Late last night the Twitterverse was alive with the sound of clucking from foreign policy wonks outraged by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's fascinating, detail-rich Washington Post story on the very cozy relationship that think-tankers Fred and Kim Kagan had with multiple commanders in Afghanistan. The highlights:
The four-star general made the Kagans de facto senior advisers, a status that afforded them numerous private meetings in his office, priority travel across the war zone and the ability to read highly secretive transcripts of intercepted Taliban communications, according to current and former senior U.S. military and civilian officials who served in the headquarters at the time.
The Kagans used those privileges to advocate substantive changes in the U.S. war plan, including a harder-edged approach than some U.S. officers advocated in combating the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction in eastern Afghanistan, the officials said.
The pro-bono relationship, which is now being scrutinized by military lawyers, yielded valuable benefits for the general and the couple. The Kagans’ proximity to Petraeus, the country’s most-famous living general, provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan’s think tank. For Petraeus, embracing two respected national security analysts in GOP circles helped to shore up support for the war among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
Fred Kagan, speaking in an interview with his wife, acknowledged the arrangement was “strange and uncomfortable” at times. “We were going around speaking our minds, trying to force people to think about things in different ways and not being accountable to the heads” of various departments in the headquarters, he said.
The extent of the couple’s involvement in Petraeus’s headquarters was not known to senior White House and Pentagon officials involved in war policy, two of those officials said....
As war-zone volunteers, the Kagans were not bound by stringent rules that apply to military personnel and private contractors. They could raise concerns directly with Petraeus, instead of going through subordinate officers, and were free to speak their minds without repercussion.
Some military officers and civilian U.S. government employees in Kabul praised the couple’s contributions — one general noted that “they did the work of 20 intelligence analysts.” Others expressed deep unease about their activities in the headquarters, particularly because of their affiliations and advocacy in Washington.
Now, the standard reaction has been to blast the Kagans and Petraeus for being exemplars of the you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours collusion between top military brass and think-tankers. It evokes the DC clubbiness that induces nausea in some quarters.
I can't quite get there, however. I can almost get there. The three most damning elements of the story are:
1) The Kagans emailing Stanley McChrystal (and ccing Petraeus) because their requests to visit Afghanistan were getting slow-rolled. In the email, they said that they were concluding that the strategy was not going well. Soon afterwards, they got access and then wrote a WSJ op-ed praising the strategy;
2) When Petraeus was the Afghanistan commander, the Kagans would occasionally "spar" with field commanders because they believed these officers weren't focusing on the Haqqani network more. This made the officers decidedly uncomfortable, since the Kagans obviously weren't in the chain of command.
3) Kim Kagan wrote fundraising letters for her think tank while in Afghanistan so the Kagans could stay in-country and volunteer for CENTCOM rather than take any money from them.
I think these are somewhat valid concerns, and yet....
a) One of Chandrasekaran's implications is that a critical op-ed by the Kagans would have undercut GOP support for the Afhanistan strategy. This strikes me as way, way, way, way exaggerating the influence of the Kagans. There was no groundswell in the GOP to get out of Afghanistan, so a critical op-ed would have simply led to demands for greater resources in that theater of operations.
b) The Kagans' place in Petraeus' HQ clearly upset some military subordinates -- and yet I can't get too upset that they were made uncomfortable. As the story notes, one of the reasons Petraeus wanted the Kagans there was to have an outside perspective on the operation. No one inside the uniformed services is gonna like that, because it dilutes their own authority. Indeed, the other way to spin this is that Petraeus was wary of getting too wrapped up in the military bubble and craved outside input. Isn't that what you want as a check against organizational groupthink?
c) I'm not gonna defend the fundraising letter -- that seems... unseemly. Castigating the Kagans for not being on Petraeus' payroll, however, also seems a bit strange. This might have been a pay-for-play move for influence, but I don't think it was about money.
From Petraeus' side, having the Kagans there clearly served a dual purpose. Sure, he got an outside voice, but he was also able to co-opt potential critics with this gambit. Whether this is a good thing or not for American foreign policy is an honest matter of debate. It seems like Petraeus only coddled more hawkish military advisors, and it's likely the case that they would have been the bigger media thorn.
As a general rule, however, I can't get too worked up about government officials seeking outside input. This becomes a problem only if the outreach/co-optation is so successful that it shields a policy from any criticism -- and not even Petraeus is that good at stroking think-tankers.
I understand the concerns that some Petraeus critics have with his relationship with the Kagans. I share some of them. But I would be equally wary of policy principals that refused to engage with outsiders or refused to consider information from outside their own bureaucracies.
What do you think?
Amid a series of bloody and troubling episodes in Afghanistan that have inflamed Afghan opinion against the United States, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are now calling for a reassessment of American policy there — suggesting that it may be time to withdraw troops sooner than the Obama administration has planned....
Mr. Romney has said he would rely on advice from military commanders for his Afghanistan policy, adding last summer that it was “time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, as soon as our generals think it’s O.K.” He has also said he would not negotiate with the Taliban.
“He’s definitely given himself wiggle room,” Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, said of Mr. Romney’s policy toward the country.
What’s more clear, Mr. Drezner added, is growing public opposition to a conflict some once described as “the good war.”
“There’s no question that there has been a rising tide of, ‘Why are we in this conflict now,’ ” he said. “And so as much as Republicans might want to sound hawkish, it’s tough to sound hawkish on a conflict where your rationale for being there has evaporated.”
“That said,” he added, “remember that these guys are fighting for hard-core G.O.P. primary voters,” some of whom believe the United States should fight until victory. (emphasis added)
To elaborate on my point here -- American public opinion on wars is a fickle thing when it comes to war. By and large, the primary metric that Americans use to gauge their support for military statecraft is whether the operation appears to be successful. There's a "halo effect" comes from successful uses of force - they are deemed successful regardless of public attitudes prior to and during the conflict. In the case of the 2011 Libyan intervention, for example, A July 2011 CNN poll found 35% support for U.S. military action, with 60% opposed. A month later, with the fall of Tripoli, 54% supported the operation and 43% opposed it. Military victory can create its own supporters.
So, when a conflict drags on, Americans tend to split into two camps -- those that write off the possibility of victory and demand an immediate termination to the conflict, and those that want to double down to achieve victory -- but will favor withdrawal if a "surge" or other strategy to fight the war more aggressively is off the table. This split was observed in Vietnam, in Iraq, and Afghanistan. What's happening in Afghanistan right now is that the hawkish camp is starting to conclude that the gloves aren't coming off -- and therefore withdrawal is better than the status quo. Gingrich and Santorum are just following that shift in public opinion.
Since they're not gonna win, they have that luxury. Presidents and possible future presidents have additional constraints. Even if withdrawal is the right political and strategic move, there are other considerations -- alliance politics, exiting in as non-chaotic a manner as possible, and so forth. This is why Romney, who will likely get the GOP nomination, issued his wiggle-room-statement.
The same goes for the Obama administration's response, as today's broadsheets are a bit unclear about next steps. The New York Times story is headlined, "U.S. Officials Debate Speeding Afghan Pullout," while the Washington Post goes with "Despite challenges in Afghanistan, U.S. determined to stick to exit strategy."
Bear all of this in mind, by the way, as the debate about what to do on Iran continues. I know the polling appears to show majority support for military action against that country's nuclear program, but there are some significant caveats:
1) It's a bare majority;
2) The moment a "diplomatic and economic action" option is introduced, support for force collapses down to the teens;
3) The polls are based on Iran going balls out to develop a nuclear weapon -- which, according to U.S. intelligence, is not necessarily occurring; and
4) It's not going to be hard for doves to bring up Afghanistan and Iraq as a way to blunt any enthusiasm/expectation for a quick strike.
The past decade's worth of American foreign policy debacles has led to some lazy thinking on American empire. Either the United States is using force to advance rapacious economic interests, or Washington is neglecting economic diplomacy because U.S. foreign policy has become too militarized. Right, now, neither argument holds up terribly well.
For example, the Financial Times' Lina Saigol looks at postwar foreign direct investment in Iraq and notes the prominent absence of U.S. and British firms:
After almost nine years, $1tn spent and 4,487 American and 179 British lives lost, theUS is withdrawing from Iraq, leaving the country’s vast economic spoils to nations that neither supported nor participated in the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Turkey, Iran, China, South Korea and Arab states have already invested billions in Iraq, far outpacing their US and UK counterparts in every non-oil sector from transport and telecoms to housing and construction.
This is really a variation of a theme. Take a look at Afghanistan, and the same pattern plays itself out -- significant U.S. military investment, remarkably little follow-on U.S. economic investment, significant investments by others. In short, arguments that the United States uses its military power to advance its economic interests don't hold up well at all -- unless one wants to posit that U.S. elites are really an executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party's economic bourgeoisie.
The overmephasis on military force has been a long-running criticism of American foreign policy. That said, it leads to some lazy analytical habits. Consider this NYT Sunday Review essay by Stephen Glain on the U.S. "pivot" to the Pacific Rim:
With the economy in disarray, President Obama chose a costly instrument in deciding to expand the American military commitment in Asia by deploying a Marine contingent to Australia; the move will only help insulate the Pentagon from meaningful spending cuts and preserve the leading role the military has played in foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks....
Indeed, America’s top diplomat has become the chief civilian advocate for military answers to diplomatic challenges. Speaking in Honolulu last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for “a more broadly distributed military presence” in Asia. While in Manila, she appeared on an American warship and reaffirmed the nearly 60-year-old security pact between the United States and the Philippines. She also has endorsed the creation of an American-led regional trade pact that pointedly excludes China for the present, a remarkably petty snub compared to the way her legendary predecessor George C. Marshall offered (without success, in the face of Stalin’s suspicions) to include the Soviet Union in the postwar reconstruction plan that now bears Marshall’s name. And this month she visited Myanmar, where the Obama administration has assiduously worked to neutralize a corrupt and repressive government in favor of democratic reform; in the grander strategic game, this, too, could be read in Beijing as a tactic to weave the country — which has been Beijing’s ally — into an American noose around China.
OK, this argument is confusing on a number of fronts. First, how is ratifying an FTA with South Korea and negotiating a framework agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership an example of an excessive role for the military?
Second, President Obama was quite explicit in saying he would welcome Chinese participation in TPP. However -- like Marshall before him -- Obama is saying this because he's pretty sure China will be unwilling to pay the regulatory coin necessary to join.
During the 1990's, one could argue that U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific Rim was too heavily dominated by the Treasury Department. During the 2000's, one could argue that it was too heavily dominated by the Defense Department. Right now, U.S. policy in the region looks like a decent balance of security and economic diplomacy. I suspect that this balance has been so rare for so long that analysts simply aren't used to recognizing it.
As the 20-hour assault by Taliban insurgents on Kabul's diplomatic and military enclave drew to a close on Wednesday, insurgents and coalition forces decided to prolong the battle the modern way: on Twitter.
If the continued insurgency in Afghanistan represents a failure of dialogue, the spat between the Taliban and the press office of the international security assistance force (Isaf) on Wednesday proved that they are ready to exchange words directly, even if their comments offered little hope of peace being forged anytime soon.
The argument began when @ISAFmedia, which generally provides dry updates in military speak of the security situation in Afghanistan, took exception to comments from a Taliban spokesman, tweeting: "Re: Taliban spox on #Kabul attack: the outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorist put innocent Afghans in harm's way?"
The Taliban – who, when in power, eschewed most modern technology, including television and music players – decided to point the finger of blame back at the international forces for endangering Afghan civilians. Showing an affinity with textspeak, Taliban tweeter Abdulqahar Balk (@ABalkhi) wrote: "@ISAFmedia i dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n 'harm's way' fr da pst 10 yrs.Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout 'harm's way'"
@ISAFmedia was moved to respond by providing statistical backing for its case. "Really, @abalkhi? Unama reported 80% of civilians causalities are caused by insurgent (your) activities http://goo.gl/FylwU"
But @ABalkhi questioned the value of the quoted statistics, pointing outin somewhat sarcastic tones that Isaf, an organisation established by the UN security council, was using figures from another UN body (the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan) to try to win the argument: "@ISAFmedia Unama is an entity of whom? mine or yours?"
Naturally, this led to many Twitter responses. Counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross got off the best quip: "And then... ISAF and the Taliban unfollowed each other."
OK, seriously, what is the takeaway from this sort of exchange? Is this kind of interaction a uniquely 21st century form of statecraft, or just old wine in new, snarker bottles?
It's very tempting to roll one's eyes and say that we've seen this sort of thing before. CNAS' Andrew Exum argues that this exchange is similar to the "cross-trench trash-talking" of the Spanish Civil War. Which would be true... if the majority of the rest of the world had the option of witnessing the trash-talking in real time.
No, this is something different, something that I suspect is activating Anne-Marie Slaughter's sixth sense of detecting "modern social-liberal" trends. And as more and more international affairs heavyweights go on Twitter, it might be a harbinger of a whole new arena of the world politics sandbox.
What I'm not sure is whether this kind of Twitter exchange is terrifically meaningful. As the Guardian story observes, it came about in response to real-world events in Kabul, so in some ways the Twitter engagement between public spokespeple is simply an extension of traditional global public relations. PR has been a part of world politics since the days of E.H. Carr, so I'm not sure this is really all that new and different.
That said, I'll close with two questions for which I do not have easy answers. The first is whether this kind of engagement on Twitter is a legitimating act or not. Does ISAF, by engaging the Taliban on Twitter, elevate the latter group somehow in the global public sphere? This was an argument that the Bush administration used to make for why it would not negotiate with Iran or North Korea. The Bushies posited that the very act of sitting down to talk with these odious regimes conferred legitimacy on them that they otherwise would not have earned. That was a somewhat dubious proposition when dealing with governments of sovereign states. What about non-state actors, however? What about cranks on Twitter? I'm not sure.
The second question is.... is it even possible to win at Twitter fight club? In an exchange with Exum, former debate champion Gartenstein-Ross made an trenchant point about online debate:
[I]t’s generally hard to win a name-calling contest. If I call someone an America-hating pinko, they can fire back that I’m a right-wing tool of the military industrial complex. Those two insults seem essentially to cancel each other out: why give someone an area that can end up a draw if I believe that I can prove all of my other arguments to be correct? Second, I find that if I’m civil, I can actually (sometimes) persuade people I’m arguing against that they’re wrong about an issue. In contrast, if I begin a debate by insulting someone, it only further entrenches him in his initial position, thus making it more difficult to talk sense into him.
Twitter tends to bring out the
ass snark in me, and I suspect I'm not the only one, so I wonder if, in the end, Twitter exchanges in world politics will all wind up as stalemates (unless either Dave Weigel or Keith Law take an interest in international relations). That said, the ISAF/Taliban exchange did seem pretty civil by Twitter standards -- so maybe PR professionals will live up to Gartenstein-Ross' standards.
What do you think?
The combination of President Obama's Afghanistan speech, recent congressional votes on Libya, and the tenor of the GOP presidential debate have prompted gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects about the rise of isolationism and the decline of America. This is good -- a robust debate should be had about balancing America's role abroad with fiscal demands at home, what it means for the United States to have a robust overseas presence, and so forth.
Please, however, for the love of God, can this debate take place without Niall Ferguson?
I ask because his latest essay for Newsweek contains the laziest paragraph I will read today. In this column, Ferguson strains to displace Tom Friedman as The Creator of Inane Metaphors. He coins "IOU-solationism" to descibe the instinct to retrench because of domestic difficulties. There's a pedestrian description of rising sentiment for retrenchment. Then we get to the lazy paragraph, which happens to be the only one in his column that provides a justification for why defense cuts are a bad idea:
Salma Hayek is hot" without providing any supporting evidence -- these stylized facts represent common knowledge. The rising power of radical Islam does not fall into this category, however. Seriously, this might be the worst paragraph I've seen in a published column this year. It's all casual assertion and no evidence.I understand that not every assertion can be backed up in an 800 word column. Really, I get that. It's perfectly fine to assert "the U.S. economy is weak" or "China is rising" or "
So far, few politicians have embraced my plan for a Marshall Plan Tax. The idea is that every time a think-tanker, op-ed writer or retired senator calls for a new Marshall Plan or a moonshot-type initiative to solve a social problem, they would have to pay a tax of $50. Within a few months, we’d have enough money to pay for an actual new Marshall Plan.
The problem with my proposal is this: Do Marshall Plans work? If this country really did galvanize its best minds and billions of dollars to alleviate poverty somewhere or to solve some complicated problem, could we actually do it?
Well, the U.S. has been engaged in a new Marshall Plan for most of the past decade. Between 2002 and 2010, the U.S. spent roughly $19 billion to promote development in Afghanistan. Many other nations have also sent thousands of aid workers and billions of dollars....
This experience should have a chastening influence on the advocates of smart power. When she became secretary of state, Hillary Clinton sketched out a very attractive foreign policy vision that would use “the full range of tools at our disposal: diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural.” But it could be that cultural and economic development works on a different timetable than traditional foreign policy.
Perhaps we don’t know enough, can’t plan enough, can’t implement effectively enough to coordinate nation building with national security objectives.
Brooks looks at development in Afghanistan and safely concludes we haven't gotten much bang for the buck.
Brooks' points on Afghanistan seem on the mark, but my problem is with his framing. First of all, it's not like the foreign policy community is clamoring for more Marshall Plans. Given the current U.S. budgetary picture, I think it's safe to say that foreign aid will be the first thing that will be cut in any fiscal deal. Indeed, here's thje Google Trends analysis of the term:
Third, and most important, the Marshall Plan was implemented in an environment in which traditional security has already been secured. It's one thing to promost economic development in a place in which security is assumed. Trying to promote economic development, peace and statebuilding at the same time is a hell of a lot harder.
Brooks is right to highlight the massive problems with statebuilding in Afghanistan. His attempt to generalize from that woebegotten, landlocked Central Asian battle zone to the rest of U.S. foreign aid is a serious analogy foul, however.
As a group, foreign policy analysts and international relations theorists tend to focus on how large, impersonal factors affect the contours of world politics. We're like this for two reasons: a) Large-scale factors -- like, say, demographics -- really are pretty important; and b) We get allergic reactions to media narratives that stress the ways in which one person or one decision made all the difference.
Because of this trait, an event like bin Laden's death has lead to an orgy of blog posts and essays pointing out that not much has changed. Charli Carpenter's first response was to ccharacterize it as "a single operation in a vast and endless war, that apparently will have no impact on our foreign policy." Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recounts the myriad ways in which Al Qaeda still matters in a post-Osama world. Neither Nate Silver nor David Weigel thinks that the effect on Barack Obama's political popularity will be that great. Ben Smith points out that conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this, just like they have a field day with everything else.
So, let me go against my instinct to agree with all of the above points and suggest why bin Laden's demise really is, in the words of the VPOTUS -- a big f***ing deal:
1) Pakistan. You can slice this any way you want, the brute fact is that bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of Annapolis -- a posh resort town that happens to house a lot of Pakistani retired generals, not to mention their main miltary academy. This doesn't look good for Pakistan, as their continued silence suggests. As he promised in his campaign, Obama violated Pakistan's sovereignty, sent in special forces, took out bin Laden, and did it all without consulting the Pakistanis about it. So not only does the Pakistani leadership look incompetent, they also look impotent.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that anything that destabilizes Pakistan is a BFD -- and the way this played out destabilizes the country.
2) The United States just re-shaped the narrative. International relations scholars assume that most actors in world politics care about some combination of power, wealth and prestige. The U.S. killing of bin Laden strengthens American prestige and weakens Al Qaeda's. According to reports, Bin Laden used
his wife a woman as a human shield to protect himself during the firefight, which will tarnish his legacy, even to AQ operatives. Perceptions matter, and this symbolic victory for the United States will affect perceptions of American power.
Of course, all it takes for for the debt ceiling not to be raised and this'll disappear, but still...
3) The United States has increased its bargaining leverage in the Af-Pak region. As both Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat suggest, the death of bin Laden is one of those symbolic moments during which U.S. policy in the region might be re-evaluated. There are reasons to believe that this blow is actually going to sting for Al Qaeda.
It's at this moment when a president might have more credibility in bargaining with either Afghanistan or Pakistan. A large-scare withdrawal is now politically feasible in ways that it wasn't 24 hours ago -- and anti-war members of Congress are already getting frisky about it. They also have the American public on their side.
If the administration is smart, they will use this pressure to withdraw to start actually withdrawing, or at least pressure Afghan and Pakistani officials into acting in a somewhaqt more cooperative manner.
4) Al Qaeda won't be able to exploit the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda had already whiffed badly in handling the Arab unrerst of 2011, and bin Laden's popularity in the region had been falling as of late. That said, think of bin Laden (in this way and only this way) as like Sarah Palin -- someone who had declining poll numbers but a still-very-rabid base of support. It's not obvious that this support will transfer to any other jihadist.
Al Qaeda's remnants and affiliates might be able to operationally exploit the regimes changes in the region -- but they've lost whatever slim reeed they had at a political presence.
5) It's a social science bonanza!!! Terrorism experts should be positively giddy about this development. Bin Laden's death is a great "natural experiment" to see whether Al Qaeda is as decentralized and resilient as some experts claim. The AP reports that, "U.S. forces searched the compound and flew away with documents, hard drives and DVDs that could provide valuable intelligence about al-Qaida." I, for one, hope that bin Laden's location in Abbotabad means that he was more of a central node than analysts expected.
Readers are welcomed to proffer their own explanations for why this is a big f***ing deal in the comments.
I was going to title this post, "Osama bin Laden, R.I.P." but the thing is , I really don't want him to rest in peace.
He's definitely dead, however. I'll write a longer blog post about the implications of this tomorrow, but for now, commenters should post their own thoughts about this in the comments. For now, three quick points:
1) If what Obama said is correct, then I'm genuinely impressed at the fact that operational security was so well preserved;
2) Everything I've read about Al qaeda suggests that bin Laden's role on the operational side was pretty limited, but this is still, to use the words of Vice President Joseph Biden, a big f***ing deal.
3) Peter Bergen said on CNN that bin Laden's death is "the end of the War on Terror." Do you think he's right? I'd like to think so, but my worry is that the politics of this gives some politicians a very strong incentive to ratchet up this threat. So... is it really over?
What do you think?
I confess to being fascinated by academic or literary downfalls, so I've been spending the past few days catching up on the imbroglio over Greg Mortenson, his Central Asia Institute (CAI), and his bestsellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools.
To sum up: through his books and CAI, Mortenson has popularized his mission to build schools and educate children (particularly girls) in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a way of reducing extremism in that region. Investigative reports by 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer strongly suggest the following:
1) Mortenson either fudged or flat-out lied about some of the more gripping anecdotes in both books.
2) Mortenson used CAI as a vehicle to promote his books and subsidize his income. CAI covered his travel expenses for book tours and purchased books in such a way to boost royalties for Mortenson. According to financial statenments, CAI devoted more of its budget to Mortenson's promotional tours than actually building schools in Central Asia. Mortenson rebuffed efforts by other CAI employees to impose financial controls on his expenditures.
3) CAI/Mortenson exaggerated the number of schools that were built, and in many cases even if the schools were built, they have been left unused due to a variety of logistical and organizational failures.
Mortenson and CAI have responded with a plethora of media interviews, direct responses and open missives to supporters. Most of these seem pretty feeble to me. When Mortenson says that, "It is important to know that Balti people have a completely different notion about time," you kinda wonder if Mortenson isn't talking about himself.) Official investigations are now under way, publishers are belatedly fact-checking, and some prize committees are very busy wiping egg off of their face.
So, what are the takeaway lessons from all this? Five thoughts:
1) Reading through Krakauer's story, the striking thing is not the extent of Mortenson's deception but rather the fact that it took so long for this to come to light. Mortenson has been a celebrity since Parade profiled him in April 2003. The fact that Mortenson was able to write two best-sellers and enjoy the lecture circuit for eight years despite the surprising number of people who knew there were issues with Mortenson's narrative. The moral of the story is that , even in a transparent Web 2.0 era, myths can trump reality for a looooong time.
2) Even Mortenson's detractors make it clear that they think he's done much good in Central Asia, so this realy isn't a Bernie Madoff-style scam. It does suggest, however, that political analysts who think of NGOs and celebrity activists as pursuing humane policy ends only for altruistic purposes are living in Fantasyland. It's a world of complex and overlapping motives, and no influential actor in international relations is a saint.
3) What's interesting to me about the inaccuracies/fabrications in Three Cups of Tea is that, by and large, they are irrelevant to the larger policy question of whether schools can help reduce violent extremism. Whether Greg Mortenson was kidnapped by the Taliban or not, whether he wandered into a village or not don't really matter from a policy perspective. Based on the amount of
ink pixels being spilled used on these questions, however, it's quite clear that these narrative elements really do matter. As Laura Miller has pointed out in Salon, however, greater attention is being paid to those details than the NGO mismanagement.
This suggests, in many ways, the power that creation or origin narratives have in developing politically alluring policies. CAI ain't lying when they say that, "Greg’s speeches, books and public appearances are the primary means of educating the American people on behalf of the Institute." Coming up with a compelling policy is not always enough to generate action -- narratives matter one whole hell of a lot.
4) Does Mortenson's myths and mismanagement undercut the policy message? To tell the truth, I'm not blown away by Mortenson's policy message -- indeed, it's pretty weak. As Alanna Shaikh points out in FP:
Its focus was on building schools -- and that's it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability. But building schools has never been the answer to improving education. If it were, then the millions of dollars poured into international education over the last half-century would have already solved Afghanistan's -- and the rest of the world's -- education deficit by now.
Over the last 50 years of studying international development, scholars have built a large body of research and theory on how to improve education in the developing world. None of it has recommended providing more school buildings, because according to decades of research, buildings aren't what matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Funding for education matters. Where classes actually take place? Not really.
Spencer Ackerman has a detailed, link-rich post at Wired detailing the ways in which U.S. military's COINistas have drunk way too deeply from Mortenson's magical teacup.
In the best defense of Mortenson I've seen, Daniel Glick blogs the following:
But here’s the crux for me. As somebody who has worked in a Muslim country (I was a Knight International Press Fellow working in Algeria in 2006), I know that Americans need a lot of bridge building in the Islamic world. Mortenson has gone where few others have gone, and has put in incredible time and energy to raise awareness, seed schools, and give girls opportunities for education that would not be theirs otherwise. I have no doubt he has done orders of magnitude more good than harm. The same cannot be said for a lot of NGOs doing development work around the world, much less our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hmmm.... maybe. At a minimum, I'd like to see the costs and the benefits of Mortenson's activities weighed very carefully right now.
5) I, for one, look forward to the day when 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer start looking into the living dead. I will hereby defend every fact, every citation in Theories of International Politics and Zombies to the end of my days, or the end of days, whichever comes first.
Am I missing anything?
Steve Coll breaks some news about Afghanistan at The New Yorker. He reports that the Obama administration is now "entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders."
Readers should feel free to debate the wisdom of this move in the comments. I was struck by Coll's concise one-paragraph description of the situation on the ground:
[T]he Obama Administration has understandably concluded that the status quo is untenable. The war has devolved into a strategic stalemate: urban Afghan populations enjoy reasonable security, millions of schoolgirls are back in class, Al Qaeda cannot operate, and the Taliban cannot return to power, yet in the provinces ethnic militias and criminal gangs still husband weapons, cadge international funds, and exploit the weak. Neither the United States nor the Taliban can achieve its stated aims by arms alone, and the Administration lacks a sure way to preserve the gains made while reducing its military presence, as it must, for fiscal, political, and many other reasons.
Now, Coll states above that this situation cannot last. Here's my question: why?
I'm not saying the status quo is good, mind you. I'm just wondering -- exactly what fiscal or political pressure will force a change in U.S. policy? As previously noted, there's not much daylight between the Obama administration and the GOP on Afghanistan. The Obama administration's position has mutated from "firm withdrawal in 2011" to "did we say 2011? Cause we really meant 2014." Even if the war is unpopular with the American public, I see no groundswell that would force a political response.
As for the fiscal question, it's true that the Afghanistan conflict is not cheap. It's also true, however, that overseas military adventures are not the primary driver of the deficit, and there's no chance in hell that the GOP will embrace defense cuts because of fiscal strictures.
One could argue that the negotiations themselves are a signal that the administration wants to change the situation. That's undeniably true, but Coll notes that these negotiations will take quite some time: "Yalta this is not."
There's a tendency, when analysts see a stalemate or deadlock, to assume that something has to give. Surely, one side or the other will indicate a willingness to negotiate a change. This is particularly true if the analyst doesn't like the status quo. Sometimes, however, the intolerable situation can last a good while longer than anyone wants it to. I suspect that will be the case in Afghanistan.
Tom Brokaw has acquired sufficient gravitas such that, when he clears his throat in a meaningful way, he gets his own New York Times op-ed essay.
This morning, Brokaw cleared his throat about why the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan in Iraq aren't being talked about during this election campaign season.
[W]hy aren’t the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes?
The answer is very likely that the vast majority of Americans wake up every day worrying, with good reason, about their economic security, but they can opt out of the call to arms. Unless they are enlisted in the armed services -- or have a family member who has stepped forward -- nothing much is asked of them in the war effort.
The all-volunteer uniformed services now represent less than 1 percent of the American population, but they’re carrying 100 percent of the battle…
No decision is more important than committing a nation to war. It is, as politicians like to say, about our blood and treasure. Surely blood and treasure are worthy of more attention than they’ve been getting in this campaign.
It's true that Iraq was a much bigger issue during the 2002 and 2006 midterms. Is Brokaw right that the lack of a draft is deflecting the issue? Sort of.
Brokaw has half a point in saying that the all-volunteer force blunts the incentive to have a public debate on this Very Important Topic. There's a better reason to explain the silence, however: There's not much daylight between the two parties on this issue.
In 2008, the Bush administration began the drawdown phase in Iraq. In 2009, the Obama administration anted up for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. Neither war is popular with the U.S. electorate.
Given these political facts, why would either party bring up these conflicts? Democrats can't rail against wars being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Not even nutjob ultra-conservative hacks can credibly claim that Obama has been a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" on the military front. Democrats can't really run on a "see, we told you that Obama isn't a war wimp!" message either. The GOP has little incentive to call for doubling down in these conflicts and can't really pivot towards a "pro-peace" position either. [I suspect the Islamophobia issue is cropping up on the GOP campaign trail because it's a stalking horse for "getting tough" with the United States' enemies. Even here, however, it's not like Democrats have created all that much daylight between them and the party of opposition.]
If neither party has an incentive to bring up these wars during the campaign, the only way it becomes an issue is if a powerful interest group and/or social movement raises it. Here's here the all-volunteer force comes into play. Perhaps some returning veterans want to bring up the war as an issue for policy debate -- but the returning veterans do not appear to be alienated en masse. There is also no U.S. equivalent of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia -- not that the Russian version was all that effective. All one finds on this terrain are the Cindy Sheehans of the world, and her credibility has been eroding as of late.
Brokaw is right that matters of blood and treasure should be debated. But a debate requires politicians to have divergent views to debate about -- and right now, that doesn't exist between the major parties.
There are many peculiar rites of passage for each incoming U.S. administration: the first scandal, the first resignation, the first broken campaign promise, and the first botched use of force.
Add to this list the first Bob Woodward book of an administration. Like a debutante's coming-out party, there are highly formalized rituals -- the press leaks about the good stuff in the book, the Sunday morning talk show commentators obsessing over the more controversial bits and pieces, the inevitable meta-essays on Woodward himself. As a young foreign policy wonk, I remember looking forward to the latest Woodward tome the way others looked forward to the latest Stephen King novel.
That was then, however -- with Obama's Wars, has Bob Woodward demonstrated that he's about as irrelevant as the debutante circuit?
Woodward is operating in a very different media environment now. What used to be his bread and butter -- the political and bureaucratic machinations of presidential administrations -- is no longer his exclusive province. Beyond the Washington Post and New York Times, media outlets as varied as Politico, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, and the New Yorker now generate
monthly weekly hourly revelations that Woodward used to be able to hoard for his books. As my old dissertation advisor used to say, "is there anything new here?"
Let's see what Steve Luxenberg's preview in the Washington Post has to say:
President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward....
Among the book's other disclosures:
-- Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn't think about the Afghan war in the "classic" terms of the United States winning or losing. "I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?" he said.
-- The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.
-- Obama has kept in place or expanded 14 intelligence orders, known as findings, issued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The orders provide the legal basis for the CIA's worldwide covert operations.
-- A new capability developed by the National Security Agency has dramatically increased the speed at which intercepted communications can be turned around into useful information for intelligence analysts and covert operators. "They talk, we listen. They move, we observe. Given the opportunity, we react operationally," then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell explained to Obama at a briefing two days after he was elected president.
-- A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here "a potential game changer." He said: "When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that's one where you can't afford any mistakes."
-- Afghan President Hamid Karzai was diagnosed as manic depressive, according to U.S. intelligence reports. "He's on his meds, he's off his meds," Woodward quotes U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry as saying.
Hmmm.... there is some interesting stuff, but it's more in the details (Karzai's depression, the CIA's paramilitaries) than in the overarching narrative. Obama feuded with the military on Afghanistan? There was bureaucratic dissension on Afghanistan? Well, blow me down!!
This ain't how it used to be. In The Commanders, for example, Woodward showed that JCS Chairman Colin Powell was much more reluctant to attack Iraq than previously known.
Now it's possible that this is simply a function of me being
more cynical older than I used to be. But the fact is, I just don't look forward to a new Bob Woodward book anymore.
Question to readers: has Woodward jumped the shark?
Answer: they both pretty much put me to sleep.
Call me shallow, call me jaded, call me cynical, but there's not that much there there in either effort. Day 1 of the Top Secret story was the most informative of the bunch, no doubt -- but even that story was frustratingly short on detail. Day 2 and Day 3 were worse, in that they didn't tell me anything I already know. Day 2 of Top Secret America told me that outsourcing to private contractors is bad, bad, bad, and very expensive. Day 3 was kind of like your local news teasers: "Are NSA employees living RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO YOU?!" If you live in the vicinity of BWI, it turns out the answer is, "yes, but it's not a big deal." Again... yawn.
If Top Secret America actually prompts hearings/reform efforts, then yay, dead tree journalism. Otherwise, the reveal was far less than the hype.
As for Wikileaks, Blake Hounshell and Andrew Exum sum up my feelings on the matter. So it turns out that the war in Afghanistan is not going well and Pakistan is playing a double game? Well, knock me down with a feather!!
In essence, neither story provides much in the way of new information -- they merely serve as news pegs through which intractable policy issues can be debated anew. If those debates prove fruitful, that's great -- but during a summer in which I've seen the Stupidest Topics Ever become cable show fodder, I ain't getting my hopes up.
This might be my own subfield prejudice at work. Every once in a while someone from security studies tells me that international political economy is really, really boring and that they can't understand how I could find it interesting. I think today is one of those days in which I would tell them the same thing.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, anything?
Here's a conundrum I don't entirely understand. Maybe someone can explain it to me.
1. For the past year or so, we've seen a series of stories detailing the Obama administration's foreign policy process. The signal theme of these stories is that the White House is large and in charge of this process. While Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates are clearly influential, Obama and the Executive Office of the President are clearly the central node, disciplining everyone else into a single policy position.
2. The description of U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan to come out of the McChrystal imbroglio is one of serious bureaucratic wrangling, a Pentagon resistant to civilian oversight, petty carping, and significant press leakage.
How can both of these narratives be correct?
It's possible that David Brooks is correct and this is simply a case of garden-variety kvetching gone public. Or it's possible that Obama's strategic communications shop is too good at their job, exaggerating an orderly process that is fundamentally disorderly.
Which is it? Provide your answer to this paradox in the comments. Your humble blogger will ponder this question while on a small vacation in a
zombie-free quiet undisclosed locale.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Hmmm.... which magazine should I peruse online this AM.... maybe TNR? The National Interest? Nah, I'm not in the mood for deep thinking. I'll just look at Rolling Stone, that won't take much intellectual heavy lifting.... oh, look, a profile of General McChrystal.... hmmm.... um.... holy cats.
Since everyone and their mother has their take on this
Mongolian clusterf**k imbroglio already, I'm not going to bother linking to the rest of the blogosphere. Instead, just a few measured and a few off the cuff reactions:
1. Doris Kearns Goodwin makes the case in today's New York Times that Obama doesn't have to fire McChrystal, pointing out that Union General George McClellan was far ruder to Lincoln, and yet was not fired. This is historically true, but I'm not sure it's really the best example. To put it gently, McClellan was a lousy, timid general -- by letting him stay on, Lincoln accomplished little but to prolong the war.
2. I find myself in agreement with Tom Donnelly and William Kristol:
McChrystal should not be the only one to go. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and “AfPak” czar Richard Holbrooke should likewise either submit their resignations or be fired by President Obama. Vice President Biden and his surrogates should be told to sit down and be quiet, to stop fighting policy battles in the press. The administration's "team of rivals" approach is producing only rivalry.
They're right (see also David Ignatius). McChrystal did himself no favors in the RS article, but he's hardly the only Afghan policy heavyweight to be tarnished by the essay. Eikenberry poisoned the well with his press leaks last year, and Holbrooke is, well, Holbrooke. A clean sweep might be the best move Obama could make.
3) Speaking of neoconservatives, it's worth noting that, contra Josh Rogin's take, GOP policy wonks are reacting the way you would expect a loyal opposition to react. That is to say, sure, they're making hay of the problems with the Afghan strategy, but they're also quite firm in saying that Obama should dire McChrystal. See Kristol, Eliot Cohen, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham.
This should not be terribly surprising. Neoconservatives have been pretty clear all along about civilian control of the military, and McChrystal's gaffes cut right to the heart of this issue.
4) One final point: beyond the descriptions of McChrystal and his aides acting like jackasses in Paris, the RS article was of little use. It presented a slanted portrait of COIN and it's advocates, and seemed determined to paint McChrystal in the worst light possible. As Blake Hounshell observed, it failed to note that at this stage it's impossible to evaluate the COIN strategy, because these approaches tend to have "darkest before the dawn" qualities.
What do you think?
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Analogical reasoning can be very dangerous in foreign affairs. The human impulse to see patterns everywhere can lead to the use of inexact analogies -- "X is another Vietnam" or "Y is another Minuch." This in turn leads to bad foreign policy decisions, as anyone with a passing familiarity with this book can tell you.
So one of the things I liked about Obama's speech last night was his willingness to confront some analogical reasoning head-on. Consider this section, for example:
[T]here are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.
One could quibble a bit with some elements of that paragraph -- the U.S. really did have allies contribute troops in Vietnam -- but that's a decent analysis as far as it goes.
The thing that nags at me, however, is the implicit analogy in last night's speech, and in the policy discourse that will surround this decision: Afghanistan in late 2009 parallels Iraq in late 2006, and therefore a surge strategy now will have similar effects.
Glenn Greenwald has already catalogued the parallels in rhetorical tropes between the two instances (and Steven Metz chronicles the actual policy parallels). Greenwald believes this will expose the hollowness at the core of Obama's strategy, but I don't think he gets the politics of this at all. My hunch is that the surge is perceived to have worked pretty well -- Iraq in 2009 is in better straits than Iraq in 2006. If policymakers are unconsciously adopting this parallel, then the strategy will sell.
The thing is, Afghanistan is very, very different from Iraq. As tough a nut as state-building is in Iraq, it's a country with fewer ethnic and linguistic divisions, better infrastructure, a better educated citizenry, more natural endowments, and a longer history of relative "stability" than Afghanistan. Whatever you think about the surge strategy, the odds of success in Afghanistan are lower than in Iraq.
This doesn't mean that Obama's other policy options are better -- but I'd like to know the extent to which the administration recognizes the flaws in the surge analogy.
Comment away on Obama's Afghanistan speech here. My quick hits:
[I]t's possible to defend Belichick's call on fourth down as the rational, utility-maximizing decision, but conclude that he committed a series of small blunders that got the Patriots to the point where they had to convert a high-risk, high-reward play. In other words, sometimes the criticized decision might be the right one to make, but the decisions that structured the controversial choice might not have been.
... Looking at the Obama administration's foreign policy, which move echoes Belichick's play-calling?
I think I have my answer now.
This is a 51-49 decision, and I'm far from confident that he's doing the right thing. If that Eisenhower quote is any indication, however, I'm pretty sure that the decision-making process was solid.
James Fallows blogs about how George W. Bush has acted like all ex-presidents by refusing to criticize their successors in their first year of office -- as opposed to ex-VP Dick Cheney. To Fallows, this is an unforgivable sin:
I am not aware of a case of a former president or vice president behaving as despicably as Cheney has done in the ten months since leaving power, most recently but not exclusively with his comments to Politico about Obama's decisions on Afghanistan. (Aaron Burr might win the title, for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but Burr was a sitting vice president at the time.) Cheney has acted as if utterly unconcerned with the welfare of his country, its armed forces, or the people now trying to make difficult decisions. He has put narrow score-settling interest far, far above national interest.
I confess that I've been on the fence about Cheney's outspokenness to date. On the one hand, I think Fallows is correct in pointing out the breach of protocol. On the other hand, I think Cheney genuinely believes that he has an obligation to speak out on foreign policy matters. In his mind, the stakes are huge enough, and the policies Obama is pursuing are wrong enough, to warrant his criticisms.
So I'm inclined to cut Cheney some slack for his decision to speak out. On the other hand, when we read the Politico interview, Cheney's actual sins come out:
Cheney rejected any suggestion that Obama had to decide on a new strategy for Afghanistan because the one employed by the previous administration failed.
Cheney was asked if he thinks the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the disintegration of Afghanistan because of the attention and resources that were diverted to Iraq. “I basically don’t,” he replied without elaborating (emphasis added).
Seriously? Seriously? I dare any Cheney supporter to make the argument that Afghanistan was hunky-dory until January 20, 2009, at which point things went to hell in a handbasket.
For the rest of us on the Planet Earth, there's no way to read that passage and not come to one of two possible conclusions:
I don't mind that Cheney speaks up for what he thinks is right -- I mind that he's a liar.
Or, to paraphrase Garry Trudeau, "That's LIAR! LIAR!! LIAR!! LIAR!!"
[Drezner] then notes a small "to be sure": fewer than 5% of voters in France, Germany, Italy and Britain support sending more troops to Afghanistan too. That pretty decisively handcuffs those goverments. Why not call the Germans or Brits "passive-aggressive-y"? Because it wouldn't fit the American stereotype of Gallic limp-wristedness.
Two quick responses. First, the alleged constraint of public opinion (see below) did not cause either the British or German defense ministers to categorically rule out sending more troops to Afghanistan the day after Barack Obama was sworn in. I focused on France because the French defense minister spoke up on this at an interesting juncture.
Second, the Economist's blogger did not read precisely what I wrote, nor did s/he apparently click through to the FT story to which I linked. I wrote, "Less than five percent of those polled believed that European countries should send troops to Afghanistan as a gesture of solidarity with Obama. (emphasis added)" If you look at the poll, however, a significant fraction of respondents (though not a majority or a plurality) were comfortable with the idea of sending more troops "if warranted by conditions in Afghanistan." Furthermore, this support is stronger in France than it is in either Germany or the UK, which suggests that the French government faces a lesser constraint than policymakers in Berlin or London.
I firmly believe that public opinion should play an important role in dictating the foreign policy of a democracy -- including France. But these opinion polls are not quite the binding constraint that the Economist suggests. Furthermore, it seems only polite to wait and see what Obama will say on Afghanistan before issuing a firm "Non!"
God bless France. You knew, once Obama was sworn in, that Paris would welcome the new president with open arms and not get all passive-aggressive-y ike they
always frequently occasionally do.
What's that? There's a Reuters story about this?
France will reject any immediate request by US president Barack Obama for reinforcements to Afghanistan because it has already deployed enough troops, French Defence Minister Herve Morin said on Wednesday.
While many European leaders have welcomed Obama’s multilateral approach to diplomacy, they are less eager to send their soldiers on risky missions that are unpopular with voters.
Asked in a radio interview how France would react if Obama were to call for more contributions to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, Morin pointed out that his country already sent additional troops in 2007 and 2008.
”So for France, we have made the necessary effort. Considering additional reinforcements is out of the question for now,” he told broadcaster Europe 1.
In the immortal words of Emily Litella, never mind.
It should be pointed out that France is hardly the only country in Europe to feel this way:
[A] Harris poll for the FT shows that clear majorities of people in the UK, France, Italy and Germany believe that their governments must not send more forces to Afghanistan, irrespective of demands that the new American head of state might make.
Less than five percent of those polled believed that European countries should send troops to Afghanistan as a gesture of solidarity with Obama.
It will be interesting to see whether Obama will be able to change those minds in the coming year.
UPDATE: A follow-up on this post is here.
[Q] …Should we be talking to the Taliban? I don’t mean you. [BO] You know, I think that this is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq. The Great Awakening, the Sunni Awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally. It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders, Sunni nationalists, from a more radical Messianic brand of insurgency. Well whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored.Now, what's interesting about this is that Jane Perlez and Jane Zubair Shah have a fascinating piece in the New York Times on Pakistani efforts to trigger this kind of tribal awakening in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier:
The tribal militias, known as lashkars, have quickly become a crucial tool of Pakistan’s strategy in the tribal belt, where the army has been fighting the Taliban for more than two months in what army generals acknowledge is a tougher and more protracted slog than they anticipated. And, indeed, the lashkars’ early efforts have been far from promising. As the strength of the militants in the tribal areas grows, and as the war across the border in Afghanistan worsens, the Pakistanis are casting about for new tactics. The emergence of the lashkars is a sign of the tribesmen’s rising frustration with the ruthlessness of the Taliban, but also of their traditional desire to run their own affairs and keep the Pakistani Army at bay, Pakistani officers and law enforcement officials say. Some in Washington have pointed to the emergence of the lashkars as a hopeful parallel to the largely successful Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, which drew on tribes’ frustration with militant jihadis to build an alliance with American troops that helped lessen violence in Iraq. But there are significant differences, a senior American government official acknowledged. In Anbar Province, he said, the Iraqi tribes “woke up to millions of dollars in government assistance, and the support of the Third Infantry division.” But the support by the Pakistani Army and civilian government for the tribal militias has been “episodic” and so far “unsustained,” he said. In addition, tribal structures in Pakistan have been weakened in recent years by the Taliban, unlike the situation in Iraq. The tribesmen, armed with antiquated weaponry from the 1980s Afghan war, are facing better equipped, highly motivated Taliban who have intimidated and crushed some of the militia.... Even in the best of times, there are basic unwritten rules about the tribal militia in Pakistan that limit their impact. The Pakistani military, for example, can lend moral support but not initiate a tribal militia, the generals said. The lashkars come with their own weapons, food, and ammunition. They have their own fixed area of responsibility, and are not permanent. Indeed great care is taken to make sure the lashkars do not become a threat to the military itself. “We do not want a lashkar to become an offensive force,” said one of the generals, who spoke frankly about the lashkars on condition of anonymity. For that reason, the military was willing to lend fire support artillery and helicopters but would not give the militias heavy weapons, he said.Here's a question that should be asked of both John McCain and Barack Obama -- should the United States be providing direct support to these lashkars as a way to squeeze the Taliban?
Hamid Karzai risked angering members of his government and his US backers yesterday when the Afghan president revealed he had asked the Saudis to help -broker peace talks with the Taliban leadership. Mr Karzai said his envoys had travelled to Saudi -Arabia and neighbouring Pakistan to try to kick-start negotiations that are increasingly seen as the only solution to the violent insurgency gripping Afghanistan.... According to a person familiar with the talks, the Saudis have been involved since July, when they were first approached by Pakistan-based Taliban clerics. The Saudis sent an envoy to Kabul and started shuttling between the two sides. Indirect talks hosted by the Saudis took place last week in Mecca but serious discussions between the two sides have yet to begin. The Afghan leader also appealed directly to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader overthrown as ruler of Afghanistan by the US-backed invasion in 2001, to return to Afghanistan. Mr Karzai said he would protect him and his colleagues from the US-led -coalition forces if they took him up on his offer to return, to "come and work for the peace and good of your people".CNN's report today sounds a more optimistic note:
Taliban leaders are holding Saudi-brokered talks with the Afghan government to end the country's bloody conflict -- and are severing their ties with al Qaeda, sources close to the historic discussions have told CNN. According to the source, fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar -- high on the U.S. military's most-wanted list -- was not present, but his representatives were keen to stress the reclusive cleric is no longer allied to al Qaeda. Details of the Taliban leader's split with al Qaeda have never been made public before, but the new claims confirm what another source with an intimate knowledge of the militia and Mullah Omar has told CNN in the past. The current round of talks, said to have been taken two years of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations to come to fruition, is anticipated to be the first step in a long process to secure a negotiated end to the conflict.Discuss.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.