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February 22, 2010

Is Optimism On Afghanistan Warranted?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the excellent Majils blog, Greg Carlstrom is pessimistic:

Operation Moshtarak could ultimately be a significant development -- if it leads to a secure Helmand province with decent local governance. Baradar's capture, too, could have broader implications. The early signs are not all encouraging, though, and it's simply too early to declare that the U.S. has regained the initiative in Afghanistan.

Now I take a back seat to no man or woman in my pessimism about Afghanistan, but I have a slightly different take on this. The US is putting renewed military pressure on the Taliban in Helmand; deals with tribes like the Shinwari (which I'm skeptical of) have the potential to increase the political and military pressure on the Taliban; and clearly the lack of clarity in Pakistan about its support for the Afghan Taliban has to be creating some concern in Quetta and elsewhere.

So from this perspective it's really hard for me to see how the United States ISN'T in some small way regaining the initiative in Afghanistan. What has happened in the past week or so has the potential to turn the tide of the war and it should on the surface create some opportunity for optimism. The problem is there seems to be good reason to suspect otherwise. For example, CJ Chivers piece in the NYT from a few days ago seems to puncture the bubble of ISAF optimism about the Afghan Army:

Scenes from this corner of the battlefield, observed over eight days by two New York Times journalists, suggest that the day when the Afghan Army will be well led and able to perform complex operations independently, rather than merely assist American missions, remains far off.

The effort to train the Afghan Army has long been troubled, with soldiers and officers repeatedly falling short. And yet after nearly a decade of American and European mentorship and many billions of dollars of American taxpayer investment, American and Afghan officials have portrayed the Afghan Army as the force out front in this important offensive against the Taliban.

Statements from Kabul have said the Afghan military is planning the missions and leading both the fight and the effort to engage with Afghan civilians caught between the Taliban and the newly arrived troops.

But that assertion conflicts with what is visible in the field. In every engagement between the Taliban and one front-line American Marine unit, the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops. They organized the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.

You got to love how Chivers says that military statements "conflict" with what's happening in the field. How about those statements are blatantly untrue - that also works. But look, this is really concerning . . . and not the slightest bit surprising. We knew months ago that the ANSF wasn't up to the job of holding and building in Helmand. 

Rajiv Chandrasekeran's stellar reporting doesn't spark much confidence either:

On the satellite photographs of Marja that Marines scrutinized before launching a massive assault against the Taliban a week ago, what they assumed was the municipal government center appeared to be a large, rectangular building, cater-cornered from the main police station.

Seizing that intersection became a key objective, one deemed essential to imposing authority and beginning reconstruction in this part of Helmand province once U.S. and Afghan troops flush out the insurgents.

But when Marine officers reached the area, they discovered that two-dimensional images can be deceiving. What they had thought was the flat roof of the municipal building turned out to be a concrete foundation, and the police station was a bombed-out schoolhouse.

The problem here is not that the government center turned out to be a concrete foundation, it's that we continue to believe that government authority in places like Marjeh will be established via a gleaming municipal center or through various reconstruction projects. This has always been an underlying weakness of FM 3-24 and American COIN in general: namely viewing the provision of goods and services as fundamentally more important - and even decisive - in assuring loyalty to the state, rather than ethnic, tribal, religious or even village allegiances. The very idea that you can bring in to Marjah "government in box" likes it's pre-fabricated housing - and that it will immediately create loyalty among the people to a government in Kabul that they currently view as distant as corrupt - just strikes me as an incredibly simplistic way of thinking about how state legitimacy is derived.

Speaking of that corrupt government in Kabul, comes this piece of "good news"
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has unilaterally taken control of the country's top electoral watchdog, provoking outrage from western diplomats, the Guardian has learnt.

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which forced Karzai into a runoff election after it disqualified nearly 1m fraudulent votes in last year's presidential election, previously included three foreign experts named by the UN.

However, according to a new presidential decree published today, Karzai will have the exclusive power to appoint all five panel members. His decision to "Afghanise" the ECC came while parliament was in recess.

I'm generally of the "Let Hamid be Hamid" school of thought, but if you're going to make extending state legitimacy a key feature of your counter-insurgency effort these types of things are not going to help.

But there are other reasons for concern. Last week I attended the International Studies Association Conference and I was very struck by the fact that over three days - and a lot of discussion on Af/Pak and COIN - one point kept getting made over and over again: US deployment schedules make it very hard to do effective counter-insurgency. This is true on both the military and civilian side - and a few days ago Robert Wehrle, who has been mentoring the Afghan police, made precisely the same point:

Length of tour for those mentoring ministry-level efforts is simply too short. Six to eight months is barely enough time to gain an understanding of system dynamics, let alone effect meaningful change. The attitude this engenders in the Afghans is "wait and see." They are reluctant to embrace recommendations from the current mentor because he will change in six months - so they push back out of wariness and fatigue.

A closely related dynamic is related to end-of-tour performance reporting. A combat-zone performance report carries significant weight at the next promotion board. Not surprisingly, the focus on doing "something meaningful" creates turmoil as people rotate in and out, declare the previous efforts ineffective, and start their own programs. This unsatisfactory situation creates its own perpetual dust storm of short-term-focused efforts to achieve immediate goals.

What is so troubling is that everyone seems to recognize this is a problem, but what's clear is that it doesn't seem like much is being done to change it . . . or even can be done.

In the end, I really have no idea what's going to happen in Pakistan with the arrest of Mullah Baradar; whether this is a shift in Pakistani attitudes toward the Taliban is still up in the air. And even though the US has at least in the interim re-claimed the initiative what's far less clear is whether we can hold it - or even fully understand how to.            

February 20, 2010

James Traub Outs the Closet Realists (Sort Of)
Posted by David Shorr

As he launches a new column at, Jim Traub counts the many ways that the authors of current policy are muddleheaded and empty-handed -- particularly as they try to reach agreements with autocratic regimes. The strongest part of Traub's piece is the harsh bright light he shines on the trade-offs between the values agenda and other priorities. The rest of his argument, though, suffers from not being subjected to the same rigor of confronting real-life choices.

Traub's strongest point reaches a crescendo in the following passage:

Let us stipulate, then, that engagement is not quite so naive as it appears. But is it not, still, a realist bargain, trading away those universal values that the president so often evokes in the hopes of geostrategic wins, whether on Iran or climate change or the global economy?

"We're trying to say 'no,'" says SO [senior official] #2. "We're not going to accept that tradeoff. We're going to do this in parallel."

Okay, I'll cop to something. While false choices and caricatures are a staple and a curse of the American domestic political debate over foreign policy, I would admit there's a problem with asserting broadly (as politicians often do) a lack of any tension between values and interests. Yes, if we're honest, the pursuit of goals such as nonproliferation, reduced carbon emissions, or macroeconomic growth and balance all take up diplomatic bandwith that might be used for the values agenda. But does the trading off necessarily constitute "trading away?" Is this really enough to qualify someone, or an administration, as an ice-in-the-veins realist?

If we think about putting the utmost priority on the values agenda, it's the neocons, really, who focus so intently on other nations' domestic governance and regime character. Everyone else is indeed making choices about emphasis. In this light, maybe senior official #2 isn't crazy after all for talking about "doing this in parallel." If they've gone too far in betraying the values agenda, maybe people can make that case, but a trade-off is not the same as a binary either/or.

As I said, focusing on trade-offs is an ironic basis for criticizing the administration, because so much criticism . For one thing, it's as if we already have amnesia over the policy that came before, but more generally, the debate always elides the question of what's the alternative? So let me examine a few other slams that arise in Traub's column (and elsewhere).

Geostrategic wins. If there are trade-offs between values and nonpro, climate change, and the global economy, are they worth it? Are the priorities misplaced here? There has been a vigorous debate over whether to suspend nuclear negotiations with Iran and put our hopes in regime-change. I can't believe I have to keep saying this, but we just spent eight years pursuing capitulation rather than negotiation, and meanwhile the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs moved closer to nuclear weapons.

The Iran-for-Russia/China bait and switch. As advocates for engagement have directed focus toward Russia and China, this has been portrayed as settling for half a loaf -- as if Russia and China had nothing to do with Iran. That's a real head-scratcher for me. Just to be clear, the goal is still to ensure that Iran's nuclear program doesn't give them the bomb. International pressure was always highlighted as the diplomatic essence, and that means needing other key powers and not just ourselves. Once again, what's the alternative? Surely the current policy has put Iran under more pressure from more directions than the Bush-Cheney-Bolton policy; I know conservatives who have acknowleged this much.

Nothing for our troubles. Aside from the added pressures on Iran, there have been other fruits of engagement. Dramatically stronger sanctions on North Korea, for one. Chinese economic stimulus, for another. And new Chinese commitments on climate change that, while limited and disappointing, go well beyond anything prior.

Nuance and complexity. Okay, what is it we want? "You're with us or against us," or dealing with the real world in its messiness? Do we think the world isn't complicated? Which leads me to the last rap...

What does 'engagement' mean any way? A wise former colleague used to say that our problem in foreign policy is that we often treat other nations as mere objects of our policy, forgetting that they are subjects of their own policy. This was an enormous blind spot of the previous administration, which believed that because of American military strength and inherent moral rightness, all the United States had to do was make demands of others. I feel like this is a lingering blind spot of the current debate and critiques of the current policy. The fact of the matter is that the success of our policy does not depend only on our own choices. Iranian leaders have a say in what happens with their nuclear program. Frankly I think the current policy is less naive about this than the criticisms are.

And that is the essence of engagement. It's a foreign policy approach that rolls up our sleeves for the dirty work of trying to accomplish our international aims. It recognizes how many different players with different interests have to be aligned to get anything done. Is this really so obscure or misguided?

February 19, 2010

UPDATED: Senators Casey, Kaufman AND FRANKEN team up with Biden to Halt Conservative Obstructionism
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Before top military brass, leading foreign policy officials and members of the NGO community, Vice-President Biden once again declared yesterday, “The spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat facing the country and, I would argue, facing humanity.”  The Administration has developed an agenda to thwart this threat—coupling nuclear stockpile reductions, aimed at eventual elimination, with investments that support our safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.  

Some of the measures on the nuclear security agenda will require ratification by the Senate, where some conservatives have already begun politicizing our national security.  Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has led the charge—attempting to skew the debate on the new START agreement before negotiators have even finalized the document. Earlier this week, Kyl, McCain and Lieberman penned yet another letter—a practice they’ve evidently become quite fond of—expressing “concern” that the Russians are holding out for concessions on missile defense. Max Bergman from the Center for American Progress describes what’s really going on:  “The Senators problem is not with missile defense it is with START and with reducing nuclear weapon stockpiles more generally. Yet these three Senators aren’t willing to simply oppose the effort to get a new START treaty, because flat out opposition to continuing Ronald Reagan’s treaty would reflect a new tea-partyesque level of extremism. We are after all talking about a treaty that forces the Russians to remove nuclear weapons currently pointed at the United States.”

Thankfully, these senators are in the minority.  As the Vice President reminded the audience yesterday at NDU, “Our goal of a world without nuclear weapons has been endorsed by leading voices in both parties. These include two former Secretaries of State from Republican administrations, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz; President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense Bill Perry; and my former colleague Sam Nunn, for years the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Together, these four statesmen called eliminating nuclear weapons ‘a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage.’ During the 2008 Presidential campaign, both the President and Senator McCain supported the same objective.” 

Perhaps this is yet another example of John McCain forgetting what he said, either way, strong statements of support emerged yesterday following the address.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, expressed support for Vice President Biden’s speech on protecting our country from nuclear threats:                                  

“I want to applaud the Administration’s efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons that could end up in the hands of terrorists. This is the most serious national security threat that we face and I support the Administration’s nonproliferation efforts to secure loose nuclear material around the world, negotiate an arms agreement with Russia that has strong verification standards and ensure that the U.S. nuclear stockpile is safe, secure and effective.”

“The Administration's 2011 budget request also bolsters the case for the eventual ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  A full investment in our nuclear weapons infrastructure will mean that the United States can continue to maintain its nuclear weapons infrastructure without testing.  We haven’t tested a nuclear weapon since 1992 because we now have the technical means to ensure the reliability and safety of our stockpile.  I applaud the Administration’s responsible approach to securing our nuclear weapons and look forward to working to ensure that funding for these programs is protected during the appropriations process.”  

Senator Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) also issued a statement of support. “I applaud the Obama administration for making nonproliferation, the reduction of nuclear weapons, and the safety of the nuclear arsenal top priorities of its national security agenda. As Vice President Biden outlined yesterday, the administration will continue to do everything in its power to prevent nuclear proliferation and modernize our nuclear stockpile and facilities.


Kaufman continued, “I strongly support the administration’s commitment to a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, and hope Congress will ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). President Obama shares my deep concern about the safety of our aging nuclear arsenal, and I hope Congress will support his increased budget request for maintaining our nuclear stockpile and modernizing our nuclear infrastructure.  I look forward to working with the administration to continue to promote nonproliferation and arms reductions goals so that we can pass on a safer world to future generations.”

Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) also voiced support, saying, “I applaud the Vice President for laying out the administration’s plan to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons.  It demonstrates their serious commitment to protecting our safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent while working toward the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
Franken further stated, “I look forward to working with my colleagues and the administration on an upcoming strategic weapons reduction treaty with Russia as well as long overdue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  I also look forward to taking up the President’s budget, which makes a renewed commitment to the maintenance and modernization of our nuclear arsenal and the experts who are crucial to it.”

As the Vice President concluded yesterday, “Together, we will lead this world toward a world of less reliance, and ultimately no reliance, on nuclear weapons.”  The key here is “together.”  Senators Casey, Kaufman and Franken understand that and have shown support for protecting our national security.  Perhaps someone should send a letter to Kyl, Lieberman, and McCain—explaining that.

February 18, 2010

What Ignatius J. Reilly Tells Us about Pakistan
Posted by Patrick Barry

Ignatiusjreillyx13j2xe If Ignatius J. Reilly, corpulent sloth-King of Confederacy of Dunces, was tweeting to the Af-Pak Channel right now, he’d probably say that fortune’s wheel is spinning up right now when it comes to Pakistan. (Although, come to think of it, Ignatius probably wouldn't think much of Twitter)

First, there was last week’s capture of Mullah Baradar. Then, yesterday, Newsweek blew the lid off another arrest: Pakistan had captured two Taliban shadow governors, Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mohammed (revised from just Abdul Salam), possibly with the assistance of the CIA.  Now, Dawn, GEO and AP are reporting the arrests of as many as 9 more individuals with links to either the Taliban or Al Qaeda (The AP article makes it sound as if they’re including the two governors, so I can’t be sure.)  

What gives? Why has Pakistan suddenly gotten so good at arresting Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders and associates? Perhaps it’s one of the possibilities I discussed? Perhaps it’s as Spencer speculated yesterday, that the U.S. is using intel plucked from an Al Qaeda operative traveling between Pakistan and Yemen to its advantage?  Or maybe Josh Foust’s whiff of optimism if correct. Maybe this really is a “sea change” moment in the U.S. – Pakistan relationship?  

Even if Pakistan’s and America’s interests are inching toward greater alignment - an observation I made yesterday and Tuesday- it's important to not get carried away. Pakistan's history of support for militants, and its pattern of double dealing the U.S. extends way past the more positive development of the last week. It remains the case our motivations and their motivations, synced as they may be for the moment, are not the same.  Fortune’s wheel won’t spin up forever.

Test Ban Treaty -- Golden Opportunity for Republican Bipartisanship
Posted by David Shorr

With bipartisanship being the political order of the day, this is a good time to identify foreign policy issues that are ripe for bipartisanship. Luckily, Vice President Biden is highlighting a tailor-made issue in a policy address at National Defense University today: ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The CTBT meshes perfectly with the goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries. The United States and the other established nuclear powers don't need to set off more underground nuclear explosions and have observed a unilateral moratorium for many years -- in our case dating back to the first President Bush. Recent experience with North Korea and Pakistan, on the other hand, reminds us that nuclear tests serve to announce a country's arrival as a nuclear-armed power. (I like to call them a 'lagging indicator' of nuclear proliferation.) So while we shouldn't expect North Korea to sign the CTBT any time soon, the United States has every reason to solidify a treaty saying that test nuclear explosions are a bad thing.

Yet, modern bipartisanship, unfortunately, is a game with moving goalposts. It's like the domestic political equivalent of the neoconservative approach to international negotiations -- instead of give and take, conservatives want all take and no give. As a result, the center of gravity for compromise has moved steadily rightward. When it comes to arms control, Ronald Reagan's policies look so moderate on the contemporary political spectrum that they would certainly come under scathing criticism from today's right wing.

What worries me the most is that there has probably been a rightward shift even in the last couple years, with 2007-08 maybe having been a high water mark of bipartisan comity between moderates. Take for example this May 2008 policy address by presidential candidate John McCain, which voices his explicit openness to CTBT ratification. I sincerely hope Senator McCain still believes these things he said back then, but my reading of the political climate is less optimistic.

One thing that hasn't changed, and leaves me somewhat optimistic, is the reliable moderateness of the old-line Republican establishment. I have to assume that the administration's strategy for CTBT ratification includes the deployment of the lions of the Republican foreign policy community. Watching them vie against contemporary far-right ideology should be fascinating.

February 17, 2010

If China Supports Iran Sanctions
Posted by David Shorr

If China lends its support to a new set of Iran sanctions in the UN Security Council (or its tacit acceptance via an abstention), then I'd like to see retractions from all those who have confidently ruled this possibility out. After the mea culpas, we'd come quickly to the question of why China relented. The flurry of diplomacy currently under way gives an opportunity to preview different possible explanations for such a decision by Beijing, with the help of Greg Scoblete and Kevin Sullivan of RealClearWorld's Compass Blog, who aggregate and add to the analysis of Chinese motives.

In other words, if we start with China's countervailing interests -- keep oil flowing from Iran, maintain good relations with a key supplier, not sharing US concern over Iranian nukes, maybe even relishing political / strategic problems for the US -- what would explain Chinese support for sanctions? Our Compass Blog colleagues delve interesting questions about China's strategic interest in energy security in connection with the Obama administration's diplomatic message of the week. Washington is trying to shift Chinese leaders' focus from the oil they import from Iran to their broader dependence on the overall stability of petroleum supply on the global market (and, by extension, Middle East regional stability). The contracts China preserves in Iran will be cold comfort if Iranian nuclear progress leads to heightened conflict in the region, which then leads to supply constraints and huge price hikes.

The United States' partners in this diplomatic message are the Arab oil exporting countries, reportedly backed by promises to make up for any lost supply. [Hmmm, wonder what this says about mercantilism versus a single global market? I digress, sorry.] For Greg Scoblete, this means all credit for Chinese support goes to the Saudis, and none to the Obama administration's policy of engagement. I can understand the argument that the Saudis get credit for pushing the sanctions across the finish line, but this analysis applies a pretty steep discount to all the earlier diplomatic work.

What Kevin Sullivan finds interesting is to watch China become ensnared in the same geopolitical trap of oil addiction as the United States:

Hint, hint: the more you invest in the Middle East, the more you have to invest in keeping the region safe and secure. Or, in short, the Biggie Smalls Doctrine. See U.S. foreign policy (1980 - present). Does Beijing wish to embed itself in the region as the United States has? Does China want its consumption costs tied to that instability?

Sullivan calls this an "anti-hegemonic" appeal from the US to China, i.e. that China shouldn't want the job of hegemon for that region. The short answer -- well, long-term answer -- is to reduce the addiction to oil, and that goes for both of us. But the real short-term message to China is the same one as it is for a lot of issues: no more free-riding.

Beyond the hazards of this region's political thicket, I think the generic lesson is a positive one. The United States' strategy should be for all major powers to be status quo powers -- influential nations that share the responsibility for essential stability and a basically functioning world, as opposed to a more chaotic one. For all the screwed-up things about the Middle East, some of them with America's name on them, it could easily be more screwed up. Foreign policy shouldn't be entirely about stability; it should also be about progress and justice. But stability shouldn't be presumed or discounted either (see Iraq, invasion of).

Many criticisms of US policy are valid. Many others evade any responsibility for consequences and make blithe assumptions about how one international situation or another could either be changed or left alone. So if China supports sanctions against Iran, I'll interpret it as a sign that China recognizes the larger dangers of mounting regional tensions and not just the bilateral relationship with a trading partner.

Looking Back at the Baradar Capture
Posted by Patrick Barry

After a second look, my analysis from yesterday seems like it would have benefitted from a complimentary examination of the dynamics that might have precipitated Pakistan to take action against a militant hiding within its borders.  While Colin Cookman is right that “we should be cautious about extrapolating too much from the detention of a single commander,” evidence and analysis is beginning to suggest a range of possible interpretations for why Pakistan acted as it did.

One view is that Baradar’s capture is related a possible political settlement of the Afghanistan conflict, a perspective expressed in today’s New York Times story analyzing the capture. “Pakistan has effectively isolated a key link to the Taliban leadership, making itself the main channel instead,” said the Times. 

Within this view are a range of possibilities. One variant is that by capturing Baradar, whom some have called the Taliban leader most interested in a settlement, the Pakistanis can set him up as a conduit for negotiations, even while he is imprisoned (see Spencer and Thomas Ruttig).

But that opinion of Baradar is far from universal, and contrary evidence indicates he’s opposed to talks.  If that’s correct, then another way to look at Baradar’s capture is that Pakistan still wants to control the terms of a settlement, but views the Taliban leader as an impediment to its involvement, either because he’s opposed to the idea, or because it can’t control him, and would preferr to empower say, the Haqqanis, who might be more easily influenced by handlers in the military or ISI (See Coll).  Either way, Pakistan’s desire to carve out a role for itself in a political settlement of the Afghan conflict is not in itself a bad thing.  It’s really the kind of involvement that matters.  If the U.S. treads carefully, it may be able to use this convergence around negotiations to its advantage.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the Pakistanis don’t want a settlement with the Afghan Taliban at all, perhaps seeing an Afghanistan under threat from the Taliban as a useful check against India’s activities in Afghanistan (See Wall Street Journal).  With a few Talibs on record as saying that Baradar’s capture basically mucks up any chance of peace talks, this too remains a plausible interpretation, and would bode ill for the U.S.

Yet another view is the U.S. forced cooperation from Pakistan through either the steady accumulation of evidence linking the ISI to the Taliban or the presentation of specific evidence of Baradar’s exact location inside Pakistan. Such evidence, were it to become public, would be embarrassing for Pakistan, particularly as it heads into negotiations with India.  Far better to be seen as a U.S. partner, even if it's an unwilling partnership.  As Spencer notes, breaking news about another joint U.S. – Pakistan operation to capture a Taliban leader hiding in Pakistan adds to the weight of this interpretation.  For people hoping that Baradar’s capture was a sign that the U.S. and Pakistan were suddenly seeing eye-to-eye this isn’t very satisfying. But it at least shows that the U.S. intelligence is improving, and that it can use that intel to persuade the Pakistanis to be more cooperative.

A final interpretation, which only a small minority appears to have taken, is that Baradar’s capture is a result of months of diplomatic, military and economic activity by the U.S. intended to persuade Pakistan that it is within its interests to go after the Afghan Taliban.  Skeptics rightfully argue that this position overstates the degree to which the U.S. has influence over Pakistani decision-making.  I’m sympathetic to that argument, but as I said yesterday, I think it’s foolish to say categorically that the flurry of U.S. activity played no role in opening up avenues for this kind of joint-effort. 

Looking at this range of possibilities, I still see some good mixed with the bad.  Pakistan is clearly exercising its agency here, but it may be doing so in a way that compliments some U.S. objectives.  Baradar’s capture also comes after a year in which trends in the U.S. – Pakistani relationship were roughly positive, at least by comparison to the previous 8 years.  If nothing else, the arrest will keep the trend lines positive, which is good when you consider how hugely unpopular the U.S. is in Pakistan right now. 

What Makes America Ungovernable
Posted by Michael Cohen

So two weeks ago I wrote a piece for Newsweek in which I described the United States as an increasingly ungovernable country. In the Wall Street Journal, Pete Wehner has responded by defining my argument as “unserious,” because I described the Republican Party as a “party of nihilists” focused on the achievement of political power above all else.

By a unique scientific principle known as the Wehner Paradox (which is an offshoot of Jon Chait’s Wehner Fallacy) a charge of unseriousness from Pete Wehner is actually proof of the fundamental seriousness of ones argument. So thanks Pete! I’m only hoping that soon Pete Wehner will soon describe me as being “un-wealthy” in the pages of the Wall Street Journal . . . or declare that the Detroit Red Wings will NOT win the Stanley Cup this year.

But jokes aside, today’s New York Times provides even more evidence of our fundamentally broken political system and the unique role played by the Republican party in perpetuating that cycle of dysfunction.  Part of the problem here is the seeming incapacity of reporters to state the obvious: we have a broken political system that is undermining America’e economic competitiveness and sapping American power and influence on the global stage - and Republicans are overwhelmingly to blame. Consider this quote from the Times story:

Yet rarely has the political system seemed more polarized and less able to solve big problems that involve trust, tough choices and little short-term gain. The main urgency for both parties seems to be about pinning blame on the other, before November’s elections, for deficits now averaging $1 trillion a year, the largest since World War II relative to the size of the economy.

I wonder if Jackie Calmes really believes that the main urgency for Democrats is to pin blame for the deficit on Republicans . . . when the main urgency of Democrats seems to be passing health care reform, which would go a long way toward resolving the country’s long-term debt issues, and Republicans are doing everything in their power to obstruct it (and it should be mentioned did nothing to deal with the country’s health care crisis during the past eight years when they controlled wide swaths of the federal government).  Even the notion that Democrats don’t want to deal with entitlement spending is undermined by the fact that the party’s health care reform legislation would help put Medicare on a more secure financial footing and reduce health care costs in general (not that this stopped the GOP from accusing the Obama Administration of wanting to cut Medicare spending).

Indeed Calmes counts the many ways in which Republicans have made “bipartisan compromise” impossible – or created the current problem:

Republicans today see opposition as a way back to power in November, and their party is more ideologically antitax than in the past.”

“Conservative activists so oppose compromise of any sort that several lawmakers have drawn primary challengers for working with Democrats.”

“Sensing political advantage, Republicans are resisting President Obama’s call for a bipartisan commission to cut the debt, although recent studies have implicated the tax cuts and spending policies of the years after 2000 when they controlled Congress and the White House. Even seven Republican senators who had co-sponsored a bill to create a commission nonetheless voted against it recently.”

In searching for examples of Democratic obstructionism to deficit reduction, Calmes only cites President Obama’s admittedly ill-advised declaration in the 2008 campaign that he would not raise taxes over anyone making less than $250,000. What goes unnoted here is that even with that pledge – even with the hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts in last year’s stimulus package - Republican leaders continue to falsely claim that Obama HAS raised taxes - and most Americans believe them. I wonder if this had something to do with Obama making that pledge.

Finally, only at the end of the article does Calmes make perhaps the essential point about the failure to tackle America’s growing debt - voter incoherence on the issue:

Yet politicians’ failure to reduce deficits has long reflected voters’ opposition to the necessary steps. By a two-to-one ratio Americans oppose cutting health care and education; 51 percent oppose lower military spending.

The CBS/NYT poll she cites doesn’t ask about raising taxes or cutting entitlements, but take a wild guess what those numbers might look like. 

But none of this should be a surprise; forty years of anti-government rhetoric that taxes are evil, cutting “wasteful” spending is easy (even when consistently it's not) and reducing our bloated military budget or paring back our international commitments will put America at risk has fundamentally narrowed the governing options for America’s leaders.  And on this front it’s not just Republicans who are to blame – it’s folks like the “centrist” Evan Bayh, who on the one hand preaches fiscal sanity and then supports tax cut giveaways for the wealthiest Americans. To sound a bipartisan note here, Bayh and other pseudo-centrists are absolutely complicit in helping the GOP grind the wheels of effective governance to a halt.

Generally speaking I have been trying to avoid sounding an overly partisan note here at DA; and as any long-time reader will attest I have not been shy in criticizing the current Administration for some of its foreign policy decision-making. But there is nothing partisan about stating that “Party Gridlock” is not fueling America’s debt crisis, it’s the Republican Party. That’s a fact. 

A party that is unable to fathom the very notion of raising taxes on any American, that treats any efforts to curb military interventionism and spending as a treasonous act, and has consistently demonstrated a fundamental unseriousness about reducing spending – and has actually in positions of political power perpetuated the country’s addiction to deficit spending – IS THE PROBLEM. That Democrats lack the confidence in their own beliefs to stand up to this obstructionism is not helping; but it's hardly the root of the issue.

And look, one can certainly make the argument that such an approach is completely consistent with a conservative ideology that looks askance at the overweening influence of government. One can argue that the GOP approach is consistent with the belief that the most effective government is one that does not provide for its citizens or perhaps more charitably, is one that does not try too deeply to influence their lives.

Fine. I'll buy that. As long as everyone accepts that this is the defining source of gridlock in American politics today. Deal?

February 16, 2010

Sea Changes Don't Just Happen Overnight
Posted by Patrick Barry

1704Or at least in the case of Mullah Baradar they don't.

So far, analysis I’ve seen on the stunning capture of Taliban commander Mullah Baradar (here, here and here) has largely focused on the implications for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  But the capture is potentially just as significant because of what it reveals about the condition of the U.S. – Pakistan relationship, and what that relationship is likely to look like going forward.  With the necessary caveat that the opacity of U.S. – Pakistan relations can make analysis subject to speculation, this capture still strikes me as significant on a number of levels.  

Most immediately, as the New York Times notes, “[t]he participation of Pakistan’s spy service could suggest a new level of cooperation from Pakistan’s leaders, who have been ambivalent about American efforts to crush the Taliban.” Indeed, Bruce Riedel, who led the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy review version 1.0, welcomed the raid as a “sea change in Pakistani behavior.”

There can be little doubt that this is a significant shift.  Pakistan has never proved this cooperative when it comes to the Afghan Taliban, something Pakistan watchers, myself included, have long taken as a sign of fundamentally divergent interests.  Still, is it as surprising as Riedel says? I’m not convinced.  Leaving aside the rough absence of previous cooperation related to threats to Afghanistan, it’s not as if there haven’t been examples of American-Pakistani cooperation in other areas.  If Saturday you had looked back on the uptick in drone strikes over the last year, the presence of U.S. Special Forces trainers in Pakistan, and the Pakistani military’s offensives in places like Swat and South Waziristan, would it have been so hard to imagine a point in the not-so-distant future when the two countries would team up against the Afghan Taliban? In fact, there actually has been a recent example of the two countries’ Afghanistan policies drawing into closer, if far from perfect, alignment: last week’s hint that Pakistan was prepared to use its leverage over the Haqqanis to get them to the negotiating table for an Afghanistan political settlement.

It seems to me the important question here is what changed that made the Pakistanis suddenly willing to go take action on the Afghanistan issue, when, as the Times notes, “American officials have speculated that Pakistani security officials could have picked up Mullah Baradar long ago?” 

Josh Foust thinks it could be a quid-pro-quo, hypothesizing that “We paid a price for this,” and urging Pakistan watchers to look for reciprocation in the weeks to come.  While I don’t doubt that this raid cost us something, why should we leave out the range of factors that might have plausibly induced or pressured Pakistan’s government into making this shift? Come to think of it, this seems like exactly the sort of coordination that billions in foreign assistance, military advising and equipment, as well as months of agonizing diplomatic activity are supposed to achieve.  I won’t yet declare this a victory for U.S. diplomacy, but the overall trends do seem to be a lot better than they were when the GAO said the U.S. basically didn’t have a Pakistan policy. 

Finally, without drawing too much of a causal connection here, I do want to point out that this is exactly the kind of action the U.S. should want to derive from signals to Afghanistan’s neighbors about an eventual end to American involvement in the region.  I’m one of those people who thinks that Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan haven’t been the most helpful and may end up hurting Pakistan in the future.  But I also recognize that up until this point, American efforts to convince the Pakistanis of that fact haven’t been tremendously successful.  Continuing to convey a message to Pakistan that they can’t expect the U.S. to be the guarantors of Afghanistan’s stability forever seems like a decent way to alter that dynamic, especially since there now appears to be a correlation between more helpful action from Pakistan and the first explicit Presidential announcement of a transition to American disengagement.

Update: Ahh, I see Spencer beat me to the argument that Baradar's capture validates the Obama administration's Pakistan strategy to a considerable extent.  Shame on me for not heading to the Windy amidst my other morning activities.

Storming the ISA
Posted by Michael Cohen

Ok, in fairness there won't be a lot of storming going on - these are academics after all! But I'll be down in New Orleans this week at the ISA Conference leading a discussion on Thursday morning about Afghanistan and Thursday afternoon on the Outsourcing of American Power. The rest of the time I'll be eating crawfish etouffe and perhaps some alligator cheescake.

If any DA readers are planning on attending and want to meet up, please drop me a line.
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