Shadow Government

Return of the warlords

Former Afghan warlord Ismail Khan's recent call for the mujahedeen to rearm and reunite to defend Afghanistan against a post-2014 Taliban takeover is a reminder that the ongoing U.S. drawdown is changing the calculus not only of our adversaries but of our friends. Indeed, much of the behavior that undermines Afghan state-building (and therefore makes it harder for us to leave) -- the kleptocratic government, pervasive corruption, political infighting, and growing strains between President Karzai and Western capitals -- stems from the local belief that, with NATO forces soon to depart, our Afghan allies must seize every advantage they can. For Khan and other regional strongmen, this means arming and mobilizing their personal militias while the writ of Washington and Kabul still holds at least some sway in the provinces -- in preparation for a period when it may not.

Fans of the Game of Thrones novels have a useful guide to how regional strongmen able to raise their own armies rise to fill vacuums of power left by weak or illegitimate central authority. In the case of Afghanistan, a legitimate central government has lost much of its authority by virtue of its predatory relationship to its citizens and the sense that the private interests of top leaders trump the larger public interest. Sounds like a good reason for the U.S. to "leave Afghanistan to the Afghans," right? Not quite. The sad truth is that the U.S. decision to "end the war" and walk away is more likely than any other external policy to reignite it.

We have seen the evidence for this in the surge of Taliban violence against Afghan institutions since President Obama made explicit the timeline for most U.S. forces to depart. We have also seen regional powers move in to fill what they perceive as an impending vacuum of power following the U.S. retreat. India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan; Pakistan has refused even to pretend to help Washington reach a political settlement with the Taliban, instead doubling down on its own Afghan assets. And now we are seeing the Afghan warlords -- including men like Marshal Fahim, who since late 2001 have viewed service in the president's cabinet and the Afghan National Army as their preferred vehicle for influence and power -- position themselves outside those institutions to reprise their former roles as leaders of ethnic armies.

President Obama's reelection gives him a mandate to reduce the American military footprint in Afghanistan. He has neither a mandate nor an interest, however, in seeing Afghanistan fall apart through a precipitous U.S. retreat that does not leave behind a long-term, stabilizing force on Afghan soil. The military and political Balkanization of Afghanistan would endanger core U.S. interests -- in securing the legacy of over a decade of war and development, preventing terrorists from using Afghan territory to plot against America, forestalling regional conflict of the kind that Syria is now generating in the Middle East, and preventing the destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan. It would demonstrate to U.S. friends and enemies alike that America does not stand by its allies.

Afghanistan's disintegration after 2014 -- both through a fully fledged Taliban assault on the state and the decision of more strongmen like Ismail Khan to fight back using private rather than public means -- would negate a national security record under President Obama that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden might wish to run on in 2016. It could further radicalize Arab extremists now vying to determine the future of their newly liberated societies, undercutting moderate forces in the Middle East and North Africa who seek long-term partnership with the West to promote democracy and development.

Nor would the Obama administration's ability to keep American enemies in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region off-balance through drone strikes remain viable should Afghanistan come apart in ways that precluded reliable U.S. basing rights there. For these many reasons, now that his reelection is secured and his governing horizon extends beyond 2014, President Obama may want to come up with a more sustainable policy on Afghanistan than the one on which he campaigned.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Cuba policy in a second Obama term

Critics of current U.S. policy towards Cuba have already begun speculating what unilateral changes may be in store for that contentious relationship during President Obama's second term. By winning the state of Florida -- home to the highest concentration of Cuban exiles -- despite implementing some initiatives in his first term that were opposed by Cuban Americans in Congress, President Obama, in their view, can be aggressive in further liberalizing policy without fear now of any political fallout (although widely reported exit polls that suggested up to 48 percent of Cuban Americans voted for Obama have been debunked by CapitolHillCubans.com).

Yet however the numbers play out in Florida, frankly it is no more than irrational exuberance to expect any significant change in U.S.-Cuba relations over the next four years -- that is, barring the deaths of both Fidel and Raul Castro.

In the first place, the Cuban American bloc remains solid in Congress. In the Senate, the formidable duo of Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been augmented by Senator-Elect Ted Cruz (R-TX) to keep the administration honest on policy. In the House, anyone who believes newly elected Joe Garcia (D-FL) is going to carry the banner of appeasement is sorely mistaken. He favors family contact, not overturning the embargo.

Secondly, critics have convinced themselves that if it weren't for the Cuban American lobby, the U.S. would have long ago reached an accommodation with the Castro dictatorship. What they refuse to recognize is that the biggest impediment to any fundamental change in the relationship is the absolute unwillingness of the dictatorship to undertake significant reforms that would put pressure on U.S. policymakers to reciprocate with policy changes.

That said, to contemplate any serious re-evaluation of relations on the U.S. part as long as the regime systematically represses the Cuban people - to say nothing of the continued unjust incarceration of U.S. development worker Alan Gross -- and relentlessly continues to thwart U.S. interests in international fora is just self-delusion.

Moreover, even in the space the administration thinks it may have some flexibility on the issue -- expanded travel, supporting micro-enterprises, and increased agricultural sales -- there are complications. The 1996 Cuban Liberty & Democratic Solidarity Act (a.k.a., Helms-Burton) is still on the books and it states that anyone improperly using property illegally confiscated from U.S. citizens (including naturalized citizens of Cuban descent) can be sued in a U.S. court of law. While it is true that the "right of action" has been suspended by successive administrations, the law still holds that anyone using or accessing those properties is liable.

Will a U.S. administration sanction activity that might violate the letter and spirit of U.S. law? For example, what happens when a U.S. tour group traveling under a license as part of the administration's expanded travel program entertains itself at a venue illegally confiscated from its original owners? Or, what happens when a U.S. agricultural company sells its products to Cuba and has to utilize a port, a dock, or otherwise come into some contact with what U.S. law considers stolen property?

It matters little what anyone thinks about the matter; the law is the law. I'm not a lawyer, but one has to wonder how long U.S. law can recognize a wrong was committed against U.S. citizens without giving them the opportunity to redress it. No doubt some creative attorneys are thinking about the same thing.

So, advice to critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba is to re-cork the bubbly. Absent any significant change in Havana, including the earthly expiration of Fidel and Raul Castro, the Holy Grail of unilateral change in U.S. policy is unlikely to be forthcoming. Their energies should instead be directed towards convincing Cuban leaders to establish a concrete rationale as to why any U.S. administration would need to re-evaluate the relationship.

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