26 June 2010

Counterinsurgency, part 2

I just read the Rolling Stone piece on Gen. McChrystal.

I didn't see one thing wrong with anything the general or any of his subordinates said.

McChrystal was in no way portrayed as insubordinate to his commander-in-chief. In June 2009, Defense Secretary Gates ordered a top-down review of the military's Afghanistan policy. McChrystal responded with a stark, jarring report, recommending that 40,000 troops be added. Obama was reportedly annoyed by McChrystal's analysis -- and apparently thought McChrystal might have been trying to show him up -- but if that's the case, why did Obama/Gates order the review in the first place?

The story did in fact paint President Obama just like I portrayed him in our recent post of June 24 (before reading the Rolling Stone piece) -- tepid, uncertain, hemming and hawing, the ultimate think-tanker -- believing a pullout to be unwise but never fully buying into the counterinsurgency. When McChrystal requested 40,000 additional troops, Obama gave him 21,000.

What precisely are we doing in Afghanistan? The story correctly that al Qaeda has shifted their operations into Pakistan -- where the terrain is equally rugged, the government is a more reluctant partner and the populace is considerably more anti-American. The elements of the Taliban remaining in Afghanistan are much less dangerous to American security than the al Qaeda operatives still roaming the Pakistani mountains.

When one realizes that the Afghani Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda are three completely separate entities, that complicates the American mission in Afghanistan further.

There really are no good answers. The more I think about Afghanistan, the more complicated it gets.

Back to McChrystal.

I've changed my tune. I'm upset that he was forced out. While David Petraeus is probably the greatest general of his era, isn't the military stronger with McChrystal in Afghanistan and Petraeus at CENTCOM? McChrystal was in no way insubordinate to his commander-in-chief in the Rolling Stone piece, and if anything, the piece left me with the impression that if the counterinsurgency strategy truly is the way to go, McChrystal is without a doubt the man to lead it.

The counterinsurgency strategy is, at its core, really about winning the support of the Afghan people, just like was done in Iraq. But as we noted, Afghanistan is an entirely different animal.

Now -- many liberals like to shriek "Vietnam" like a bunch of granola-munching late-60s hipsters. Get it through your thick heads: Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Afghanistan was the base for the most catastrophic attack on the American homeland in history. Their government provided the only state-sponsored safe harbor to al Qaeda. We haven't lost 60,000 troops. The enemy is less destructive and less numerous than the Viet Cong. And American support for the war still remains reasonably high.

But what the Rolling Stone piece did do was crystallize a number of serious doubts about our strategy in Afghanistan and whether victory is actually plausible under the current framework. It demonstrated that -- as we noted two days ago -- 8 1/2 years after launching the offensive, we are only incrementally closer to handing over security to the Afghans.

At the current rate, we will likely be another 5-10% closer to our ultimate goal of Afghan control by the targeted pullout date in 2011. U.S. casualties will remain high, but unlike in Vietnam, clear progress will be apparent. The U.S. military will be a wonderfully efficient force in building highways, schools and hospitals. The attitude of the populace will improve -- and I know these things because they all happened in Iraq. The problem is that, at the current rate, the end goal is probably seven to ten years away. Can we sustain this? Do we want to? Realistically, can America become a true occupier?

The whole thing is incredibly discouraging.

24 June 2010

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan?

As much as I respected Gen. McChrystal, I had no problem with President Obama removing him from command and replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus. The fact that a Rolling Stone columnist managed to gain access to such high-level sources raises significant questions about whether McChrystal had a tight enough grip on the operation.

Now, Petraeus will take over. He was the undisputed star of Woodward's "The War Within," detailing the Bush administration's deliberate effort to re-tool their efforts in the Iraq War, and, in the face of criticism from both sides of the aisle, pursue a counterinsurgency strategy that has put the United States on the precipice of victory.

In Afghanistan, I have two big concerns moving forward.

First, Petraeus' rightfully vaunted counterinsurgency strategy worked like a dream in Iraq. But can it work in Afghanistan? In light of McChrystal's exit, this is a very important discussion to have. While I supported the troop surge in both countries, and give the president credit for standing up to his anti-war base, there are legitimate criticisms -- from rock-ribbed conservatives like George Will and thoughtful middle-of-the-roaders like Andrew Sullivan -- as to whether Petraeus' feat in Iraq can be duplicated in Afghanistan. Iraq is much more modern, has significant urban areas where most of the population is centered (e.g., Baghdad and Tikrit) and (with the exception of the Kurds in northwest Iraq) does not have a history of tribal leadership, but rather of strong central governance. In Iraq, American soldiers -- for better or for worse -- helped rebuild the country's declining infrastructure -- roads, schools, hospitals, etc. Baghdad is now a thriving center of commerce, thanks in large part to the nation-building done by the U.S. military.

Afghanistan is much the opposite. There is little infrastructure even in place. Kabul and Kandahar are modestly sized cities, but not urban. Much of the Afghani population lives outside of the major cities, and for centuries -- perhaps millennia -- warlords, drug kingpins and various local tribal leaders have reigned supreme. Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government -- in fact, much the opposite. While Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, the newly minted Iraqi officials circa 2004 had a governmental blueprint -- police, personnel, a warchest, regulations, procedures, etc. The largest standing army Afghanistan has ever had is no larger than 90,000 troops. And unlike Iraq -- where the battles were fought in the city streets -- the battles in Afghanistan against al Qaeda are fought in the must rugged areas of the world.

The objective, ultimately, is to transfer responsibility to the Afghani military and police forces such that it is their job to keep al Qaeda at bay. Can this be done? I think we all agree that the United States can't be in Afghanistan acting as the police force, and continue to sustain casualties, for another 10 or 15 years. At some point, the U.S. will be viewed as an occupier, muddling through nation building exercises in a country that has really never had such a blueprint to work from. This isn't to criticize the military leadership, but rather point out the vast differences between Iraq and Afghanistan.

The goal must be realized somehow. If the Taliban regains power, a second 9/11 is not only possible, but likely. I'm just not sure this objective is even realistic. What bothers me is that we have been in Afghanistan since October 2001, and today in June 2010, no one is under the delusion that the Afghan government is ready to take over security responsibilities from U.S. forces. In light of the president's curious target date of October 2011 for a phased withdrawal of troops, isn't it a bit unrealistic to expect the Afghan government to do in 18 months what it hasn't been able to do for 8 1/2 years?

And conservatives, please spare me the "cut and run" rhetoric of Sarah Palin. This was relevant in Iraq, but for the reasons listed above, Afghanistan is an entirely different animal.

Whether this war is actually winnable in a reasonable timeframe -- keeping in mind mounting casualties, widespread corruption in the Afghan government, issues between Karzai and the U.S., and the looming threat of Iran -- is a legitimate question.

My position is that yes, the war is winnable, but we need a more solid partner than Karzai, who is laughably corrupt and quite possibly mentally unstable. If he is unable to lead his country toward a fully functional Afghan security force, then the U.S. needs to displace him with someone who can. I have a complete lack of confidence in Karzai's willingness and abilities to deal with the pro-Taliban forces both in his own government and in his country's more remote regions where the enemy still lurks. I personally don't care that Karzai was democratically elected -- in fact, virtually the entire world believes there was voter fraud that took place, so whether he is actually a legitimate leader or just a stooge is debatable -- American interests are at a breaking point in Afghanistan, and if Karzai can't reach the bar, he must be displaced -- democracy be damned (see a prior post on this topic).

Secondly, the Afghanistan problem causes me to lose even more confidence in President Obama. On Hardball last night, Howard Fineman described the chain of command in the Obama administration as "a floating craps game." While the national security adviser has traditionally been the link between the generals in the field, the Department of Defense leadership and the president, Jim Jones is widely believed to be absent from the loop. This is a shame, as Jones is a highly decorated career military man who was a brilliant pick for NSA in the first place. The fact that he doesn't have Obama's ear is very discouraging. Who is dictating policy? Is it Hillary Clinton at State? Is it Bob Gates at Defense? Or is it Joe Biden? Reportedly, Biden is in favor of an accelerated withdrawal, while Clinton and Gates (and presumably Jones) favor a beefed up counterinsurgency campaign. Biden has reportedly been marginalized in Cabinet meetings, but the bottom line is that even many insiders aren't quite sure who is ultimately calling the shots.

Given that the man at the top -- Obama -- has next to zero foreign policy experience, this is even more alarming.

What Fineman and Chris Matthews spoke of last night was a lack of some sort of chain of command, where the leaders on the ground in Afghanistan know they can go for policy decisions and the like. As Matthews astutely noted, the administration's tepid response to the oil spill in the gulf can be compared to the McChrystal situation (where the commanding general on the ground reportedly called the NSA chief a "clown") -- and a conclusion can reasonably be drawn that no one knows who's in charge.

Say what you will about President Bush, but has a chain of command ever been more clear?

Furthermore, isn't it bothersome that the president mandated a troop surge, but wants to begin withdrawing troops within 18 months?

This is bothersome to me as we enter perhaps the most critical period of the war in Afghanistan. Whether he likes it or not, Afghanistan might be the most crucial issue of Barack Obama's presidency. Split-the-baby decisions do not good leaders make. Is the president content to find nuanced (read: confusing) positions on issues of enormous import (much as he did with the terrible healthcare bill where he expanded Medicaid rolls and imposed regulations on insurance companies, but jettisoned the public option, managing to piss off everyone) just to please?

Obama in this way is very much like Bush, I believe -- there is a danger in having a president walk into the Oval Office knowing almost next to nothing about foreign policy. Bush was susceptible to the neocon forces in his administration -- Cheney and Wolfowitz, et al. -- but Obama is a rudderless blank slate who doesn't appear to be fully committed to this surge. In fact, the only thing he appears truly committed to is his professorial method of so-called leadership.

He needs to take charge. Furthermore, he needs to demonstrate to Karzai that American interests will not be compromised by a timeline.

To this point, the president's atrocious style of leadership is wearing thin, and he needs to decide whether the country will indeed be worse off in 2012 because of it.

This is why you don't elect an inexperienced, first-term, back-benching liberal senator with no significant legislative accomplishments president of the United States.

Because he doesn't know how to lead.

17 June 2010

The problem with democracy

It was the stated policy of the Bush administration, and ostensibly, is now the policy of the Obama administration, to spread democracy the world over. This has perhaps been best embodied by the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, when, after WMDs were nowhere to be found, the president justified his actions by touting that a new democracy had sprung up amongst neighbors who are anything but democratic.

Truth be told, this is a noble goal. And I certainly don't fault President Bush for pursuing it as a measure of foreign policy, especially when the idea of dictatorship is so patently antithetical to the idea of freedom and the rights we Americans believe all world citizens enjoy.

But democracy has its consequences -- especially in the Middle East. In Iraq, the popular, radical Sunni cleric Mudtaqa al-Sadr gave the Bush administration fits and ordered "fatwas" killing hundreds of innocent Iraqis (not to mention American servicemen). In Afghanistan, the "democratically elected" Hamid Karzai threatened to join the Taliban and continues to run perhaps the most corrupt government in the world. And in Gaza, the Palestinians went to the polls and elected the members of Hamas -- a legitimate terrorist organization -- to be their ruling party. As a result of this decision, the Israeli army promptly initiated a blockade of the Palestinian settlements in Gaza.

Democracy has consequences. Many technically democratically elected leaders -- Hamas, Iran's Ahmadenijad and Belarus' Lukashenka, among others, aren't even recognized diplomatically by the United States. On the other hand, the U.S. is quite friendly with a number of full-on dictatorships, most critically the ruling class in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim theocracy. Palestinians in Gaza, on the other hand, have legitimately chosen Hamas to lead them after free and fair elections.

Such is the problem with making the "spread of democracy" a pillar of foreign policy. I am not necessarily opposed to the spread of democracy as an ideal, and believe that America retains its glow as the shining city on the hill -- the world's greatest democracy.

But we must be ever mindful of what can happen when individuals with very different interests, and in very different parts of the world, choose their leaders.

13 June 2010

The downward spiral

I just returned to the Midwest from a weeklong vacation in Destin, Florida. The BP oil spill made it within 30 miles of Destin -- to the beaches in Pensacola, west of us -- but never reached shore. It was a beautiful vacation and the beaches, world-class.

During my vacation, the White House press corps -- fresh off their games of grab-ass with Rahm Emanuel and the Bidens -- paid enough attention to their journalistic responsibilities to illuminate the fact that despite the passage of nearly eight weeks since the spill began, President Obama still has not spoken with Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP. Yes, BP possesses the technology to cap the spill, but they are effectively a government contractor serving at the pleasure of the United States government, and this is the biggest environmental disaster in American history. After press secretary Robert Gibbs protested to the press corps that Hayward isn't necessarily the one in charge of day-to-day operations and such is the responsibility of the Board of Directors, NBC's Chip Reid first pointed out that Gibbs clearly has no clue about corporate governance, and second, asked Gibbs whether, alternatively, Obama has spoken with any members of BP's Board.

Gibbs of course said no, he hadn't.

Americans want leadership from their president. If Obama really wanted to make a difference, he'd be on the phone with Hayward daily and members of the Board weekly, and eight weeks in, he'd be launching full-scale criminal proceedings against BP's officers and directors. It was nothing short of gross negligence that caused this catastrophe, and if BP -- the entity solely responsible for the spill and the one who bears the responsibility for cleaning it up -- can't figure out a solution, then it's the job of the executive branch to break out the proverbial sticks until they do. BP is a multi-squillion-dollar company, which has reaped record profits year after year by engaging in risky behavior. They must be held accountable. If Obama can't make them accountable, then he shouldn't be president.

Furthermore, why have each of the Gulf state governors, to a man, said that they have inadequate amounts of boom and skimming vessels? Governor Riley of Alabama specifically noted on Face the Nation this morning that it's difficult for even him to determine who exactly is in charge of the cleanup portion of the spill.

This is precisely why we so heartily supported John McCain for president in 2008. Yes, he's temperamental, and yes, he enjoys kicking his base in the teeth, but McCain is a leader with a proven track record of accomplishments and an uncanny instinct for the right cause. From campaign finance to balanced budgets to pork barrel spending to the Gang of 14 to the Iraq surge, McCain is a tireless advocate for that which is right, and a crusader against that which the likes of the back-benching Obama have come to represent.

Say what you will about President Bush -- and here, we have said a lot -- but he always led from the front. On the stimulus package, on Gitmo, on health care, on budgets, and yes, now on the oil spill response, Obama has proven himself time and again as aloof and reactionary. The crucible of the American presidency has shown us plenty about Barack Obama -- namely, that he isn't a leader.

As Chris Matthews astutely noted a few weeks ago, Obama acts like the liberal Democratic senator from Illinois, and not the President of the United States. This is precisely what we warned about two years ago. What in this man's past indicated to anyone that he would be an effective chief executive?