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May 27, 2010

Obama's NSS - Defining US Interests Too Broadly
Posted by Michael Cohen

So this morning saw the long-awaited release of President Obama's National Security Strategy and during the day various DA bloggers are going to be offering their thoughts.

My initial take, as a former speechwriter, is that it reads like it was written by a speechwriter (which it was!). That's not necessarily a bad thing since speechwriters are generally the finest people in the world, but in this case it speaks to the somewhat platitudinous and exceptionalist nature of the paper.

For example, at one point the paper notes, "The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone - indeed our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power." But then it says this later, "The United States will continue to underwrite global security."

Huh? How does you possibly square those two sentences? I'm pleased to note that my occasional sparring partner, Andrew Exum makes the same point:

There seems to be little acknowledgment that the United States might not be able to pursue all of our national security goals as vigorously as we might like in part due to spending constraints. I'm still trying to understand how the acknowledgment that the United States must address its deficit to ensure our future security squares with a bold statement like 'the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security.' 

Of course there is nothing new about these sorts of contradictions. I was amused the other day to see Jim Fallows praising Obama's Nieburhian tendencies because he said this at West Point last week:

We understand change doesn't come quick. We understand that neither America nor any nation can dictate every outcome beyond its borders.

Fallows heard echoes of Eisenhower's Farewell Address. But that same day I came across this passage in Gordon Goldstein's excellent book, Lessons In Disaster, quoting a speech by President Kennedy at the University of Washington in 1961:

We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient that we are only six percent of the world's population, that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent, that we cannot fight every wrong or reverse each adversity, and that therefore cannot be an American solution to every world problem.

So these sort of platitudes about understanding America's limitations are not new - what's unique is when we actually follow our rhetoric with action.

Indeed, one of the more positive elements of this NSS is the focus on getting America's house in order. President Obama made a similar statement in his West Point speech (which he of course contradicted in the same address by announcing his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan). And the focus on building international institutions to deal with 21st century challenges is spot-on.

But at some point there has to be an actual, not rhetorical recognition that every global problem is not necessarily America's problem or requires an American solution; and that so long as we define our interests in the broadest possible terms it will that much harder to get our domestic house in order. 

What is perhaps most interesting about Obama's foreign policy agenda is the inclination to see domestic issues as influencing our global competitiveness and standing; but not necessarily to see statements like "underwriting global security" as undermining the achievement of these domestic priorities.

There is a lot to like in this NSS, but when it comes to setting limits and adhering to them . . . well I'll believe it when I see it.

May 26, 2010

Progressives and Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Here's John Brennan's today at CSIS talking about how al Qaeda can only win by getting us to betray our values:

Even more than the attacks that al-Qaeda and its violent affiliates unleash or the blood they spill, they seek to strike at the very essence of who we are as Americans. By replacing our hard-won confidence with fear and by replacing our tolerance with suspicion. By turning our great diversity from a source of strength into a source of division. By causing us to undermine the laws and values that have been a source of our strength and our influence throughout the world. By turning a nation whose global leadership has meant greater security and prosperity for people in every corner of the globe into a nation that retreats from the world stage and abandons allies and partners.

Spencer asks the legitimate follow-up question:

I had to ask him if the Obama administration wasn’t already compromising American values, with all the attendant strategic implications Brennan articulated, by upholding indefinite detention without charge for a cohort of terrorism detainees.

I really couldn't agree more - and Brennan's response (which you can read here) is unconvincing. But here's the part I don't understand (and I really hope this won't produce an aggrieved response from Spencer since I'm not directing this at him, but the entire progressive national security community. What's more, my goal here is not to point fingers, but start a conversation).

If progressives are rightfully up in arms over these civil liberties issues . .  why is none of the same sort of venom being directed at escalation in Afghanistan, which in many ways is predicated on the same toxic "war on terrorism" narrative that led to these, continuing, rule of law and human rights abuses. These  violations are the logical outgrowth of a 9-year obsessive focus on terrorism as the most serious challenge facing the country - and escalation in Afghanistan, at the cost of $100 billion and 100,000 ground troops, as the central front in the war on terror only continues the process. For all of the pretty words in Obama's recent West Point speech about expanding and promoting democracy and building a better world the lion's share of our foreign aid increases and foreign policy attention is still going to three countries - Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What's more, for all of the many positive aspects of Obama's effort to transform US foreign policy, escalation in Afghanistan continues so many of its worst features; it's over-reliance on the military at the expense of diplomacy, it's dangerously broad definition of national interests, its obsessive focus on terrorism and "national security," it's inability to recognize limitations and make tough, strategic choices etc.

Like Jim Fallows, I too enjoyed this sentence from Obama's West Point speech, "We understand that neither America nor any nation can dictate every outcome beyond its borders," but yet I see it being contradicted daily by our mission in Afghanistan.

I write this not to be hectoring, but more to understand the divergent responses. I must, at some point, recognize that these sentiments all might just be a by-product of my particular obsession with Afghanistan. But I really do think progressives are ignoring the larger, detrimental aspects of the war in Afghanistan. Am I wrong? And if so, why?

May 25, 2010

Stanley McChrystal Should Spend More Time Reading Democracy Arsenal
Posted by Michael Cohen

For months now, McClatchy correspondents ahve been doing a bang up job covering the war in Afghanistan and the latest piece by Dion Nissenbaum about the problems the US military are experiencing in Marjah is more of the same. In particular, this behind the scenes account of meetings between General McChrystal and civilian strategists is quite eye-opening:

Progress in Marjah has been slow, however, in part because no one who planned the operation realized how hard it would be to convince residents that they could trust representatives of an Afghan government that had sent them corrupt police and inept leaders before they turned to the Taliban.

Um, quotes like these make me think of an eight-letter word that rhymes with Pull-Pit.

I generally have no idea what I'm talking about - and yet nearly four months ago, before the Marjah operation I wrote this:

We've seen 5 previous "surges" into Helmand with little to no success - what reason is there to believe that things have changed now? Is it because every US soldier and officer has memorized FM 3-24? And even if they did, the very idea that the Afghan government is "ready to install local officials to begin reopening schools and clinics" and will do this effectively just seems ludicrous. Last summer, when the Marines last went into Helmand, they were accompanied by what can best be described as trifling support from the Afghan Army - and pretty much no Afghan government support or a US civilian surge. What has changed in the past 6 months for people to believe that this surge will be different?

But look even if you think I'm nothing more than a broken clock, check out what McChrystal said is his review last fall:

There is little connection between the central government and the local populations, particularly in rural areas. The top-down approach to developing government capacity has failed to provide services that reach local communities. GIRoA has not developed the means to collect revenue and distribute resources. Sub-national officials vary in competency and capability and most provincial and district governments are seriously undermanned and under-resourced

The notion that the challenges we've seen in Marjah were unexpected is utterly ludicrous. And if its true, it suggests a lack of military planning that is downright scandalous. The problems we are seeing today in Marjah were completely predictable; the need for more time to stabilize the situation before moving on to Kandahar were patently obvious; the challenge in seeding good governance should come as absolutely no surprise and the pressures from the President's 18-month timeline for beginning troop withdrawals should have been evident to all.

For anyone to plead ignorance three months later is a good indication of how divorced from reality this entire mission has become.

The Cold Water in Face Award
Posted by David Shorr

...goes to Les Gelb, for pointing out how US nonproliferation priorities have little resonance with the rest of the world. According to his reading of Brazil and Turkey's recent mediation initiative, "the good old days of most nations automatically supporting U.S. non-proliferation efforts is over." Gelb notes that other countries don't understand why all the fuss about Iran and not about de facto nuclear weapons states like India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. As this kind of skepticism grows, it's bound to erode America's influence as the nonproliferation agenda-setter.

If this is a clash of worldviews, it could lead to much deeper differences of approach to nuclear proliferation. Gelb didn't look into that abyss, saying a sense of common interests can be bolstered by welcoming a role for new powers like Brazil and Turkey and placing the emphasis on intrusive inspections (clearly central to the ultimate resolution of the issue). The United States is already fighting a diplomatic battle with other nations' belief that an agreement with Iran can be reached without applying any pressure. But what if they really don't care whether Iran obtains a virtual weapons capability?

As Gelb points out, the root issue is the irrationality and inequity of not having a single standard. From the US perspective, I count eight different standards in dealing with the official weapons states, "de factos," and Iran. (France and the UK are treated the same, but more on that below.) Many readers know my view on a pressure-free approach to Iran (won't work). Today I'd like to offer a view on the sequencing of the nonproliferation agenda that, while unsatisfying to many, hopefully at least seems reasonable.

Beginning with the elephant in the room, a why-deal-with-Iran-until-you've-dealt-with-Israel approach obvioulsy would throw the whole thing off the rails -- but I do see the importance of plotting a path toward dealing with the Israeli nuclear arsenal. So, a two key rules of thumb:

  1. It's easier to keep a country from becoming a nuclear weapon state than to get it to disarm; this is the main argument for prioritizing Iran. Like it or not, the Indian, Pakistani, and Israeli arsenals have become facts on the ground, making disarmament extremely hard to pursue as a near-term agenda. North Korea lies in between -- harder than Iran, not as hard as the other "de factos."
  2. The five traditional nuclear powers have to disarm before the newer members of the club. Those who first fired n-weapons early in the Cold War should go first in cutting to minimum levels. For one thing, unlike India, Israel, and Pakistan, they've borne this responsibility as parties to the NPT for 40 years.

Therefore, the threshold moment in nonproliferation will be when constraints are in place for the nuclear forces of the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK. At that point, the focus automatically shifts to India, Israel, and Pakistan (I'm going to cling to hope that the DPRK's been disarmed in the meantime). None of these can be taken out of the context of their regional security situations, but in the logic of the global nonproliferation norm, they would come under new pressure regardless of whether they're parties to the NPT. The medium-term strategic aim should thus be to pull China, Britain, and France into nuclear reductions as quickly as we can. Does there need to be another round of US-Russia bilateral cuts before that? I don't know. If so, that's all the more reason to get ready for negotiations on the next agreement after New START.

What If We're Wrong?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over the weekend, Karen DeYoung offered some sobering thoughts on the upcoming US offensive in Kandahar:

The Obama administration's campaign to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan's second-largest city is a go-for-broke move that even its authors are unsure will succeed.

The bet is that the Kandahar operation, backed by thousands of U.S. troops and billions of dollars, will break the mystique and morale of the insurgents, turn the tide of the war and validate the administration's Afghanistan strategy.

There is no Plan B.

To flesh this out more, the US military plan seems to be predicated on the notion that the US will bloody the Taliban, seize some level of control in Kandahar province and push the Taliban closer to negotiations.

But what if this doesn't happen? What if the Taliban undertake a guerrilla campaign against NATO forces and/or a wave of terror attacks those who collaborate with the US government - as we are seeing today? What if they decide to bide their time and wait out US military operations? What if local Afghans blame NATO and the US for the violence that will be sure to accompany our military operations there? What if the strengthening of corrupt, government officials like Walid Karzai turns more of the population against the government? And above all, what if escalation in Kandahar makes the Taliban not more inclined to negotiate with the US, but less? What if military operations actually slow the move toward political reconciliation?

If Karen DeYoung's reporting is to be believed it t very much appears that we haven't asked ourselves these questions or if we have, answered them satisfactorily.

It's instructive and somewhat eerie that the US made many of the same calculations in 1965 in Vietnam. Then American leaders decided that the use of air power against North Vietnam would push Hanoi toward negotiations; they would bend toward our will and compromise, or so the argument went. But US policymakers greatly underestimated the tenacity of the enemy; they came to believe that the North Vietnamese would feel "a threshold of pain" before the US did. Of course, those assumptions were tragically wrong.

The failure of US airstrikes to affect the behavior of the North Vietnamese laid the path toward the eventual entry of US ground troops . . . and then more troops . . . and more troops until the US has been sucked into a quagmire of its own making.

Now of course Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But all too often underestimating our enemy; assuming they will respond a certain way to US actions - and not preparing for the possibility that they won't - begets more not less escalation.

If we're wrong in Kandahar and it doesn't push the Taliban toward negotiation; what do we do next? Do we stay and go through the long process of stabilizing and pacifying the city? Do we leave with the job undone?

Perhaps before the US military undertakes its biggest operation of the war in Afghanistan, the civilian leadership could demand answers to these questions. Because, if there is no plan B for Kandahar, there should be no Plan A either.

May 23, 2010

What's the Deal With Brazil, Turkey, and Iran?
Posted by David Shorr

If it seems like there are a lot of issues embedded in the dueling diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program, it’s because there are a lot of issues embedded in...  Rising powers asserting their influence, the efficacy of sanctions, American fetishes and stubbornness; it’s all here. So I want to draw on some of the excellent commentary and analysis to tackle some of these. Should Brazil and Turkey be welcomed as facilitators or resisted as interlopers? Did they achieve a worthwhile deal? Do sanctions even work? And can this story have a happy ending?

The role played by Brazil and Turkey poses a real dilemma. Many of us have argued the need for help from the emergent powers with just these sort of issues. The inevitable corollary being that they'd assert their influence on their own terms, rather than ours. According to some of this week's commentary, President Lula and Prime Minister Erdogan were sticking their thumbs in America's eyes -- or at least tilting toward the Iranian side of the dispute -- rather than seeking a constructive solution to the problem. Then when the Obama Administration's rebuffed the attempted mediation, critics from the left (e.g.M.J. Rosenberg) said it was being too rigid -- refusing half a loaf will leave it with none.

Were these two key new players working in the right spirit, working the problem rather than merely showboating or seizing a political advantage? I believe so. Here's a quote on President Lula's aims from one of his top aides,Marcel Biato, writing in Americas Quarterly:

President Lula has condemned Iran’s failure to abide by the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. When he hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in late 2009, he was forthright in expressing concern over Iran’s lack of transparency in dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He made it clear that Brazil will only defend Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes if it shows good faith in fulfilling its outstanding commitments.

That's singing from the same sheet music, and contrary to the cynics, I see no reason to doubt its sincerity. My quibble is with the execution, not the mission itself; though I do take issue with one key premise. Marcel argues elsewhere in the piece, as have others, that sanctions and confrontation with Iran will only provoke its resistance. Iran's insecurities and suspicions are indeed part of the equation, but there's no way that backing off will induce Tehran to be more responsive. Quite the opposite, Brazil and Turkey were able to reach their deal because of the sword of sanctions hung over Iran's head.

So, does wanting the new powers to take this kind of initiative obligate me to approve of the deal's terms? No, as in any negotiation, a deal has to be judged on its content. On this issue, Judah Grunstein makes a number of smart points, the strongest being:

it's premature to say that the deal is proof of Turkey reaching the "big leagues" in terms of its diplomatic stature. Sometimes just being involved is an accomplishment (although that's usually the case for minor leaguers), and to whatever extent Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to gain concessions from Iran, it was a sign of Turkey's influence. But in the big leagues, influence is not measured by getting one party to sign on to a deal that's unacceptable to the other. It's measured by bridging differences to get both sides to sign on, and in the meantime, by getting both sides to abstain from provocative and inflammatory behavior. Turkey's ability to do that will clearly be limited in this case, as witnessed by Terhan's refusal so far to halt 20 percent enrichment and the U.S. decision to press on with U.N. sanctions.

Exactly. And in terms of the process story (the life bread of any true wonk), Josh Rogin tells us that Washington gave the mediators clear signals about the administration's red lines. In addition to Grunstein, RealClearWorld bloggers Kevin Sullivan and Greg Scoblete make further strong arguments for why the warmed-over and half-eaten agreement from last October doesn't cut it. In fact, if we're looking for counterfactuals that acknowledge a potential role for Ankara and Brasilia, a good question is why they didn't come through with a compromise in December or January (oh yeah, the damoclean sanctions threat).

Speaking of sanctions, I'd like to respond to all the skepticism about their efficacy -- particularly the why-is-the-fourth-time-different meme. First off, there is something new about imposing smart sanctions at this point. Remember all those news stories about how the Revolutionary Guard has built an industrial empire in recent years? Perhaps that exposes them to new vulnerabilities.

But the point of sanctions is not to cripple the leadership or create newly intolerable economic conditions. One can concede their limited direct effects and still believe in their value and efficacy. Because the real point of sanctions is a demonstration that a unified international community is staying on their ass, that the trend lines of pressure are not diminishing, irrespective of Tehran's intransigence. (As Greg Scoblete points out, Russia and China probably matter to Iran more than Brazil and Turkey.) The sanctions work when Iranian leaders become convinced non-cooperation isn't worth the hassle.

This also explains the failure of sanctions to work. Because they are instruments of pressure, they have a limited shelf life. Each set of sanctions failed over time as the associated pressure waned. Again, this is why a Brazil-Turkey initiative would have been more helpful in December. The key question about efficacy -- and the entire enterprise -- has to do with keeping the negotiating process on a relatively quick tempo. Does the administration have a game plan of additional requests and incentives to drive this toward a successful outcome?

Which brings me to the final question of a happy end for the current chapter. If Brazil and Turkey still have some diplomatic fight in them, perhaps rather than standing by their unsuccessful bargain, they could induce Iran to a more meaningful one. And if they do, I'll be the first to heap them with praise.

Kandahar Cluster**** Watch - The Harbingers of Doom Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

I cannot recommend enough Karen DeYoung's article in the Washington Post today about the utterly delusional nature of the upcoming NATO offensive in Kandahar. But as DeYoung points out - hidden under the effort to remain an "objective" reporter - virtually every assumption of US leaders regarding the Kandahar offensive appears to be either dubious or simply wrong.

For example:

U.S. civilian officials are simultaneously trying to wrest control from local power brokers and to correct imbalances that favor one tribal group. They plan to set up 10 administrative districts, each with a representative council and money to spend.

And yet, Kandahar's corrupt, drug-dealing governor, Walid Karzai remains in power even after repeated entreaties to his brother Hamid to get rid of him. If the US wants to wrest control from local power brokers, but isn't willing to replace the person perhaps most responsible for the city's endemic corruption and the Afghan people's lack of confidence in the Kabul government - how exactly is that going to work?

Indeed, according to DeYoung by the Pentagon's own analysis the more aid we pump into Kandahar the more we strengthen the same corrupt individuals and power brokers whose behavior is feeding the insurgency.

Then there is the lack of metrics underpinning the US effort:

Success has been only vaguely defined, and progress will be monitored through what the military calls "atmospherics reporting," including public opinion polls and levels of commerce in the streets. A senior military official said the central question, which the administration will pose and answer for itself, is: "Are we moving toward a solution in Kandahar that the people support?"

Is "atmospherics reporting" a euphemism for whatever the military can spin in order to claim they are making "progress?" In fact, if the US is so focused on public opinion polling in Kandahar perhaps they could pay more attention to the fact that the army's own polling indicates 94% of Kandaharis don't want the US to intervene in Kandahar. But the larger reality is that by December (when a review of the current Afghan policy is expected) it will be next impossible to get a clear sense of whether Kandahar is "moving toward a solution that the people support." This is an effort that will take not months, but years. That the administration has made the metrics for success so vague leaves them deeply susceptible to the same sort of goalpost shifting that went on around the Iraqi surge when a decline in civilian casualties became the key metric even though it wasn't one of the original benchmarks for success.

But there's more:

The offensive requires Afghan police to demonstrate, arguably for the first time, competence and integrity. It assumes that Americans, both military and civilian, can sort through complex tribal politics to ensure that power and funding go to the right people, and that Kandahar's chieftains will relinquish some control and support U.S. aims.

What possible reason is there to believe that any of this will happen . . . or that it will happen by December? Consider what DeYoung has to say about the Afghan police and judicial system:

Statistics in the analysis are grim. Of 784 uniformed police in Kandahar city and the surrounding area, only 25 percent to 30 percent have been trained, although new forces are scheduled to arrive for the offensive. Of 87 slots for local judges, nine are filled. Saraposa prison, the main detention facility in Kandahar, is overpopulated and is considered less than secure, and the offensive is expected to produce "far more" prisoners than it can handle.

And then consider what the Pentagon's own report on the situation in Afghanistan had to say about the judicial system there:

In order for the ANSF to successfully transition to security lead, there is a requirement for a minimum acceptable rule of law capacity (i.e., governance, courts, judges, prosecutors, and correctional capacity) to support the security effort.  Defining sufficient rule of law capability, and the resources required to achieve it, is outside the scope of this report but is being addressed by the interagency and international community.  Without the necessary supporting rule of law structures, the ANP will become ineffective over time.  No matter how many police we train or how well we partner with them, without sufficient rule of law and governance, transition will fail.  

By the Pentagon's own analysis the near term transition to Afghan control is unlikely to succeed.

And what if it doesn't succeed? How does the US just pull out after spending so much time and resources to pacify Kandahar? Here in lies perhaps the greatest folly with intervening in Kandahar; if we're even a tiny bit successful in the near-term it will actually increase the pressure to stay in order to not squander any gains that are made and if we're not successful then it will be even harder to leave the place in worse shape then we found it. Short of magical success, the US is likely on the hook in Kandahar for a very long time to come - and if we leave there will be no reason for any Afghan to trust our word again.

In short, Kandahar is shaping not to be the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning - and the starting point for a longer, more intractable mission of pacification and stabilization in southern Afghanistan. A few weeks ago, upon publication of the Pentagon's April report, I asked these questions:

"Why are we continuing on a mission - that by the military's own analysis - is almost certainly out of the scope of our capabilities and the capabilities of our host country partner? And perhaps more directly, why aren't our civilian policymakers asking this question of the uniformed military?"

They are as germane now as they were then; but perhaps the even better question is why aren't my progressive brethren demanding answers to these queries? Why are we looking the other way when the evidence is steadily mounting that the Administration is stumbling into a political and military quagmire in Afghanistan - a quagmire that can be prevented.

May 22, 2010

Rounding Out The Feaver "Yes, but" Theory of Obama Foreign Policy
Posted by David Shorr

Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver picks up on a refrain of Obama foreign policy that for him reveals the underlying strategy:

I call it the "yes, but" strategic logic because what Obama has sought to do is systematically neutralize (in a rhetorical debating sense of the term) the laundry list of complaints about US foreign policy that other countries use as excuses whenever we would push them to help us on pressing American priorities like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and so on.

Feaver is definitely onto something, but I see this as an aspect of the strategy rather than its overarching logic. Unquestionably this pattern of undermining the standard criticisms of the US has been a steady one. In his September 2009 speech to the UN General Assembly, President Obama spoke explicitly about "an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction." 

While the policy indeed aims to shift the onus from the United States onto others, the dynamic isn't mainly the battle to prevail in arguments. As diligently as the administration marshals its strongest possible debating points -- and discredits the counterpoints -- I don't think they view success as a matter of persuading the opponent or proving the case. Rather, the name of the game is to build expectations to the point that the leaders of the nation(s) in question feel compelled to comply. The strategic value of the moral high ground is that it's a strong position from which to exert such pressure.

Feaver supports his theory by showing how it helps explain choices of priorities that are otherwise puzzling. The administration is picking the policy battles that help defuse the most common critiques of US foreign policy -- arming itself with strong "yes, but" retorts. The atrocities of the Sudanese government, Feaver argues (somewhat persuasively), don't meet that test of being an issue where the US is subject to international expectations.

I'd offer a different theory of prioritization. I see Obama focusing on high-stakes challenges that are consequential for future health of the international system. This strategy pushes attention toward: global economic recovery, climate change, erosion of the nuclear taboo, a peaceful Asia, and terror networks. In other words, there are items on the international agenda that have prima facie urgency; America's strategic message to the rest of the world is "let's get together and solve some of these problems."

My strategic logic theory might help explain another perceived quandary regarding Obama's policy: the supposed slighting of the United States' friends and allies. If the primary driver and focus of your foreign policy is the challenges and problems, maybe that's a strategically different lens than attending to your friendships. Maybe this approach treats relationships as overly instrumental rather than valuable in themselves. Of course any administration will say that it is working to keep relationships with allies strong, which is undeniably important. I just raise the question whether a hard-driving, problem solving-focused policy is bound to involve the trade-offs I'm describing. And is that really a wrong choice?

May 21, 2010

Kandahar Cluster**** Watch - The Lessons of Marjah Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

C.J Chivers is an extraordinarily brave man and a helluva reporter - and his latest update from Marja is harrowing and a fascinating piece of reporting. Embedded with a Marine unit patrolling in Marja we get a clear sense of how tenuous that supposedly cleared village remains.

But also Chivers produces a quote from a Marine Corporal that pretty much serves as an allegory for the entire dubious mission in southern Afghanistan:

“Just give us a couple of weeks and we’ll win their hearts and minds,” he said, and shook his head.

What more can you say?

Indeed, what is happening in Marjah should be a giant, wake-up call to the US military about the follies of trying to stabilize and pacify southern Afghanstan when operating under a timeframe where the beginning of US troops withdrawals are only 14 months away. It's a point Chivers hammers on in his article:

Whatever the anticipated pace of an expected American-led push into Taliban strongholds in Kandahar Province, even the most determined effort to defeat the Taliban and drug traffickers where they are deep-rooted will require substantial resources and time.

Months after the carefully planned offensive here, large areas of terrain are not fully cleared. In these areas, fighting continues. And while clearly punishing for the Taliban, it also tests American troops and exacts a civilian toll.

This is happening in Marjah, which theoretically should be a lot easier place to clear than an actual city like Kandahar. And keep in mind, we are still only in the clear phase in Marjah. Holding and building is still quite a distance away. 

I feel a bit like a broken record on this point, but if three months after the Marjah offensive we are still in the clear phase why would anyone believe that we are prepared for an offensive in Kandahar this summer? Indeed, what we've seen in Marjah is a puncturing of many of the myths underpinning the entire US mission in Afghanistan.

As Chivers article points out, the Taliban are a smart and resourceful enemy that relies on hit-and-run tactics to both harass US forces, but also effectively intimidate the local population. The lack of support from the Afghan government and the Afghan security services demonstrates that even if we can clear Marjah, we almost certainly can't hold it. We're not really protecting the population since our very presence in Marjah is causing the deaths of Afghan civilians - even if not at our hands. Indeed Chivers piece tells the story of an Afghan farmer named Muhammed who is caught in the crossfire between Taliban guerrilas and a Marine unit and shot. Ask yourself, would that farmer have been shot if we weren't in Marjah?

All of these problems are only going to be magnified when we go into Kandahar.

If we had unlimited time and unlimited resources then the US strategy for southern Afghanistan might actually work (a dubious proposition indeed, but work with me here). But we don't. We have significant limitations on what we can accomplish in Afghanistan; and there are a host of local and regional impediments to success - like a corrupt government in Kabul and an unmolested Taliban safe haven in Pakistan.

It's time for someone in a position of power (like say the President) to tell the generals to call off this ill-fated offensive in Kandahar and lay the groundwork for political negotiations before more American soldiers and innocent Afghans die.

And it's time for progressives to start demanding that he do it.

May 20, 2010

Lesson from Kentucky and Pennsylvania: Progressives Turnout, Conservatives Divided
Posted by Ryan Keenan

Pennsylvania: Democrats Vote Against Arlen Specter…Again! Not Obama

The storyline here is that Specter, the incumbent and party establishment choice, lost to the insurgent Sestak. This is only partially true. Yes, he did have backing from the White House as well the Governor and was a sitting Senator. But he was not an incumbent to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party electorate. Specter has never won a state-wide DEMOCRATIC primary. He is an incumbent to the general election electorate not the Democratic primary electorate. Considering PA has closed primaries this is significant. The results of this election were a result of rank and file Democrats outside of Philadelphia doing what they have done for thirty years, vote against Arlen Specter, not against the administration. Looking at the results more closely, Specter only won two counties outside of Philadelphia (Lackawanna and Dauphin) narrowly and Sestak performed well in Allegheny county (Pittsburgh) and Bucks and Montgomery (the Philadelphia suburbs.)  

Another lesson from this race is that candidates matter. With so much emphasis being placed on national narratives and the political climate, the ability of a candidate to execute a campaign strategy was critical in this primary. Specter made significant tactical mistakes. He went unnecessarily negative too soon and too harsh. He aired this add in mid April attacking Sestak’s military record right around the time he lost his double digit lead. This attack did two things; it gave Sestak name recognition and highlighted Sestak’s biggest strength, his military service.  In a state where many rank and file democrats are blue collar-pro military Jack Murtha types, attacking Sestak’s military record swift boat style made little sense. Sestak on the other hand performed well. In this ad, he successfully tied Specter to Bush, highlighted his switching parties for political expediency and more subtly mentioned jobs.

As far as intensity is concerned, the Specter-Sestak battle has engaged the PA Democratic state party base, while Pat Toomey’s assured nomination did little to spark Republican turnout. Specter-Sestak brought out 1,045,520 voters on a rainy day vs. the 818,604 by Toomey and little known Luksik. This was the same in the gubernatorial race where Onorato and his competitors attracted 1,018,845 vs. 850,995 for Corbett vs. Rohrer. That is almost 227,000 and 167,000 more people who turned out to vote for a Democrat than a Republican for Senator and Governor respectively. This is important from a GOTV perspective because it means these voters are already aware of the race, familiar with their candidate, and know where their precinct polling places are located.

Kentucky: Democrats Turnout, Republicans Divided.  

The storyline on the Kentucky primary is that Rand Paul, Tea Party hero, ignited the angry anti-establishment conservative base that turned out in droves….not so much. The less sexy Democratic primary between Mongiardo and Conway brought 520,412 to the polls vs. the 351,927 by the hyped Paul/Grayson battle. While conservative pundits interpret this as a warning to the administration, over 168,000 more Kentuckians voted for a Democrat than a Republican on Tuesday night.

Paul’s victory does highlight some backlash against the Republican establishment, particularly within the Kentucky Republican party. Even more than that, however, it highlights significant ideological questions about Rand Paul, the Tea Party Movement and the conservative base, specifically on national security. Paul’s initial validation as in insurgent candidate was because of his father, Ron Paul a hero to Libertarians and Libertarian leaning Republicans nation-wide. This is the same Ron Paul who opposed the Iraq invasion and supported the Obama Administration’s decision to not intervene in the Iranian elections.

"I have admired President Obama's cautious approach to the situation in Iran and I would have preferred that we in the House had acted similarly."

This is a direct contradiction to the nonconservative Dick Cheney wing of the conservative base that was the primary force pushing us into Iraq and is the loudest proponent for invading Iran. Cheney endorsed Grayson. Cheney has also been the most vocal defender of Bush interrogation policies where the senior Paul has been a vocal advocate for closing Guantanamo and critic of Bush detainee policy. 

Cheney is a natural nemesis to the senior Paul, but what about the junior Paul? Most of Rand Paul’s biggest national supporters like Sarah Palin are in Cheney’s camp on these issues. The Tea Party has never been clear on any national security issue; its website doesn’t address them at all.

Rand Paul now has to make the difficult decision of which conservative base to please, his father’s cult like libertarian following or the nonconservative Dick Cheney crowd. Either way, he risks alienating key constituents in the Republican Party that he needs in November. Officially he is Libertarian-Lite. His website lists him as for the war in Afghanistan, against the war in Iraq, for defending the constitution, but also in favor of military tribunals at Guantanamo. This hedge, however, will be difficult to sell to November’s electorate because of its inconsistent logic. His stance on the Detainee issue directly not only contradicts Libertarian principles but also his own positions from only a year ago:

Rand Paul “couldn’t agree more” with those who believe Guantanamo has “significantly damaged the reputation of the United States” and who want to “see it shut down.”(Rand Paul official campaign website post, posted by the site Administrator, 5/25/09)

"It's unclear whether these people are guilty or not guilty... So I really think deportation or sending them back to their country of origin might be the best way to go. And none of its fair, because some of them have been held years and years without trial... and you deport them to the countries where they were captured..." on the Alex Jones You Tube show Alex, 5/21/09

This flip is an obvious concession to the Cheney/Palin crowd, but it directly contradicts his anti-government base. How can giving the government the authority to detainee someone indefinitely be consistent with any “movement” that wants to reduce the size and power of government? This is a serious question not only for Rand Paul, but also for the Tea Party and the Republican Party.

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