Tag: Taliban

President Obama’s Afghan Decision: Previewing the Speech

Tomorrow night, President Obama will announce how many troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next 18 months. CNN.com reported this morning that the president is expected to announce a plan that would bring all 30,000 “surge” troops home by the end of 2012. This would give them two more fighting seasons in Afghanistan. The Los Angeles Times reported administration and Pentagon officials told them 10,000 troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. In an effort to quell the leaks, White House officials told Fox News that Obama has not made a final decision and that the reporting is “all over the map.”

But we should not allow this speculation over troop numbers to distract us from the bigger picture. Even if by the end of 2012 the size of the U.S. military presence is reduced by 30,000 (and I’m not holding my breath), that would still leave more than twice as many troops as were there in January 2009 when Obama took office.

We won’t know for sure what the president intends until tomorrow. More importantly, we won’t know if the president’s intentions translate into actual troop withdrawals until our brave men and women are welcomed back home. There will always be those arguing that conditions on the ground do not allow for a U.S. withdrawal. Some are making that case with respect to Iraq, a war that was supposedly won by David Petraeus and the surge back in 2008. For the U.S. military, it seems that every war is like the Eagles’ Hotel California: we can check out, but we can never leave.

Regardless of the president’s decision, the mission will not have changed. The military wants more time to put pressure on the Taliban. They believe that they have the Taliban on the run, and that continuing pressure will aid in negotiations on a political settlement. Meanwhile, the true believers of nation-building want to buy more time for the Karzai government to get its act together. They believe that if American troops and aid workers dig more wells, pave more roads, build more schools, and draft more legal standards, we will have achieved our essential goals. The public, and a growing number within the Congress, is skeptical.

And they should be. A nation-building mission is far too ambitious, and far too costly. Most importantly, it isn’t necessary. We could keep pressure on the Taliban, and deny al Qaeda a sanctuary, with perhaps as few as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. If President Obama rejects that option, and declares instead that more than 60,000 U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan in 2013, he will have bowed to pressure from some within the Pentagon, at State, and a handful of think tankers, and ignored the clear wishes of the American people who want to turn their attention to building the United States, and allow the Afghans to build Afghanistan.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Senate Report Slams Nation-Building Efforts in Afghanistan

As confirmed by yet another U.S. government report, this one prepared by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung writes:

The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. [Emphasis added]

U.S. leaders could look at that statistic and justify prolonging the mission. In fact, the report suggests, “Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now.” Ironically, “proper planning” is the problem. The belief that outside planning can promote stability and growth has the potential to leave behind exactly the opposite.

While no one would deny that Afghanistan looks a lot better than it did in 2001, there’s a reason why American leaders might be sorely disappointed with the outcome when the coalition begins handing off responsibility to Afghans. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan warned last week in a separate report, “the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Without adequate planning to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in both countries will likely fall into disrepair.

The core problem is that top-down development strategies often deepen, rather than strengthen, a foreign country’s dependence on the international donor community. My colleague, development expert Ian Vasquez, once wrote, “Providing development assistance to such countries may improve the apparent performance of foreign aid, but it may also help to create dependence and delay further reform, problems that have long plagued official development assistance.” [Emphasis added]

Indeed, complaints about America’s presence in Afghanistan typically focus on troop levels; rarely discussed is the way in which foreign-led development schemes can deprive locals of the experience of planning projects, managing funds, and procuring goods: what they call in the industry, “building local capacity.” As my friend Joe Storm and I wrote a while back, “US-government contractors are mired in mismanagement and failure, perpetuating dependence at best. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admits, “Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency.”

Dependence, of course, is only one of many problems. According to the report:

Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.

Because development is plagued with inadequate oversight, many development contracts are dispersed independently of the quality of services provided. During a trip to Afghanistan some time ago, I heard story after story about development projects being abandoned before completion, American-built schools without teachers to staff them, and billions of dollars charged to American taxpayers for unfinished work that leave Afghans disillusioned. Naturally, turning our mission in Afghanistan into one of limitless scope and open-ended duration perpetuates this massive fraud and waste.

So, who’s at fault? Ourselves. Recall the December 5, 2001 Bonn Agreement, which proclaimed the international community’s determination to “end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country.” We’ve set the bar so incredibly high for a country that lacks the fundamental criteria intrinsic to the Westphalia model: (a) a legitimate host nation government (b) that possesses secure and internationally recognized borders, and (c) wields a monopoly on the use of force. None of these criteria exist. So far, we are 0-3: 0 wins, 3 losses.

With this latest report from members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are reminded yet again not only of the importance of scaling down lofty expectations, but also recognizing the unintended consequences produced by the noblest of aims. Sadly, given the corruption and dependency we’ll leave in our wake, without an introspective self-critique of our policies, America could turn Afghanistan into Central Asia’s Haiti.

Tuesday Links

  • “Given America’s large-scale, long-term nation-building mission in Afghanistan, another chapter remains unfinished.”
  • It doesn’t make a lot of sense to refer to a government whose intelligence service assists military efforts by al Qaeda and the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan as an ‘ally.’”
  • “Terrorists are not superhuman.”
  • “Physicians must either make up for this shortfall by shifting costs to those patients with insurance — meaning those of us with insurance pay more — or treat patients at a loss.”
  • Is America in a libertarian moment?


Monday Links

Friday Links

  • What are Republicans doing to stop ObamaCare? Not much.
  • Conflating the Taliban with al Qaeda isn’t helping our foreign policy dialogue.
  • “Sitting in a Volt that would not start at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, a GM engineer swore to me that the internal combustion engine in the machine only served as a generator, kicking in when the overnight-charged lithium-ion batteries began to run down.”
  • The new issue of Regulation looks at price gouging, soda taxes, the Durbin Amendment, and more.
  • Who should decide when we tap into strategic oil reserves: The president? Or market forces

Musharraf Cometh?

Last Wednesday, former Pakistani President and military leader Pervez Musharraf announced he intends to return home as head of a new political party called the All Pakistan Muslim League. Sources close to Musharraf say he is reportedly eyeing the presidency and prime ministership. Amid ongoing political unrest and economic uncertainty under the leadership of President Ali Asif Zardari, U.S. leaders may hope that Musharraf can bring some semblance of stability to the country given recent developments, but his return could be something of a mixed blessing.

On Friday, Imran Farooq, a founding leader of MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement), the fourth-largest political party in Pakistan, was stabbed to death in London. Since 2009, more than 200 MQM workers and supporters have been the victims of targeted killings.  Because MQM dominates the Muhajir urban centers of Sindh, including Karachi—Pakistan’s largest city of more than 16 million—each targeted killing unleashes waves of violence that further contributes to the city’s deteriorating law and order situation. Indeed, when news of Farooq’s death reached Karachi, rioters torched vehicles and scores of people were killed and injured.

These targeted killings reflect a multi-dimensional problem. Part of it is tit-for-tat gang warfare between Muhajir-dominant MQM and Pashtun-dominant ANP (Awami National Party). [Note: When I was in Karachi a couple years back, I was warned to steer clear of certain areas that were MQM “turf.”] It is important to note, however, that MQM has made it a point not to conflate violence with Pashtuns; in fact, ANP continues to make it a point of joining the two together in order to condemn MQM for highlighting the increasing number of Taliban seeking refuge in Pashtun areas of Karachi. Another part of this ongoing violence is competition over new development in the city, the ANP’s resistance to the government’s redress of illegal land encroachment, and the collusion of political parties with criminal networks and religious extremists. MQM has been quite vocal about what they called the increased “Talibanisation” of Karachi, a concern that foreign diplomats have continually ignored.

The tragedy is that Musharraf was driven from power to bring democratic governance back to Pakistan. But despite his back-room dealings that brought an incompetent Zardari to power, and a crackdown on the judiciary that led to the former military leader’s ignominious resignation, Pakistanis stuck in desperate straights might welcome Musharraf back with open arms. Perhaps if he returns to the political game, the West will pay more attention to events unfolding in Pakistan.

It’s Time for the Coalition to Step Aside

Today’s Washington Post reports that residents of Gizab, a village in southern Afghanistan, reclaimed their territory from the Taliban. One U.S. commander called it “perhaps the most important thing that has happened in southern Afghanistan this year.”

Gizab may eventually turn back to Taliban control, but at least for now, we can try and postulate as to why local residents successfully defended their territory, achieving what the coalition has been trying to do for years throughout the country but to no avail. Here’s a thought: allow Afghans to fight the Taliban themselves and slowly back away. Unfortunately, this story may reinforce the atrocious ”One Tribe at a Time” formulation, a strategy that entails coalition troops “going native” and unilaterally choosing tribes to side with against the Taliban–of course, without any proper understanding of tribal or community dynamics beforehand.

As I wrote several weeks ago, “merely increasing our knowledge of Afghanistan’s local politics will not guarantee success; presuming we can simply learn what ethnicities and communities can be ‘peeled off’ from militants does not necessarily mean we will reach the ends we seek or yield the outcomes we want.”

Many moons ago, Christian Bleuer over at The Ghosts of Alexander wrote about the follies of following the ”One Tribe at a Time” formula. “Seriously, go out and try to find the ‘tribal leadership.’ You will find that there is no clear, stable leadership. Things are in flux, and always have been. Especially since 1979. You will end up with a bunch of squabbling locals trying to call in air strikes on their rivals…. Please don’t let this anecdote draw away attention from how bad Gant’s paper is when considered in its entirety. The blind embedded, hyper-localized ‘adopted son’ mentality he shows should be a warning to all. Anthropologists do their best to not ‘join the tribe.’ So should soldiers.”

Indeed, Judah Grunstein wrote a while back in Small Wars Journal about this very same issue. “What’s also overlooked – by Gant [author of “One Tribe at a Time”], but also by more conventional COIN theory – is the fact that intervening in a social system creates both winners and losers. COIN bases its methodology in large part on the assumption that losers will shift loyalties in order to compete for the benefits on offer. Again, the lessons from the helping professions show that this is far from a foregone conclusion. The resulting power imbalances within the indigenous structure can instead lead to increased – and rigidified – resentment and hostility toward the helping professional.”

Most analysts in D.C. are waiting for that silver bullet, that one strategy that will help America “win.” But Afghans can “win” without our help, as villagers in Gizab have shown. It may not be easy, and Afghans will surely encounter setbacks, but coalition forces cannot continually recalibrate policy to accurately predict which areas of Afghanistan will prefer the corrupt centralized government we back and which ones will not. It’s time we get out of the way and let Afghans decide their future, Taliban or no Taliban.