Shadow Government

Passé pessimism on Afghanistan

I have been following the war effort in Afghanistan since the beginning. Analysts and the media were irrationally exuberant about Afghanistan's prospects in the early years, followed by an equally irrational cascade of pessimism that started around 2008, as soon as Iraq faded from the headlines. In the last few months, I have finally seen the beginnings of a sane, sober, and accurate assessment of progress in Afghanistan by credible, mainstream, nonpartisan sources. The emerging line is, "It's not pretty, but we're winning."

In their own words:

The New York Times reported in March that "the Taliban have been under stress since American forces doubled their presence in southern Afghanistan last year and greatly increased the number of special forces raids aimed at hunting down Taliban commanders." The story reports that "the Afghan Taliban are showing signs of increasing strain after a number of killings, arrests and internal disputes that have reached them even in their haven in Pakistan." The killings "have unnerved many in the Taliban and have spread a climate of paranoia and distrust within the insurgent movement." One result is that "Taliban commanders and fighters, who used to be a common sight in parts of Quetta, have now gone underground and are not moving around openly as before."

RAND analyst Seth Jones, the foremost American scholar of the Taliban insurgency and author of In the Graveyard of Empires, wrote in May that "after years of gains, the Taliban's progress has stalled -- and even reversed -- in southern Afghanistan this year."

Afghanistan "is on course to becoming a markedly better place than it was, with the chance eventually of peace with the Taliban, steady relations with its neighbors and better treatment of its citizens," according to the Economist. "The improvement is partly thanks to the "surge" of 30,000 troops, which President Obama reluctantly endorsed in 2009. The extra forces, under General David Petraeus, the United States' most successful serving commander, have helped to dampen the insurgency. It also reflects better governors and civil servants in some parts. And it is thanks to the Afghan army and police, who now number 285,000 and are better trained and educated than they were."

The United Nations Security Council, who has issued almost 40 quarterly reports on the situation in Afghanistan since 2001, most recently reported in March that "the number of districts under insurgent control has decreased.… As a result of the increased tempo of security operations in northern and western provinces, an increasing number of anti-Government elements are seeking to join local reintegration programs.… In Kabul, the increasingly effective Afghan national security forces continue to limit insurgent attacks."

How should Obama respond to the growing recognition of fragile success? In the Economist's words, "stick to a decent plan."

Shadow Government

Why McFaul as ambassador to Russia is solid pick by Obama

A news item from this weekend is that President Obama intends to nominate NSC Senior Director Michael McFaul to be the next ambassador to Russia. This is an inspired choice. McFaul will bring a compelling set of attributes to the position, including a deep knowledge of Russia, a close relationship with President Obama, experience in high levels of government and national security policy, and a longstanding commitment to democracy and human rights promotion. That last quality will be of particular importance, as Russia's grim and deteriorating record on democracy will be in the international spotlight with its presidential transition in 2012. "Transition" is a more accurate word than "election," as the question of Russia's next president will not be settled by Russian voters at the ballot box but rather by the opaque intra-Kremlin maneuverings between current President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As Paul Bonicelli has pointed out, as a former and potentially future president, Putin's intentions and actions are more "neo-Czarist" than democratic, and his relationship with Medvedev will likely grow more and more strained.

In appointing McFaul, President Obama is also departing from recent precedent in bypassing the career Foreign Service for the position. Over the past three decades, all but one residents of Spaso House have been career foreign service officers. But the exception was a notable one: President Bush 41's bipartisan appointment of Democratic elder statesman Bob Strauss (namesake of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, where I'm honored to work), who ably represented the U.S. in Moscow during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the transition of the national identity back to "Russia."

Assuming a smooth Senate confirmation, McFaul will be arriving in Moscow during another time of transition, albeit less auspicious as Russia seems to be consolidating as an autocracy. The relationship between Russia and the U.S. may experience increased turbulence over the next year as well. While the Obama administration deserves credit for maintaining some stability in U.S.-Russia relations and policy advances such as securing Russian permission for increased overflight rights for resupply missions to Afghanistan, the "reset" paradigm has not been as successful as hyped. Among other items on the "reset" agenda, Russia needed the New START treaty more than the U.S. did, Russia's reluctant cooperation with tightened UNSC sanctions on Iran has not been sufficient to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, and Russia's bid for WTO membership appears dependent in part on U.S. pressure on Georgia to drop its objections. Which the Georgians are reluctant to do given Russia's lack of repentance for its 2008 invasion and its ongoing occupation of parts of Georgian territory.

A related transition is the larger strategic question of Russia's trajectory and role in the world. Is it a once-great power now in irreversible decline? Or is it a great power resurgent after the chaos and disruptions of the 1990s? Those who hold to the latter can point out that Russia still possesses the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, a land mass spanning two continents and nine time zones, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and a resource-rich economy that gives Russian foreign policy the use of state-controlled Gazprom as its primary tool, as Anne Applebaum has written. Yet those who see a Russia in decline have considerable evidence as well, including an imbalanced economy almost wholly dependent on extractive industries, a dwindling population in a demographic death spiral, endemic and enervating corruption, a demoralized military that is a shell of its former self, and a paranoid political culture that has alienated many of its neighboring countries to the west, south, and east.

Russia actually has elements of both a declining power and a resurgent power. How else to describe a country that has an economy smaller than Canada and a male life expectancy lower than Mauritania, yet the capacity to stifle U.S. actions in the U.N. Security Council, blackmail Europe with natural gas cut-offs, and project power globally with its nuclear arsenal? In practice this means Russia has little capability to reshape the global order to its liking, but can still resist and block the initiatives of other global powers that it does not favor.

The challenge for U.S. policy is thus to neither overstate nor underestimate Russian capabilities and intentions. As the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, the very capable McFaul will have considerable opportunity not only to observe Russia's ongoing transitions, but hopefully to help shape it as well, in directions conducive to U.S. interests and the welfare of the long-suffering Russian people.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images