Shadow Government

Present in Asia? With what?

I know the U.S. is still recovering from the financial crisis.…Under such circumstances, it is still spending a lot of money on its military. Isn't that placing too much pressure on the taxpayers? If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a little and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people and doing more good things for the world -- wouldn't that be a better scenario?"

This was the Chinese People's Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde's suggestion to Americans during the visit of his counterpart Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen. Well, we are obliging the Chinese general -- at least in part. We are cutting defense. General Chen would be especially happy to know that in particular we are foregoing investment in the types of systems that help keep us "present" in Asia -- though Admiral Mullen assured Asian audiences that we will be there for the long haul. Whether we are cutting defense in order to improve the livelihood of the American people is a separate, hotly debated question. Color me skeptical.

But on the first part of General Chen's suggestion, here is how we are heeding his advice. We are not properly resourcing: a) the submarines the Navy says it needs, or, for that matter, the number of ships in its own shipbuilding plan; b) stealthy tactical aircraft (by the Air Force's own account, they will face an 800-fighter shortfall later this decade); and c) a long-range bomber, now called "the long-range strike family of systems," particularly by those who think this system is silver bullet for our Asia posture.  We were supposed to be deploying new bombers by 2018. Not a chance. The program is estimated to cost $40-50 billion in total, and respected aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia predicts that we will not see a new bomber until well into the next decade. Yes, that's right, a new bomber somewhere in the 2020s.

So General Chen, no need to worry about our defense spending -- we will not have enough submarines or tactical aircraft, and there is no new bomber on the horizon. All are supposed to play a role in the much vaunted AirSea Battle strategy that is our answer to China's growing military power.

But Mullen insists, as did Secretary Gates and other top U.S. leaders, we will still be there for our friends and our allies.  Given the numbers, the next time a leading U.S. official insists that we are going to be "present" in Asia, journalists have a duty to ask, "With what?"


Shadow Government

My meeting with Ahmed Wali Karzai

Ahmed Wali Karzai, Hamid's half-brother, was assassinated in Kandahar on Tuesday.

Wali was many things: the most powerful man in Kandahar, head of the provincial council there, chieftain of the Popalzai tribe, and allegedly a major player in the regional narcotics trade, according to the New York Times.

I had occasion to meet with many Afghan officials over the years in my position as director for Afghanistan with the National Security Council staff. I had a two-hour one-on-one meeting with Wali several years back. He was dressed in a simple shalwar kameez, which surprised me. Some Afghan officials I met with, including Nangarhar Governor Gul Agha Shirzai, were more showy about their power and opulence, while others, like Amrullah Saleh, took pride in their immaculate western business suits. Wali's attire suggested a show of appealing simplicity.

Wali also spoke in a far more direct, clear, and polished western kind of way. By contrast, the older warlords like Shirzai or Ismail Khan have a roundabout, faux-grandiose style of declaiming from on high, like they are auditioning for an amateur production of The Godfather. Wali knew what westerners wanted to hear, and he gave me one of the most powerful, blunt, and impassioned tirades against the corrupting effects of the drug trade I have ever heard. The irony was not lost on me.

I believe Wali rose to his position -- powerbroker of Kandahar -- because he had a unique ability to be all things to all people. He could speak everyone's language. He could be a thug among thugs, an enlightened statesman among international technocrats, a tribal elder among the Popalzai, and an Afghan nationalist among his Kandaharis. In that sense, he was very much like his older brother, Hamid.

The Taliban have claimed credit for his killing. Other reports say he was killed by a bodyguard or by a local commander with ties to the Karzai family. They might all be true. Wali moved in the shadow worlds of espionage, smuggling, politics, and tribal rivalry. He made enough enemies that any one of them would have been happy to pull the trigger. More than likely, a handful of factions cooperated in the killing when it came down to it.

Was he one of the good guys? Wali was no poster boy for democracy and human rights. He was, however, supremely effective in the wheeling and dealing of Afghan politics. He knew how to manage the factions, tribes, smugglers, and other interests of the crucial southern theater of the war. His alleged ties to the drug trade didn't do Kabul or Washington any favors.

Critics of Wali should keep this in mind: We have apparently lowered the bar for success in Afghanistan to getting to "good enough" governance in Afghanistan that is dependent on "local solutions" and "Afghan tradition." That sounds an awful lot like Ahmed Wali Karzai and his ilk. His death blows the lid off the simmering pot of Kandahari politics, and is likely to set off a destabilizing power struggle across the south that will do nothing to help the war effort there.

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