Archive for January, 2009

With all the contradictory advice he’s getting on Afghanistan, Barack Obama’s head must be spinning by now — just like another well-meaning Democrat’s head was spinning 45 years ago, as he faced another inherited war with an inherited Secretary of Defense. For now, I’m willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and wait to see whether Gates’s troop announcement will lay out the necessary details: not just the numbers, but the mission, and most importantly, the end state.

In the meantime, here’s a novel idea: why not listen to the Pakistanis?

As the Western war effort has faltered in Afghanistan and we’ve realised there’s a handy scapegoat just across the Durand Line, it has become something of a habit to treat Pakistan as an international retard, a country incapable of seeing anything outside the prism of its self-interest — or worse still, as a Somalia-like failed state with no institutions, history or national pride.

No matter that they’ve just held free elections, or that their civilian government is trying its best to rein in the military, or that, despite claims to the contrary, their foreign policy remains quite rational — Pakistan has become the villain of this Great Game, never to be trusted and certainly not to be taken seriously.

While this may not be altogether unreasonable — Pakistan certainly hasn’t made it easy to think otherwise — it’s a real shame we’ve shut them out. It may be a mess, but Pakistan is also a country with a long tradition for vigorous public debate that, for better or worse, represents the full spectrum of political opinion, including what we derisively call Islamic fundamentalism. What’s best, you don’t have to know Urdu to sample what Pakistani pundits have to offer.

I’m bringing this up because of two recent articles I think are noteworthy as counterpoints in the current America-centric debate over the escalation of war in Afghanistan. One is a Washington Post op-ed by Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan; the other, an opinion piece, in the Pakistani newspaper The News, by Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador to the. U.S. and the U.K.

Both are pleas for sympathy and understanding, for aid and support, and for trust and respect. They may read like standard bluster, but there’s an element of sadness and despair that’s hard to dismiss. The situation must be dire when the head of state of a sovereign country feels compelled to write something like this — in a welcome message to a new U.S. president and his envoy:

Ambassador Holbrooke will soon discover that Pakistan is far more than a rhetorical partner in the fight against extremism. Unlike in the 1980s, we are surrogates for no one. With all due respect, we need no lectures on our commitment. This is our war. It is our children and wives who are dying.

And more to the point:

Assistance to Pakistan is not charity; rather, the creation of a politically stable and economically viable Pakistan is in the long-term, strategic interest of the United States.

For her part, Lodhi provides a practical 8-point list of dos and don’ts for Islamabad to “reset ties with the US and align these with the sentiments of its own people”, with the idea that “no policy is sustainable unless it has public support”. It’s worth quoting at length:

1) Seek an end to unilateral US Predator attacks on Pakistani territory, which have inflamed public opinion, undercut Islamabad’s own counter-insurgency efforts and risk destabilising the country. […]

2) Reject any conditionality attached to assistance promised under the Biden-Lugar bill. The administration’s announcement that this assistance will be linked to Pakistan’s counterterrorism performance in the border region is at odds with the approach advocated by President Obama during the campaign. […]

3) Convey that Pakistan is neither looking for nor needs US military assistance to build its conventional capability. But to strengthen its counterterrorism capabilities, it requires helicopters, night vision, radars, electronic intelligence devices and other advanced technology. Absent these, the Pakistani army will continue to fight an asymmetrical conflict with conventional implements.

4) Insist on the criticality of trade, rather than aid, in helping Pakistan’s economic recovery. The country’s economic lifeline, textiles, is in deep trouble. Providing Pakistani garments and textiles access to the American market would be a transformative act. […]

5) Assert that a genuinely “regional approach” should address Pakistan’s security concerns with India, especially Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Washington should be made to recognise the regional nature of Pakistan’s security challenges and acknowledge that many issues in the region are so interconnected that they can set each other off.

6) Insist that as the US reshapes its Afghan policy, Pakistan’s views and security are factored into the review. […]

7) Counsel the US that simply sending more troops to Afghanistan without a significant change in strategy will be counter-productive. […]

8) Policies to stabilise Afghanistan should not unintendedly end up destabilising Pakistan, as has been the case with the flawed approach and military missteps of the Bush era.

And finally:

The Obama Administration should consider a more realistic approach to Afghanistan that focuses policy on the ‘core’ project (defeating terrorism), rather than a ‘big project’ of multiple goals that can mire it in a war without end. This means distinguishing between what is vital (disruption of terrorist networks) and what is desirable but best left to Afghans to undertake (transforming society, building a centralised state and promoting democracy). This should aim to separate Al Qaeda from the Taliban, and engage the latter in a reconciliation process. Building confidence by dialogue should be followed by the offer for an eventual withdrawal of foreign forces in return for a cessation of attacks and support for the creation of a viable Afghan national army and security apparatus.

This is not all that different from what the American and European opponents of the planned “Afghan surge” are saying. For the record, I think a troop increase of 30,000 is hardly an “escalation”; it’s a stopgap measure at best, designed for a last-ditch holding action to check the Taleban advance. But there are other, more important issues here, and I believe Lodhi’s views are worth considering, coming as they are from a country whose insecurities need to be addressed before we can expect any progress in Afghanistan.

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Still smarting from my brutal yet inconclusive mano-a-mano over Afghanistan with a tenacious but ill-informed German isolationist, I was lazily browsing through this week’s crop of dismal Afghan analysis when I came across this.

Aptly titled “Graveyard of analogies”, it’s a new article by the eminently wise Pakistani journalist-scholar Ahmed Rashid, and it basically says the same thing I was so crudely trying to articulate when I suggested we should “take a break from that tired old Soviet analogy”. Money quote:

Since the first American bombs fell on Afghanistan in October 2001, a cottage industry of doomsayers has arisen among academics and journalists, warning that the US will fail in the so-called ‘graveyard of empires’ just as the Soviets did.

As Barack Obama takes office – and reiterates his intention to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, such prophecies have returned anew, insisting that Afghanistan is a cesspool of ungovernable tribes, unscaleable terrain and unwinnable wars.

But to compare the American and Soviet invasions is misguided […]: the Soviets had no support inside or outside the country when they blundered in with their tanks to prop up an unpopular Afghan communist government that took power by coup.

More precisely:

The American failures in Afghanistan were not foreordained by Afghanistan’s unyielding terrain or fractious tribal politics: they were failures of decision-making and commitment in an attempt to achieve ambitious goals with minimal resources. George W Bush, who disdained ‘nation-building’ as he ran for president in 2000, had no plans to do it in Afghanistan.

Read it all.

And while you’re at it — particularly if you still believe Afghanistan is “a land-bound, utterly isolated low economy country without cultural or political relevance to us”, as my esteemed blogger colleague from Germany does — read what Barnett Rubin has to say about that:

The history of Afghanistan over the last thirty-five years has been that of the end of the country’s status as an isolated buffer state. Rather than separating conflicts, Afghanistan now links them. Ten years ago Afghanistan, besides having a low-intensity conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, was also the scene of India-Pakistan and Sunni-Shia conflicts and, to a certain extent, U.S.-Iranian-Russian competition over pipeline routes. All of those conflicts have only become more intense. In addition, today Afghanistan is the theater for the War on Terror, the ill-defined confrontation between the United States and global Islamist movements; the conflict between NATO and Russia; the confrontation between the United States and Iran; the struggle within Pakistan over that country’s future; and a transnational insurgency spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan and linked to al Qaeda. Finally, there is a higher level of mobilization around the ethnic, tribal, regional, and sectarian cleavages that have always marked Afghan politics.

I’m sure a nimble mind can come up with any number of excuses to dismiss out of hand even these grand old men of Afghan studies, but one thing is incontestable: myth-mongers or war-lovers they’re not.

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I consider myself reasonably well versed in the intricacies of the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policies, but I long ago lost count of the numerous memos — by John Yoo, Jay Bybee and others — that the OLC spewed out to justify detainee mistreatment and other lawlessness. So I’m happy to report that Pro Publica now has a list of (almost) everything, including the still-secret legal opinions, and a neat timeline to boot. And in case you missed it, here’s Jack Balkin’s op-ed on why they should be made public.

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Haven’t read it yet, but here’s something you’ll want to sink your teeth into: a new International Crisis Group report on Iraq’s upcoming provincial elections. More later.

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Whatever his problems, judging by this excellent social network analysis, President Barack Obama can’t complain he isn’t getting pertinent information on Afghanistan.

Not only has he managed to surround himself with exceptionally clever people, but many of those he apparently listens to actually have first-hand experience of the Afghan battlefields. Add to this the fact that Barnett Rubin himself advised Obama during his presidential campaign, and you start to wonder whether there is anyone in the academia he hasn’t put to use.

And yet, there’s this:

Suspected U.S. drones fired missiles into Pakistan on Friday killing at least 14 people, intelligence officials and residents said, in the first such strikes since Barack Obama became U.S. president.

And now this:

President Obama intends to adopt a tougher line toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, as part of a new American approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

Who exactly is advising the president?

Surely it can’t be Nate Fick and John Nagl, who just a few weeks ago wrote:

Cross-border raids into Pakistan to pursue insurgents have strained U.S. relations with Pakistan at this critical juncture in the Afghan campaign. Pakistan is, of course, inextricably connected to the Afghan insurgency. The Pashtun belt, as the border area between the two countries is known, constitutes the real battleground in this war. Counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan, therefore, are a necessary component of any strategy in Afghanistan. Without Pakistani support, however, unilateral cross-border raids will create more blowback than they are worth.

And it certainly can’t be Rubin, who has again and again emphasised the importance of diplomacy and development, and of seeking compromise and addressing regional insecurities.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the new administration simply doesn’t have an Afghan strategy, that they’ve waded into the morass just as clueless as the rest of us. If that’s the case, how about at least calling a time out on those Predator strikes — didn’t the president just tell “the Muslim world” he would “start listening”? — and maybe cutting Karzai some slack until, like, you come up with a Plan B?

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As Obama moves to shut down Guantánamo — even if he is, in the immortal words of Peter Feaver, just “kicking the can as far down the road as he possibly can without being penalized for delay of game” — we all suddenly find ourselves trying to figure out whether we can somehow pitch in.

Because Gitmo is such a stain, and because we all failed to stop it from happening, there is enormous political pressure even in an unlikely place like Finland to at least consider granting asylum to some of the detainees who’ve been cleared of charges, whatever they may be, but cannot go home.

While this is only natural, and while I sympathise with the sentiments, I’d like to advise against such hasty acts of penitence. Here’s why:

  • The Americans themselves don’t know what they’re dealing with. According to the Washington Post, the Guantánamo case files are a mess, and even the new administration will have a hard time sorting out who’s who, why they’re there and — most importantly — what, if anything, they’ve done.
  • Seven years in a cage is bad for a person. Regardless of whether or not one believes Bush’s claims of recidivism among former inmates (I have my doubts), radicalisation is something we’d be foolish to overlook. By all accounts, Gitmo is a place that turns innocent men into potential terrorists, and we simply couldn’t be sure whether we’d be welcoming Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.
  • You don’t send torture survivors to a cold and lonely place. Finland is a highly homogenous, xenophobic and inward-looking society where outsiders in general, and non-Whites in particular, are not welcome. After years behind bars, the detainees deserve better.
  • You don’t send potential jihadists to a country that’s not equipped to deal with them. Finland simply doesn’t have the intelligence infrastructure to keep tabs on the releasees. Maybe one isn’t needed; maybe the poor guys will just find a girl and get a job and disappear into the crowd. But what if one doesn’t?

None of this is to say we shouldn’t help Obama solve his conundrum. But let him first gauge the extent of the mess he’s in.

[UPDATE: New info on Gitmo files here.]

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According to a recent opinion poll by the Financial Times, clear majorities of people in the UK, France, Italy and Germany believe their countries shouldn’t send any more troops to fight in Afghanistan. And the governments, ever mindful of their fickle electorates, agree. “We have made the necessary effort,” French Defence Minister Herve Morin said yesterday. “Considering additional reinforcements is out of the question for now.”

In Finland, Professor Juhani Suomi, one of the most influential historians of his generation, recently ridiculed Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb for basically trying to kiss ass by doubling the Finnish troop strength in Afghanistan — from 100 to 200. Suomi, like many other scholars and politicians in Europe, points out that as the U.S. bolsters its own war effort, Afghanistan will once again become an American fight and will be seen as such by the ever-reluctant ISAF contributors who never wanted to be there in the first place.

This line of reasoning might be politically expedient, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed. To start with, you don’t prosecute a war by listening to your pollsters. I realise I’m starting to sound like George W. Bush, but I believe there are times when you need to send your armies overseas regardless of public opinion. And although stability hardly grows from the barrel of a gun, any lasting solution to the region’s ills will by necessity have a military component. Ironically, Afghanistan is unpopular in Europe exactly because the very governments that now refuse to commit more forces have failed to explain to their voters why the war matters. It shouldn’t be all that hard — just start with the fact that a country’s nuclear arsenal may soon be in the hands of homicidal fanatics, and take it from there.

As for the argument that we should all pull out because it’ll end in tears anyway, let’s for a moment meditate on what will happen if we do:

  • The coalition crumbles, leaving the U.S. and Britain to fight alone. Reconstruction grinds to a halt.
  • Debilitated by its failure, NATO shrinks to irrelevance. Fireworks in Moscow.
  • Faced with a fight to the death, the Kabul government chooses engagement with the Taleban instead.
  • The Taleban kills everyone else and seizes power.
  • Military coup in Pakistan.
  • Al-Qaeda hits Europe and America.
  • Supported by an international coalition, the U.S. starts a bombing campaign to topple the Taleban. Osama bin Laden escapes.

[UPDATE: WPR’s Judah Grunstein chimes in with a more optimistic take.]

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I’m reading Obama’s Executive Order on presidential records and wondering whether this means that the previous administration’s records — including Cheney’s — can be made public even if Bush claims executive privilege:

Sec. 4.  Claim of Executive Privilege by Former President.

(a)  Upon receipt of a claim of executive privilege by a living former President, the Archivist shall consult with the Attorney General (through the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel), the Counsel to the President, and such other executive agencies as the Archivist deems appropriate concerning the Archivist’s determination as to whether to honor the former President’s claim of privilege or instead to disclose the Presidential records notwithstanding the claim of privilege.  Any determination under section 3 of this order that executive privilege shall not be invoked by the incumbent President shall not prejudice the Archivist’s determination with respect to the former President’s claim of privilege.

(b)  In making the determination referred to in subsection (a) of this section, the Archivist shall abide by any instructions given him by the incumbent President or his designee unless otherwise directed by a final court order.  The Archivist shall notify the incumbent and former Presidents of his determination at least 30 days prior to disclosure of the Presidential records, unless a shorter time period is required in the circumstances set forth in section 1270.44 of the NARA regulations.  Copies of the notice for the incumbent President shall be delivered to the President (through the Counsel to the President) and the Attorney General (through the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel).  The copy of the notice for the former President shall be delivered to the former President or his designated representative.

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In Dexter Filkins’s latest dispatch from Afghanistan, an American foot patrol enters a village near Kandahar to find three men sitting on a blanket, listening to music on a radio:

‘So, seen any Taliban lately?’ Lieutenant Holloway asked the men.

‘We haven’t seen the Taliban in eight months,’ a man named Niamatullah said, looking up.

‘Do you ever see anyone moving through here at night?’ Lieutenant Holloway asked.

‘We don’t go outside at night,’ said Mr. Niamatullah, who, like many Afghans, uses one name. ‘When we do, you guys search us and hold us for hours. And you never find anything.’

Lieutenant Holloway shook his head.

‘The last person we stopped in this village, we held for 20 minutes,’ the lieutenant said. ‘We never detain anyone.’

‘We are afraid of you,’ Mr. Niamatullah said.

‘Is there a Taliban curfew?’ Lieutenant Holloway asked.

‘Only a man with a white shawl is allowed outside at night,’ Mr. Niamatullah said.

‘A white shawl?’ Lieutenant Holloway squinted.

Mr. Niamatullah did not offer to explain.

‘But he has no gun, so you cannot detain him.’

After several minutes, Lieutenant Holloway gave up.

‘Everybody knows something,’ Lieutenant Holloway said, walking away, ‘But no one tells us anything.’

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I followed the conflict in Sri Lanka from the start all through the 80s and early 90s and was more aghast at what was happening on the island every time I went back, which was once or twice a year.

The slow unraveling of the country’s democracy and its descent into the lower depths of fratricidal hell was all the more tragic since, of all the meaningless civil wars I’ve covered, this ranked as probably the most mind-boggling. The roots of the Sinhalese-Tamil dustup were neither ethnic nor religious, which would have explained the ferocity, but linguistic; and even for the most passionate advocate of two-state solutions there was never any doubt that a viable Tamil state on this tiny clump of land was impossible simply because it wasn’t practical. Watching the mayhem, I was more often than not left wondering what the hell they were fighting over.

I was reminded of all this when an old friend emailed me a link to this editorial, titled “And Then They Came for Me”, by the editor of the Colombo newspaper The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

In what must be one of the most devastating pieces of journalism I’ve ever read, Wickrematunge, who was shot dead by two gunmen on January 8, not only executes a brilliant full-frontal assault on the presidency of his old friend Mahinda Rajapaksa but also predicts his own assassination — and names the culprits:

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

Wickrematunge then turns to address the president:

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

Breathtaking in its eloquence and tragic beyond words, Wickrematunge’s soliloquy offers no hope, even if the solution to the country’s ills is painfully obvious:

[…] A military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering ‘development’ and ‘reconstruction’ on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen – and all of the government – cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

As for his own imminent demise, Wickrematunge takes solace in “knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man”:

I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

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