeting leaders of al-Qaeda and even the Pakistani Taliban (including their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. strike in August). This has led to the spread of conspiracy theories suggesting that the Americans are somehow in cahoots with the Afghan Taliban. Crazy, I know, but those are the kinds of wild theories that are believed in tribal societies like Afghanistan.

In reality, I suspect, we have refrained from strikes on the Taliban leadership for fear of offending the Pakistani government. But if we’re going to get serious about turning around the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, we have to take the gloves off and send the Predators over Quetta.

A.J. Strata, not usually a shrinking violet on these things, tries to temper the enthusiasm.

As noted this is part of the administration’s get tough on al-Qaeda and the Taliban push. I must say the expansion into one of Pakistan’s ‘normal’ provinces is very risky politically. What we don’t need is be seen hunting people down anywhere in the world. That backlash in Pakistan would obviously grow.

The lawless tribal area is a known festering hole of illiteracy and poverty, poisoned with Ilsamo Fascist zealotry. It is not humanity’s finest achievement by far. People can accept our attacks there (with a common sense dose of discomfort) since they are in conjunction with military operations by the Pakistan Army and Air Force.

But I would be wary of expanding this concept too far and outside joint military actions. [And if I'm unconformable then Obama's liberal base must be apoplectic right now]

He’s not the only one who’s ambivalent. Here’s Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal:

My larger reaction is this is a great idea . . . and why would the Pakistanis not throw a fit if we tried to do exactly this. Seriously, is this realistic at all? And for once I’m not even being snarky.

Honestly, would the Pakistanis allow us to do this? Not long ago I watched a Frontline special where the Pakistan Army Chief of Staff and the country’s Interior Ministry basically denied that the Quetta Shura even existed or that Mullah Omar was not in the country – statements that if Jones op-ed is to be believed are simply laughable.

So how do you get from that to the Pakistanis just letting the US go in and arrest Afghan Taliban leaders or send Hellfire missiles into what are likely populated areas? This would represent an absolute sea change in how Pakistan deals with the Afghan Taliban in their midst. In other words, it would be a huge deal.

And the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder is the very definition of measured in his assessment:

The American program of using unmanned Predator drones in Pakistan doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it. The program, which seeks to find and kill high-value targets such as al-Qaeda leadership, is sharply and frequently criticized for killing far more civilians than it does terrorists, for promoting anti-American rage among previously indifferent locals, and for creating diplomatic tension with the Pakistani government … Yet despite all this, today The New York Times reports that the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan is being expanded. Why the continued reliance on a program with so many problems?

An answer may lie in a BBC interview with a Taliban detainee who claims he recently met Osama bin Laden. The detainee says the meeting was in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan where bin Laden has long been thought to be hiding. When asked why Afghanistan, the detainee responded, “Pakistan at this time is not convenient for us to stay in because a lot of our senior people are being martyred in drone attacks.” If his story is true (and it may very well be false, although Juan Cole calls it “plausible”), it would suggest that the drone program does exactly what Obama has said he wants to do in this war: deny al-Qaeda a safe haven.

This wouldn’t necessarily outweigh the many problems of the drone program, especially if, as critics insist, it creates more enemies than it eliminates. Kidnapped New York Times reporter David Rohde described drone strikes as killing innocent civilians but also as terrifying Taliban insurgents. If it’s true that drones have indeed made Pakistan’s border region inhospitable for al-Qaeda, that’s certainly worth considering as an argument in their favor.

And that means considering it with utmost consideration, something Tiger Woods probably wishes he was getting a bit more of right now.

Tobin Harshaw, New York Times


Full article:

Obama, the worried warrior

The president’s long-awaited speech on Afghanistan was thoughtful but uninspiring

THE most effective calls to arms are unambiguous. John Kennedy, rallying America to confront the menace of global communism, said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Winston Churchill, in his first speech as prime minister, said he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. He described his aim in four words (“Victory at all costs”) and his strategy in monosyllables (“to wage war by land, sea and air”). It worked.

Barack Obama’s speech at West Point on December 1st was more equivocal. At its heart were two sentences: “[A]s commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” His critics seized on the apparent contradiction. If winning the war in Afghanistan is in America’s vital national interest, how can the president promise to start pulling out on a fixed date, when he has no idea whether America will have won by then?

The White House insists that this is not a problem. A quick surge of extra boots and rifles will allow America to “seize the initiative”. General Stanley McChrystal’s brave men and women will disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda and its “ruthless, repressive and radical” Taliban allies. The new, larger force (which, with NATO allies, will amount to more than 140,000) will crush the insurgents and secure population centres. America will train and equip the local army and police. As soon as possible, the Afghan government will assume greater responsibility for its own security. By the summer of 2011, the country will be calm enough for American forces to start to pull out. They will not do so irresponsibly, however; the pace of withdrawal will “tak[e] into account conditions on the ground”.

It may be that Mr Obama’s strategy will work. After a long period of painful trial and error, American forces became quite adept at counter-insurgency in Iraq. Given enough men and money, they can probably do the same in Afghanistan. And Mr Obama’s plan to “support Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders who combat corruption and deliver for the people” may produce an Afghan state that is slightly less dysfunctional than the current one. But Mr Obama’s speech this week will not persuade many people that he has the unwavering resolve to win this war, for he wore his doubts on his sleeve.

He listed all the strongest reasons for fighting. He reminded Americans of the attacks of September 11th 2001, which were plotted from Afghanistan, and raised the prospect of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorists’ hands. But he also dwelt on the limits of American power and patience. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will soon have cost more than a trillion dollars. Because of the recession, many Americans are “out of work and struggl[ing] to pay the bills”. America “has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan,” stressed Mr Obama; it will only do “what can be achieved at a reasonable cost”.

It is good that he understands these constraints, of course. It is also good that he has doubts—what intelligent person does not? Al-Qaeda may be vile, but it does not pose the threat that the Soviet Union and the Nazis did. Nonetheless, a televised address to the world is not a college lecture. As he put it himself, the soldiers he is sending into battle need “a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of [their] service.” Mr Obama has yet to convince both enemies and allies that he has the fortitude for a fight.

Afghan villagers, however much they may dislike the Taliban, will not tell American soldiers where they are hiding if they think the Americans will soon be gone and the Taliban will soon be back in charge. The Taliban will find it easier to recruit new warriors if people think Mr Obama is a quitter, and the Pakistani government will continue to hedge its bets. Mr Obama insisted that “America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent.” Many Pakistanis are understandably sceptical.

A war leader can’t please everyone

The speech revealed how hard Mr Obama is finding it to shift from campaigning—which involves promising people lots of good things—to governing. He tried to stroke anti-war Democrats, some of whom think that American soldiers will fare no better in Afghanistan than the Soviets did, and all of whom would rather the money was spent on health care. Hence his insistence that: “the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.” But he was never going to please the anti-war crowd with a speech announcing the war’s escalation. (“Have you drunk Bush’s Kool-Aid?” asked Michael Moore.) And in trying to please everyone, he has pleased hardly anyone. “Never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false,” complained Gabor Steingart of Der Spiegel. “[His] magic no longer works. The allure of his words has grown weaker.”

This matters. Congress will give Mr Obama the funds he needs. Republicans, though they berate him for dithering, will vote for the war because they believe it necessary. Democrats will gripe and mope, but they will not destroy Mr Obama’s presidency over it. Public opinion, though, is less predictable. The latest YouGov poll for The Economist finds Americans evenly split over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan and deeply pessimistic about the outcome: only 35% think America will eventually prevail. According to Gallup, 55% disapprove of the president’s handling of the war, and only 35% approve. Perhaps Mr Obama can rally the nation behind him and strike fear into America’s foes. But the evidence is not encouraging.

Lexington, The Economist


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Down the wrong path in Afghanistan

Army soldiers prepare to go on patrol in Wardak province Wednesday

President Obama should have declared victory in Afghanistan and begun a withdrawal. His escalation of the war may achieve its goals, but at too great a cost — and without making our nation meaningfully safer from the threat of terrorist attacks.

I hope I’m wrong. But my fundamental question about Obama’s approach was illustrated Thursday by events far from the war zone: In Mogadishu, Somalia, a suicide bomber infiltrated a university graduation ceremony and killed at least 19 people, including three ministers of the Somali government.

I use the term “Somali government” ironically, because there hasn’t really been one since 1991. A long-running, multisided battle for control among heavily armed clans and warlords remains unresolved. The most important recent development in the civil war has been the emergence of a religious-based insurgency, al-Shabab, which now controls a large swath of the country — and which was immediately suspected in Thursday’s bombing.

Where have we seen this movie before?

No, Somalia isn’t a carbon copy of Afghanistan. But it shares the distinction of being a failed state where the ideology of violent, fundamentalist Islam has taken hold and the technique of suicide “martyrdom” attacks is proving effective.

I doubt that Obama’s “extended surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops will be successful on its own terms, but let’s assume that it is. According to senior White House officials, this would mean that U.S. and allied forces are able to “degrade” the Taliban to the point where it poses no threat of taking power in Kabul and no longer controls substantial areas of the countryside.

These benchmarks have to be met, the White House says, so that it’s impossible for al-Qaeda to return to Afghanistan, establish a base of operations and plan new attacks against the United States and other targets.

My belief is that if the Taliban begins losing ground, many of its fighters will just melt back into the population and bide their time until the president’s July 2011 deadline arrives. At that point, will the Afghan military really be able to stand alone against even a latent Taliban threat? If not, Obama’s deadline will be meaningless and U.S. forces will be stuck in Afghanistan, in large numbers, for the foreseeable future.

But even if the surge works, why wouldn’t al-Qaeda — or some like-minded group — simply set up shop in Somalia? Or in Yemen, another failing state? Or in some other wretched corner of the world where central government authority is weak and resentment of the West’s dominant power is high?

Afghanistan happened to be Osama bin Laden’s choice for a headquarters, but he and his top aides were driven out of the country shortly after the Taliban government was toppled in 2001. Al-Qaeda is believed to be based in Pakistan, with the freedom of movement of its leadership severely restricted. The Pakistani government’s obvious reluctance to finish the job is problematic, but I think it’s likely that someday a missile from a Predator drone will find its mark.

The problem is that al-Qaeda’s murderous philosophy, which is the real enemy, has no physical base. It can erupt anywhere — even, perhaps, on a heavily guarded U.S. Army post in the middle of Texas.

Look at what’s necessary for the surge in Afghanistan to succeed. President Hamid Karzai has to forswear corruption — which will require more than a stern lecture from Obama. The Afghan military not only has to be trained to fight but also must expand from its current strength of 92,000 soldiers to as many as 260,000 — a level that Karzai’s weak, cash-strapped government can scarcely afford. And a nation known as the “graveyard of empires” for its legendary resistance to foreign occupation would have to experience a sudden change of heart.

In the end — even if conditions in July 2011 are such that Obama can order a real withdrawal, not a token one — the larger threat of terrorism will remain. The “drain the swamp” approach to fighting terrorism doesn’t work if the virulence can simply infect the next swamp, and the next.

It never made sense to think of the fight against terrorism as a “war” because it’s not possible to defeat a technique or an idea by force of arms. George W. Bush chose a path toward a more or less permanent state of costly, deadly, low-level war. Barack Obama should have taken a different course.

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post


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Uncertain trumpet

We shall fight in the air, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, we shall fight in the hills — for 18 months. Then we start packing for home.

We shall never surrender — unless the war gets too expensive, in which case, we shall quote Eisenhower on “the need to maintain balance in and among national programs” and then insist that “we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”

The quotes are from President Obama’s West Point speech announcing the Afghanistan troop surge. What a strange speech it was — a call to arms so ambivalent, so tentative, so defensive.

Which made his last-minute assertion of “resolve unwavering” so hollow. It was meant to be stirring. It fell flat. In August, he called Afghanistan “a war of necessity.” On Tuesday night, he defined “what’s at stake” as “the common security of the world.” The world, no less. Yet, we begin leaving in July 2011?

Does he think that such ambivalence is not heard by the Taliban, by Afghan peasants deciding which side to choose, by Pakistani generals hedging their bets, by NATO allies already with one foot out of Afghanistan?

Nonetheless, most supporters of the Afghanistan war were satisfied. They got the policy; the liberals got the speech. The hawks got three-quarters of what Gen. Stanley McChrystal wanted — 30,000 additional U.S. troops — and the doves got a few soothing words. Big deal, say the hawks.

But it is a big deal. Words matter because will matters. Success in war depends on three things: a brave and highly skilled soldiery, such as the 2009 U.S. military, the finest counterinsurgency force in history; brilliant, battle-tested commanders such as Gens. David Petraeus and McChrystal, fresh from the success of the surge in Iraq; and the will to prevail as personified by the commander in chief.

There’s the rub. And that is why at such crucial moments, presidents don’t issue a policy paper. They give a speech. It gives tone and texture. It allows their policy to be imbued with purpose and feeling. This one was festooned with hedges, caveats and one giant exit ramp.

No one expected Obama to do a Henry V or a Churchill. But Obama could not even manage a George W. Bush, who, at an infinitely lower ebb in power and popularity, opposed by the political and foreign policy establishments and dealing with a war effort in far more dire straits, announced his surge — Iraq 2007 — with outright rejection of withdrawal or retreat. His implacability was widely decried at home as stubbornness, but heard loudly in Iraq by those fighting for and against us as unflinching — and salutary — determination.

Obama’s surge speech wasn’t that of a commander in chief but of a politician, perfectly splitting the difference. Two messages for two audiences. Placate the right — you get the troops; placate the left — we are on our way out.

And apart from Obama’s personal commitment is the question of his ability as a wartime leader. If he feels compelled to placate his left with an exit date today — while he is still personally popular, with large majorities in both houses of Congress, and even before the surge begins — how will he stand up to the left when the going gets tough and the casualties mount, and he really has to choose between support from his party and success on the battlefield?

Despite my personal misgivings about the possibility of lasting success against Taliban insurgencies in both Afghanistan and the borderlands of Pakistan, I have deep confidence that Petraeus and McChrystal would not recommend a strategy that will be costly in lives without their having a firm belief in the possibility of success.

I would therefore defer to their judgment and support their recommended policy. But the fate of this war depends not just on them. It depends also on the president. We cannot prevail without a commander in chief committed to success.

And this commander in chief defended his exit date (vs. the straw man alternative of “open-ended” nation-building) thusly: “because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

Remarkable. Go and fight, he tells his cadets — some of whom may not return alive — but I may have to cut your mission short because my real priorities are domestic.

Has there ever been a call to arms more dispiriting, a trumpet more uncertain?

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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Obama’s Other War

The president needs to rally the nation, not just the troops.

President Obama missed a chance to win a war this week. Not the one in Afghanistan, but the one about Afghanistan with his party and the public. That political failure may yet undermine the real fighting.

What many Americans heard was the commander in chief promising an additional 30,000 troops for the battleground. Mr. Obama strongly and correctly linked U.S. security to the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What many Democrats saw was a man far from fully committed. Tuesday’s speech came after months of public wavering. The troops were less than requested by the president’s hand-picked general, Stanley McChrystal. The West Point words were heavy on justifications and an 18-month exit strategy.

For the antiwar left, and for Democrats who fear political fallout from Afghanistan, this hesitation offers hope the president may yet be beat into withdrawal. And so beat they will.

Mr. Obama missed the opportunity to rally public support and to invest the more responsible wing of his party in his Afghan surge—in the process granting himself cover to see his strategy through to the end. As missed opportunities go, this was big.

The commander in chief needs to rally the nation, not just the troops.

True, Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) is complaining about the surge, and Rep. David Obey (D., Wis.) has again raised the specter of a “war tax.” The press is busy reporting about the “fight” Mr. Obama will have to get funding for the troops. Yet this is no second-term President Bush, saddled with poor approval ratings, a hostile Congress, and a WMD problem. Democrats will give their new, popular president his troops. The Obeys and Murthas might rebel, but the majority of the party will, if reluctantly, accede. “They aren’t going to damage their leader—not this early,” says one Senate GOP aide, not with health care pending.

The White House knows it, which is why it felt free to proceed with a surge. Mr. Obama’s mistake was not pressing his advantage. By offering an unequivocal commitment to Afghanistan success, he could have bound the weaker elements of his party to a bold position, and given himself more time. They couldn’t so easily claim later they didn’t know what they were doing.

As for the public, it is worried about Afghanistan but has not turned against it. Americans mentally link Afghanistan and 9/11 and understand the risks of terrorist playgrounds. This is precisely why Mr. Obama got away with his campaign-trail argument that Afghanistan was the “good war,” versus the “bad” war in Iraq.

If the president had devoted a fraction of eloquence he has for health care to the cause of Afghanistan this week, he could have rallied a nation that fundamentally wants victory. He’s also in the unique position to challenge the left. He might have reminded them that well before 9/11, Afghanistan was their cause, as they decried the Taliban’s ruthless repression of women’s rights in the late 1990s, and the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage. This would have at least put the president on offense.

The “bipartisan” Mr. Obama also missed a golden opportunity with Republicans. Most of the GOP has so far continued to put national security ahead of politics—despite bitter memories of Democratic behavior on Iraq. (One Republican attendee to the White House’s pre-briefing of the speech this week described the teeth-gritting experience of having Bush antagonist Sen. Pat Leahy lecture the group on the need for “bipartisan” surge support.) This was the president’s chance to capitalize on GOP support for strong national security policy—support he’s going to need when Democrats go wobbly.

Instead, Republicans sat through a speech full of gratuitous shots at the prior administration and at national-security tools the GOP also supports—such as Guantanamo Bay. “How hard is he going to make this for us?” fumed one GOP congressman. The president’s reduced troop request and withdrawal timeline have meanwhile left easy openings for Republicans to later turn against him, if they choose to run from the war.

What Mr. Obama has in fact guaranteed is no reprieve from pressure to pull out. It will continue this year, and grow.

This surge could take years to show results. Yet in 18 months Democrats will have been through—and likely lost seats in—a midterm election. Like Republicans in 2006, the temptation will be to blame that defeat not on their own controversial domestic governance, but on the war. Mr. Obama, diffident and apologetic, laboring under a self-imposed deadline, has left himself few tools with which to fight back.

This window to rally public and congressional support hasn’t shut. Mr. Obama, no stranger to cameras, could still inspire the nation, and make clear to his party his commitment to Afghan success. It’s a war that needs winning now.

Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal


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Obama Redeclares War

Can he fight and win without the support of his political base?

A deep and perhaps the deepest benefit of the speech was that a Democratic president asserted compellingly, and with a high degree of certitude and conviction, that the United States is and has been immersed in a long struggle with intractable enemies.

For eight years we heard this from Republicans. Halfway through those years people began to tune the president out: He was acting on a Republican obsession and approaching it with the usual Republican tear-jerking bellicosity. The Democrats for eight years had been removed from daily national responsibility—the party out of power always is—and in any case it’s always easier to question and criticize than to know and make a decision. But to have now a Democratic president surveying essentially the same history and data as his predecessor and coming to the same rough conclusion—we are in a real struggle with bad people, it will go a long time—was encouraging, and seemed to mark a two-party sharing of overall authority and investment.

We can continue to fight over how to deal with the struggle, but we agree the struggle is real. This sounds small but is not.


No matter who gave the speech Tuesday night, he’d be pounded. If President John McCain announced at West Point that we would stay in Afghanistan and he would increase troop levels by 60,000, he would have been roundly denounced: “This is just more ‘bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.’ It’s not a policy, it’s a reflex.” If a President Hillary Clinton had come forward to announce complete withdrawal, she would have been denounced as returning to her McGovernite roots.

It tells us something about the difficulty of the issue that no matter who decided what, he’d be derided.

That said, it appears we’re seeing some things we’ve not seen before. The president of the United States gave a war speech, and the next day the nation didn’t seem to rally around him. This is not the way it’s gone in the past. Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush—when they addressed the nation about the wars they led, they received immediate support.

This is also the first time we’ve seen an American president declaring, or rather redeclaring, a war without a political base. Again, LBJ, Nixon, George W. Bush—they always had a base that would support them, on which they could rely and from which they could maneuver. But Mr. Obama’s base is not with him on this decision.

Can a president fight a war without a base? Will the American people, on this issue, decide to become his base? In the end what they decide will likely determine the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan.

As to the policy, the president chose a middle path, not this way or that way, not 60,000 but 30,000, not “go” or “stay” but stay for now, and stronger. What Mr. Obama has bought, at some cost, not all his, is time. Maybe things can be turned around, maybe it will work, hear the generals, after all this history and all this effort it is worth the attempt. Sudden departure would create a vacuum that might suck in and destabilize nuclear Pakistan. We don’t want to encourage what is brewing there.

Here we should think about and emblazon on the national memory the biggest lesson of the uses of American power circa 2001-09. The minute American troops are committed anywhere in the world, there are, immediately, 10 reasons why they cannot leave, should not leave. The next day there are 20. It is, always, the commitment itself that is the dramatic fact, the thing from which all else flows, and that carries within it the heaviest implications.


As to the speech, much was made of the president’s chosen audience, the cadets of West Point, who were appropriately and understandably restrained. Their faces communicated one thing: “Dude, I’m not here to be your backdrop.” It is a great misunderstanding of the service academies, mostly held by liberals who lived through the ’60s, that they are full of rabble-rousing blood-and-guts warriors who can’t wait for a fight. This is a stereotype, and a stupid one. West Point is in fact populated by sober and sophisticated young men and women who’ve seen their colleagues, upperclassmen and instructors die or be wounded. They’ve grown used to presidents telling them their war plans. Some of them may die executing the one unveiled this week. They were listening. What would you do?

In his remarks, the president plowed straight in. The speech’s second sentence announced his subject and its complexity. The first half of the speech was blessedly free of the emotional pleading and posing we’ve all grown used to. His recounting of the history of America in Afghanistan was clever and helpful: Most of us need to be reminded of at least some of the facts, and some soldiers on their way to Kandahar were only 10 and 12 years old when it all began. And so, “We did not ask for this fight.” We and our allies were “compelled” to fight after dreadful men killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. America moved, and with a forgotten unity. “Just days after 9/11, Congress authorized the use of force against al Qaeda and those who harbored them—an authorization that continues to this day. The vote in the Senate was 98-0. The vote in the House was 420-1. For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5—the commitment that says an attack on one member nation is an attack on all.”

This was all good, direct and unvarnished. It provided forgotten context and underscored the president’s sincerity and engagement.

But there was too much “I” in the speech. George H.W. Bush famously took the word “I” out of his speeches—we called them “I-ectomies”—because of a horror of appearing to be calling attention to himself. Mr. Obama is plagued with no such fears. “When I took office . . . I approved a long-standing request . . . After consultations with our allies I then . . . I set a goal.” That’s all from one paragraph. Further down he used the word “I” in three paragraphs an impressive 15 times. “I believe I know” “I have signed” “I have read” “I have visited.”

I, I—ay yi yi. This is a man badly in need of an I-ectomy.

After the president announced his plan he seemed to slip in, “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” Then came the reference to July 2011 as the date departure begins. It was startling to hear a compelling case for our presence followed so quickly by an abrupt announcement of our leaving. It sounded like a strategy based on the song Groucho Marx used to sing, “Hello, I must be going.”

About two-thirds of the way through, the speech degenerated into the faux eloquence that makes people listening across our nation want to gouge out their eyes and run screaming from the room. Lots of our children and our children’s children, the dark clouds of tyranny, the light of freedom. Our strength comes from “the entrepreneurs and researchers who will pioneer new industries; from the teachers that will educate our children, and the service of those who work in our communities at home . . .”

This is where normal people began to daydream. Or scream. None of it was terrible, but we’ve heard it now for 40 years. Enough. Make it new.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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This will not end well

A traveler asks a farmer how to get to a particular village. The farmer replies, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” Barack Obama, who asked to be president, nevertheless deserves sympathy for having to start where America is in Afghanistan.

But after 11 months of graceless disparagements of the 43rd president, the 44th acts as though he is the first president whose predecessor bequeathed a problematic world. And Obama’s second new Afghanistan policy in less than nine months strikingly resembles his predecessor’s plan for Iraq, which was: As Iraq’s security forces stand up, U.S. forces will stand down.

Having vowed to “finish the job,” Obama revealed Tuesday that he thinks the job in Afghanistan is to get out of Afghanistan. This is an unserious policy.

Obama’s surge will bring to 51,000 his Afghanistan escalation since March. Supposedly this will buy time for Afghan forces to become adequate. But it is not intended to buy much time: Although the war is in its 98th month, Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” banner will be unfurled 19 months from now — when Afghanistan’s security forces supposedly will be self-sufficient. He must know this will not happen.

In a spate of mid-November interviews — while participating in the president’s protracted rethinking of policy — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described America’s Afghanistan goal(s) somewhat differently. They are “to defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies” because “al-Qaeda and the other extremists are part of a syndicate of terror, with al-Qaeda still being an inspiration, a funder, a trainer, an equipper and director of a lot of what goes on.” And: “We want to do everything we can to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda.” And: “We want to get the people who attacked us.” And: “We want to get al-Qaeda.” And: “We are in Afghanistan because we cannot permit the return of a staging platform for terrorists.”

But al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan do not number in the tens of thousands, or even thousands. Or perhaps even hundreds. Although “the people who attacked us” were al-Qaeda, the threat that justifies today’s escalation is, Clinton says, a “syndicate of terror” of which al-Qaeda is just an important part. But is Afghanistan central to the syndicate?

George W. Bush waged preventive war in Iraq regarding (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction. Obama is waging preventive war in Afghanistan to prevent it from again becoming “a staging platform for terrorists,” which Somalia, Yemen or other sovereignty near-vacuums also could become. To prevent the “staging platform” scenario, U.S. forces might have to be engaged in Afghanistan for decades before its government can prevent that by itself.

Before Tuesday, the administration had said (through White House spokesman Robert Gibbs) that U.S. forces will not be there “another eight or nine years.” Tuesday, the Taliban heard a distant U.S. trumpet sounding withdrawal beginning in 19 months. Also hearing it were Afghans who must decide whether to bet their lives on the Americans, who will begin striking their tents in July 2011, or on the Taliban, who are not going home, because they are at home.

Many Democrats, who think the $787 billion stimulus was too small and want another one (but by another name), are flinching from the $30 billion one-year cost of the Afghan surge. Considering that the GM and GMAC bailouts ($63 billion) are five times bigger than Afghanistan’s gross domestic product ($12 billion), Democrats seem to be selective worriers about deficits. Of course, their real worry is how to wriggle out of their endorsement of the “necessary” war in Afghanistan, which was a merely tactical endorsement intended to disparage the “war of choice” in Iraq.

The president’s party will not support his new policy, his budget will not accommodate it, our overstretched and worn-down military will be hard-pressed to execute it, and Americans’ patience will not be commensurate with Afghanistan’s limitless demands for it. This will not end well.

A case can be made for a serious — meaning larger and more protracted — surge. A better case can be made for a radically reduced investment of resources and prestige in that forlorn country. Obama has not made a convincing case for his tentative surgelet.

George Orwell said that the quickest way to end a war is to lose it. But Obama’s halfhearted embrace of a half-baked nonstrategy — briefly feinting toward the Taliban (or al-Qaeda, or a “syndicate of terror”) while lunging for the exit ramp — makes a protracted loss probable.

George F. Will, Washington Post


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