Archives: 09/2009

Myth v. Fact: Afghanistan

While “Change” has been Barack Obama’s mantra, as of late he has been channeling his predecessor.

“Afghanistan,” according to Obama, “is a war of necessity… If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.” 

President George W. Bush was adept at keeping the American public in an elevated state of panic. That tactic may be useful for advancing controversial policies. But if policymakers continue to downplay the drawbacks of our current course of action, America risks intensifying the region’s powerful jihadist insurgency and entangling itself deeper into a tribal-based society it barely understands.

Americans must be told the truth about the war in Afghanistan. To understand the disadvantages of pursuing present policies, we must unpack the myths that war proponents use to justify staying the course.

Myth #1: Both al Qaeda and the Taliban Are Our Mortal Enemies

Given the magnitude of the atrocities unleashed on September 11th, removing both al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that sheltered the terrorist organization was appropriate. But eight years later, is waging a war against the Taliban a pressing national security interest? Not really.

The Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other guerrilla-jihadi movements indigenous to this region have no shadowy global mission. In fact, what we are witnessing is a local and regional ethnic Pashtun population — divided arbitrarily by a porous 1,500-mile border — fighting against what they perceive to be a hostile occupation of their region. Prolonging our mission risks uniting these groups and making U.S. troops the primary target of their wrath.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, even if the Taliban were to reassert themselves amid a scaled-down U.S. presence, it is not clear that they would again host al Qaeda. In The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11Lawrence Wright, staff writer for New Yorker magazine, found that before 9/11 the Taliban were divided over whether to shelter Osama bin Laden. The terrorist financier wanted to attack Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which, according to Wright, would have defied a pledge Taliban leader Mullah Omar made to Prince Turki al-Faisal, chief of Saudi intelligence (1977–2001), to keep bin Laden under control. The Taliban’s reluctance to host al Qaeda’s leader means it is not a foregone conclusion that the same group would provide shelter to the same organization whose protection led to their overthrow.

As the war in Afghanistan rages on, President Obama should be skeptical of suggestions that the defeat of al Qaeda depends upon a massive troop presence. Globally, the United States has degraded al Qaeda’s ability to pull off another 9/11 by employing operations that look a lot like police work. Most of the greatest successes scored against al Qaeda, such as the snatch-and-grab operations that netted Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi bin al Shibh, have not relied on large numbers of U.S. troops. Intelligence sharing and close cooperation with foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies have done more to round up suspected terrorists than blunt military force.

Myth # 2: We Must Remain in the Region to Protect Pakistan

The “Pakistan–is-imploding” meme that coursed through the Beltway like wildfire last spring was excessively alarmist.

First, the danger of militants seizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons remains highly unlikely. Pakistan has an elaborate command and control system in place that complies with strict Western standards, and the country’s warheads, detonators, and missiles are not stored fully-assembled, but are scattered and physically separated throughout the country.

Second, average militants have no viable means of taking over a country of 172 million people. The dominant political force within Pakistan is not radical fundamentalist Islam, but a desire for a sound economy and basic security. In fact, if the country were to be taken over by al Qaeda sympathizers, it would likely be because U.S. policies in both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan are being exploited by militants to undermine public support for the government in Islamabad.

Third, policymakers have underestimated how greatly leaders in Islamabad fear the rise of pro-India government in Kabul. India inspires a sense of profound insecurity in Pakistan. For all of Washington’s talk of the “Af-Pak” border, 80 percent of Pakistan’s military still sits on the border with India, not Afghanistan. Pakistan’s fear of India has existed for decades, and Pakistani military leaders are committed to securing “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, their regional backyard, and they do so to prevent India from establishing influence there and encircling Pakistan.

Finally, and most importantly, while America has a vital interest in ensuring Pakistan does not become weakened, it’s America’s own policies that are pushing the conflict over the border and destabilizing the nuclear-armed country.

Airstrikes from unmanned drones are strengthening the very jihadist forces America seeks to defeat by allowing militants to exploit the popular resentment felt from the accidental killing of innocents. On August 12, the U.S. special envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, told an audience at the Center for American Progress that the porous border and its surrounding areas serve as a fertile recruiting ground for al Qaeda. One U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called airstrikes from U.S. unmanned drones “a recruiting windfall for the Pakistani Taliban.”

Citizens living outside the ungoverned tribal areas also detest the drones. A recent poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan for Al-Jazeera found that a whopping 59 percent believed the United States is the greatest threat to Pakistan

If America’s interests lie in ensuring the virus of anti-American radicalism does not infect the rest of the region, discontinuing policies that add more fuel to violent religious radicalism should be the first order of business.

Myth #3: Terrorists Dwell in Ungoverned Parts of the World

According to the president, our strategy is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda. Yet in order to accomplish that goal, the Obama administration believes we must create a functioning nation state there. Why?

Beltway orthodoxy tells us that because extremists will emerge in ungoverned parts of the world and attack the United States, America must forcibly stabilize, liberalize, and democratize Afghanistan.

This thinking is flawed for several reasons.

First, the argument that America’s security depends on rebuilding failed states ignores that terrorists can move to governed spaces. Rather than setting up in weak, ungoverned states, enemies can flourish in strong states because these countries have formally recognized governments with the sovereignty to reject foreign interference in their domestic affairs. This is one reason why terrorists find sanctuary across the border in Pakistan. [Note: 9/11 was planned in many other countries, Germany included.]

Second, as my Cato colleagues Chris Preble and Justin Logan point out, there’s reason to doubt whether state failure or poor governance in itself poses a threat.

Third, such an extraordinarily costly, open-ended military occupation gives Osama bin Laden and his ilk exactly what they want: America’s all-volunteer military force is pressed to cope with two protracted irregular wars, we are inadvertently killing innocent civilians, and our policies are recruiting militants to their cause.

Myth # 4: We Can Have a Successful Nation-Building Mission in Afghanistan

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency manual states, “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors rebuilding infrastructure and basic services.”  That sentiment is shared by many of the people informing administration policy.

Stephen Biddle, civilian adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, America’s top commander in Afghanistan, said a critical requirement for the success in Afghanistan “is providing enough of an improvement in Afghan governance to enable the country to function without us.” 

But like many within the Obama administration, Biddle’s advice is more goal than strategy.

First, Afghanistan has yet to demonstrate the capability to function as a cohesive, modern, nation state, with or without us — and perhaps never will. Many tribes living in rural, isolated, and sparsely populated provinces have little interest cooperating with “foreigners,” a relative term considering the limited contact many have with their country’s own central government.

Second, arguments supporting a multi-decade commitment of “armed nation building” — the words of another civilian adviser to the mission, Anthony Cordesman — overlook whether such an ambitious project can be done within costs acceptable to the American public.

Our attempt to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society — while our own country faces economic peril — is nothing short of ludicrous, especially since even the limited goal of creating a self-sufficient, non-corrupt, stable electoral democracy would require a multi-decade commitment — and even then there’d be no assurance of success.

Myth #5: It’s Altruistic to Help Afghans

This video at “Rethink Afghanistan” upends this myth, particularly on the issue of women’s rights.

In addition, while it’s understandable for the president and other elected leaders to empathize with the plight and suffering of others, why Afghanistan? What about Haiti? Or Congo? Or the dozens of other poverty-stricken countries around the world, and at that point does America stop nation-building?

As Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich argues:

For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say, Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor … outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude… Yet any politician calling for the commitment of 60,000 U.S. troops to Mexico to secure those interests or acquit those moral obligations would be laughed out of Washington — and rightly so. Any pundit proposing that the United States assume responsibility for eliminating the corruption that is endemic in Mexican politics while establishing in Mexico City effective mechanisms of governance would have his license to pontificate revoked.

Over the past year, the mission in Afghanistan has shifted from the limited goal of taking down al Qaeda to a much broader counterinsurgency approach. Americans are now being told their troops must protect the villages of Afghanistan. Planning will always falls short of our expectations because we can’t reliably predict the course of future events. As the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations stated in an August 2009 report, “Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is not a reconstruction project — it is a construction project, starting almost from scratch in a country that will probably remain poverty-stricken no matter how much the U.S. and the international community accomplish in the coming years.”

Denying a sanctuary to terrorists who seek to attack the United States does not require Washington to pacify the entire country or sustain a long-term, large-scale military presence. Afghanistan does not have to be Obama’s Vietnam, but whether it will be or not is entirely his decision.

[The Cato Institute will be hosting a forum “Should the United States Withdraw from Afghanistan?” on September 14th. If you would like to register or watch the forum live online, go to Cato’s events page at]

[Originally appeared on The Huffington Post, September 4, 2009]

One Regulator to Rule Them All

Part of the dominant narrative in Washington on the causes of the financial crisis is that competition among financial regulators allowed financial institutions to choose the weakest regulator, and also encouraged regulators to weaken their supervision and enforcement in order to attract more entities toward their charter.  Hence the response of several prominent Democrat congressional leaders and the Obama administration calling for an elimination of both the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and their merger into a single “super” bank regulator.

But is this narrative based on fact or analysis, or simply mere assertion?  Let’s start with a few counter-factuals: Fannie and Freddie could not choose their regulator, nor could Bear or Lehman.  The worst-performing U.S. institutions at the very center of the crisis had no choice in their regulator. 

And of course, this was not simply a U.S. crisis.  Northern Rock had no ability to choose its regulator.  The UK, like much of the world, does not have multiple bank supervisors, but only a single supervisor.  In fact, only three developed countries have multiple bank supervisors:  the United States, Germany and Liechtenstein.  If this was a crisis driven by competition among bank regulators, then most of the world would have been spared. 

What is the factual basis for merging the OTS and the OCC?  Apparently the proposal rests upon the observation that both AIG and Countrywide owned thrifts at the time of their failure.  In addition, the failure of thrift IndyMac was one of the largest bank failures to date.  Therefore, the OTS must have been the weak link.  However, both AIG and Countrywide acquired federally chartered thrifts late in the game; their failures were already “baked in the cake” long before they acquired thrifts.  And in both cases: 1) the thrifts were very small parts of their balance sheets, and 2) the failure of AIG and Countrywide did not result from their thrift subsidiary.  In relation to IndyMac, most of the entities regulated by the OTS specialize in mortgage finance, hence it should not be surprising that in the aftermath of a housing bubble, those engaging in mortgage finance fail at a greater rate.

Also it is worth remembering that prior to the savings and loan crisis, when there really was a significant difference between bank and thrift charters, thrifts could not choose to maintain their current business model and also flip charters. 

Since the case for merging regulators seems pretty weak, here’s an easy solution to address concerns regarding charter shopping:  require the FDIC to base deposit insurance premiums on the historical and expected losses by charter.

Housing Bailouts: Lessons Not Learned

The housing boom and bust that occurred earlier in this decade resulted from efforts by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the government sponsored enterprises with implicit backing from taxpayers — to extend mortgage credit to high-risk borrowers. This lending did not impose appropriate conditions on borrower income and assets, and it included loans with minimal down payments. We know how that turned out.

Did U.S. policymakers learn their lessons from this debacle and stop subsidizing mortgage lending to risky borrowers? NO. Instead, the Federal Housing Authority lept into the breach:

The FHA insures private lenders against defaults on certain home mortgages, an inducement to make such loans. Insurance from the New Deal-era agency has enabled lending to buyers who can’t make a big down payment or who want to refinance but have little equity. Most private lenders have sharply curtailed credit to those borrowers.

In the past two years, the number of loans insured by the FHA has soared and its market share reached 23% in the second quarter, up from 2.7% in 2006, according to Inside Mortgage Finance. FHA-backed loans outstanding totaled $429 billion in fiscal 2008, a number projected to hit $627 billion this year.

And what is the result of this surge in FHA insurance?

The Federal Housing Administration, hit by increasing mortgage-related losses, is in danger of seeing its reserves fall below the level demanded by Congress, according to government officials, in a development that could raise concerns about whether the agency needs a taxpayer bailout.

This is madness. Repeat after me: TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

Contra the President, Americans Don’t Want Big Government

Although candidate Barack Obama presented a moderate face, as president he has pushed a program for expanding government control at most every turn.  And that agenda appears to be causing the rush of independents away from the Democrats.

According to political analyst Charlie Cook:

What’s going on? While political analysts were fixated on last fall’s campaign and on Obama’s victory, inauguration, and first 100 days in office, two other dynamics were developing. First, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression scared many voters, making them worry about their future and that of their children and grandchildren. And the federal government’s failure to prevent that calamity fundamentally undermined the public’s already low confidence in government’s ability to solve problems. Washington’s unprecedented levels of intervention — at the end of Bush’s presidency and the start of Obama’s — into the private sector further unnerved the skittish public. People didn’t mind that the head of General Motors got fired. What frightened folks was that it was the federal government doing the firing.

Many conservatives predictably fear — and some downright oppose — any expansion of government. But late last year many moderates and independents who were already frightened about the economy began to fret that Washington was taking irreversible actions that would drive mountainous deficits higher. They worried that government was taking on far more than it could competently handle and far more than the country could afford. Against this backdrop, Obama’s agenda fanned fears that government was expanding too far, too fast. Before long, his strategy of letting Congress take the lead in formulating legislative proposals and thus prodding lawmakers to take ownership in their outcome caused his poll numbers on “strength” and “leadership” to plummet.

The Democrats still have plenty of time to revive their fortunes … by dropping plans to make an already huge government ever bigger.

How Much for a Schlub?

Over at The Corner, Rich Lowry put up a post on detainee interrogations that I responded to. Follow-up posts are available here and here.

Jay Nordlinger steps in to offer the view that, with terrorists, the difference between a “schlub” and a “monster” isn’t much. A pathetic radical can cause a lot of damage with just a little bit of luck.

This may be true, but there is a valuable ends-means calculation that must be considered (also addressed in Julian Sanchez’s post here).

How many times must we use coercive interrogation and get nothing, suffering the inevitable backlash in public opinion and enemy recruiting, for each intelligence success? If you are willing to torture a dozen/hundred/thousand men for each schlub, you will motivate a sufficient number of monsters to make a small tactical victory a pyrrhic one at best, and a strategic debacle at worst.

The big picture trends against torture, or any use of force that crosses the line between mutual combat and violating human rights, or the use of indiscriminate force. The attack on September 11, 2001 crossed that line, and we justifiably responded with military action. The use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT’s) crossed that line, and the enemy used it as propaganda fodder.

The British faced a parallel situation in Northern Ireland in 1971. After employing mass arrests that stoked the fires behind the IRA, the Brits employed “special interrogation techniques.” Former FBI Special Agent and successful terrorist group infiltrator Mike German covers this in his book, Thinking Like a Terrorist (citing Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA):

Among the methods used on the internees were the “five techniques”: placing a hood over the head; forcing the internee to stand spreadeagled against a wall for long periods; denying regular sleep patterns; providing irregular and limited food and water; and subjecting people to white noise in the form of a constant humming sound.

Sound familiar? Violence in Northern Ireland increased as a result of these practices. The Brits crossed the line again on Bloody Sunday when they fired into a crowd of peaceful protestors (possibly a response to IRA gunfire at British paratroopers). The tide shifted in favor of the IRA until they broke the unwritten rules of the game on Bloody Friday, detonating twenty-two bombs in Belfast that killed nine people. Tactically masterful, but a political disaster.

The Bush administration changed tactics in its second term in office, discarding EIT’s and moving away from physical coercion of detainees. This was a sensible decision, and there is no reason for the Obama administration to change course.

Torture and the Broken Window Fallacy

Pouring millions of dollars into some government program, however ill-conceived, typically generates some sort of visible benefit to somebody—if only those who find jobs staffing it. Conservatives normally understand perfectly well that this is precisely what makes bigger government so appealing to so many people: The benefits are indirect and apparent, while the costs are diffuse and hidden, because it’s hard to measure innovation that doesn’t happen. They also understand that it’s a terrible way to assess whether a program is beneficial on the whole.

Yet in his most recent response to David Rittgers—which David himself has already ably tackled below—Rich Lowry falls for a surprisingly crude version of the so-called Broken Window Fallacy:

Unless Rittgers believes that every single one of these captures was of someone of no consequence, or would have happened anyway and just as quickly, he has to admit that the interrogation program helped us track down terrorists expeditiously. Most people would consider that a success and would doubt whether part of Rittgers’s preferred interrogation regime would be quite as effective — dangling the promise of reduced sentences.

This is a pretty strange decision procedure, and one I assume Lowry would recognize as wrongheaded in almost any other context—akin to arguing that a jobs program must be ranked a success if the particular jobs it funds wouldn’t otherwise exist.  Stipulate, strictly for the sake of argument, that some of the particular intelligence we got was obtained more quickly under torture than it would have been otherwise, and that there were particular non-buffoonish terrorists we therefore apprehended more quickly than we otherwise would have. There isn’t actually an argument offered for this proposition—just the assertion that “most people…would doubt” its denial—but forget it, he’s rolling. There’s still a problem here. You can count your intelligence “hits,” but the misses—the intelligence not acquired and the terrorists not caught as quickly as they would have been under a different strategy—are, by definition, unseen. But at least some experts—like former FBI agent Asha Rangappa—offer good reason for expecting the costs to be substantial:

But getting people to flip is primarily a psychological game rather than a material one. After all, the FBI is asking its targets to commit the ultimate act of disloyalty to their country—treason. Few people are willing to make this leap quickly, even in exchange for the most lucrative or attractive offer. It’s an FBI agent’s job to slowly win the target’s trust and help him rationalize his decision to switch his allegiance. In my experience as a former FBI agent who both participated in and observed successful recruitments, it’s much easier to do this when a target has, at some level, a sense of admiration and respect for the United States. A nugget of goodwill toward America offers an agent the chance to step in, gain the target’s confidence, and convince him that playing for Team USA is worth the risk.

Policies like the use of torture make it more difficult for the FBI to develop relationships based on trust. Even when torture is used on a few people and in another country, and by a different agency, it casts doubts on the U.S. government’s overall willingness to act in good faith. Targets often project the skepticism about the United States that torture fosters onto individual FBI agents, who are often the only face of the government they see. In short, torture is fundamentally at odds with the image of the United States as a country that will play by the rules, and that is how the FBI must be perceived in order to do its job.

Conor Friedersdorf offers a longer list of the “strategic drawbacks” of torture, among them:

eliciting false intelligence that squanders man hours; the fact that a torture policy causes some upstanding intelligence professionals to resign, and others to remove themselves from interrogations, hurting our capacity to gather good intelligence; that torture pushes more Muslims into the radical camp, increases anti-American sentiments, aids terrorist recruiting efforts, and undermines support for the war on terror even among significant numbers of Americans; that it causes allied countries to cooperate less with our counterterrorism efforts; that it reduces the morale of soldiers and intelligence professionals; and that “enhanced interrogation techniques” have demonstrably bled into military prisons, undermining our mission in a critical theater and leading to the rightful imprisonment of American soldiers, who were denounced even by the Bush administration.

What kind of national-security analyst ignores all that to argue that because KSM was waterboarded, sleep deprived, and later gave some useful information, the strategic case for “enhanced interrogation” is definitely vindicated?

Again, by their nature, these costs are hard to quantify directly. You’re never going to know about the guy who didn’t flip or approach the FBI voluntarily because he didn’t view the United States as trustworthy. You know what intelligence you did get from the detainee who broke under torture; you don’t know what you never learned from the guy in the next cell because harsh tactics destroyed the chance of building rapport. What seems wildly improbable, though, is that the costs are non-existent. Yet that’s the only assumption on which Lowry’s hasty inference from some benefit to net benefit makes any sense.

Method to the Meandering

For Calvin Coolidge, one of our greatest presidents, reticence was both a personality trait and a political strategy.  As Coolidge told his Commerce secretary and successor, Herbert Hoover, “Nine-tenths of [visitors to the White House] want something they ought not to have.  If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes.”

It seems that Ronald Reagan,–an admirer of Coolidge’s who hung Silent Cal’s portrait in the Cabinet Room–adopted a similar strategy, though one more in keeping with Reagan’s gregarious persona.  Alas, Ted Kennedy, who recounted the story in his upcoming memoir, wasn’t sharp enough to figure out what was going on.  From an article on the Kennedy book in today’s New York Times:

[Senator Kennedy] said it had been difficult to get Reagan to focus on policy matters. He described a meeting with him that he and other senators had sought to press for shoe and textile import limits.

The senators were told that they would have just 30 minutes with the president. Reagan began the meeting, the book said, commenting on Mr. Kennedy’s shoes — asking if they were Bostonians — and then talking for 20 minutes about shoes and his experience selling shoes for his father. “Several of us began conspicuously to glance at our watches.” But to no avail. “And it was over!” Mr. Kennedy said. “No one got a word in about shoe or textile quota legislation.”

Huh. Go figure.

(For an introduction to Coolidge’s virtues, try John Derbyshire’s wonderfully strange and charming novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream.)