Late last week key officials within the Obama administration announced a potential new limit for troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 (when the vast majority of the current 40,000 will have been removed). That number-- 2,500-6,000 total -- is far less than the 30,000 that the administration stated just two years ago was the minimum necessary to carry out counter-terrorism tasks in the country.
What has happened to justify this radical shift in policy? I would argue that three key conclusions about Afghanistan have coalesced in the thinking of policy makers since 2010 and have pushed the administration to reconsider its vision for the war.
1. Afghanistan as Vietnam
Perhaps most importantly, administration officials have concluded that Afghanistan is Vietnam: an eternal, unwinnable war that will only drag them and the country down with it if they continue to invest in the conflict.
There are, however, significant differences between the two wars. First and foremost, unlike in Vietnam, there is a clear military and political way forward in Afghanistan. From its success in Iraq, the U.S. military learned how to fight and win these sorts of irregular conflicts. This comes as no surprise to historians, who know that the U.S. military has won every irregular war that it was fought except for Vietnam. This includes three guerrilla wars in the Philippines and a series of irregular fights in Latin America. Politically, the U.S. learned from President Kennedy's disastrous support for the overthrow of Diem and has supported (however reluctantly) a leader who is recognized as legitimate by most Afghans. And unlike Vietnam, Afghans generally do not want a strong, centralized government that will provide a multitude of services, but rather prefer one that provides general security and leaves local issues to local leaders. This makes a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan far more likely than it ever could be in Vietnam after 1963.
The second way that these wars differ radically is the stakes, which are far higher in Afghanistan than in Vietnam. Kennedy and Johnson, unlike Eisenhower, were convinced that Vietnam was an existential issue that had to be fought and won for the safety and security of the free world. Subsequent events would show that Vietnamese leaders were just as much nationalists as they were communists, and that they had no intention of working to undermine the free world. The war in Afghanistan, however, began with a devastating attack on the American homeland and the group that carried out this strike will return to their safe-haven to plot and plan further attacks as soon as we leave. Winning the war in Afghanistan is precisely about our own safety and preventing the death of Americans.
Two historians of Vietnam have aided and abetted in this dangerous analogy-building: Gordon Goldstein and Robert Caro. Goldstein's writing has pushed the President to conclude that LBJ's mistake in Vietnam was not withdrawing early -- regardless of the consequences in SE Asia and around the Cold War world -- and Robert Caro's work argues that LBJ's involvement in the war destroyed his domestic achievements. Both of these analogies have been accepted by at least some within this administration as object lessons for the current situation that can be, apparently, applied without critical thought about the dangers of analogies for decision making at the highest policy levels.
2. The Military Is Untrustworthy
Perhaps due to a seminal event in 2009 -- the leaking of McChrystal's strategy for fighting the war -- administration officials have concluded that, as with the army in Vietnam, today's military cannot be trusted. To save face in an unwinnable war, the military will always request more troops and more money. Beginning with the "surge" that year, every request for troops by the commanders who know the most about the situation in Afghanistan has been treated with skepticism and cut considerably by this administration. This was done without taking into consideration conditions on the ground, but perhaps it seemed necessary to demonstrate to the military that civilian control had to be respected.
The result, however, has been disastrous for Afghanistan, where the lack of sufficient troops prevented a full counter-insurgency from being implemented and the withdrawal of forces will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to return unimpeded to the East and South of the country. Without more troops, the U.S. will not even be able to carry out the minimal strategy that this administration has itself argued is necessary to prevent another attack on the U.S.
3. A Shift in Objectives
Some part of this disregard for the advice of the military is due to vast changes in strategy. When President Obama was campaigning for office in 2008, he argued that the U.S. had to withdraw from Iraq and focus on winning the war in Afghanistan -- where the U.S. faced a real threat from al Qaeda. Once in office, he held two policy reviews to elaborate the right strategy for confronting al Qaeda and achieving success in Afghanistan. The path forward that he chose was a counterinsurgency that would defeat the Taliban and secure the population of the South and East of the country.
Not long afterward, a change in objectives for the war was announced: rather than defeating the Taliban, the administration supported a negotiated settlement with the group through a process called "reconciliation." In addition, the military objective later shifted from a full COIN to something called "CT Plus," which would focus solely on killing al Qaeda members and disrupting the ability of the group to plot and plan. CT Plus would require far fewer forces than a COIN (around 30,000 was seen as the minimum to stay after 2014).
What then has justified the proposed change from 30,000 to perhaps 2,500? Once again objectives have changed -- in this case from CT Plus to something even less: just holding one or two bases in the country. With so few troops, the U.S. will not be able to carry out CT missions, and if just two bases are held, much of the East and South will be out of reach for strikes on Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership. This change in objectives in fact guarantees that Afghanistan will once again become a safe-haven for AQ and a base for the group to plot and plan and carry out attacks on the U.S.
Perhaps there is a Vietnam analogy that suits this situation, but one provided by the French and not the U.S. experience: Dien Bien Phu. Trapped in a mindset that believed only attrition could defeat the Viet Minh guerrilla army, the French chose to move several thousand troops to an isolated garrison with poor lines of communications at a place called Dien Bien Phu. The troops could not be easily reinforced or resupplied, and came under heavy artillery fire from the Viet Minh forces. Eventually the entire garrison was forced to surrender under humiliating circumstances and France withdrew from all of SE Asia.
Any force less than 15,000 risks precisely this outcome in the isolated battlefield of Afghanistan, which might explain why the administration has been talking about withdrawing completely and ceding the entire country -- as it has Syria, Mali, and Libya -- to al Qaeda.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
By Javid Ahmad and Daniel Twining
Since the 1970s, Pakistan has approached Afghanistan through a doctrine of strategic depth. The latest incarnation of its longstanding Afghan policy, directed from military headquarters in Rawalpindi, has been to prop up the Afghan Taliban as a means of extorting concessions from Kabul or even toppling the pro-Western Afghan government altogether.
However, recent good-faith gestures by Pakistan -- freeing influential former Taliban officials and reaching out to the non-Pashtun leaders from the erstwhile Northern Alliance -- have been widely interpreted to signal a perceived shift in its Afghanistan policy. The change in Pakistan is emanating from Rawalpindi, which the civilian government in Islamabad gingerly follows. For years, Pakistan has hesitated or refused to release Afghan Taliban leaders to participate in talks on a political settlement to the Afghan conflict. Surprisingly, it is now pushing for reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government via a peace roadmap by 2015.
These breakthroughs raise the inevitable question: Is this a real strategic shift, or merely a tactical response to current circumstances? While Pakistan has many real reasons to alter its longstanding Afghan policy and truly abandon strategic depth, several factors may explain Rawalpindi's new approach to its neighbor.
First, radical Islamic ideals that appeal to unemployed youth are now also affecting lower-level members of Pakistan's military. Although this blowback effect has not yet been turned into tangible threats within the military, Pakistan continues to address the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. Mindful of this reality, Pakistan's fretful military realizes that if this trend continues, it will most likely create subversive insiders in the force that will threaten its stability from within.
Second, Pakistan has been made a part of the regional peace framework via the Istanbul Process. Despite its intransigence over engaging in genuine regional cooperation, recent nudges from regional governments through the Istanbul Process have pressured Pakistan to become a more active and constructive partner in the effort. Pakistani hesitation to work collaboratively with its neighbors is driven largely by concerns about the deeper role India could play in any regional framework, augmenting its rising influence across Afghanistan.
However, growing distrust between Rawalpindi and the Afghan Taliban and heightening home-grown insurgency now supersede anxieties about India. The soaring number of Taliban attacks on Pakistan's security forces and military installations, coupled with the alarming number of casualties the army and civilians endure every month, not only has troubled Pakistan but also signifies that its nexus with the Taliban may not be entirely fruitful. Most vitally, Rawalpindi is uneasy about the province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and the northern frontier becoming a safe haven for various Taliban groups joining forces against Pakistan.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe that any shift in Pakistan's policy is short-term and tactical.
First, several of Pakistan's political parties are now supporting radicalization and flirting with jihadi mindsets. Most recently, Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, claimed that the Taliban are fighting a "jihad" in Afghanistan that is justified by Islamic law. Such public statements in support of criminal activities are not only misguided, but also inspire violent extremist ideologies that mislead uneducated and impressionable Pakistani youth and provide a space for insurgents to recruit. Unless this attitude changes, the viability of any positive policy shift is questionable at best.
Second, the media in Pakistan, rather than being a force broadly supportive of peace and stability in Afghanistan, often does the opposite. A broad cross-section of Pakistani media links the impending troop withdrawal directly with the United States' failure in Afghanistan. Elements in the mainstream media are also raising paranoia and anti-Americanism among the people, while openly advocating the insurgency next door.
Third, even if Rawalpindi's change of posture is sincere, the shadow of history in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations hampers this policy shift. The underlying thinking in Rawalpindi may well be that it can still achieve its traditional goals through different means. Most Afghans remain highly skeptical of Pakistan's goals in their country, recognizing that Rawalpindi is unlikely to abandon its long-held objectives in Afghanistan, particularly at a time when Western forces are drawing down.
Perhaps most importantly, there most likely will be no positive shift in Pakistan's strategy unless and until it genuinely supports political inclusivity in Afghanistan. Despite its recent overtures to some of the non-Pashtun political leaders, Pakistan still seeks a pliant government in Kabul through its privileged relationship with the Taliban. Pakistan has to do more to overcome the considerable mistrust it carries among non-Pashtun groups in order to facilitate any policy shift.
While there may be a realization in Rawalpindi that its current Afghan strategy has not succeeded, there are few tangible signs of an actual policy shift. While it remains to be seen how ongoing events will unfold in coming months, perhaps one of the most visible shortcomings of the peace roadmap is the absence of contingency plans should reconciliation not proceed as envisaged.
Kabul must carefully review the terms of the negotiations, resist the temptation of trailing into and accepting conditions that privilege Pakistani interests at the expense of Afghan sovereignty, and avoid reaching a hasty, high-risk peace deal that could potentially compromise the security of the Afghan people. Pakistan's recent gestures are a good sign, but given its history in Afghanistan, regrettably these signals do not appear entirely reassuring.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. The views reflected here are his own.
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The Washington Post has run a few excerpts from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's latest book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. It contains such shockers as the revelation that inter-service rivalry at the Pentagon led to bureaucratically sub-rational outcomes. As Captain Renault said to Rick, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
Rajiv gets a few things right. He claims that "U.S. commanders thought that managing the NATO alliance was more important than winning the war." A lot of the senior brass seems never to have fully internalized the strategic importance of the war in Afghanistan, despite two presidents insisting that it was a vital American national security interest. When Bush and Obama can agree on something, you have to at least consider they may be right.
But much of the book dwells on interagency rivalry in Washington during the early months of the Obama administration, when I served as a staffer on the NSC. Here, Chandrasekaran embellishes, dramatizes, and exaggerates until the story is no longer recognizable.
In Chandrasekaran's telling, there was an epic rivalry between the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the NSC's special coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Doug Lute. I worked for Lute during some of the period covered by Chandrasekaran's story.
There was plainly a rivalry of sorts, but Chandrasekaran blows it out of all proportion and neglects obvious historical and institutional factors at play. The NSC and the State Department have been rivals since the NSC was created in 1947, and the rivalry endures across policy issues and regardless of personalities. Add to the standard institutional competition the fact that the Obama administration decided to have two separate 'special' leads for Af-Pak policy, one at State and one at NSC, and it is unsurprising that the two offices clashed over their confusing, overlapping and unclear roles. That's the natural consequence of the president's poor managerial decisions and the administration's neglect of clear institutional organization.
Instead of recognizing these obvious, if un-dramatic, facts, Chandrasekaran claims that the rivalry between Lute and Holbrooke cost the United States the opportunity to reach a peace deal with the Taliban in 2009-10. He claims that "The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield," in part because of the rivalry. The claim is false. No such peace deal was within reach. Chandrasekaran even concedes that "It was not clear that [the Taliban's] leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk" to the United States. Indeed, despite Lute and Holbrooke's differences, they agreed on the fundamental policy of pursuing talks to end the war and the Obama administration has, however falteringly, made some progress towards that goal.
But Chandrasekaran goes so far as to say that "[National Security Advisor James] Jones and Lute hated the thought of Holbrooke basking in the spotlight as he did after peace in the Balkans." The accusation that two professional military men would let a personality conflict obstruct the president's ability to wage and win a war is petty, unfounded and worthy of the National Enquirer, not the Washington Post.
In fact, Lute went out of his way to re-engineer the interagency process and make a great display of co-chairing a new higher-level interagency forum with Holbrooke, something neither Chandrasekaran nor Woodward picked up on in their respective books. Lute and Holbrooke kept their disagreements out of the public eye, as professionals are supposed to do.
Lute and Holbrooke clashed, but that's what bureaucrats do, especially when there are real issues at stake that they disagree about. Chandrasekaran relates that Lute believed that Holbrooke "had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government." That's essentially true; I don't know many who would dispute that account. Holbrooke's histrionics and his belief that the U.S. should have tilted the playing field in the 2009 Afghan presidential election were responsible for much of the damage to U.S.-Afghan relations in the early years of the Obama administration.
I have always admired what Lute was able to accomplish during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. He provided crucial continuity during the first war-time presidential transition since 1968. He cooperated with the incoming administration as a foreign policy professional, embodying the non-partisan ethos that the community used to stand for. And, when the Obama team inexplicably demoted his position, he accepted it with a rare humility not often found among bureaucrats. A lesser man would have resigned to nurse his wounded pride. I like to think that he stayed because he believed, rightly, that the job was too important to put his ego first.
That doesn't mean Lute's record is flawless. I have been a frequent critic of the Obama administration's record on Afghanistan, some of which inevitably must reflect on Lute as the administration's longest-serving point-man on Afghan policy. But that is an honest disagreement on policy, the sort of thing that should drive public debate. Chandrasekaran may sell books with his tabloid accusations, but history will set the record straight.
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President Obama's surprise speech in Kabul was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance.
The crux of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in the new agreement is the American promise to designate Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally. The designation communicates a relatively strong U.S. commitment to Afghan security and begin to undo the damage done by the Obama administration's various and shifting deadlines for the Afghan mission.
The agreement, however, has weaknesses. Click for my full analysis over at the AfPak Channel.
Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images
America's entry into the European theater of World War II was a military disaster at Kasserine Pass. We suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back over fifty miles. Taking the measure of this force, the Axis powers were smug -- the Americans might be fresh to the fight and have enormous resources, but there was little reason to believe any of their advantages would make a difference.
But after his initial successes against the U.S. military, Rommel wrote worriedly to his wife that although the Americans made mistakes, they were learning from them. And indeed, after our losses in the Tobruk campaign, the American military replaced ineffectual commanders, reorganized units to improve operational control and coordination, trained better fundamental soldiering skills.
Looking back across the decade of America's response to the al Qaeda threat that resulted in the attacks of September 11th, both our government and our military made assessments and improvements of similar magnitude: revamping our intelligence collection and assessment, developing strategies for countering insurgencies, building intellectual capital on the nature of the threats and means for disrupting and destroying them, finding ways to balance liberties and security in ways our public will support and sustain.
We have made grievous and well-documented mistakes: circumventing legislative and judicial oversight of executive authority, underestimating the difficulty of successful regime change and its associated costs, isolated instances of brutality, misreading what we look like to friends and enemies. We responded to the attacks in ways expensive to ourselves and others.
Yet it is also important to note that our response has for the most part defanged the narrative of our enemies. We have fought our wars with an extraordinary care for being a positive force in shaping those societies. We have had domestic debate about the wars, as every society should, but still demonstrated the determination to prosecute those wars and bear the losses they imposed on us -- something our enemies believed we were too dissolute to do. We have demonstrated the resilience to question our own choices and find better solutions with time. We are not the brittle and overbearing leviathan they thought.
Forecasting America's decline has become a mainstay of punditry, yet the analyses almost always overlook the fact that our political culture and our political system are attuned to solving problems. Granted, it is difficult to see up close, amidst the dust and noise of our messy domestic debates; and our mistakes are many. But we are an impatient culture, one that demands solutions and excels at building better mousetraps.
In other words, America is a society that often doesn't have it right, but given a little time, generally gets it right. Fortunately, because of our prosperity and strength, our country has a wide margin of error that generally leaves us time to adapt. Whether future conditions will sustain that margin is an important question, but a question for another day. For now, it is enough to be thankful we have had the space to find solutions that have kept our country remarkably safe despite the threats to us.
On this sad anniversary for our country, let us mourn the people, the freedom, and the innocence we lost on September 11th, 2001. But let us also be proud of the vitality of our people and the institutions of our government. For all our mistakes, we have done passably well. And to America's enemies -- al Qaeda and others -- that should be as worrying as what Rommel observed in the aftermath of the battle at Kasserine Pass.
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Today, 12 August, is the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the international treaties designed to protect soldiers and civilians during armed conflicts. The treaties became the focus of international attention in 2002 when the Bush administration controversially concluded that al Qaeda and the Taliban were not entitled to their protections. President Obama has reaffirmed America's "commitment" to the Geneva Conventions but has not been specific about how the Conventions apply to al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. To re-assert U.S. leadership with respect to the laws of war, the Obama administration should announce that the United States accepts specific provisions of the Conventions and engage other countries to develop new rules where the Geneva Conventions do not apply.
The 1949 Geneva Conventions consist of four separate treaties originally signed by 59 countries in Geneva, Switzerland. In light of the horrific experiences of World War II, the first three agreements revised previous treaties dating from 1864, 1906, and 1929 that provided humanitarian protections for sick or wounded soldiers on land, sailors at sea, and prisoners of war. The fourth agreement, added in 1949, establishes protections for civilians in conflict zones. The best known of the agreements is the Third Geneva Convention, which provides detailed articles of protection for those who qualify as Prisoners of War (POWs).
The Geneva Conventions apply to conflicts between the 194 countries that are now party to them. Since 1949, three Additional Protocols have been added to the Conventions to provide further protections in light of changes in modern warfare. The United States has long objected to certain provisions in the First Protocol, although it has stated its support for others. President Reagan submitted the Second Protocol to the Senate in 1987, but the Senate has not acted on it. The Bush administration was a driving force behind (and signed and ratified) the Third Protocol, which created an alternative protective symbol (a Red Diamond) for countries (primarily Israel) that do not use the Red Cross or Red Crescent.
Together, the four 1949 Conventions and the three protocols form the bedrock of the international laws of war.
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I've had a bracing welcome to the blogosphere and see that there are some folks who disagree with me on the relationship between Mullah Umar, Bin Ladin, and the TTP. Of course issues like relationships are always open to interpretation and intelligence analysts with access to the full range of available sources debate this question on a daily basis. It's also a fact that the situation on the ground is fluid, and the insurgency in Pakistan-Afghanistan is continuously evolving. What is true today about relationships between groups might not be true next year.
But here's why I said that -- at least today -- the TTP are "under the authority" of both Mullah Umar and Bin Ladin: leaders of the TTP have publicly said that this is true. On March 1, Hakimullah, the head of the TTP posted a video on the Jamia Hafsa website in which he clarified the relationship between the TTP and Mullah Umar, saying among other things that "the Afghan Taliban are doing jihad under the leadership of Mullah Umar, and the mujahidin of the Tehrik-e-Taliban [TTP] are also doing jihad under his leadership. The commander of the faithful [i.e. Mullah Umar] is the leader of the Afghan Taliban as well as the Pakistani Taliban."
As for the relationship between the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qa'ida, this is how Mullah Nazir, a local commander in the TTP, put it last year in an interview with al-Qa'ida's media wing, al-Sahab. First, he confirmed their allegiance to the global jihad:
Our Jihad isn't limited to Pakistan or Afghanistan. We do not even accept these boundaries that separate us, that 'this shall be Pakistan' and 'that shall be Afghanistan...' this is nothing but an inanity devised by the Jews and we reject it...' Our Jihad is a global Jihad, and we aim to liberate Muslims throughout the world and obliterate tumult, oppression and mischief, and establish the system of Shariah all over the world.
He then affirmed their commitment to both Mullah Umar and Bin Ladin as commanders of the jihad:
Al-Sahab: What are your sentiments regarding the leadership of the Mujahidin i.e. Mullah Muhammad Umar, Commander of the Believers, and Shaykh Usama bin Ladin?
Mullah Nazir: We want to say to them that we are your Mujahidin and your soldiers. We await your orders. Do not worry, for the Mujahidin here in Waziristan alone suffice you. We are proud of your leadership and consider it an honor for us. We give away our lives at your command and feel proud to obey you at all times.
Of course, whether Bin Ladin actually gives the TTP orders and they actually obey him is another question.
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's putative No. 2 and organizer
of military operations was captured several days ago at a madrassa near the
Pakistani city of Karachi. U.S. and Pakistani intelligence operatives are
interrogating him, according to the New York Times.
This is very good news. First and foremost, a deadly and effective enemy of the United States is no longer able to plan, coordinate, or carry out attacks against us.
It will further isolate other senior leaders, such as Mullah Omar, and cause them to rely on less-trusted replacements. In the last three years, six of the nineteen members of the Taliban senior council have been killed. This is significant progress, and suggests that the United States is beginning to have the kind of intelligence, and the ability to use it to good effect, that will eventually grind down the Taliban.
The surge of NATO troops to Afghanistan, and particularly operations in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah will produce yet more intelligence, as Taliban light up communications networks, are forced to move and therefore can be tracked, their operations in the region are disrupted, their funding streams from drug trafficking reduced, and as Afghan, U.S., and British forces engaged in the fight reassure the population they will be subsequently secure.
Cooperation between Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence and our CIA looks to have been extensive and beneficial. The BBC cites a senior Pakistani military officer describing the capture as "a joint operation between Pakistan and the United States based on shared intelligence." CIA agents evidently were along on the raid. Such intensive cooperation would be impossible without trust between the two spy agencies, and is difficult to build even among allies of long-standing. Given Pakistan's understandable concern about American fickleness, the cooperation is extraordinary. Those who castigate the Pakistani government as not serious about the fight against the Taliban, or who believe the ISI are insubordinate to their government's direction, will have a difficult time explaining this outcome.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The capture of Taliban commander Mullah Baradar in a combined Pakistani-American intelligence operation in Karachi is a major development in the war on terror. This is true not only, and obviously, with reference to the military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Perhaps more profoundly, it is also true with reference to the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations. It could be a critical step forward in a long-troubled partnership, one fueled by converging perceptions of the threat of Islamic extremism. But, if part of a deal to grant Pakistan a free hand in Afghanistan once American forces withdraw in return for greater near-term cooperation to support the West's rush to exit the region, it could presage a troubling step backward.
The CIA worked closely with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in combined intelligence operations targeting Al Qaeda after September 11, 2001 -- following a famous U.S. ultimatum to Pakistan to assist in the Taliban's defeat in Afghanistan or share its fate, and reinforced by al Qaeda's repeated assassination attempts against General Pervez Musharraf, the country's military ruler at the time. But ISI has continued to enjoy intimate relations with the Afghan Taliban, which it helped create and bring to power in 1996. More recently, Pakistani intelligence officers have helped Afghan Taliban commanders outwit their American adversaries, even as ISI benefited from American material support. Indeed, Mullah Baradar was previously captured by Afghan forces in November 2001 -- then released after ISI intervention, according to the New York Times.
What has changed the Pakistani military leadership's calculus to the point that ISI has now helped capture the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 leader? The optimist's answer is, in a word, the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan sponsored the Taliban when it was a vehicle for Pakistani influence in Afghanistan's Pashtun heartland. But the spillover from the Taliban's resurgence next door helped create a monster in the form of the Pakistani Taliban, whose suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks increasingly have targeted the institutions of the Pakistani state and its supreme defender: the Pakistani armed forces.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
By John Hannah
In today's Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens rises to the defense of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Toward the article's close, Stephens writes that:
It would be ... useful if some of Mr. Karzai's more acerbic Western critics could ask themselves why matters went abruptly south in Afghanistan after several years in which they had gone swimmingly well under Mr. Karzai. ... The answer has a lot less to do with Mr. Karzai's performance than with NATO.
Stephens's basic point is worth bearing in mind. Ever since last year's presidential campaign, there's been an unfortunate tendency to assess America's Afghan campaign as one long, steady downward spiral to disaster. "Eight years of drift," according to Obama administration officials seeking to explain their lengthy deliberations over strategy and troop numbers. But, as Stephens suggests, the reality is a good deal more complex. The fact is that, after a period of genuine progress following the Taliban's removal in late 2001, the situation in Afghanistan only began to deteriorate markedly between 2005 and 2006. Suicide attacks quintupled that year. Remotely detonated bombs more than doubled. Insurgent attacks nearly tripled. And the trends have steadily worsened every year since. The question is why? What changed in that time period that might help account for the sharp decline in America's war fortunes?
I certainly don't have an exhaustive answer, but I do have a
few ideas that merit consideration:
1. Zalmay Khalilzad left Afghanistan
Khalilzad served as President Bush's special envoy for
Afghanistan from the country's liberation in 2001 until 2003. In 2003, he
became U.S. ambassador. Khalilzad had an extraordinary relationship with
Karzai, spending hours alone with him on a daily basis -- mentoring, advising,
reassuring, hectoring (the latter only in private). The relationship
allowed Khalilzad to succeed, far more often than not, in getting Karzai to do
the right thing. Karzai had enormous confidence in Khalilzad -- and, more
importantly, in the unflinching U.S. support that was manifested in Khalilzad's
Khalizad left Afghanistan in the summer of 2005. Since then, no other U.S. official has come close to replicating his relationship with Karzai. On the contrary, we've seen an ever-widening breach of trust and confidence between Karzai and the United States, bottoming out this spring when the Obama administration let it be known that it was "desperately searching" for an alternative to Karzai. Causal lines are always hard to draw, but it's difficult not to discern a significant connection between the end of Khalilzad's tenure in Kabul and the mounting frustrations with Karzai's performance in Washington. At a minimum, this suggests that now that Karzai's second term is a done deal, the Obama administration needs urgently to find a way to rebuild its badly tattered relationship with him. Can that be done with the people currently in charge of Afghan policy? That's a tough question, but it needs to be asked.
2. NATO assumed overall command for the Afghan mission from the United States.
Most importantly, NATO took over operations in southern Afghanistan, the heart of the Taliban insurgency, in mid-2006. Karzai and the Afghans fretted throughout 2005 about the planned handover to NATO, urging the U.S. not to follow through. Despite repeated assurances from Washington, the Afghans palpably feared that the transition to NATO reflected the start of America's ultimate withdrawal from Afghanistan. Psychologically, this perception of declining U.S. commitment almost certainly had the dual effect of dangerously demoralizing the Afghan government and people (resulting in counter-productive hedging behavior), while emboldening the Taliban.
Similarly, the Pakistani government -- believing the United States to be once again headed for the Afghan exits -- was encouraged even further in its double game of maintaining an "option" for returning a friendly Taliban to power in Kabul.
Militarily, the shift to NATO, particularly in the south, undeniably resulted in a significant loss of combat effectiveness on perhaps the war's most important front. While America's British, Dutch, and Canadian allies fought valiantly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, they were no match -- frequently by their own admission -- for the extraordinary fighting skills of their U.S. counterparts. With only some exaggeration, a senior Afghan official once told President Bush that 800 U.S. troops had generated a greater sense of security and well-being among the population in Helmand than 8,000 NATO forces.
Finally, at an administrative level, putting the
26-member alliance in charge made a hash of command and control in the Afghan
theater, undermining severely the unity of military and civilian effort that is
essential to successful warfare, especially counter-insurgency operations.
Whatever the merits of ramping up NATO's role -- e.g., the importance of multilateralism; the need to divert greater U.S. attention and resources to the deteriorating situation in Iraq -- the benefits, in retrospect, have not been worth the costs in terms of advancing U.S. war aims. Since late 2008, the United States has been engaged in a delicate effort to re-balance the relationship between America and NATO, and to once again take ownership of the Afghan war in a much more aggressive way. The Obama administration's decisions on increasing troop numbers, as well as changes that have already been made in command and control arrangements in Afghanistan, are a crucial part of that essential return to full-blown U.S. leadership of the war effort.
3. America's failure to hold Pakistan to account for its support of the Taliban became fully manifested.
I vividly recall that from 2003 onward, Zal Khalilzad repeatedly tried to warn U.S. officials about the need for a strategy that would aggressively counter Pakistani efforts to resurrect the defeated Taliban. President Karzai and his security advisors harped constantly on the same issue. Yet it was all to no avail. Special Afghan pleading, some officials complained. The Musharraf government is already under enough pressure assisting our efforts to kill and capture al Qaeda operatives, others said. Whatever the excuses, far, far too little was done. As a result, by 2005-2006 the Taliban, as a serious insurgent force, began coming back with a vengeance. Even then, Washington was slow to respond in developing a serious policy to address Pakistan's double-dealing. Not until 2007-2008 did talk get serious about dramatically expanding operations to target Taliban leaders and disrupt their operations in Pakistan. It was only at this point that the United States began putting together a comprehensive diplomatic, economic, and military plan designed to pressure and empower the Pakistani government to act seriously against the Taliban monster it had encouraged along the Afghan border. To its great credit, the Obama administration has expanded and fully resourced this effort with Pakistan in ways that, at long last, are beginning to show signs of tentative progress.
There are, no doubt, a host of other causes that contributed to the war's downward spiral. But the larger point is that the United States did enjoy a significant period after the Taliban's downfall when real progress was being made. The causes of that success and why things began going badly need to be studied closely. The bottom line is that the deterioration of recent years was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from real shifts -- and failures -- of policy, many of which are subject to U.S. control, influence and correction.
It's, of course, true that the costs the U.S. may need to
endure now in correcting past mistakes will almost certainly be higher than if
we'd gotten it right the first time. But not nearly as high as the costs
of allowing the Taliban to return to power, allied with al Qaeda, with its
sights firmly set on taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan.
David McNew/Getty Images
Sunday was another tragic day in Iraq, more than 150 people were killed and another 500 injured in attacks on the Ministries of Justice and Interior in Baghdad. The devastation was another sad reminder of how fragile are the gains bought so dearly by Iraqis and Americans -- military and civilian -- working every day in that country to consolidate progress toward a secure and representative Iraq.
Those who believe Iraq was "the wrong war," or that violence and authoritarianism are endemic in a country with such deep sectarian divisions, or those who practice the soft bigotry of low expectations (as President Bush so nicely phrased it in a different context), and believe Muslims incapable of democracy will likely see these attacks as justification for accelerating our disengagement from Iraq. Such a conclusion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the domestic politics of Iraq in the run up to their January provincial elections.
War is the extension of politics by other means, as Clausewitz teaches, and domestic politics is what these attacks were about. Iraqi security forces are struggling to prevent such attacks. Prime Minister Maliki's confidence in their ability has always run ahead of their actual performance (as early as 2005 he advocated a security hand over) and he has been party to politicizing their ranks.
But Maliki is running on a platform of providing security and negotiating the U.S. withdrawal. Anything that calls security into question or precipitates a return by American military forces into Iraq's cities (from which we had withdrawn on June 30 in accordance with the Strategic Framework Agreement) hurts Maliki's claim. And it doesn't just hurt Maliki, it hurts other incumbent politicians, like the Mayor of Baghdad, who also argued for removing blast walls to facilitate movement and commerce and a return to normalcy in the capital.
After the last spectacular attack, against the Foreign Ministry on Aug. 19, Prime Minister Maliki responded in a stridently partisan fashion, blaming Sunni and al Qaeda as one, conducting arrests and crackdowns that have a suspicious political tilt against his political opponents. While the U.S. military spokesman tried to put a good face on the Iraqi government's reaction, comparing it to the crasser political manipulation of the Aug. 19 bombings, Maliki's statement in the aftermath speaks for itself:
The cowardly acts of terrorism which occurred today must not weaken the resolution of Iraqis to continue their journey and to fight the followers of the fallen regime, the Baathists and al-Qaeda."
This, before the government had any reasonable idea of who conducted the attacks. There are numerous political factions that could benefit from delegitimizing the Maliki government's record, not least rival Shi'ia who excluded him from being their standard bearer in the election.
But the good news is that political pluralism has taken root in Iraqi politics. Maliki couldn't win the support of a Shi'ia-only slate organizing for the January elections, so he opted to build a cross-sectarian slate. He's not trying very hard, mind you, as his statement blaming Sunni for Sunday's bombing shows. But his effort to appeal across sectarian lines was his Hail Mary (so to speak) and shows he believed voters would reward the choice. Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, a Sunni, is likewise tacking beyond sectarianism to broaden his prospective political base.
This is a hugely important development, seldom seen in fragile societies. Usually, as with the Balkan elections of the early 1990s, politicians prey on voters' mistrust and trend toward extremes which is why elections in factional societies are so often polarizing and foster an upward spiral of violence.
In the last provincial elections, nearly all incumbents were voted out of office, a strong signal that average Iraqis believed they weren't doing their jobs. And voters weren't just "simplifying the map," moving to the sectarian extreme out of fear: Shi'ia voted out Shi'ia, Sunni voted out Sunni, Kurd voted out Kurd. What Iraqi political elites took from that election is the fundamental commandment of democracy everywhere: Thou Shalt Respect the Voters.
Talking to Iraqi politicians (as I did the past couple of weeks around their country), what is most striking is the extent to which they sound like small-city politicians in our own country. They worry about power outages and sewer systems and the quality of education for youngsters. They're mad at the central government for not funding activity they consider its responsibility. They rail against corruption -- even as many of them practice it -- and fear exposure by the free media that is burgeoning. Accountability has come to Iraqi politics, and the politicians know it.
A representative government is struggling to emerge in Iraq. It may not succeed in bridging the sectarian tensions, corruption, and long shadow of decades of authoritarianism that inhibits initiative. In Iraq, strong cultural undercurrents cut against the kinds of behavior that make successful democracies successful. But Iraqis want it, and political elites are responding. This is good news for Iraq and for the advancement of our values in the world.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
By John Hannah
My old boss, Dick Cheney, gave a speech last night blasting the Obama administration's national security policy. One of his many targets was an interview that Rahm Emanuel did with CNN this past weekend -- in particular, Emanuel's claim that President Obama's current reassessment of Afghan policy was, for the first time ever, airing certain first-order questions about U.S. strategy. For officials of the previous administration, the objectionable portions of Emanuel's remarks included the following:
And when you go through all the analysis, it's clear that basically we had a war for eight years that was going on, that's adrift. That we're beginning at scratch, and just from the starting point, after eight years. ... And the president is asking the questions that have never been asked on the civilian side, the political side, the military side, and the strategic side. What is the impact on the region? What can the Afghan government do or not do? Where are we on the police training? Could that be something the Europeans do? Should we take the military side? Those are the questions that have not been asked. And before you commit troops . . . before you make that decision, there's a set of questions that have to have answers that have never been asked. And it's clear after eight years of war, that's basically starting from the beginning, and those questions never got asked.
The first problem with Emanuel's charge, of course, is the inconvenient fact that the Obama administration, itself, already conducted an exhaustive review of Afghan policy this past spring. Remember? The one that had the president on March 27 unveiling a "comprehensive, new strategy" that "marks the conclusion of a careful policy review." The one that had the president sending another 21,000 American troops off to war?
If true, Emanuel's implicit accusation that basic questions were not asked in that first review would be a shocking indictment of the administration's own competence. If untrue, Emanuel was gratuitously insulting the professionalism of his hard-working colleagues involved in the review, presumably to advance some other agenda. Anyone familiar with the skills, experience, and stellar reputation of Bruce Riedel -- who the administration hand-picked to oversee the initial assessment -- knows full well that the first possibility is out of the question. Rest assured that all the questions Emanuel asserts have simply never, ever been asked before about U.S. strategy were indeed asked in the course of Riedel's efforts.
Of course, Emanuel's real target here was - surprise! -- the Bush administration. President Obama has come under heated criticism for wavering in the face of General McChrystal's recommendation for a large troop increase in Afghanistan. But it's not wavering at all, Emanuel assures us. It's purely a matter of the president acting responsibly and performing necessary due diligence -- basic Policy 101 sort of stuff that his predecessor in the White House never did before sending Americans into harm's way.
The problem with this claim is that it's as untrue (and slanderous) with respect to the Bush administration as it is with respect to the Riedel review. As Cheney pointed out last night, the fact is that President Bush ordered a comprehensive review of America 's faltering Afghan policy in the early fall of 2008. That October, the Washington Post reported that the review's purpose was to "return to basic questions":
What are our objectives in Afghanistan ? What can we hope to achieve? What are our resources? What is our allies' role? What do we know about the enemy? How likely is it that weak Afghan and Pakistani governments will rise to the occasion?
The review was led by Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, President Bush's deputy national security advisor for Afghanistan and Iraq. It brought together officials from the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Intelligence Community, and every other civilian agency concerned with Afghan policy. The review lasted for weeks and exhaustively examined all angles of U.S. strategy. In addition to its internal discussions, the group received briefings from the likes of Afghanistan 's Defense Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, and (Ret.) General Dave Barno, the first commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review included a trip by Lute to the AfPak theater to test some of the emerging recommendations with our political and military leaders on the ground. Its deliberations were ruthlessly self-critical of severe shortcomings in the war effort and argued the need for urgent changes in American strategy, in particular a far more robust counter-insurgency effort. All the questions that Emanuel raised with CNN were in fact raised during the Bush review, in addition to an array of others.
The Bush effort was provided to the incoming Obama administration during last year's transition, including its finding -- based on an initial request for additional forces submitted by then-commanding General McKiernan -- that more U.S. troops would be needed to conduct a successful counterinsurgency strategy. On that question, my understanding is that President Bush was fully prepared to defer to the wishes of President-elect Obama and do whatever would make the new administration's job easier; that is, Bush was fully prepared either to shoulder the decision to order more U.S. forces to Afghanistan before leaving office or he would leave that critical call to President Obama, giving the new administration a chance to conduct its own comprehensive review of the situation. The Obama team, quite understandably, opted for the latter course and President Bush deferred to their wishes -- as he invariably did on virtually every major question during the transition in his determined effort to make it one of the smoothest and most cooperative in American history.
As Cheney suggested in his remarks yesterday, anyone reading both documents would find significant overlap in the Bush review from 2008 and the review that the Obama administration conducted this past spring. One reason that's not particularly surprising is that Doug Lute, who was in charge of the Bush review, was also a major player in the initial Obama assessment. Indeed, Lute continues to serve on President Obama's national security council staff with responsibility for the Afghan portfolio. Perhaps Rahm Emanuel should ask Lute to refresh his memory by taking the short walk over to Emanuel's White House office with a copy of the Bush review. Emanuel could also draw on the expertise of any number of the other participants in the Bush effort, many of whom continue to work for the Obama administration, including at senior levels. I'm also quite sure that some of those who have subsequently left government service, such as former State Department Counselor, Eliot Cohen, former advisor on counter-insurgency, David Kilcullen, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Jim Shinn, would also be happy to talk to Emanuel about their work on the 2008 Bush assessment and the wide range of issues that were studied.
None of this, of course, should obfuscate the fact that the Afghan war effort was in dire shape by the close of the Bush administration. An urgent course correction was required. President Obama quite courageously decided to do exactly that last spring when he accepted the recommendations of the Riedel review, opted to pursue a fully-resourced counter-insurgency strategy, and put in place a commanding general committed to carrying that strategy out. In response, conservative national security experts in general -- and former Bush administration officials, in particular -- were quite vocal in their support of the president, applauding his gritty determination to buck the advice of many in his own party and do what was necessary to fight and win the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
What has people criticizing the administration now is the endless public hand-wringing about whether to support its hand-picked commander in doing what's urgently required to implement a strategy that President Obama himself announced to the world less than six months ago. The key things that have changed in the interim -- the badly flawed Afghan presidential election and rapidly declining public support for the war effort, especially within the president's own Democratic Party -- were both developments subject to the Obama administration's influence and control, not the Bush administration's. It's President Obama's performance as commander-in-chief and wartime leader, both at home and abroad, that is now in the spotlight and it's clearly causing the administration real discomfort. Trying to deflect attention from that serious problem by leveling new, politicized charges against its predecessor that are so demonstrably spurious is unlikely to help much. It should stop so that the Obama administration and the country can get back to the deadly serious business of how best to protect and defend our interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the broader war on terrorism.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.