Writing off Afghanistan, too

The Obama administration is sending contradictory messages on a crucially important national security subject. At the NATO Defense Ministers' meeting in Brussels, Leon Panetta seemed to accelerate the withdrawal timeline for Afghanistan from the end of 2014 -- what NATO nations have been committed to -- to "mid-to late 2013." In Chicago, meanwhile, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes insisted there will be no change to the 2014 plan, warning that "We will need allies to remain committed to that goal." The president's Special Assistant for European Affairs Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, evidently ignorant of Panetta's statement, assured reporters that the Secretary of Defense "will be very clear about our plans to remain on the Lisbon timeline."

The evident confusion among senior policy makers in the administration prefigures the administration's cratering commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. The White House has narrowed its war aims from defeating all threats to only defeating al Qaeda. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified to Congress this week that the deaths of senior al Qaeda leadership have brought us to a "critical transitional phase for the terrorist threat," in which the organization has a better than 50 percent probability of fragmenting and becoming incapable of mass-casualty attacks. 

The White House appears set to use progress against al Qaeda as justification for accelerating an end to the war in Afghanistan. Since the president has concluded that we aren't fighting the Taliban, just al Qaeda, no need to stick around Afghanistan until the government of that country can provide security and prevent recidivism to Taliban control. The president will declare victory for having taken from al Qaeda the ability to organize large scale attacks, and piously intone that nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's responsibility.

This policy will not win the war in Afghanistan. It will not even end the war in Afghanistan. It will only end our involvement in that ongoing war. Because arbitrary timelines do not translate into having achieved the objectives that cause enemies to throw down their weapons. And it is the enemy ceasing to contest our objectives that constitutes winning. Interrogations with prisoners in Afghanistan have caused the American military to conclude that "Once ISAF is no longer a factor, Taliban consider their victory inevitable."

Secretary Panetta's public affairs folks will likely spend a few days prettying up the mess, emphasizing the secretary was referring to the transition from combat operations to advising and training Afghans. But the damage has been done. As Michael Clarke of Britain's Royal United Services Institute said, "the suspicion that America is going to pull out early will create a self-fulfilling prophecy and there will be a rush to the exit." The Obama administration created this problem by the president's own arbitrary timeline. It is hard to blame Nicolas Sarkozy for playing politics with the issue; politicization is contagious, and allies caught it from President Obama.

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Shadow Government

A death in Cuba exposes business as usual

Sadly, the tragic death of another Cuban dissident hunger striker will not change conditions in that island-prison nor provoke governments to reassess their historical indulgence of the Castro regime's crimes. Business as usual will continue.

In fact, this week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is in Cuba promoting business opportunities for Brazilian companies. She plans no meetings with Cuban dissidents.

But the Jan19 death of 31-year-old dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza will not be in vain. Indeed, when decent people arrive in Cuba to pick through the rubble left by the most oppressive regime this hemisphere has ever seen, his sacrifice -- and that of thousands of Cuban martyrs before him -- will be rightly honored on Cuban soil.

But if there is one immediate purpose that the tragic death of Wilman Villar can serve, it is to put the definitive lie to the currently fashionable meme that Cuba, under Raúl Castro, "is changing."

For example, according to the Associated Press, Cuba just wrapped up a "dramatic year of economic change." The BBC informs us, "Cuba expands free-market reforms," while Reuters adds, "Cuba to free 2,900 in sweeping amnesty."

Frankly, the only thing sweeping Cuba these days -- besides the ongoing state repression -- is the hyperbole in foreign correspondents' dispatches.

I have dealt with Cuba's smoke-and-mirrors reforms in this space before, but to briefly summarize, all interested observers need to know about Cuban "reforms" are two things:

They signify no new recognition of the inalienable rights of the Cuban people by the regime. "Allowing" a few new bits of heavily circumscribed individual economic freedoms is hardly indicative of fundamental change. The relationship between state and citizen remains the same -- although instead of controlling 100 percent of the economy, the regime will now control 99.5 percent.

Secondly, recent changes are not meant to reform the system but to save the system. Allowing Cubans to repair children's dolls outside the purview of the state does not mean Cuba is on the road to a free market; it means the regime is looking for new ways to generate revenue through confiscatory taxes of limited private economic activity.

Raul Castro himself serves as the best spokesman that the regime is not contemplating any kind of fundamental reform. Speaking recently at a party conference, he said, "There has been no shortage of criticism and exhortations by those who have confused their intimate desires with reality, deluding themselves that this conference would consecrate the beginning of the dismantling of the political and social system the revolution has fought for more than half a century."

To be sure, the hyperbole surrounding recent changes in Cuba has an ulterior motive. It is meant to apply pressure on U.S. policymakers to make unilateral changes in U.S. policy, because Cuba is ostensibly "reforming." Thankfully, the Obama administration so far hasn't taken the bait. In fact, last September, the President took the matter head-on, saying, "They [the Castro regime] certainly have not been aggressive enough when it comes to liberating political prisoners and giving people the opportunity to speak their minds."

Indeed, at a time when no quarter is being given to undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, the suggestion that the U.S. should lessen pressure on an undemocratic regime ninety miles from our shores strikes a wholly discordant note and is unlikely to be entertained by any serious policymaker. The Cuban people deserve no less than what the peoples of those regions deserve: the freedom to live their lives as they see fit. Clearly, that concept was as alien to Muammar al-Qaddafi as it is to the Castro brothers -- which is why they deserve the same fate.