Last December, President Barack Obama spoke to the American people and drove home the point that U.S. forces would begin to leave Afghanistan in July of 2011. But ever since that West Point speech, Democrats and Republicans on Capital Hill have been debating about what exactly the President meant by withdraw. Are U.S. troops going to quickly pack up their gear and head home overnight like ghosts in the wind after nearly a decade of war, like Vice President Joe Biden implied to a Newsweek reporter? Or is that date simply the start of a long process of withdrawal, where the pace would be determined by conditions on the ground, as General David Petraeus stated in front of Congress during his confirmation hearing?
To this day, insiders and outsiders alike still don’t really know the answer. In fact, from reading the news, it doesn’t look like the Obama administration knows what the answer is either. Staffers and senior administration officials say each member of Obama’s team is on the same page with the President’s current strategy, whether it’s working with Hamid Karzai, reaching out to Taliban militants, or engaging local tribal leaders in Pashtun villages. But this argument is clouded by the fact that both the Vice President and the newly confirmed U.S. Commander hold different interpretations on some central themes of Washington’s strategy, such as the pace and scope of the American commitment.
Regardless of what the answer is, a key tenant of the U.S. counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan is still being overlooked; the training of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police Force (there is one man, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, who is the exception). And this is a sad state of affairs, because these are the two forces that will eventually be tasked with taking over what the U.S. leaves behind.
Whether U.S. forces will depart in a quick manner or over a longer period of time is actually a trivial point at the moment. What is significant is that American troops will surely start to begin the process of disappearing from Afghanistan next July. But if U.S. forces are expected to follow the July timeline and salvage whatever successes they have made across the country, you would think that creating an independent and transparent Afghan police force would be a top priority.
Unfortunately, it appears that pressuring the Taliban for short-term tactical victories against the insurgency is more important than building a more secure long-term future for Afghan civilians. This wouldn’t be such a pressing lapse in judgment if the ANSF were already professional, but this is anything but the case.
As of today, the Afghan Police Force is still considered by Afghans and internationals alike as one of the most corrupt institutions in the entire country. Stealing and pillaging aside- which are still pretty horrific crimes from a police standpoint- there are disturbing examples of policemen kidnapping and sometimes killing civilians to quench their thirst either for money or revenge. Intimidation of civilians is not uncommon, desertion is high, drug abuse is rampant (British estimates are as high as 60 percent in Helmand Province), and many policemen simply look the other way when drug traffickers try to move their products. The drug trade is easy money in Afghanistan, and reports from virtually every international security think-tank recognize that some in the ANP get a cut of the action.
All of these problems are not only discrediting to the United States, who in some ways are only edging this activity along by not strictly confronting it. They are also main reasons why so many Afghans (especially in the South) are reluctant to cooperate with the police in counterinsurgency operations. There is no trust between the people who are supposed to protect the local population and enforce the laws of Afghanistan’s constitution. In fact, in some areas (like Kandahar), the lack of trust between the two sides has gotten so bad that citizens actually prefer the Taliban to the ANP. While the Afghan National Army does not have such a bad reputation, they too have their list of problems, like drug use, absenteeism, and mismanagement).
Surely the United States is not solely to blame for the lackluster performance of Afghanistan’s security forces. But Washington’s obsession in numbers doesn’t exactly alleviate the situation either. There seems to be a universal belief that Afghanistan can be turned around- and Taliban influence can be contained- if Afghan security personnel reach a certain number, like 200,00 or 300,000. But all of the policemen in the world will not help Afghanistan become a semi-stable country if the quality is below average.
In some ways, the United States suffers from this very same problem. In some American cities, citizens trust gangs and other criminal organization’s more than police officers, because gang’s protect the neighborhoods and police officers are viewed as predatory (whether this is actually true is up for debate). Afghanistan is in much the same situation, although multiplied by 100. If civilian authorities don’t deliver, there reputation gets damaged, or worst, destroyed. Only solid training program, with strict benchmarks in firearms, community policing, community interaction, and respectable wages will this reputation improve.
It’s an old saying, but quality should overtake quantity. General David Petraeus and his colleagues- specifically Lt. Gen. William Caldwell- should begin to stress the quality of Afghanistan’s police officers rather than the quantity. A force that employs a few officers who are both proficient and impartial at what they do is a much better scenario for Afghan security than a force with thousands of officers who have no idea how to start a criminal investigation or file a civilian complaint.
Afghanistan is not a lost cause yet, but it will be if the counterinsurgency approach is not followed properly.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Ronald E. Neumann at FP.com. Neumann was a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2005 to 2007**
CNN refers to itself as “the most trusted name in news,” and if you ask Americans on the street, there’s a good chance that they prefer CNN to the list of other news networks. I myself have a tendency to pick CNN every single time. Based on my own amateur opinion, their reporting usually follows a pretty moderate pattern…neither too liberal nor too conservative. The anchors are well versed most of the time, the beat reporters are some of the most highly respected in the press, and it seems like CNN covers international stories in a much more personalized and in-depth style. Compare this to Fox News, whose management is quick to invite Republicans on as guests on virtually every show.
Covering news is a hard business, but it’s even harder when so many things are going on at such a fast pace, like today. CNN has, by and large, done a decent job at keeping pace, and I give most of the credit to the actual journalists who do the reporting and risk their lives on the front lines when the assignment calls for it.
But a small part of me just lost a little bit of respect for CNN as an institution.
A woman named Octavia Nasr- a veteran in the news biz and a senior editor at CNN- lost her job yesterday after she wrote a tweet that many deemed offensive. The tweet went something like this: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”
The Sayyed Fadlallah that she was referring too is widely labeled by the United States as a leading spiritual advisor of the anti-Israel Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon, as well as a man who used to endorse terrorist attacks on western targets when U.S. troops were stationed in Lebanon in the early 1980’s. But he is also labeled by many in the Middle East as a powerful Shia cleric who was actually much more moderate than his enemies made him out to be. He was particularly pragmatic when it came to gender relations and the rights of women in Islam, which separated him from more rejectionist players like Iran. In fact, Fadlallah seemed to get wiser with age; in 2005, he criticized Hezbollah for being too aggressive politically and baiting Lebanese civilians for votes.
When following a purely simplistic form of conventional wisdom, Ms. Nasr’s firing would be understandable to the average viewer. But when taking the broader picture into account and getting at the root of Fadlallah’s unique history as a cleric, CNN’s decision to give Nasr the boot gets more and more shallow and problematic.
The bottom line is that the United States is caught up in a very sensitive and politicized culture. Every statement in front of a video camera or every comment in the newspaper that stretches beyond the mainstream gets bashed by people who are afraid to lose their jobs or afraid that money is going to be cut off from their network if they stay silent. And sadly, the journalists and politicians that makes these remarks are castrated in the press and lose a bulk of their credibility.
The sad part of the Nasr affair is that CNN fired one of their best analysts in the Middle East. Ms. Nasr has been covering stories in the region for twenty years, and she knows the in’s and out’s of Islamic culture and politics pretty well. In the end, CNN may only end up hurting themselves by kicking her out of the door.
It baffles the mind how a 140-character tweet or a 20 second comment on Israel (Helen Thomas) can ruin a person’s career and destroy a person’s reputation. What CNN and Hearst Newspapers (Helen Thomas’ former employer) are basically saying is that an isolated incident of controversy- even if it’s just for a few seconds- can outweigh a person’s entire portfolio.
I’m glad I’m not a communications major.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt at FP.com**
After a short hour and 19 minute meeting at the White House, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were quick to embrace one another in front of reporters, showing the world that they have both decided to change their rhetoric towards one another and work together on a common goal of Middle East peace.
Like I said a few days ago before the meeting took place, this is precisely what the bilateral event was designed for. After a tumultuous eighteen months between Israel and its greatest ally (the United States)- including disagreements over Israel’s behavior with respect to the Palestinians- Obama’s staff made sure that this diplomatic exchange went as smoothly as possible. You may recall that the last U.S.-Israel meeting did not go very well…it went so badly, in fact, that the President deliberately kept the Israeli Prime Minister waiting in the lobby for a few hours and even refused to hold a joint news conference after the talk was completed.
Three months later, Obama’s mindset towards Israel and its Prime Minister has changed dramatically. The midterm elections are fast approaching, and the last thing Obama wants to do is jeopardize his party by appearing to be anti-Israeli. Plus, Republicans in recent months have been all over the President on his Middle East policy, accusing him of compromising U.S. security interests and letting his grudge with Netanyahu get too far. Given this atmosphere, the White House probably viewed this meeting as a political opportunity to show his solidarity with Israel in the hopes of stemming this criticism and shoring up Jewish support for Democrats ahead of the vote.
On the other side, Netanyahu faces a similar, yet different, domestic situation on the cusp of his Washington visit. He has been taking a beating from the international community, dovish Israeli political parties, and Arab leaders for his terrible track record at peace talks, whether this includes brandish statements towards the Palestinian leadership or actual policy moves that have weakened Palestinian trust. His endorsement of Israeli settlement building on occupied Palestinian land- which the international community deems illegal under international law- has driven a deep wedge between Israel and its greatest ally, donor, and patron. Israelis critical of Netanyahu were (and continue to be) afraid that his reliance on right-wing politicians has damaged Israeli credibility in the eyes of the region and in the eyes of the international community. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren suggested as much a month ago, arguing that a “tectonic” shift is taking place between Washington and Tel Aviv on a number of important issues.
So both leaders had reasons for shaking hands and smiling in front of the cameras today. Both men, regardless of their experience, are confronting political pressures in their home countries. Netanyahu is hearing it from Jewish peace activists, and Republicans in the peanut gallery are heckling Obama. This could help explain why the U.S.-Israel meeting went without incident. Obama stated compassionately that he always had trust in Netanyahu, despite what the press had said, and that the U.S.-Israel relationship is stronger than it has ever been. Netanyahu returned the favor by endorsing Obama’s vision for a two-state solution to the conflict…something that he previously opposed.
But logistics and sugarcoating aside, the July 6 meeting still didn’t bridge the United States and Israel when it comes to policy. President Obama’s plan for a two-state solution depends primarily on the termination of Israeli settlement building, and a willingness by Netanyahu to show the Palestinians that he is serious about peace talks. This runs right into Netanyahu’s strategy, which is both pro-settler and hawkish in its origins. It’s one thing to say that you would like a quick and smooth end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Netanyahu has expressed. But it’s quite another to actually progress towards that goal. Given his dependency on right-wing parties, I’m still not sure if Netanyahu is willing to sacrifice his political career for a successful Israeli-Palestinian resolution.
However, one thing is clear; if Israel refuses to renew its ban on new settlement building this September, all of this talk of peace is meaningless.
By the way, Obama declared that he wants Israelis and Palestinians to stop acting like children and address one another directly in just a few weeks time. But it’s hard to see this actually happening, both because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is opposed to the idea as long as settlement construction continues, and because Palestinian negotiators are afraid that concrete issues (like security, borders, Jerusalem) will remain off the table.
-Daniel R. DePetris
Now that the Independence Day Holiday is over with, the White House is back to business as usual. The first item on the agenda is a major diplomatic meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 6; a meeting that will hopefully go much better than the previous two this year (one resulted in an embarrassing moment for Obama on Israeli settlements, and the other added to an already frosty relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv). What a way to get back to reality.
As usual, pundits and talking-heads across the political spectrum are gearing up for the meeting and speculating about what the final result between the two men will be. So naturally, I have to add my two cents in, although I’m neither a pundit or a talking-head…just a loud mouthed and opinionated blogger.
Nothing substantial can happen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless the United States and Israel get on the same page on the most basic requirements for peace. Administration officials are acutely aware of this, so tomorrow’s diplomatic event will probably spend most of its time and energy on bridging these policy gaps, or at least portraying to the world that the U.S. and Israel are working towards the same goal.
Washington’s demands towards Israel and the Palestinians are still the same as they have ever been. With respect to Israel, the United States wants Netanyahu to cease illegal settlement building in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and review his Gaza policy, which has created a devastating humanitarian crisis for over one million Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas’ job is to put an end to Palestinian incitement in his area of control (the West Bank). But to the dismay of many and to the surprise of none, all of these requirements are still unmet, for a number of specific reasons.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is afraid of taking the first big steps for peace, out of fear that his right-wing political allies would stab him in the back and facture his governing coalition. On the other side, Mahmoud Abbas has been powerless to eliminate the old Palestinian mindset of rejectionism in the West Bank. But this is not entirely his fault; there is still a large cadre of 20th century Palestinians in the P.A. that are suspicious of whatever Israel decides to do.
To think that a single meeting in Washington with the Israeli Prime Minister will solve any of these problems is a façade. In fact, it will be surprising if the Obama-Netanyahu meeting has any lasting effect on the conflict at all.
The funny thing is that Obama and Netanyahu understand this, so the July 6 event at the White House should perhaps be seen more as a P.R. stunt than the start of a new determination on Mideast peace.
My prediction: 1) the meeting will go well, both men will hold a joint press conference reiterating their friendship and their desire to end the conflict, and neoconservatives will end up blasting President Obama for not supporting the Israelis unconditionally. 2) Israel’s settlement policy will stay the same, but Netanyahu will end of scrapping some really big projects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to show Obama he’s trying to act like a responsible partner. And 3) the Arab League will re-endorse the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
In other words, more of the same.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Matthew Duss and David Halperin at FP.com**
It looks like all of my bitching and moaning has actually paid off…or at least this is what I’m inclined to tell myself.
After an enormous international uproar over Israel’s deadly raid on a pro-Palestinian humanitarian mission, and after America’s refusal to wholeheartedly support Israel at the United Nations after the incident, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally admitted that perhaps he was wrong about Gaza all along.
The Israeli blockade on Gaza, which was supposed to put the hurt on Palestinians to the point that they would challenge and possibly overthrow the Hamas Government, is now being loosened to its weakest position since the embargo was established three and a half years ago. Weapons, like guns, ammunition, and Qassam rockets, will still be on the list of banned items going into the strip (and they should be). But other goods, like certain foods, spices, construction materials, books, and movies, will now be allowed to pass through the border and make their way into the hands of Gazans. For once, the hardship that the ordinary Gazan faces may be coming to an end.
Or it could be something entirely different, like a political move by the Israeli Government to relieve some of the pressure that they have been forced to contain over the last 6 months. Or it could be both.
I’m not going to speculate why Israel had a sudden change of heart, because to be blunt, there is probably more than one motive at work here (although I would like nothing more than to run my mouth and pretend I know the answer).
So a word of caution; before we all jump the gun and automatically assume that the Gaza blockade is going to be a success and a pretext for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, perhaps we should just sit and wait to see if the policy is going to be implemented correctly.
Middle Eastern history is rife with compromises that seemed positive and reassuring in the present, but then soured and turned into a big disappointment in the future. The fuel-swap deal last October that was supposed to dissuade the Iranians from enriching uranium to higher levels turned out to a political maneuver by Tehran to stall for more time. Likewise, Barack Obama’s election victory was supposed to usher into a brand new era of Mideast peacemaking, both in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and in terms of America’s relationship with the wider Muslim world. But eighteen months later, the United States is still trying to get out of Iraq despite the lack of an Iraqi Government, and Washington is still stagnant in Afghanistan despite the tens of thousands of additional American troops entering the country this summer.
The point is not to disparage Israel’s decision to ease up on Gaza. In fact, I’ve been passionately arguing for this kind of step for months on this forum and elsewhere. I still firmly believe that Israel will not increase its security by endorsing a policy of collective punishment on those who live in Gaza. In fact, boycotting the Gaza Strip may have the exact opposite effect. It should be clear over the past three years that this is precisely what has happened as a result of the blockade. Israel’s legitimacy has been corroded in the eyes of much of the world, and the Muslim world continues to show its anger, which plays right into the hands of Israel and the west’s many enemies (Al’Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard).
With that being said, Israel’s decision should be applauded and expanded. The list of banned items has always been a bit overbearing. We should just hold our breath to see if it actually works. But if the last week’s shift in policy is any indication, my past concerns are now starting to look a lot less like delusional rants.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Marc Lynch at FP.com**
When times are tough, families try to do anything they can to cut spending and save money. The privileges and treasures that often give us all a much needed break from our hectic lives- like going out to restaurants on the weekends or embarking on a long vacation at a tropical resort- are usually the first things that are sacrificed from the family budget. State governments too are forced to revamp and review their budgetary process when officials are strapped for cash. Educational programs may be eliminated to make way for more spending on social services, or taxes may be added onto specific products (like soda and alcohol) in order to throw more money at a growing deficit problem. Unfortunately, these same actions tend to marginalize and anger the same people that the state is supposed to serve, putting politicians in an uncomfortable and awkward position.
Given the horrible economic situation that the country is experiencing today, and the terrible unemployment rate that is hurting close to ten percent of American families, politics in the United States is all about saving money. But with trillions of dollars in national debt, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an inefficient health care system and a draining social security system, how can the government actually stop spending without harming the national interest or placing even more hardship on the average American?
I’m really not sure what the answer is, which is why I’m still in school rather than campaigning for a seat on the town board, or running for office in Washington. Nevertheless, this doesn’t hamper my understanding on where we shouldn’t cut spending…our national security infrastructure. And we especially shouldn’t do it when one of the mainstream arguments for cutting the U.S. national security budget is misleading…”you have a greater chance of being killed in a car accident or struck by lighting than being a victim of terrorism.”
To be fair, I have to concede that this critique is not necessarily inaccurate. In fact, research and numbers support the claim. According to Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, an average of 40,000 Americans die in car crashes per year, a number that is over ten times that of the most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history. This figure becomes even more astounding when officials go on the record and use it as a comparison to terrorism.
It’s called a diversionary tactic, and it’s a clever way of portraying an act of terrorism as so miniscule and rare that Americans would be foolish to worry about it. The fact that the United States hasn’t suffered a major terrorist attack on its soil since September 11 only adds to the strength of this type of argument.
But how can you compare traffic deaths to terrorism when both are unique problems, with totally different motivations resulting in totally different situations? One is the result of careless driving and/or bad weather (in addition to other factors), while the other is the result of a coordinated and premeditated act of violence aimed to intimidate and instill fear. Using this comparison only focuses on the numbers while ignoring the circumstances and surroundings that make terrorism such a horrendous and psychologically devastating method.
More importantly, using the traffic-to-terrorism metaphor runs the risk of “dumbing down” the whole issue of terrorism and turning back the clock to a pre- 9/11 way of thinking; that somehow the United States is immune to the violence that has plagued so many other countries and killed so many of its citizens.
The United States has not suffered an act of foreign terrorism on its soil since September of 2001 (notice how I say foreign terrorism. Remember Maj. Nidal Hassan?). This is obviously something that we should all be celebrating. Part of this is due to luck, part of this is due to the tremendous talent of our national security officials and our military, and part of this is due to the way terrorists have chosen to operate in today’s global environment (a number of experts believe that Al’Qaeda, for instance, is focusing more of its energies on multiple, small-scale attacks against Americans than a single large and coordinated 9/11-style strike). Whatever the cause of this nine-year terror free reign, our recent successes should not be used as a rationale for slashing our defense and security budget. This is almost akin to shutting down the NYPD just because crime in New York City dropped.
Focusing on hard statistics is deceiving for another reason as well; depending on the specific organization and what they are trying to accomplish, the physical destruction of property and the killing of unarmed civilians could be secondary to the psychological impact of an attack. Look at what happened on Christmas Day when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to take down a passenger jet heading to Detroit. On a technical level, he failed, but judging from Washington’s schizophrenic reaction, his operation could still be considered a success. AQAP (Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) certainly thought it was, and so did Osama bin-Laden, who hailed the Nigerian terrorist “a hero” to his fellow Muslims.
Can you really compare car accidents to terrorist attacks? I guess you can, but it’s really apples to oranges isn’t it? Of course, there is more behind the numbers when we talk about traffic accidents as well, like how a family’s life is affected when a relative’s life is lost. But the same is true for terrorism, except terrorist attacks have a toll on the national psyche that traffic deaths do not.
-Daniel R. DePetris
Boy was I wrong on my prediction.
In a publicized address to the nation Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation, citing the commander’s “poor judgment” over the Rolling Stone article. Sure, the General was let go because of a juvinile act of insubordination, but can you blame the president for making this decision? If I was in his shoes, I may have made the same exact judgment. The last thing the United States needs is a general who throws insults at the upper echelons of the White House national-security staff. Remarks like those tend to divide an administration, and a divided administration is not what you want when cooperation is a must in a conflict as complicated as Afghanistan.
But in a way, the McChrystal firing is only a sub-headline to a much larger story. Is this going to affect the way the U.S. Military fights the war? More importantly, will the McChrystal removal make the enemy more confident about its own operations in the war effort?
The answer to the latter is absolutely. Newsweek reports that Taliban commanders have been watching and listening with glee over the political firestorm that is occurring in Washington as a result of McChrystal’s comments. To them, a split in America’s leadership only brings positivity to their own ranks, reiterating the belief that the United States has no strategic direction inside Afghanistan. American infighting over the course of the war only adds skepticism among NATO allies as well, some of whom are withdrawing their entire troop contingent this summer (like the Netherlands and Canada). And sadly, Taliban commanders may be just in celebrating McChrystal’s removal…the American public is just about sick and tired of Afghanistan, and the White House is undergoing a tremendous amount of criticism about the lack of military and political success within the country as a whole.
The former question (is this going to affect the way the U.S. Military fights the war?) is a much more difficult one to answer. Tactics probably won’t change very much, because the man who reinvented counterinsurgency doctrine (General David Petraeus) has been tapped to takeover the U.S. Command. Both Petraeus and McChrystal are highly supportive of counterinsurgency, with Petraeus turning Iraq around with the same strategy a few years earlier and McChrystal following Petraeus’ lead in Afghanistan during his tenure. So “winning hearts and minds” (whatever that might entail at this point) is still the name of the game.
The problem is accessibility. McChrystal had a very close relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the only official who was quick to lend his personal support to the general after the Rolling Stone story was published online. The two men were more than respectful to one another, and Karzai has frequently hinted that McChrystal was the only American he could trust in the entire campaign. Petraeus now has the unfortunate task of rebuilding this trust, which is absolutely key if the U.S. wishes to establish a semi-functioning national government in Kabul (which might not be possible anyway, given Afghanistan’s history). But if his record is anything to go by, this probably won’t be much of an issue for Petraeus; many Middle Eastern leaders already view him for what he is, which is an honest and intelligent person.
What McChrystal will do next is anyone’s guess. He has a lot of empty time to fill, so maybe he’ll just retire into the sunset (although his roots in the special-forces might prompt him to stay). But the narrative just got a little more interesting.
One more question to consider: Did Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have a say during this entire process? Considering that both men have had public disagreements with McChrystal in the past, I wouldn’t doubt it.
-Daniel R. DePetris
Most of the time, honesty is the best policy in life. If you lie to your parents and do something behind their back, chances are that you’ll escape a much harder punishment if you confront them and admit your mistakes. And in the court of law, if you are suspected, charged, and tried of murder, you will probably end up with a much better sentence if you simply admit the crime to the judge rather than wasting taxpayer money on a drawn out trial.
But wars are extenuating circumstances. Killing people in mass quantities can hardly be considered a normal part of everyday life. So perhaps this is why General Stanley McChrystal’s remarks yesterday about President Obama and his staff are so disturbing and dangerous; they reveal a thought process that not only hurts the war effort and divides the upper echelons of the U.S. command, but embarrass the entire civil-military establishment.
The story I’m obviously referring to is a new piece by Rolling Stone Magazine that will be hitting shelves this Friday, in which the top U.S/NATO Commander in Afghanistan directs some pointed insults to his superiors in the White House. Some of these comments could be contained if they focused on a single individual. But this article is going to pretty difficult to contain and sweep under the rug, especially when every major Obama official- including President Obama himself- involved in Afghan policy was mentioned in a negative light.
The article in Rolling Stone is pretty long, and I suspect that most people won’t have time to read the entire thing…although it is a page-turner. But here are the quotes that really distinguish the controversy from the jargon, and get the General in some real trouble (courtesy of Politico):
“The article, titled “The Runaway General,” appears in the magazine later this week. It contains a number of jabs by McChrystal and his staff aimed not only at the president but also at Vice President Joe Biden, special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and others.
McChrystal described his first meeting with Obama as disappointing and said that Obama was unprepared for the meeting.
National Security Adviser Jim Jones is described by a McChrystal aide as a “clown” stuck in 1985.
Others aides joked about Biden’s last name as sounding like “Bite me” since Biden opposed the surge.”
And from FP.com: “Some of the harshest criticism was reserved for Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, whose leaked memos cast doubt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s trustworthiness as an ally. McChrystal said he felt “betrayed” by the ambassador, and that the leaked memos “covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.”
Keep in mind that this isn’t the first time the top General has gotten himself in hot water with the White House. Last September, when President Obama was determining a new policy for the war, McChrystal publicly stated that he would not accept a plan to reduce U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan…a plan that VP Biden endorsed. During that time, the President recalled the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen to show his displeasure, and to basically tell him to keep a lid on McChrystal.
This time, however, the President has recalled McChrystal directly, ordering him to fly from Afghanistan to Washington for a meeting today. Is the U.S. about to see a change of command in Afghanistan? Tom Ricks seems to think so.
My bet is that McChyrstal will offer his resignation, but the President will refuse to take it…you know, for the sake of the mission.
-Daniel R. DePetris
I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog about Afghanistan and Pakistan…so much time, in fact, that I sometimes think I’ve exhausted everything I have to say about the subject. But my focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan has always remained consistent over the past year, the main one being that both nations are crucial to America’s counterterrorism efforts. And both countries, by the way, have taken on such an importance to U.S. foreign policy that the last two administrations have spent enormous amounts of presidential resources on Afghan and Pakistani relations.
But my lack of clarity and my writer’s block on “AfPak” quickly disappears when I hear the same old questions being asked in the press. Why is the U.S. in Afghanistan? Why is NATO struggling to defeat the Taliban? Why is the insurgency spreading despite thousands of American troops on the ground? And why is Osama bin-Laden still at large, sitting in a cave somewhere after close to a decade of being America’s number one enemy?
All the questions may be different in some capacity, and some are actually reminiscent of doubts Americans had before September 11. But even with these supposed differences, the answer comes back to a single country that has yet to show its full capacity, but could improve the situation remarkably if they decided to cooperate in a wholehearted way. That nation is Pakistan.
The United States and NATO will be hard-pressed to achieve anything in Afghanistan if Pakistan’s security services refuses to get on board with what Washington is trying to accomplish. In fact, Pakistan’s unhelpful behavior over the last nine years is the major reason why the U.S. and its allies are fairing badly in southern Afghanistan today. Of course, this is not the only reason; a faulty war plan and an artificial timetable for withdrawal also make the job of securing Afghanistan that much more difficult (the Taliban can basically pack it in and lay low until July of next year, when the coalition pulls out).
Yet even with these mistakes (which are of America’s doing), you have to wonder if the war would be going as badly today if the Pakistanis were embracing the same strategy as the Americans.
But the causes behind Pakistan’s floundering are well known. Like the Taliban, the Pakistani Government is planning for an Afghanistan that is largely free of American (and western) influence, and the best way to do that is by solidifying a partnership with a group that has the strength and appeal to help them achieve their objectives. Islamabad is looking towards the future and trying to determine what the best course of action in order to suit their own security interests in a post-American Afghanistan. Virtually everyone in the region, from the mullahs of Tehran to the Chinese, is expecting the United States to leave the region next summer, consistent with Obama’s stated timeline. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that Pakistan is trying to get a head start over other powers in South Asia, even if this means pursuing a policy that is contradictory to America’s current position.
Today, the Taliban Movement is Pakistan’s number-one partner in Afghanistan, and historically, it has been Pakistan’s most reliable partner for the last decade and a half. Speculation aside, chances are that the Taliban would have probably died out by now if it wasn’t for the billions of dollars in military assistance that Pakistan’s gave them over the last 15-odd years. Taliban fighters have always been perceived by the Pakistani Military as a proxy force against foreign entities inside Afghanistan, as well as a hedge against an expanding Indian presence.
The sad part is that everyone pretty much knows this already, yet are still scared to admit that the situation in Afghanistan will stay the same unless Pakistan’s grievances are met.
So what can the U.S. do to reverse the tide and possibly gain Pakistan’s valuable support? Given Pakistan’s paranoia over anything Indian, the logical answer would be an American led initiative to roll back Indian influence inside Afghanistan. But it’s quite obvious that India wouldn’t accept such a proposal (would you!). Plus, India is one of America’s closest allies in South Asia, so the idea that the United States would jeopardize this relationship by asking the Indians to limit their freedom of movement is probably far-fetched anyway.
The only answer I see that could convince the Pakistanis to cooperate in Afghanistan (and against terrorism in general) is by threatening to sever (or actually severing) American military support to the regime. Islamabad is dependent on Washington for billions in military and civilian aid, the latest being a $7.5 billion American-led initiative to strengthen Pakistan’s educational system and basic infrastructure. Some see this money as a waste, but it could be turned into an opportunity for the U.S. if utilized correctly. Nothing exerts pressure over an ally than the diversion of money. Maybe its time to give the Pakistanis an ultimatum; help us achieve a somewhat stable, Al’Qaeda-free buffer zone in Afghanistan or risk losing American protection.
Is this a politically viable proposal? Considering the current atmosphere on Capital Hill, probably not. I’m guessing that no representative or senator wants to endorse a major reversal in policy ahead of the midterm elections. But what other solution is there? I’m open for suggestions, and so is the White House.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Peter Feaver at FP.com**
After a lengthy 50-year career that was composed of grilling presidents about war, the economy, and U.S. foreign policy, Washington press-corps member Helen Thomas has decided to call it quits and vacate her first-row seat in the White House briefing room. But her retirement was not propelled by her old age (she is turning 90 years old this August) or sloppy reporting, as most journalists today use as reasons for resignations. Nor was her retirement a product of her employer- Hearst Newspapers- whose management probably still viewed the veteran Thomas as a valuable asset in all things political.
Rather, her decision was rooted in some questionable comments that she made about Jews to a reporter during, ironically, a White House sponsored Jewish Heritage event. When asked by a reporter what she thought about the state of Israel in today’s global environment, she responded by saying “tell them to get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land. Go home…Poland, Germany, America, and everywhere else.” The comments were not only caught by the reporter’s camera, which was rolling during the entire interview, but were subsequently released to the world through YouTube, with tens of thousands of people responding to the video with a combination of anger and displeasure.
Unfortunately, her “go home” attitude towards the Jews is not exactly accurate, and it lacks a certain context that, if enacted, would quickly lay her argument to rest. As Richard Cohen of the Washington Post cited in his editorial this past Tuesday, Jews could not necessarily go home after World War II without being the victims of widespread discrimination in European communities. Even after the horror that was the Holocaust, Jews were still being killed when they attempted to venture home to reclaim their houses and small businesses. The result most of the time was more violence towards the Jewish community by those in Poland who were accustomed to taking advantage of their absence. According to Cohen, a total of 1,500 Jews were murdered in this fashion during 1945-1946.
So the Jews did try to “go home,” but were subsequently punished for doing so. Therein lies the foundation of Israel, an entity that many Jews believed could serve as their own fresh start with the world and a place where Jews could live together in peace and prosperity. One wonders if Helen Thomas was aware of this, in which case her comments would be even more detested than they already are.
But the real issue at hand here is how a quick 20 second interview could collapse a 50 year old career in political journalism, or how a few tasteless remarks can poison someone’s reputation as a tough and independent-minded interviewer of every president since John F. Kennedy. Since when did Washington become so uptight and hypersensitive about views that contradicted official U.S. policy in the Middle East, which has largely been built upon America’s “special relationship” with the state of Israel? The United States is supposed to be a country that cherishes ideas that seep outside the public mainstream, because these are the same ideas that produce more intense debate about topics that have been lingering in conventionality for far too long.
The real question here- and thus the real story- is who squeezed Thomas out of her job. Was it the work of Israel’s right-wing lobbies, who are consistently adamant about unconditional U.S. support for Israel and who are all too quick to categorize opposing viewpoints as anti-Semitic? Or was it the White House, who perhaps equated Thomas’ continuation as a press corps journalist with trouble from lobbies like AIPAC? Or maybe it was a combination of the two, or an entirely different organization. Or perhaps Helen Thomas truly felt bad about her remarks, and thought that maybe she needed to retire in her old age anyway.
We don’t know, and I’m not sure we ever will. The answer is negligent to the broader picture; that of the state of journalism. Because if this is how journalism in the United States is going to be conducted in the future, with pressure from outside sources on what can be said, then I’m afraid that innovation and independent analysis (however distasteful this analysis may be to some) is being destroyed and replaced with ad-hoc reporting. This is not something we need at a time when age-old conflicts are still unresolved (like the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace process) and new ones continue to surface (Iran’s nuclear program, international and domestic terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs, etc).
One of the key aspects of problem-solving is public debate on controversial issues, even more so when issues are related to a nation’s public policy. Helen Thomas’ remarks may have been offensive and disparaging, but an overreaction to these remarks may be just as bad in the long-run.
-Daniel R. DePetris