Tag: Central Asia

Obama Floats a Zero Option in Afghanistan

As President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week, a flood of recent news reports suggest that the White House is considering a zero option that would leave no U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Such news is bittersweet.

It appears that top officials have come to realize that America can protect its vital interests without an indefinite residual troop presence. That said, these officials implicitly acknowledge that conflating the fight against terror groups with the creation of viable central governments has failed. America can and should destroy, incapacitate, and punish those that do it harm; but the American military and civilian establishments have had repeated difficulty repairing failed states emerging from civil conflict.

After 10 years and counting, the fragile Afghan government still lacks a central pillar of nation-state sovereignty: monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Reports suggest that outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta favors leaving 9,000 U.S. troops behind to combat militants and to train the 350,000-large Afghan Army and police. But according to Washington’s own metric, indigenous security forces, which the U.S. has spent $39 billion to train and equip, have to be effective enough to operate independent of foreign assistance. But reports have found that some coalition forces largely see the Afghan National Army (ANA) as unmotivated, highly dependent, and making little to no progress.

Leaving trainers also assumes that Afghan government forces are effective in gaining the Afghan population’s support. But a Pentagon report from last year found little evidence of that. Afghan government corruption remains rampant and continues to bolster insurgent messaging. Sadly, more resources are unlikely to change the fact that the coalition has no overarching or coherent geopolitical framework to connect military gains with a broader political process that would resolve what drives the insurgency. Absent that, rural Afghans in insular pockets of the country will continue to turn to the Taliban alternative.

A plan to end America’s limited presence is a debate we must have. Committing manpower with no decisive end attaches no conditionality on the performance of either Afghan elites or security forces while leaving U.S. troops exposed to insurgent attack. The lesson to draw from the Afghan mission is not to plunge into a country and dwell for ten years, but to avoid similar futile missions in the future. 

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, I discuss the future of Afghanistan and why it is time once again to rethink our mission:

U.S.-Pakistan Relations: The Afridi Affair and Its Aftermath

Yet again, U.S.-Pakistan relations have hit a new low. Days after a deal to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan fell through, and two back-to-back U.S. drone strikes rocked northwest Pakistan in a 24-hour period, tensions flared again after a tribal court sentenced Dr. Shakil Afridi—a Pakistani citizen who helped the United States track-down Osama bin Laden with a fake vaccination program—to 33 years in prison.

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill were appalled, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the move “unjust and unwarranted.” Apparently, U.S. officials and lawmakers are surprised that the chasm separating Washington and Islamabad is growing wider after years of papering over their differences.

Yesterday, in response to Dr. Afridi’s 33-year sentence under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut aid to Pakistan by a symbolic $33 million. That’s not enough—it represents just 58% of the amount the president requested for Pakistan. Washington should go further and phase out assistance entirely.

Today in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, my coauthor Aimen Khan and I argue that ending aid to Pakistan is the right course for both countries:

The U.S. must carefully calibrate a policy with Pakistan that continues diplomatic relations absent large sums of aid. While cutting aid to Pakistan might be temporarily destabilizing, Pakistan’s support for militant Islamists is arguably more harmful to regional stability. Moreover, while emergency-type humanitarian aid can be beneficial to the Pakistani people, economic development aid intended to promote growth has been detrimental, allowing Islamabad to avoid confronting its rampant corruption and budgetary problems with the necessary urgency.

The Pakistani government and people stand united in their belief that Pakistan does not need the U.S. Phasing out U.S. aid to Pakistan benefits both parties and better reflects strategic realities.

As is common with U.S. military and foreign aid to unstable governments, it typically serves to entrench the prerogatives of military and civilian elites. Quite perversely, in return for the tens of billions of dollars that American taxpayers forked over to Islamabad, many in Pakistan have come to blame Washington for their deteriorating situation. Even well-intentioned assistance under the much-lauded Kerry-Lugar aid package was viewed within Pakistan as an infringement on sovereignty, mainly because it came with intrusive strings attached. Furthermore, U.S. aid and arm-twisting have failed to pressure or persuade Pakistan to go after militants we deem to be a threat to our interests, including the Afghan/Quetta Shura/Karachi Taliban, Hekmatyar, and the Haqqanis.

From the 30,000-foot view, from Islamabad to New Delhi, it appears that Washington is slowly making a long-term pivot in South Asia. But as this author argued years ago, reconciling this pivot in the context of Afghanistan has been nothing short of a failure. The United States and Pakistan do not trust one another, NATO slouches toward an exit, and Pakistan has become more radicalized, destabilized, and encircled by India and militants.

But I digress. Please click here to read the full op-ed. Enjoy!

 

Great Gaming Russia in Central Asia

For the sake of Afghanistan, U.S. officials routinely invoke the importance of nurturing economic growth across South and Central Asia. But when it comes to advancing policies meant to increase regional trade, Washington has shown little effort to ease the geopolitical differences between itself and one of Afghanistan’s key neighbors: Russia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed late last year in Dushanbe, “we want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it’s so critical to more fully integrate the economies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia.”

That sounds promising. So what is the problem? As George Washington University Research Professor Marlene Laruelle writes, present U.S. policies, like the “New Silk Road” initiative that Clinton hints at above, reflect an underlying economic rationale “to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations.”

Echoing this interpretation is Joshua Kucera, a Washington-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Slate and ForeignPolicy.com. He points to Washington’s call to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as well as Washington’s placement of the Central Asian states in a new State Department bureau. He writes, “What these all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.”

Moscow already thinks that Washington’s promotion of NATO’s eastward expansion is a U.S.-led containment strategy. As we have seen in that part of the world, however, Washington’s attempts to marginalize Russia in its Central Asian post-Soviet sphere will bump up against the region’s deep historical ties, cultural influence, and geographic contiguity with the Kremlin. This all might seem obvious, but apparently not, as it would require foreign policy planners to appreciate the overriding interests of neighboring great powers as they pertain to Afghanistan, even the ones we abhore. That will be difficult, and it is important to illuminate why.

Too many in Washington equate a less confrontational approach as a sign of weakness, and militant internationalism as a sign of strength. But in South and Central Asia, U.S. officials must understand that what they perceive to be in America’s interest does not always line up with the prospect of regional connectivity. Washington’s pursuit of primacy in this region is erecting hurdles to the very liberal-internationalist goals that it claims to promote. If economic growth is to have any reliable chance of success, then the U.S. should not be attempting to foreclose constructive avenues for increased integration.

Pursuing policies that place the region’s general interest before America’s does not convey weakness. Rather, it is a recognition that some countries are better positioned to be key players in the region, especially in light of the last 11 years, which have amply demonstrated the limits of Washington’s ability to impose lasting change in Afghanistan.

As my colleague Doug Bandow alluded to the other day, Russia is not America’s “number one geopolitical foe”—it is a declining power with nukes. Whether officials in Washington are willing to countenance such thoughts is anyone’s guess. However, given the disproportionate power of foreign policy hawks inside the Beltway—from the liberal and conservative persuasion—I wouldn’t bet on it.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

A Step Forward in Afghanistan, If We Are Willing to Take It

The Washington Post reports the Obama administration has revised its Afghan war strategy to include “more energetic efforts to persuade” Afghanistan’s neighbors—including India, China, and the Central Asian republics—to “support a political resolution.” Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the administration was also relying on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency “to help organize and kick-start reconciliation talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.”

This is good news, but also déjà vu. The administration called for “pursuing greater regional diplomacy” back in 2009. It also said it would ask “all countries who have a stake in the future of this critical region to do their part.” Countries in the region do have a stake in Afghanistan’s future; America, however, has few effective instruments for submerging the differences among competing powers.

Take our relationship with Iran. It has made significant inroads with Afghanistan’s Hazara and Tajik communities and is well-positioned to be a key player in the region. But Tehran and Washington seem neither close to engaging in direct talks nor willing to make reciprocal concessions for the cause of furthering peace. The irony is that after 9/11, American and Iranian interests initially converged in Afghanistan: Tehran cooperated with Washington to overthrow the Taliban regime, and during the Bonn negotiations helped broker a compromise between President Karzai and the Northern Alliance.

America’s complicated relationship with Iran is one reason why what U.S. officials perceive to be in America’s best interests may not be synonymous with the pursuit of peace. Isolating Iran, or even Pakistan for that matter, will hurt the substance of negotiations, increase the incentive for these countries to sabotage peace, and hinder Washington’s ability to shape a coherent regional strategy. Even if Washington were to engage Tehran and Islamabad, they may very well decide to protract the bargaining process to convey that time is on their side (it is). One reason why the administration’s 2009 effort may have faltered was that Pakistan—a major player in Afghanistan’s internal affairs (to the consternation of many Afghans)—has come to feel that it can manage the terms of reconciliation. In fact, it is this belief that tempers Pakistan’s eagerness to be more accommodating toward the United States, which is why the case for American humility is key when it comes to the subject of negotiations.

Peace will not be perfect. Problems will rise when competing interests collide on certain core issues. Nevertheless, all parties must be sufficiently dedicated to reaching a consensus on what constitutes a manageable settlement. After all, some countries will seek to stymie their enemy’s provision of assistance to Kabul (i.e. Pakistan vis-à-vis India). Getting these countries to think otherwise will necessitate a shift in said country’s perceptions of others’ intentions.

As I wrote last week, U.S. officials understand the enormity of problems they confront in this vexing region. Proponents of peace are not blind to these difficulties. Unfortunately, much like the current nation-building effort, when it comes to regional engagement, U.S. officials could be making yet another ambitious commitment that is beyond their ability to carry out.

Cross-posted from The Skeptics at the National Interest.

Obama’s Afghanistan War Plan

President Obama released his Afghanistan war review today. It highlights progress on the battlefield against insurgents, the success of Special Forces operations and drone strikes, and achievements in training the Afghan security forces.

I have four thoughts on the matter:

First, scattered throughout the document are passages such as “al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker,” “[a]l-Qa’ida’s senior leadership has been depleted,” and “al-Qa’ida’s leadership cadre have diminished.” However, can we deter more jihadists than our efforts help to inspire? After all, “fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad and his incompetently constructed bomb in Times Square. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter failed British “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Second, although there is a persuasive case to be made that the United States should disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration never clarifies explicitly how it will encourage Pakistan to do more to fight militants that frequently attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review claims “improved understanding of Pakistan’s strategic priorities,” but policy considerations seem to fail to take into account that no amount of pressure or persuasion will affect Pakistan’s decision to tackle extremism, particularly when its strategic priorities are tied directly to reinforcing Islamist bonds across its borders as a buffer against Indian encirclement.

The third core reality ignored in the review is the importance of regional actors, namely Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors (this list is not meant to preclude the inclusion of other countries). As long as the United States is at war, regional rivalries and insecurities will play out in Afghanistan at the expense of Afghan civilians and coalition forces.

Lastly, if the United States insists on pursuing the so far fruitless mission to create a viable Afghan government and economy, then U.S. officials should stop saying that the United States is not nation building in Afghanistan (and stop using the oft-repeated euphemism “capacity building”). After all, what is nation building? Perhaps in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it is providing Afghanistan’s pervasively corrupt and predatory government with “economic, social and political development, as well as continued training of Afghan security forces.”

Overall, modest and ephemeral tactical gains have given the administration cause for optimism. It also gives the military a chance to buy more time, which means that the president will stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. But a residual U.S. troop presence will remain in the country long after that official date.

Any policy, including war, makes sense only insofar as the United States and its citizens receive significant benefits in exchange for that policy’s political and economic costs. The Afghan War’s current cost-benefit disparity would call for a scale-down in mission objectives and correspondingly in troop presence. But for now, the United States would rather fixate on pipe dreams and on asserting America’s permanent role in Central Asia.

Libertarians in Kyrgyzstan Spearhead Peace Campaign, Help Victims of Violence: You Can Help, Too

CAFMI Director Mirsulzhan Namazaliev at 2009 Cato University

Kyrgyz libertarians are leading a series of coordinated voluntary efforts to provide emergency aid to the victims of the vicious attacks of the last few days in their country and to promote peace throughout the nation and the region.  I’ve been in regular touch with our friends there, and on Tuesday evening I talked to Central Asian Free Market Institute (CAFMI) Director Mirsulzhan Namazaliev by Skype, as he was interrupted by a stream of volunteers working late into the night in the CAFMI offices.  He made their resolution clear:

“We are helping those who are suffering, but we are doing more.  For me personally this is not only a fight for life.  It is a fight for freedom.  We don’t want to be ruled by any authoritarian Central Asian or Russian regimes that would exploit this awful violence.  The violence we are suffering is a provocation designed to generate chaos and to overturn the chance for a constitutional regime.  We will not stand for it.  We want peace, we want freedom, and we want a lawful government.”

I was in Kyrgyzstan just last month to work with CAFMI and with the new acting minister of economic development, my friend Emil Umetaliev, a founding member of CAFMI’s board of directors.  (CAFMI was founded by two Cato graduates, former Cato intern Seyitbek Usmanov and Cato University graduate Mirsulzhan Namazaliev.)  There was guarded optimism about the country’s future, after the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in an uprising after he tried to suppress demonstrations with deadly force.  But there was also fear of Bakiyev’s machinations, especially after the revelation of a recorded cell phone conversation between his son, Maksim, and his brother Janybek (who had given the orders to shoot protesters in April), in which they clearly plot violence to derail a new constitutional process and regain power, even proposing how many “fighters” to hire, arming them with iron bars and other implements, and how much to pay them to launch attacks.  The recording was chilling.  And with the money they looted from the country, they found the thugs to launch attacks on both Uzbek and Kyrgyz villages, in order to spark revenge attacks.  Their plans bore fruit this month, as hundreds were murdered, homes and businesses were burned, and between 80,000 and 100,000 people were made refugees.

As Namazaliev put it to me, “We will not stand for it.”

Volunteers Load Supplies to Deliver to Refugees

CAFMI’s staff and volunteers are almost all under 25.  Few have backgrounds in defense or security.  But they immediately put the talents they do have to work.  CAFMI volunteers worked with others to solicit, gather, and deliver humanitarian assistance for the thousands of people – mainly mothers and children – who had been driven from their homes, and to create a message of communal peace – of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, Uighurs, Tajiks and others who were standing together for peace and against murder and hatred.  They called together teams of computer experts, technological wizards, social networkers, and activists to build an umbrella coalition: “I Want Peace in Kyrgyzstan”  –“Мен Қирғизистонда тинчлик бўлишини истайман!” in Uzbek, “Мен Кыргызстанга тынчтыкты каалайм!” in Kyrgyz, and “Я хочу мира в Кыргызстане!” in Russian.

I Want Peace in Kyrgyzstan – in Three Languages
Some Peace Graffiti (this one in English)

The “I want Peace in Kyrgyzstan” campaign has five coordinated elements:

  1. Use cell phones, databases, and the internet to organize volunteers effectively and to create and disseminate maps (using Google Maps and other techniques) to guide deliveries of aid to victims and to help people to avoid areas in turmoil, burning buildings, and road blocks and ambushes set up by thugs.
  2. Create a modern campaign for peace in three languages (Kyrygz, Uzbek, and Russian) – with a brand, a logo, street graffiti, slogans, t-shirts, stickers, leaflets, hand-written letters from children, radio interviews and public announcements, text messages, and other means to calm tensions and promote peace.  Representatives of the various ethnic groups appear together to pledge peace and to build the rule of law and freedom together.
  3. Combat disinformation and misinformation that might fuel ethnic hatred and violence, and respond rapidly to malicious rumors and hate campaigns before they bear their evil fruit.
  4. Contain the spread of reprisals and hatred throughout Central Asia, by providing reliable information to media, helping to combat ethnic smears and suppress revenge attacks against minorities in other countries, and quickly rebutting calls in nearby countries for military intervention into Kyrgyzstan, which carries the very real danger of regional war.
  5. Create a “Peace Room” (not a “War Room”) in CAFMI’s Bishkek offices to be open 24 hours a day to coordinate the collection and dissemination of information.  Volunteers in the Peace Room utilize cell phones, social networking sites, twitter, text messages, phone trees, and more and monitor mass media constantly.  The CAFMI office is now fully staffed with volunteers and working around the clock.

The young volunteers and staff of CAFMI are donating their time, risking their lives, and contributing their scarce resources, in a country with a per-capita income of about $2,100. If you’d like to stand with a group of very brave, very determined, and very committed libertarians to stop the violence in their country, provide emergency aid to the victims, avoid regional war, and lead the region to peace and freedom, you can send a tax-deductible donation to the Central Asian Free Market Institute (CAFMI) through the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which has provided support to CAFMI. Please write to Erin [dot] Grant [at] AtlasNetwork [dot] org and 100% of your donation will be dedicated to CAFMI’s work in Central Asia.  Even small donations will help.  It would be a decision you would not regret.  (You can follow CAFMI’s work on their Facebook page and Namazaliev writes in Russian and in English on NewEurasia.net, Twitter, and other media.  He covered the April uprising against Bakiyev’s authoritarian regime in The Independent and was quoted frequently by CNN and many other news organizations.)

Volunteers Working after Midnight for the “I Want Peace in Kyrgyzstan” Campaign at the CAFMI offices
Volunteers Collecting Donated Supplies in Bishkek Neighborhoods
CAFMI Volunteers After Days of Loading Donated Supplies at Manas Airport to Send to Victims of Violence in Osh and Jalalabad