Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Trying Harder in Afghanistan

President Obama today gave a statement about his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing to say here is that, according to those who attended a White House briefing, the strategy is not complete: the goals are not defined.

Second, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality. On the one hand, the White House is rhetorically embracing the idea that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned,  the problem is insufficient U.S. effort. That is consistent with what Obama has said all along: that we are failing in Afghanistan because U.S. efforts there are starved of resources that went to Iraq.

So we need more trainers for the Afghan army (a brigade from the 82nd Airborne gets that job), more combat troops (although only the 17,000 already committed), more U.S. government civilians to aid local development, and more drug eradication (on the folly of this, read Ted Carpenter and David Rittgers). As an enthusiastic Robert Kagan points out, this seems to be a stronger embrace of the nation-building strategy. The partial departure is the willingness to try to buy off elements of the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the trainers being sent were requested long ago, and the troop increase is not new. The other shifts are minor. So, in terms of action, little has changed. There seems be a compromise here between the so-called minimalists and maximalists, which caused essentially a stalemate.

If you agree that the trouble in Afghanistan is that we weren’t trying hard enough, you should wonder why we aren’t trying even harder — doubling down on troops and effort, not just saying so. If you think, as I do, that we need a new strategy of radically reduced objectives, you have the opposite concern.

Nothing particularly new is happening with Pakistan, either, which matters more. We are continuing airstrikes and increasing aid. The White House recognition that the trouble with Pakistan is its vulnerabilty to India, which causes it to avoid policing its west and to embrace militants, is useful, even though it’s hard to see what we can do about it.

One particulary troubling observation that the president made today is this:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what’s at stake at this time is not just our own security — it’s the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today.

There are two problems here. First, we can pay the price of an Afghanistan in chaos if we figure out ways to prevent terrorist havens. That is possible at considerably less cost than we spend on that project today. The question is whether we can afford to resurrect Afghanistan from chaos. The president fully buys into the idea that Afghanistan would quickly revert to its 1990s state, with Al Qaeda sanctuaries, absent the U.S. military. That’s a claim in need of interrogation.

Second, it is silly to cast the war as a test of multilateralism.  Free nations consistently ally when their security obviously requires it. Europeans sensibly wonder if that is still the case in Afghanistan.  What we’re testing is how willing nations are to unify to fight wars where their security is not obviously at stake.

National ID Promoted by Anti-Immigrant Group — Sorta

If it was ever in doubt that REAL ID and the push for national ID systems are a project of anti-immigrant groups, this should dispel it.

The Center for Immigration Studies has a page up on its website in which REAL ID lobbyist Janice Kephart trots out videos of Bush administration Department of Homeland Security officials sort of making the case for REAL ID. Or at least for all the different ID programs they had. Or something.

Frankly, it’s not clear what this piece is getting at. The material is rather meandering, and neither the videos nor the text provide a coherent argument for a national ID, much less defeat the arguments against one. (The featured former officials are former, and not involved with the current administration, because voters rejected the fear-mongering of the former DHS and administration in the most recent election.)

What the text does say is that the Obama administration is cool on a national ID because it “gained many votes from those who support mass, illegal and unchecked immigration into the US.” This is inaccurate in many respects. Nobody supports illegal immigration, but many people do recognize that balanced and generous immigration rules would reduce it. This country has a long history of being immigrant friendly and of favoring liberty over things like national ID systems. If those kinds of policies win votes, so be it! It’s nice to see a group like CIS admit that their agenda is politically unpopular.

Whatever the case, if you had any doubt about what motivates national ID advocacy in the country, it’s anti-immigrant groups. Their amateurish interest in terrorism and national security is motivated by their fixation on preventing free movement of people. The great irony is that the Center for Immigration Studies would put native-born American citizens into a national ID system to try to get at their anti-immigrant goals.

Thursday Podcast: ‘A Failed Drug War in Mexico’

Since 2008, more than 7,000 people have been killed  in violence associated with the drug war in Mexico. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to the region this week, and said Wednesday that the United States shares the blame for the violence.

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Cato scholar Doug Bandow offers analysis on how the U.S. should respond to the crisis on our southern border.

‘We’re Failing. Let’s Keep Trying’

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diagnosis of the war on drugs:

“Neither interdiction [of drugs] nor reducing demand have been successful.”

“We have been pursuing these strategies for 30 years.”

“Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s prescription for the war on drugs:

“We’ve got to take a hard look at what we can do to stop the bad guys”.

My prognosis:

“I think [trying harder to stop the bad guys] is going to fail.”

No No-Fly Zones over Darfur

Should the United States lead a Western coalition to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur, Sudan?

This idea, which has been kicking around since at least 2006, was articulated recently in the Washington Post by former Air Force Chief of Staff and Obama advisor Tony McPeak, writing with Kurt Bassuener. Back when they were campaigning, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all backed it. So it stands a good chance of becoming US policy.

The goal is to protect Darfurians from their nominal government without a costly US effort. But the opposite seems a more likely outcome. The no-fly zone may increase the violence in Darfur. And by committing the US to Darfur’s protection and failing, it may suck us deeper into Sudan’s civil war.

Like most advocates of U.S. intervention in Sudan, McPeak and Bassuener avoid saying that what is occurring in Sudan is a war with sides rather than an irrational slaughter.  Attacks on civilians in Darfur, however reprehensible, are a tactic used by a weak, brutal central government to maintain power.

Sudan has some helicopters and Russian cargo aircraft converted into bombers that they use to support a counterinsurgency campaign executed mainly by its army and allied militias, some of which used to be rebels. The militias, in particular the horse-riding Janjaweed, kill and displace civilians because Darfur’s insurgent groups rely on them for things rebels need: intelligence, supply, and recruits.  According to the Christian Science Monitor, about 400 civilians died as result of air strikes in 2007 and 2008, a fraction of the total killed by ground forces.

Take away the air strikes, McPeak and Bassuener say, and you get leverage over Sudan’s government. The leverage can be used to compel Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force to augment the largely useless African Union force there now.

Leaving aside the question of logistics (patrolling Darfur would be very costly given its the massive size), this plan simply doesn’t bear much logical scrutiny.

It is an application of strategic airpower theory, which tends to make magical assumptions about the political impact of aircraft.  That theory tends to depict the enemy as an extremely cost sensitive actor ripped from the pages of economic textbooks rather than what we find in history:  governments motivated by nationalistic norms to pursue their political aims at extraordinary cost.  Sudan is not going to give up trying to unify its country because we won’t let helicopters and aircraft fly over it.

Because Darfur’s rebels could arm and police their territory behind the peacekeeper lines, allowing a real peacekeeping force into Sudan would be de facto recognition of Darfur’s secession. What leader of Sudan would accept that?

Beyond that, a no-fly zone is likely to make life worse for Darfur’s civilians. As Alan Kuperman notes, a no-fly zone, rather than forcing Khartoum to the table, is likely to drive it to increase ground attacks. We might see accelerated ethnic cleaning and slaughter occurring beneath NATO aircraft powerless to stop it, a repetition of past experience. Likewise, a no-fly zone may further discourage Darfurian rebels from coming to terms with the government, pouring further accelerant on the war. It would also keep Sudan from allowing aid workers to travel to Darfur.

A no-fly zone will also symbolize a US commitment to the dissolution of Sudan and the protection of Darfurian civilians. By accomplishing neither, it would likely produce calls for a more robust intervention – either US boots on the ground or air strikes against people on the ground. Acceding to these calls would make the United States a combatant in Sudan’s civil war. Those who push military intervention in Sudan should recognize that is the logical result of their position.

That position is not unreasonable. Full fledged intervention might protect civilians. And who wouldn’t be sympathetic to a revolt against an awful central government like Sudan’s?

But the United States needs to get out of the other people’s civil war business, not double down.  We are participating in two civil conflicts abroad now. That is too many already. And Darfur is not the world’s only humanitarian nightmare. Peacekeeping the Congo might have more humanitarian payoff.  We can’t fix everything.

That does not mean doing nothing. We should push Sudan to allow humanitarian workers full access to Darfur, condemn atrocities, and push the rebel factions to sign the peace deal outlined in 2006 or something like it.

An Intellectual Counterinsurgency

My friend (and noble peacemaker) Spencer Ackerman points us to Tom Ricks’ take on the Army’s new stability operations manual:

ricks1I wonder if the very title of the manual is incorrect. After all, we didn’t invade Iraq to provide stability, but to force change. Likewise in Afghanistan. And once we were there, we didn’t aim for stability, but to encourage democracy, which (the thought is not original with me) in a region like the Middle East generally undermines stability. I mean, if all we wanted was stability, why not find a strongman and leave?

What we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, is instability operations… Personally, I think the mission of changing the culture of Iraq was nuts – but that was the mission the president assigned the military.

I think a more intellectually honest title for the manual would be “Revolutionary Operations.” Don’t hold your breath.

Ricks is right, but he misses a larger problem.  The argument of the folks who want to develop COIN capabilities has become completely circular.

Take, for example, the worry of Lt. Gen William Caldwell, in unveiling the original release of FM 3-7, that we live in an “era of uncertainty and persistent conflict.” Accordingly, says Caldwell, we need capabilities to produce stability.  Hence, the stability operations field manual.

This elides the fact that if we had to take an impartial look at where the instability is coming from, a hell of a lot of it is emanating from Washington, DC.  Our Rube Goldberg political science theories, based in large part on liberal international relations theory, have led us to knock over governments and pursue radical transformation everywhere from Latin America to Eastern Europe to the mountains of Central Asia, the jungles of Vietnam, and the sands of Iraq.

Then, when confronted with the wreckage of our policy, we convince ourselves that we are gravely threatened by the instability we have created, and must enhance our capabilities to rectify this instability.  Less kindly, it’s like the Tennessee Valley Authority with guns, Humvees and translators.

Look at the new “whole-of-government” counterinsurgency guide, for example.  The issuance of the volume was predicated on the logically-true-but-practically-misleading claim that “in today’s world, state failure can quickly become not merely a misfortune for local communities, but a threat to global security.” (emphasis mine) The COIN manual then quickly proceeds to tell us that any decision to do COIN “should not be taken lightly; historically COIN campaigns have almost always been more costly, more protracted and more difficult than first anticipated.”  Then it quickly becomes a cookbook on how to use the Agriculture, Treasury, and Transportation Departments to transform the way foreigners run their countries.

My colleague Ben Friedman recently remarked that “Both Creighton’s Abrams’ reforms ensuring that the president had to activate the reserves to start a war and the Weinberger-Powell doctrine were sneaky usurpations of authority. They were also realistic efforts to avoid bad wars and on balance good things.”  He’s right.  It would be good if we were devoting a tenth the resources toward stopping the next policy disaster as we are devoting to figuring out how to execute self-destructive policies more effectively.

In short, if, as the leading COIN advocate of the moment tells us, the best way to fight the “war on terrorism” is by engaging in a “global counterinsurgency,” we’re in deep, deep  trouble.  As long as the only people who can stop us are ourselves, I’m afraid we won’t be stopped.

Power, as Karl Deutsch once wrote, is “the ability to talk instead of listen.  In this sense, it is the ability to afford not to learn.”  And we’ve got loads of power.

Obama on Pakistan (and Nawaz Sharif)

The New York Times reports this morning that the Obama administration is deciding whether Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is likely to be a reliable ally or an obstructionist force.

Honestly? This is a man who in 1999 agreed to send a special operations team to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who later tried to forge peace with India, and recently agreed to mediate a truce between Karzai’s government and the Taliban.

Right now, there’s no solution in Afghanistan unless Pakistan is stabilized. Sure, Sharif is pompous, self-aggrandizing, and as religiously conservative as ever before, but he’s still immensely popular and (reminder to policymakers in Washington) it’s not our job to pick and choose that country’s political winners.

In this turbulent region our strategy should be narrowly tailored to securing our specific objectives (i.e. - narrowing our aim to denying al Qaida the use of sanctuaries, if that’s even still achievable), implementing the few policies likely to achieve those goals (i.e. - cooperating with local leaders and tribal elders along the Pashtun tribal belt straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border), and being flexible with whatever leader holds power in Islamabad (i.e. - not expecting Sharif to toe the line on every conceivable issue).