Tag: Pakistan

Trying to Do Everything, Doing Nothing Well

One of the perennial laments about American strategy offered by people like me is that Washington seems incapable of setting out clear priorities in its foreign policy. Everything is urgently important. The business section of today’s New York Times highlights the unfortunate results of this orientation.

You may have heard by now that the United States and other allied countries are currently trying to strangle the Iranian economy to the point where the regime in Tehran feels enough pain—or, more accurately, fears for its survival enough—that it is forced to comply with the preconditions for negotiations and come to the table. This is deemed a Very Important Objective by the Washington foreign-policy elite.

But what you may have forgotten is that the United States is currently undertaking a “pivot” away from the Near East and toward the region where Washington believes the future of international politics lies: the Asia-Pacific. In pursuit of that objective, the United States is currently trying to pull together a coalition of junior partners to help diplomatically and militarily surround China so as to hem it in, should it have any ambition to take charge of the security environment in its region. This, too, is a Very Important Objective.

And before you get ahead of yourself, don’t forget about Poor Little Georgia, which got a chunk of its territory annexed after it lost a war to Russia in 2008. As President Bush pointed out, America’s vital interests and its deepest beliefs are now one. And surely our deepest beliefs don’t involve leaving a flawed-but-promising democratic nation to the tender mercies of a predatory and authoritarian Moscow regime, do they? So let’s agree that keeping Georgia safe is a vital interest.

The problem with this approach is that it’s very hard to pursue these difficult objectives at once. As the Times piece points out, the sanctions coalition against Iran conflicts with a number of these other objectives:

[N]ew threats to Iranian oil flow could have at least one beneficiary: Russia…

For Russian oil companies like Rosneft and Lukoil and the Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP, the international tensions that began over Iran’s nuclear development program last autumn have meant a windfall. Analysts estimate that Iran jitters have added $5 to $15 a barrel to the global price of oil, which means an extra $35 million to $105 million a day for the Russian industry. And the taxes the Russian government has received from those sales have been a political windfall for Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as he campaigns to return as Russia’s president. The extra money has helped further subsidize domestic energy consumption, tamping down inflation.

“It’s good for Putin,” Mr. Mercer said. “In the United States, when oil prices go up, the president’s ratings go down. In Russia, it’s the opposite.”

So our Iran policy helps Russia and Putin, and that’s bad. But wait:

[A]t least one exemption [to the Iran sanctions] under discussion is meant specifically to limit the strategic benefits for Russia, which has been an outspoken critic of American and European strictures against Iran.

The United States and European Union are negotiating an exemption that would continue to provide the former Soviet state of Georgia—a nation that is now a Western ally—an alternative to Russian natural gas. The workaround allows payments to an Iranian company, Naftiran Intertrade, that has a share of the Shah Deniz natural gas field in the Caspian Sea.

The field, managed by the Western petroleum giant BP, is a supplier to Georgia. It is also a potential source for the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which would be managed by a consortium based in Vienna and backed by some Western European governments to create European competition with Gazprom. But the pipeline, seen as a maneuver to weaken Russia’s hand in European energy politics, has been stalled in the planning phase for years.

So we’re carving out an escape hatch for Iranian natural gas to get to Georgia, because we have friends in Tbilisi. Oh, and what about that pivot to Asia? Any trouble on that front?

China, meanwhile, is expected to circumvent the Iranian sanctions with tacit American approval by settling its oil purchases with Iran through banks that have no dealings in the United States. India, for its part, has negotiated to barter wheat for oil, or pay Iran directly in rupees.

Hmm. Oh, and what about our war in Afghanistan, which has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars, with the meter currently running somewhere between $8 and $10 billion per month? What’s going on over there? Maybe the Post has something on that:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At one end of the flower-festooned table sat the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps the world’s most relentless America basher.

At the other end sat Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, who owes his nation’s survival to the United States.

And in the middle was Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country’s complex relationship with Washington swings from pole to pole.

If there existed any conflict among the chief executives of the three neighboring Islamic nations, they certainly weren’t showing it Friday at the close of a trilateral summit in Pakistan’s capital. At a news conference Zardari hosted in his splendid official residence, the theme was fraternal unity as the trio pledged to work for peace and prosperity in a region raging with war and terrorism.

It’s almost as if there are tradeoffs among our objectives.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Digging Our Grave in Af-Pak

Last week’s killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers by a NATO airstrike shows why the war in Afghanistan will continue to weaken, not stabilize, neighboring Pakistan, contrary to what U.S. officials and analysts claim. Perhaps the gravest outcome from this latest “tragic, unintended incident” will be the widening gulf between Pakistan’s senior military leadership and its junior officer corps, a chasm that opened under President-General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) and threatens to open far wider.

Pakistan’s alliance with the United States has always been a liability. After 9/11, Musharraf forced the reassignment or resignation of officers regarded as pro-Taliban or Islamist, because his decision to support U.S. counterterrorism efforts undermined his support among key military officials. In 2003, he narrowly escaped two attempts on his life—within 11 days of each other—that involved the collaboration of junior officers. The attacks came two months after al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released an audiotape urging Pakistanis to overthrow the military general.

B. Raman, the former head of the counterterrorism division for India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), writes that while many in India might rejoice at this intra-military split and the further deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan relations, “This need not necessarily be a beneficial development for India. It is in our interest that the US retains the ability to influence the behaviour of the Pakistani military leadership.”

That is exactly what Washington risks losing the longer it prosecutes this ill-conceived quagmire in Afghanistan. “Imagine how we would feel if it had been 24 American soldiers killed by Pakistani forces at this moment,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) on Fox News Sunday. Fanning public anger in Pakistan is Jamaatud Dawa, Hizb ut-Tehrir, and other organizations that stand to gain whenever anti-U.S. anger spikes. But is it any wonder why Pakistani streets and newspaper editorials were brimming with anti-American sentiment? Such escalating pressures against General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the chief of the army staff, come just after Pakistan’s security establishment was publicly humiliated for either being complicit or incompetent in America’s Osama bin Laden raid, and was accused of attempting to stage a coup in the recentmemogatescandal.

Compounding the partnership’s endless string of controversies are recurring incidents along the Af-Pak border. These incidents hurt the honor of Pakistan’s military, decrease the country’s resolve to cooperate with America, and highlight a glaringly obvious problem with America’s current strategy. U.S. officials claim the coalition cannot fight its way to victory in Afghanistan. But by continuing to attack indigenous insurgents before withdrawing or engaging in negotiations, the coalition is undermining the potential for a diplomatic solution. Look no further than Pakistan’s refusal to attend this week’s Bonn summit. As Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, told Dawn News television this week, “It is definitely not Pakistan’s intention to work against the rest of the world. But the rest of the world also has to understand that if they have pushed Pakistan into this corner, violated red lines, then they have denied the basis of partnership.”

An iteration of this discrepancy comes from Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider, who wrote last year:

Behind all the nice talk about setting the world right through a Lockean cooperative framework lurks Mr. Hobbes… Mr. Obama… (de-hyphenated) Pakistan and India by not including Pakistan on this visit even as Pakistan is supposed to be a vital strategic partner and a state that is, presumably, going to determine, by his own admission, not only the future of this region but of the entire world. This would be amusing if it did not indicate a deep policy flaw.

Only America’s hubris can explain why officials continue to believe that they can win a war in which the neighboring state—with legitimate security interests—actively assists elements of the insurgency, denies transit routes for delivery of war supplies, and uses its leverage to increase the costs of America’s military presence. The 10-year war’s latest casualty is the ongoing effort to bring insurgent networks into a broader power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. U.S. militarism has deprived diplomatic efforts of a key regional player. Absent the cooperation of Pakistan, the United States continues to dig its own grave.

Cross-posted from “The Skeptics” at the National Interest.

Conservative Hawks Are Incoherent Regarding Iraq Troop Withdrawal

Prominent conservatives continue to sputter about President Obama’s announcement that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by year’s end. GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry charges that the president was “irresponsible” for making that announcement, thereby “letting the enemy know” the date when U.S. forces would leave Iraq. Council on Foreign Relations writer Max Boot makes a similar argument, as do several other neoconservative pundits.

But as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Obama did not set the December 31, 2011 deadline. George W. Bush did in an agreement with the Iraqi government that he signed in late 2008. One then has to ask whether Perry and other critics of Obama believe that Bush was being “irresponsible.” And if so, it is curious that virtually none of them have made that argument—or even hinted at such a conclusion.

That apparent double standard begs some other questions. The principal reason why Obama’s effort to modify the Bush agreement so that a residual U.S. force could remain after 2011 failed was that the administration refused to accept the Iraqi government’s demand that American troops be subject to Iraqi law. Are conservatives arguing that he should have made that concession? If so, their position is totally inconsistent with the position they have taken with respect to other countries that host U.S. troops. Indeed, fears that American military personnel might be subject to prosecution under foreign laws and in foreign jurisdictions have been a major reason for the intense opposition to U.S. involvement in the International Criminal Court.

Conversely, if Obama’s critics believe that U.S. troops should not be exposed to possible prosecution in a judicial system that has few of the due process protections that are considered the norm in the United States, how do they suggest that the administration get the Iraqi government to change its stance? Most of their criticisms on that front consist of little more than inane generalities that Obama should have shown greater leadership or engaged in more effective diplomatic bargaining. But how, precisely, should he have done that? Washington was not exactly in a position to order Baghdad to accept U.S. demands on the jurisdictional issue. And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki knew that he would be risking political suicide if he capitulated to U.S. pressure and accepted a policy that is wildly unpopular with the Iraqi people.

Are conservatives implying that the Obama administration should have overridden Iraqi objectives and just imposed our will? Ethical issues aside, that would certainly require far more than the limited number of troops the U.S. has in Iraq at the moment, and it would likely re-ignite a widespread insurgency directed against a continuing U.S. military occupation.

The utterly inconsistent and incoherent position that most conservatives have taken on the troop withdrawal issue underscores the bankruptcy of the overall Iraq policy that they’ve pushed since early 2003. They’re frustrated that the Iraq mission has not gone as planned, and they fear—quite correctly—that once U.S. forces have departed, the waste and futility of that mission will become glaringly obvious to all except a shrinking contingent of true believers. What we’re seeing now is a mixture of partisan politics and a temper tantrum in response to that disagreeable reality.

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.

Attack on U.S. Embassy Highlights Need to Exit Afghanistan

Political leaders and military commanders will dismiss the Taliban’s recent coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul as a “one-off” incident. But the attack is a vivid reminder of how poorly things are going, and why America needs to leave.

By every measure, violence is higher than ever. The coalition and civilian casualty rate for this year is on pace to break the record for last year, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2009, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2008. Spiraling violence came after significant increases in troops and resources. Defiant optimists have claimed that with more troops comes more combat and naturally, more casualties. But to accept that things will get worse before they get better is also a slippery slope: never giving up, no matter the cost, discourages a dispassionate assessment of whether a continued investment is justified. In turn, the longer we stay and the more money we spend, the more we feel compelled to remain to validate our investment. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom, as expressed by President Obama in March 2009, is that “If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban…that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” We are also told that if America and its allies fail to create a minimally functioning government in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will collapse and its nuclear weapons will fall to the Taliban.

These claims of falling dominoes are all wrong.

First, if Afghanistan were to fall to the Taliban, it is not clear that they would again host al Qaeda—the very organization whose protection led to the Taliban’s overthrow. Besides, targeted counterterrorism measures would be sufficient in the unlikely event that the Taliban were to provide shelter to al Qaeda. Moreover, to declare that Afghanistan can never again be a base for terrorists justifies indefinite war, which does less to serve the American public and more to benefit the private industries that profit from conflict and nation-building. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that after a decade of war, more than $450 billion spent, and over 1,600 American lives lost, the United States can still be attacked by terrorists. This creates a humiliating situation in which our Afghanistan policy weakens the U.S. militarily and economically and fails to advance its vital national interests.

Second, an endless war of whack-a-mole does far more to inspire terrorists “to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” In this respect, our political leaders seem to have learned little from 9/11. The unintended consequence of U.S. intervention and meddling is that it serves as a radicalizing impetus. Regardless of what percentage of the Afghan population wants us to rebuild their country, our presence, however noble our intentions, can serve as both a method to combat insurgents and as the insurgents’ most effective recruiting tool. Aside from that “mobilizing militants” dilemma, our elimination of Taliban figures (including shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators) may very well weaken the Taliban’s chain of command, but it hasn’t resulted in a decrease of Taliban activity. Indeed, the use of IEDs has reached record highs. Worse, the insurgents’ second-largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer, with stabilization and reconstruction money often being diverted to insurgents to pay them to ensure security. Of course, they then use U.S. taxpayer money to buy bombs and explosives to kill American troops and Afghan civilians.

Finally, U.S. officials are playing with fire if they think these conditions help strengthen neighboring Pakistan. Certainly, Rawalpindi’s self-defeating support of Islamist proxies has not done its country any favors—but neither has the coalition’s presence next door. Continuing to stay the course in Afghanistan inspires the worst strategic tendencies among Pakistani military planners. It also encourages militants to attack NATO supply vehicles entering Afghanistan (nothing new), and has inadvertently contributed to the very instability that leaders in Washington ostensibly seek to forestall. As Karachi goes, so goes Pakistan, and current developments are doing more to push militants from Pakistan’s rural hinterland and into its major cities. Lastly, despite Washington’s nuclear obsessions, a large-scale foreign troop presence in Afghanistan does not resolve the ongoing rivalry between Pakistan and India. In fact, Pakistan has been accelerating its production of nuclear material for bombs and their ability to delivery them over the past several years.

In the end, the current scale and scope of the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan (over 100,000 troops and $120 billion per year from the U.S. alone) stems from overstated fears about what will follow if we fail. Luckily, America and its allies do not have to build a legitimate and stable Afghan government as an alternative to the Taliban. Al Qaeda is a manageable threat, and a conventional, definitive “victory” against them was never possible. Rather than drawing out our withdrawal and fighting an insurgency on behalf of an incompetent and illegitimate puppet regime in Kabul, American leaders should declare “mission accomplished.”

Wartime Contracting Report Provides More Evidence to Exit Afghanistan

Over the past decade, American taxpayers have lost as much as $60 billion dollars to massive fraud and waste in the nation building campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report released today by the Commission on Wartime Contracting. The independent panel confirms much of what we already know about rent-seeking in wartime; nevertheless, the panel details specific reconstruction projects and programs that display a stunning array of mismanagement:

  • A modest $60 million agricultural development program in northern Afghanistan expanded to the south and east to the tune of $360 million. The cash-for-work program was intended to distribute vouchers for wheat-seed and fertilizer in drought-stricken areas. Today, the program spends $1 million a day. The panel reports, “The pressure to quickly spend the millions of dollars created an environment in which waste was rampant. Paying villagers for what they used to do voluntarily destroyed local initiatives and diverted project goods into Pakistan for resale.”
  • During operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, waste and fraud averaged about “$12 million every day for the past 10 years.” [Emphasis in original];
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) awarded an $82 million contract for the design and construction of an Afghan Defense University. Now, DoD officials say it will cost $40 million a year to operate—beyond the indigenous government’s ability to fund and sustain;
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Government’s main distributor of development contracts, funded the Khost-Gardez road project. Originally valued at $86 million it has since mushroomed to $176 million;
  • The insurgents’ second-largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer. Money for construction and transportation projects are diverted to the insurgency so Afghan subcontractors can pay them for protection. Of course, the insurgents use this money to buy bombs, IEDs, and other explosives to kill foreign troops and civilians.

The report goes on and on with examples that should disgust U.S. taxpayers. In addition, the report was released amid news that August 2011 was the deadliest month for U.S. service members, and 2011 shaping up to be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians. Despite the spin from warhawks, people in the region know the coalition has lost. Last year, the “Godfather of the Taliban,” Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, laid out in extensive detail why America has been defeated (for skeptics of withdrawal, it’s worth reading).

The United States has largely disrupted, dismantled, and defeated al Qaeda. America should not go beyond that objective by combating a regional insurgency or drifting into an open-ended occupation. We have endured enough with tens of thousands of people killed, injured, and traumatized, and billions of dollars wasted.

Al Qaeda’s Mythical Unity

The mythical al Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.

The real al Qaeda is a fragmented and unmanageable movement. In the 1990s, it achieved limited success in getting other jihadists to join in attacking the West. It was not managerial innovation but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other governments’ pressures that destroyed  the limited hierarchy al Qaeda Central had achieved. Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. The leaders have cachet but lack the material incentives that real managers distribute to exercise authority. Al Qaeda became bunches of guys with diminished capability.*

The myth is destructive to counterterrorism. Because tightly-run organizations are better at mass violence than disparate movements, the myth creates needless fear that encourages overly ambitious and expensive policies, like the war in Afghanistan. The myth increases the number of enemies we face, taking focus from real ones. Most jihadist militants hate Americans but don’t try to kill us. They fight locally. Attacking them risks making them into what we fear they are and stoking nationalistic resentment that increases their popularity.

My anecdotal sense is that events since 9/11 have increasingly brought commentators around to truth. Even so, the media, for simplicity’s sake, tends towards the myth. And the Obama administration, despite improving upon its predecessors’ absurdly broad definition of our terrorist enemies, still overstates al Qaeda Central’s unity and control of affiliates. More importantly, U.S. policies still pay insufficient attention to the distinction among various al Qaeda entities.

Here are three recent examples of this rhetorical error and its consequences:

(1) Since bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits have claimed that the cache of emails found in his compound contradict recent intelligence reports downplaying his control. The emails, we are told, show that he was still running the show and that al Qaeda Central remained potent.

Last week, however, McClatchy quoted more anonymous officials suggesting that to al Qaeda types in Pakistan and beyond, bin Laden was like a “cranky old uncle” that you respectfully listen to and ignore. The Washington Post reported that the emails show al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan complaining about depleted funds, declining popularity, and CIA drones decimating their ranks.

The White House seems conflicted about which view of al Qaeda to take. It commendably wants to belittle al Qaeda, robbing it of mystique by portraying bin Laden as pathetic and weak. On the other hand, it needs the threat of a powerful al Qaeda to justify the war in Afghanistan and other controversial policies.

(2) Media reports often give the impression that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are the core of the militant group (Ansar al-Sharia) revolting in Yemen’s south. The implication is al Qaeda could soon control territory for the first time. Too little attention is given to the uncertain role AQAP plays among Yemen’s militants and its limited ties to al Qaeda Central. Bin Laden apparently asked AQAP’s leader to attack Americans rather than gathering territory locally, suggesting that its commitment to attacking us may be limited.

The point is not that we should ignore al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But uncertainty about their role in Yemen and intent cautions against undifferentiated assaults on their leaders, let alone those of Ansar al-Sharia.

(3) Since our recent drone strike in Somalia on leaders of the al-Shabab insurgent group, the administration has claimed that Shabab’s leaders are plotting terrorism against American or western targets. The only evidence given for this assertion is vague claims of Shabab’s ties to Yemeni militants and its claim of responsibility for a 2010 terrorist bombing in Uganda. But that bombing came because Ugandan troops are in the African Union force fighting al-Shabab. While reprehensible, the attack does not show a desire to terrorize Americans.

At the risk of sounding quaint, Congress should make the administration substantiate its claims that Shabab is targeting Americans before we bomb them further. We have enough insurgents to fight these days outside Somalia.

*These positions are roughly those taken by Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman, respectively. My aim is not to perfectly state their views, however, but to describe general views in terrorism commentary.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.