Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

An Alternative Strategy for Afghanistan

Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, has an excellent piece on forging an alternative strategy in Afghanistan.

I believe the United States should begin a relative rapid withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan.  It is not that I don’t think they can be locally effective.  It is just that I question the cost/benefit calculus of extending the commitment.  I think that many supporters of escalation fail to consider the potential consequences if we do fail to achieve our goal of largely defeating the Taliban and pacifying Afghanistan. [Emphasis mine]

Finel brings up a critical point. From former national security adviser Henry Kissinger to Council on Foreign Relations scholar Stephen Biddle, many prominent opinion leaders concede that the war in Afghanistan will be long, expensive, and risky, yet claim it is ultimately worth waging because a withdrawal would boost jihadism globally and make America look weak. But what happens if what we’ve invested in falls apart whether we withdraw tomorrow or 20 years from now? And wouldn’t trying to stay indefinitely — while accomplishing little — appear even worse? Trying to pacify all of Afghanistan, much less hoping to do so on a permanent basis, is a losing strategy.

afghanistan-malou innocentMr. Finel goes on to say further down, “we should recommit to doing everything in our power to revolve tensions between India and Pakistan.  Pakistan has legitimate security concerns regarding its neighbor and that gives Pakistan mixed motives in dealing with Islamist radicals.”

This too is a crucial recommendation. People in the Beltway have neglected the extent to which leaders in Islamabad fear the rise of an India-leaning government coming to power in Kabul, and thus, their leaders (principally their military) have little incentive to stop allowing their territory to be used as a de facto safe haven for the original Afghan Taliban. Thus, the question must be asked, can Washington offer any number of incentives for their leaders to relinquish support for extremists with whom they have associated for the past 30 years? This question gets lost when people discuss the possibility of talks with the Taliban. The question for U.S. policymakers is not whether the Taliban militants we talk to are “moderate” enough, but whether they will simply lie in wait and reemerge from their cross-border sanctuary after the eventual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

Unless Washington addresses Pakistan’s existential fear of India, and their military leadership’s continued support for the Taliban in order to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO troops could fight for decades, win every discrete battle, and never come close to eradicating the militancy.

David Frum Analyzes Why ‘The Crazies’ Are Running the GOP

In a discussion on Bloggingheads, David Frum offers his thoughts on the sad state of the GOP these days:

He blames the predicament, in part, on the “conservative entertainment-industrial complex,” a term coined by Andrew Sullivan.  In Frum’s telling, this complex has “distorted conservative dialogue to suit the wishes of the Fox audience.”  He says that drawing on such a group, “you can get seriously rich out of that, but you can’t govern a country with that kind of voter base, it’s a tiny minority-within-a-minority.”

This is an interesting thesis.  Frum was the coauthor of a seemingly successful, widely discussed foreign-policy book titled An End to Evil, which posited that terrorism posed a “threat to the survival of our nation,” and in foreign policy, “there is no middle way for Americans.  It is victory or Holocaust.”  Are these the sorts of carefully considered judgments on which the GOP is going to ride back into office?

It’s probably true that pushing the American nationalist button over and over from 2002 forward contributed to getting Bush reelected in 2004, but the results after then have been rather less encouraging.  John Boehner colorfully remarked recently that the GOP “took it in the shorts with Bush-Cheney, the Iraq War, and by sacrificing fiscal responsibility to hold power.”  I’m not sure that my preferred foreign policy is the key to political success, but I’m pretty sure that the zany world view that Frum has traded on isn’t the way forward either.

Tom Ridge on the Bush Administration’s War on Terror

Former congressman, governor, and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge is a long-time GOP loyalist.  But he apparently doesn’t have good things to say about the Bush administration on its vaunted war on terrorism.

A new report on his upcoming book warns:

Tom Ridge, the first head of the 9/11-inspired Department of Homeland Security, wasn’t keen on writing a tell-all. But in The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege…and How We Can Be Safe Again, out September 1, Ridge says he wants to shake “public complacency” over security.

And to do that, well, he needs to tell all. Especially about the infighting he saw that frustrated his attempts to build a smooth-running department. Among the headlines promoted by publisher Thomas Dunne Books: Ridge was never invited to sit in on National Security Council meetings; was “blindsided” by the FBI in morning Oval Office meetings because the agency withheld critical information from him; found his urgings to block Michael Brown from being named head of the emergency agency blamed for the Hurricane Katrina disaster ignored; and was pushed to raise the security alert on the eve of President Bush’s re-election, something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over.

This confirms widespread suspicion that the Bush administration’s terrorism initiatives were highly political.  It also undercuts the claim that we should trust government to protect us by sacrificing our liberties and giving trustworthy public servants greater discretion.

Majority of Americans Say Afghan War Not Worth Fighting

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC Poll, the majority of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.

Usually, I don’t take kindly to polling data; they are ephemeral snapshots of public opinion that fluctuate with the prevailing political winds. But I will say (as I’ve said before) that Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States. In that respect, I can understand why Americans are growing skeptical of continuing what’s become an “aimless absurdity.”

America’s flagging support for the war comes as millions of Afghans head to the polls to elect their next president. Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, is the front-runner, but if he is unable to secure more than 50% of the vote there will be a run-off scheduled for early October. Given the pervasive levels of corruption within his own government, if Karzai ends up winning, America and the international community might be perceived as propping up an illegitimate government; however, if Karzai loses, it might further alienate the country’s largest minority group, the Pashtuns, among whom Karzai, and the Taliban, pull most of their support.

This morning, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall writes from Kabul, “initial reports from witnesses suggested that the turnout was uneven, with higher participation in the relatively peaceful north than in the troubled south.”

Before the elections, Taliban militants, mainly concentrated in the southern and eastern provinces but now spreading to the north, threatened to cut off fingers marked with purple ink used to indicate when someone casts a vote. Ms. Gall writes: “In the southern city of Kandahar, witnesses said, insurgents hanged two people because their fingers were marked with indelible ink used to denote that they had voted.” Wow! Maybe the elections will be a watershed moment in Afghanistan’s history: the democracy experiment comes as a death sentence.

On a lighter note, there are already allegations of voter fraud. An inspection of the rolls revealed the name of an unlikely voter, “Britney Jamilia Spears,” one of a number of phantom voters.

Many people would agree that the atmosphere surrounding Afghanistan’s presidential elections is analogous to the country as a whole: dysfunctional. Candidates are forging alliances with warlords; tribal elders are being offered jobs, territory, and forgiveness of past sins to secure their allegiance; and Britney Spears is a registered Afghan voter. It’s about time that America narrow its objectives and start bringing the military mission to a close.

The Zero Percent Doctrine

I was never a fan of Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine.

According to Ron Suskind, after 9/11 Cheney explained to law enforcement and intelligence officials that they should treat even the one percent chance of a terrorist attack as a mathematical certainty. The particular case was of a Pakistani nuclear scientist helping al-Qaeda to acquire a nuclear bomb, but the standard became a shorthand for U.S. counterterror efforts generally. No scale of effort would be too great. Better to chase down 100 leads, 99 of which turn out to be bogus, because finding just that one nugget would have been worth the level of effort.

Now we have evidence that the federal government is chasing down far more than 99 blind alleys for just one lead. From today’s front-page story in the New York Times, Eric Schmitt explains how the FBI has adapted and evolved since 9/11:

The bureau now ranks fighting terrorism as its No. 1 priority. It has doubled the number of agents assigned to counterterrorism duties to roughly 5,000 people, and has created new squads across the country that focus more on deterring and disrupting terrorism than on solving crimes.

But the manpower costs of this focus are steep, and the benefits not always clear. Of the 5,500 leads that the squad has pursued since it was formed five years ago, only 5 percent have been found credible enough to be sent to permanent F.B.I. squads for longer-term investigations, said Supervisory Special Agent Kristen von KleinSmid, head of the squad. Only a handful of those cases have resulted in criminal prosecutions or other law enforcement action, and none have foiled a specific terrorist plot, the authorities acknowledge. (Emphasis mine.)

So, just to review:

  • 5,500 leads over 5 years
  • 5 percent deemed credible
  • “A handful” technically would mean five or less, but charitably might total a few dozen. Still, that translates to far less than 1 percent of leads investigated resulting in a criminal prosecution.

But, and here’s the kicker,

  • None – zero, zip, nada – foiled a specific terrorist plot.

On the face of it, this seems like a waste of time and resources that should be spent elsewhere.

There are several plausible explanations, however, for why I’m wrong and why those who believe that we are not dedicating sufficient resources to combating terrorism are right.

  • Perhaps other government agencies have been far more effective at disrupting terror plots. (But when the relative comparison is zero, it isn’t very hard to clear that bar.)
  • Perhaps Schmitt got his facts wrong. (Doubtful. He is one of the most experienced and reliable reporters on the beat.)
  • Perhaps the knowledge that 5,000 people chasing down 5,500 leads deters would-be terrorists from even attempting anything. (Or it could simply be helping bin Laden’s plan “to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy.”)

Two other points bear consideration. First, it is possible that arresting, prosecuting and convicting people of lesser crimes disrupts what might someday become a full-scale terror plot. There is no reason to think that the guy trying to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch was much smarter than the 15 guys who provided the muscle for the 9/11 attacks. The difference was leadership, which defined a plausible terrorist attack and devised the means to carry it out. That said, there are problems associated with the expansion of federal laws, and the growing power of prosecutors, and I would still much prefer that common criminals be handled in a run-of-the-mill fashion. Local cops, local prosecutors, local jails.

Which leads to the second point. Reflecting the growing federalization of the criminal law, the FBI strayed into a number of areas even before 9/11 that should have been handled by local law enforcement. This expansion of the federal criminal law poses a threat to individual liberty. (Thanks to Tim Lynch for pointing to this source.) But counterterrorism is one of the few legitimate functions for a federal law enforcement agency, and if the FBI is devoting more resources to that than to other crimes, that in and of itself wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I remain unconvinced, however, that what we are seeing is a wise expenditure of resources. And while I understand that zero terrorist plots uncovered is not equal to zero threat of a future attack, it is incumbent on the FBI – and more generally those who think that the problem is too little, as opposed to much, being devoted to counterterrorism – to prove why they need still more resources.

Until that occurs, I think that UCLA’s Amy Zegart, who is quoted in the Times story, should get the last word on this point:

Just chasing leads burns through resources. … You’re really going to get bang for the buck when you chase leads based on a deeper assessment of who threatens us, their capabilities and indicators of impending attack. Right now, there’s more chasing than assessing.

Arizona to Feds: No “Enhanced” Drivers License

Last week, the governor of Arizona signed H.B. 2426, which bars the state from implementing the “enhanced” drivers license (EDL) program.

If the federal REAL ID revival bill (PASS ID) becomes law, it will give congressional approval to EDLs, which up to now have been simply a creation of the federal security and state driver licensing bureaucracies.

As governor of Arizona, the current Secretary of Homeland Security signed a memorandum of understanding with the DHS to implement EDLs, and she backs PASS ID even though she signed an anti-REAL ID bill as governor. As I said before, Secretary Napolitano seems to be taking the national ID tar baby in a loving embrace.

Bringing the States Back In

afghanistanIt’s an annoying, hackneyed trope of foreign policy types to say “if you want to understand X, you have to understand Y.”  That said, let me engage in a little bit of it.

What’s going on in Afghanistan, we’re supposed to believe, is about terrorism, failed states, economic development, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, human rights, and some other stuff.  And to an extent, it is about each of those things.  But to my mind, if you want to get a handle on what’s driving events over there, and on its historical status as a plaything of regional and extraregional powers, you ought to read this article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The themes that permeate the article are familiar: States as the primary actors in international politics, their uncertainty about other states’ intentions, the fundamental zero-sumness of security competition…somebody should cook up a theory or two on this stuff.

Eventually–although in fairness, God only knows when–we’re going to leave Afghanistan.  When that happens, India and Pakistan are still going to live in the neighborhood.  They’d each prefer to have lots of influence in Afghanistan, and to preclude the other from having too much.  Accordingly, they’re both trying to set up structures and relationships that would, in the ideal scenario, let them control Afghanistan.  In a less-than-ideal scenario, they’d like enough influence to undermine the other’s control of the country.  Until you grasp that nettle, you’re really just fumbling around in the dark.

Find a solution for that in your COIN manual.