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War in Afghanistan

With Friends Like These

It is hard enough to fight your enemies. War becomes impossible if you have to fight your friends, and President Karzai seems almost determined to make the ISAF and U.S. effort in Afghanistan “mission impossible.” If it isn’t election fraud, it is corruption. If it isn’t corruption, it is power brokering. If it isn’t power brokering, it is putting more constraints on airpower. If it isn’t airpower, it is failing to provide the civilian government support needed for operations like Marjah. If it isn’t Marjah, it is trying to eliminate private security forces without a plan to replace them. And if it isn’t eliminating private security forces, it is trying to halt the tactics that are essential to clearing out the Taliban and providing the Afghan people with enough security to win their trust.

These are not problems we can afford to keep ignoring. Key elements of the Afghan government have become almost as serious a problem as the Taliban, and it is far from clear that we are fighting the same war. For Karzai and those around him, the war now seems a struggle to stay in power and not one to create effective Afghan governance and earn the support of the people.

This opportunism threatens all of the progress now being made on the ground, and the Afghan government’s track record is becoming steadily more grim. If Karzai finds it easier to criticize the United States and ISAF to ease negotiations with insurgents, then so be it. If it means criticizing America and its allies to distract the Afghan people from the failures of the Karzai government, then that is acceptable as well.

Al Qaeda and the Unabomber

Two package bombs sent from Yemen have touched off the latest flurry of commentary about the nature of terrorist threats currently facing the United States and from whence those threats come. A couple of features of earlier rounds of commentary have also been prominent in this round. One is the tendency to think in territorial terms—to focus on country X from which the latest threat has come, and to regard counterterrorism as a problem of crafting policy toward country X. Afghanistan has been—and still is, in terms of being the focus of U.S. attention and resources—the principal country filling this role. With the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner last December and now the package bombs, Yemen is challenging Afghanistan for this role in American thinking about thinking, although it still has a long way to go. The challenge is salutary insofar as it reminds us that Afghanistan is not in fact the alpha and omega of transnational terrorism, or anything close to it. But similarly narrow country-specific thinking is now characterizing much of what is being said about terrorism and Yemen.

The method used in the latest attempted attack ought to remind us that terrorism is transnational and not limited or defined by territorial boundaries. Bernard Haykel, a professor of New Eastern studies at Princeton, made a pertinent observation that one does not need to be a Middle Eastern expert to make: that “in Yemen, you can walk into a local branch of FedEx and mail something to the U.S. You can't do that in Somalia or in rural Afghanistan.” True, and if the availability of FedEx and UPS outlets is a measure of terrorists' operational opportunities, be aware that we have a whole lot more of them in the West, including the United States, than in either Yemen or Afghanistan.

The GOP, the Dems, the Tea Party and Afghanistan

A number of recent stories have noted the relative lack of attention paid during the mid-term election campaigns to the war in Afghanistan. Many commentators find this lamentable. Michael Gerson goes one better, arguing that most Americans are so worthless and weak that we should be glad that no one cares about the war. Better that we go about our business and mindlessly support the troops in the field. They know what is best for us. Shut up and sing. Pay. Etc.

I doubt that most Republican candidates are as disdainful of the American people (i.e. voters) as Gerson, but it is pretty obvious why they don't want to call attention to the war: it is one area where the public disagrees with them. Asked which party they trust most to do a better job handling the war in Afghanistan, respondents in a recent Newsweek poll gave the edge to Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 43 to 32 (though the 11 percent who said "neither" can't be comforting for leaders in either party) (Question no. 8, full results, here, pdf). Most -- though not all -- Congressional Republicans oppose the president's stated plan to begin withdrawing troops next summer. A plurality of the public at large thinks that that isn't fast enough.

Osama at the Top of His Game

On October 27, 2010, Al Jazeera television network broadcasted a new audiotape by Osama bin Laden meant to exploit the Muslim world’s growing anger toward France specifically, and against Europe generally. Defending the recent kidnapping of five French nationals in Niger, bin Laden said the act was an appropriate response to France’s ongoing intervention in the affairs of Muslims in North and West Africa; its persecution of Muslim women in France via its ban on burqa wearing; and the presence of 3,500 French troops in Afghanistan. Bin Laden warned Paris that it is foolish to think France’s anti-Muslim actions would go unanswered by al-Qaeda and other mujahideen. “The equation is very clear and simple,” bin Laden said, stressing, as he always does, the justice of reciprocal treatment in wartime. “[T]he fault lies with the one who initiates [the hostilities]. . . . as you kill, you will be killed; as you abduct, so shall you be abducted; as you ruin our [Muslim] security, so shall we ruin your security.”

The Incredible Shrinking Militaries of Europe

 Great Britain ceased to be a great power when it emerged from World War II militarily victorious but financially ruined. Nevertheless, it still tried to play the part, punching “above its weight in the world,” as Prime Minister David Cameron put it. As such, it has been America’s strongest military ally. But Britain’s pretense of global power is disappearing with London’s announcement of significant military cutbacks.

It’s hard to criticize the British. There are few serious security threats in Europe. Instability persists in some regions, but most Britons probably don’t believe that the Balkans is worth the bones of a single healthy Welsh grenadier. Nation-building missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are even more dubious. London gave up attempting to make the former a protectorate more than a century ago.

Moreover, the government of the British Isles is broke. It’s one thing to playact as a Weltmacht when you’re flush with cash. But when even the hallowed British welfare state faces significant cutbacks, London’s military-greatness game truly is over.

The Conservative-led coalition government has proposed significant reductions in public spending. The Liberal Democrats are taking a particular risk in challenging influential domestic interests.

In return, the Tories had to apply tough love to the armed forces. Defense Secretary Liam Fox managed to fend off calls for cuts of up to 20 percent, but Great Britain no longer can afford to field a military so much larger than its means.

The Fate of Afghan Women

A fair and important question about the war in Afghanistan that I have had to field several times concerns the Taliban’s treatment of women. If we do not prevail militarily over the Taliban, I am asked, are we consigning the women of Afghanistan to treatment that is medieval at best and more likely cruel? Some very pointed questions along this line were raised last month at the release of the report of the Afghanistan Study Group, with which I have been associated and which calls for de-emphasizing the military effort in Afghanistan as a way of dealing with threats emanating from South Asia. The topic came up again a couple of weeks ago in a briefing on the group’s report that I helped to present to Congressional staffers.

The issue is not new, although it has been given additional poignancy recently by stories of atrocities such as the disfigurement of a woman whose picture then appeared on the cover of Time. Prior to 9/11, the Afghan Taliban’s abysmal human rights performance—including, but not limited to, issues involving the status of women—was a topic in policy deliberations on Afghanistan and public debate about the policy. Policymakers in the George W. Bush administration considered the issue during their first eight months in office but decided, like their predecessors in the Clinton administration, to focus on the number one problem involving Afghanistan, which was Osama bin Laden and terrorism. They were not going to crowd the agenda on Afghanistan, much less do something as costly to the United States as waging a war there, on behalf of Afghan human rights.

History Lessons and Talking with the Taliban

I commend Tuesday's op ed in the New York Times by Richard Barrett, who heads the United Nations team charged with monitoring developments involving Al Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban. His comments on Afghanistan are those of an experienced and disinterested observer, not beholden to the policy commitments of any government. His comments also square with observations I recently made on a couple of issues concerning negotiations with the Taliban. My observations were based mainly on historical patterns of negotiating ends to wars. Barrett's observations are based on first-hand monitoring of what is going on in Afghanistan.

Negotiating While Fighting in Afghanistan

Reporting about the initiation of preliminary talks with the Afghan Taliban, and about the Obama administration's acceptance and even facilitation of such talks, has generated commentary and some skepticism about what we can and cannot expect from a dual track approach of combat and negotiation in Afghanistan. Skepticism is not surprising; Americans like to think of war and peace as two distinct states. They like wars to end the way World War II did, with their military forcing the enemy's military into submission and with peace treaties being something for diplomats to negotiate after guns have fallen silent.

But the United States has had plenty of experience negotiating while fighting; its involvement in both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars ended that way, with two years of negotiations in the former conflict and five years in the latter. The War of 1812 also ended that way—despite the slowness of early nineteenth century trans-Atlantic communications, which resulted in the Battle of New Orleans being fought after a peace treaty had been signed. War being an extension of politics by other means, simultaneous exercise of military and diplomatic instruments should be considered the norm rather than the exception. Frustrations and complications experienced in the aforementioned and other wars are not reasons to reject negotiating an end to an ongoing war; they are reasons to learn from earlier experiences and to shape our techniques and expectations accordingly.

Talks about Talks? Just Get on with It Already

Earlier this week, a senior NATO official said that the coalition has facilitated contact between senior Taliban members and the Afghan government. Apparently, U.S. officials are not directly involved in these talks; they merely seek to “support” and “facilitate” talks between an ascendant, hydra-headed insurgent movement and America's weak, ineffectual client. Unsurprisingly, this strategy has failed—repeatedly.

It is impossible to declare the truth or falsity of the claim that the coalition has facilitated contact between senior Taliban members and the Afghan government. Supposedly, that has happened; however, the Taliban rejected these reports as “baseless propaganda” and a tactic of psychological warfare. Quite honestly, all this “talk about talks” reminds me of that 1993-comedy film, Groundhog Day: the protagonist wakes up reliving the exact same day over and over again.

Every time a senior U.S. or NATO official stands up and says, “very high-level Taliban members have reached out to the Afghan government,” what usually happens is that the Taliban issue a perfunctory denial and insist that they anticipate a victory.

No doubt, some militants might be interested in a negotiated settlement with the Karzai government. Some discussions have already taken place between Karzai and the Haqqanis and Karzai and Hekmatyar; these groups, of course, are quite distinct from the original Afghan Taliban, even though they associate with one another.

Democracies Get the Wars They Deserve

Despite the heavy costs of the war in Afghanistan and the major problem it has become for the Obama administration, the war is playing little role, as Albert Hunt notes, in the midterm Congressional election campaign. Hunt attributes this disconnect partly to “the dominance of the economic concerns facing many Americans.” He also sees it as “a matter of political convenience: Democrats with reservations about the war do not want to criticize an already beleaguered president, and Republicans want to appear muscular and tough without providing any plan or specifics.”

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April 19, 2014