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October 21, 2010

The Military's Latest Afghan Offensive - Operation Enduring Conflict
Posted by Michael Cohen

So it seems the latest US military offensive has begun both in Afghanistan and here in the United States - Operation Enduring Conflict. And like so many other military offensives it promises to be a smashing success - in continuing US military involvement in Afghanistan.

It began over the weekend, with a shock and war-style attack that left critics of the conflict dazed and bloodied. In the Washington Post:

"Top U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan have begun to assert that they see concrete progress in the war against the Taliban, a sharp departure from earlier assessments that the insurgency had the momentum. Despite growing numbers of Taliban attacks and American casualties, U.S. officials are building their case for why they are on the right track, ahead of the December war review ordered by President Obama."  

This massive public relations bombardment was bolstered with a series of behind the lines operations that sought to strike at NATO's soft underbelly. 

From the Times of London:

"The Taliban are getting an absolute arse-kicking," said one top-level Westerner deeply involved with Operation Ham Kari, the latest big push by US and British forces in Kandahar. "It's been their worst year since 2001-02. We're taking them off the battlefield in industrial numbers. We're convinced that the initiative has really shifted."

The Montreal Gazette:

The feeling among Canadians and American soldiers fighting in this corner of the country is that the principal reason some Taliban are keen to talk is that the enemy has been getting crushed on the battlefield since a huge surge in U.S. forces finally kicked in this summer. Even a few members of the Western media who have been notoriously dubious about the war may slowly be changing their minds.

The enemy was pushed back on its heels. "Wait a minute," they cried. Civilian casualties are way up . . . the North is getting worse . . . the ANSF can't fight its way out of a paper bag . . . the insurgency is maturing and getting more effective . . . even the White House thinks things are going badly . . . your one "success" Marjah is anything but.

Continue reading "The Military's Latest Afghan Offensive - Operation Enduring Conflict" »

October 15, 2010

What Is PJ Crowley Possibly Thinking?
Posted by Michael Cohen

One of the most difficult parts of chronicling the US war in Afghanistan is keeping track of some of the utterly head-scratching, divorced from reality statements that come out of the mouths of US military officers and diplomats.

Yesterday's statement from State Department spokesmen PJ Crowley about political reconciliation in Afghanistan is a quintessential example of this phenomenon:

The United States said Thursday it cannot see Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar meeting criteria for peace talks with the Afghan government and playing a constructive role in Afghanistan's future.

US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Taliban foot-soldiers and leaders could participate in Afghanistan's future if they renounce violence, cut ties with Al-Qaeda and support the Afghan constitution. But he doubted the opportunity would be seized by Mullah Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed leader who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan and who, the Washington Post said last week, backs secret high-level peace talks with Kabul.

"From our view, Mullah Omar has been attached at the hip to bin Laden for some time. So, based on everything that we know about him today, in fact he will not meet the criteria that we have laid out," Crowley told reporters. "He had many opportunities during the '90s and even after 9/11 to disassociate himself from Osama bin Laden. He chose not to," Crowley said.

"So you know, there's nothing that we see that indicates that Mullah Omar will, in fact, change his stripes. As a result, we don't see that he qualifies to play a constructive role in Afghanistan's future."

Perhaps my favorite part about Crowley's statement is the notion that the Taliban won't show they are serious about peace talks if they don't, "renounce violence, cut ties with Al-Qaeda and support the Afghan constitution." So apparently the State Department now defines "seriousness" as surrender. And this by the way is the diplomatic agency of the world's most powerful country.

Continue reading "What Is PJ Crowley Possibly Thinking?" »

COIN Is Dead! Long Live Another Poorly-Conceived Military Strategy
Posted by Michael Cohen

Fred Kaplan notices something about that whole COIN strategy in Afghanistan - it ain't working and the US military is moving on:

Officials say a shift in U.S. war strategy has begun to take place in Afghanistan, away from classic counterinsurgency (protecting the population, providing basic services, promoting good government) and toward the traditional business of killing and capturing bad guys.

U.S. and NATO officers, intelligence analysts, and other officials and advisers now believe that our objectives in the Afghanistan war can no longer be accomplished in sufficiently short time through COIN alone or even through a COIN-dominant strategy.

Under classic COIN strategy, this process would take place slowly but steadily, as the presence of security forces and the supply of basic services boost popular allegiance to the Afghan government, which in turn dries up the base of support for the insurgents.

However, it is now calculated, even by many COIN advocates, that this process would take too long—and be too corrupted by Afghan politics—to work in any practical sense.

In any case, the time needed for success through a COIN campaign alone—another six to 10 years, or more, the strategy's most avid supporters estimate—is seen as politically unsustainable.

As for Afghan politics, COIN can succeed only by, with, and through the host government U.S. troops in a COIN operation are—and advertise themselves to be—fighting on behalf of the host government. And yet, by all official accounts, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is so distrusted by its own people—and so incompetent at (or uninterested in) providing services—that it cannot really serve as a reliable partner in a COIN campaign.

It's really hard to describe how maddening it is to read something like this in October 2010, when throughout the Summer and Fall of 2009 it was the exact argument made by COIN opponents as to why a COIN operation was not going to work in Afghanistan. Now it appears after basically wasting a year and a half of trying to out governance the Taliban we've realized that . . . guess what population-centric COIN can't work in Afghanistan.

Continue reading "COIN Is Dead! Long Live Another Poorly-Conceived Military Strategy" »

October 14, 2010

Green Epiphany: Media Notices Energy Security
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Hornet_PS-0259 Just in the last couple of weeks it seems the media has finally gotten the message on energy security, at least the logistical piece of it. The attacks on NATO oil tankers sparked most this conversation, which prompted a follow up story in the Times:

Last week, a Marine company from California arrived in the rugged outback of Helmand Province bearing novel equipment: portable solar panels that fold up into boxes; energy-conserving lights; solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity; solar chargers for computers and communications equipment.

Piling on, Jim Arkedis of PPI wrapped it all together this morning in the LA Times, with a piece that linked the tanker attacks in Pakistan with the fact that the USS Cole, which was bombed 10 years ago this week, was on a 24-hour refuel when it was hit. Arkedis’s point is that a decade after the Cole, we still haven’t gotten the message.

Though the lessons from 9/11 will be debated for years, [the Cole bombing’s] message is succinct. It is best summed up by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway: "Energy choices can save lives on the battlefield." The armed forces are searching for next-generation green energy technologies because they provide power at the point of its consumption, which decreases the military's need to resupply with carbon-based fuels.

Arkedis offers a fix: an innovation fund in the Pentagon to speed up the development of more energy-efficient technologies. Tom Friedman made a similar point in his column this week, although his focus was funding on the civilian side. Either way – and it can be either way because most energy-saving techniques developed by the military will have obvious practical civilians uses, and vice versa – finding solutions for saving energy is essential, both for national security and economic competition.

Continue reading "Green Epiphany: Media Notices Energy Security" »

October 12, 2010

Not Such Magical Thinking About Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the New Republic, I have a new piece about the situation in Afghanistan based on my recent travels there. It offers a slightly different take than what you might be hearing from other think tankers and the folks at ISAF:

Arriving in Kabul the first thing that hits you is the aura and aroma of dust. It covers the capital city in a hazy sheen and, more to the point, in a distinct and powerful odor. Considering that Kabul reportedly has one of the highest percentages of atmospheric fecal matter in the world it's the sort of smell that, at least initially, strikes you in the face.

It offers a useful preview of the more powerful smack of gloom that seems so evident in Afghanistan today. Among the many local and international journalists, NGO officials, analysts, and political leaders that I spoke to during a recent visit to Afghanistan, there was a pervasive sense of fatalism about the country’s future and the U.S. war effort (the lone exception to this consensus being the ever-optimistic U.S. military). Worse, none of those I talked with seem to know what to do about it.

The dire security situation colors everything. When I mentioned to one NGO official that things in the country's south and east had worsened, he quickly corrected me: "Security is bad everywhere." And it's true. Roads that were safe a year or even six months ago are now considered too dangerous to travel. The south and east—the heart of the Taliban insurgency—has become a complete no-go zone. And even once relatively secure northern provinces like Kunduz, Nangarhar, Takhar, and parts of Badakhshan are reaching their own tipping points—pushed by insurgents and straightforward banditry.

The northern province of Balkh, home to the provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif, (where I worked as an election monitor during recent legislative elections) generally has been considered one of the country’s safest. But even in Balkh there were persistent reports of Taliban activity and districts now considered off-limits. Just recently, a suicide attack was reported on the road between Mazar and Balkh, killing one person and injuring more than two dozen. Not so long ago, such an assault would have been unimaginable.

Read the whole thing here.


October 11, 2010

More Magical Thinking on Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Michael O'Hanlon on the situation in Afghanistan - October 6, 2010

"Afghanistan remains a tough fight, but at least three-quarters of the country - starting with bustling Kabul, extending into most of the north and west and including parts of the east - is either in reasonably promising shape or improving," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan.

And in other news in Northern Afghanistan - October 8, 2010

In an audacious attack, insurgents assassinated the governor of Kunduz Province on Friday by bombing the mosque where he attended the weekly Friday Prayer, according to Afghan officials.

The bomb blast killed 12 people and wounded 33 at the main mosque in Taliqan, the capital of Takhar Province, which borders Kunduz.

The assassination underscored the growing capability of the insurgency in northern Afghanistan, which has become increasingly unstable over the past year. Mr. Omar was the third government official in the past two months to be assassinated in the region. In August and September, district governors were killed in Kunduz and Baghlan Provinces.

In Western Afghanistan - October 9, 2010:

Four Italian soldiers were killed and one seriously wounded in an insurgent attack in western Afghanistan on Saturday . . .

Italy has more than 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, mainly deployed in the western part of the country that is usually less violent than other areas in the south and the east.

Continue reading "More Magical Thinking on Afghanistan" »

October 08, 2010

Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game
Posted by Eric Martin

Joshua Foust makes several insightful points when discussing the recent bout of criticism and, at times, outright mockery of Hamid Karzai, as well as the recurring calls for his removal.  First, Foust highlights the very poorly thought-out, hyper-centralized government that was established in Kabul - with heavy-handed Western influence:

The problem with focusing on Karzai so much is it places the entire onus for success or failure on Karzai, the person, when the bigger problem is the institution of the presidency. Afghanistan has one of the most centralized governments in the world. Karzai is responsible for managing the performance of 34 provincial governors, 400 or so district sub-governors, and all their associated chiefs of police, to say nothing of competing constituencies in Kabul. He personally appoints all government officials down to district administrators, of which there are hundreds. It’s no wonder he is having trouble governing.

Not only does Karzai have to govern all the way down to the micro-level in every province, district and town (which requires an enormous amount of resources and brain power), his government also stands to take the blame when something goes wrong in each of those regions and sub-regions.  Because there are fewer intermediaries to take the heat or manage the situation, his government is on the hook for virtually everthing, from the actions of school teachers to policemen.  For a country without a strong tradition of centralized government, creating one that makes France's look laissez faire was of dubious wisdom.


Foust's points about corruption are also worth highlighting:

...Karzai only has two real bargaining chips: political influence, and money. When the United States installed him in Kabul in 2002, no one considered Hamid Karzai a particularly corrupt individual -- certainly not by Afghan standards. But to fulfill the duties of his office, Karzai had no choice but to trade money and money-making positions to get even minimal results.

Continue reading "Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game" »

October 07, 2010

We Don't See Eye to Eye with the ISI
Posted by Eric Martin

Matt Yglesias makes an interesting observation regarding the perverse incentives that our involvement in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region over the past near-decade has given the Pakistani military/ISI: 

Whenever I read reports about US government officials being frustrated by Pakistan’s cooperation in fighting militant groups, I always wonder what it is policymakers are expecting will happen. Our current policy, after all, is to give the Pakistani military a lot of aid that’s predicated on the existence of an Islamist militant threat. If the threat went away, the aid would probably dry up and even if it didn’t dry up it would be redirected away from military matters—we wouldn’t be interested in explicitly funding an arms race with India.

But the incentives are even further skewed.  As is well known, important factions of Pakistan's strategic class view the militant groups that we find problematic as useful proxies vis-a-vis India in places like Kashmir, as well as in terms of creating strategic depth in Afghanistan (which, again, is seen as necessary to counter the superior territorial/population size of rival India).

Thus, not only are we creating a dynamic by which the Pakistani military/strategic class will only continue to receive massive infusions of aid for as long as militant groups remain prevalent and active in the region, but according to their (admittedly short-sighted) calculus, those militant groups are of strategic, long term value in terms of countering India. 

Given the Karzai government's warm relations with India, were the Pakistani military/ISI to truly clamp down on the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups given sanctuary within its borders, the net result would be a reduction in valuable US aid, as well as a strategic gain for India in Afghanistan (a nation that, prior to the US invasion, Pakistan enjoyed great influence through the Taliban government).

Thus, there is little reason to expect Pakistan to cooperate with us in terms of eradicating those militant groups regardless of our entreaties and their assurance.  In fact, as Max Fisher notes, the situation is getting worse: with Pakistan growing increasingly unsupportive of our mission - possibly willing to sacrifice US military aid in order to hasten our exit from the region.

After 9 years of Pakistani double-speak and inaction evincing this intransigence, the Obama administration should drop the charade, confront the reality of the situation, and adjust its strategy accordingly.  Pakistan is not going to support our mission when the end result will weaken Pakistan relative to India.  However, escalating a conflict with Pakistan in order to punish that state, or compel its cooperation, would be disastrous given the state of our already over-stretched and over-extended military. 

It is time to accelerate outreach to the Taliban, and search, in earnest, for a negotiated framework that would allow for prompt de-escalation.

Egyptian Democracy Doesn’t Need Gamal Mubarak
Posted by The Editors

Gamal Mobarak Point This guest post is by Stephen McInerney, Director of Advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

In a recent article for the Foreign Policy Middle East Channel, Tarek Masoud makes the provocative claim that a rigged succession from President Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal may in fact be “the best hope for Egyptian democracy.”  Masoud makes some compelling points, but his overall argument overreaches.  The “best hope for Egyptian democracy” lies not with the president’s son, but with opposition demands for political reforms that empower the Egyptian people.

First, Masoud distorts the position of those opposing an inherited succession from father to son, declaring that “Egypt's opposition forces and Western advocates of democracy promotion all seem to agree on one thing: Gamal Mubarak should not be allowed to succeed his father Hosni Mubarak as President of Egypt.”  To be clear, no one has argued that Gamal should “not be allowed” to succeed his father as president – on the contrary, the Egyptian opposition would welcome an open process in which Gamal were to run against other candidates in a free election. 

Secondly, Masoud suggests that a Gamal Mubarak presidency would set the stage for a rising opposition to challenge him in the future.  This recalls hopes that surfaced ten years ago in Syria, that the younger, Western-educated Bashar al-Assad would be a weak ruler more susceptible than his father to pressure from Syria’s opposition.  A lesson from the younger Assad’s presidency and from similar father-to-son transitions in Jordan and Morocco is that these perceived openings often prove elusive. 

Masoud counters that if Gamal Mubarak were to come to power in 2011 through an (albeit rigged) “contested” election [the quotes are his], his fate would be bound to uncertain elections in the years ahead.  However, regularly contested - but rigged - elections have failed to weaken the grip of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen or Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria.  Gamal’s lack of legitimacy and more tenuous hold on power could just as likely lead him to use the Egyptian security apparatus to consolidate his control even more aggressively than his father. 

Continue reading "Egyptian Democracy Doesn’t Need Gamal Mubarak" »

Blogging the Woodward Book
Posted by Michael Cohen

So I've finally started to slog through the new Bob Woodward book and this passage in particular really jumped out at me. It comes from an interview between Woodward and National Security Advisor Jim Jones and it is his take on why the war in Afghanistan matters:

"If we're not successful here," Jones said, "you'll have a staging base for global terrorism all over the world. People will say the terrorists won. And you'll see expressions of these kinds of things in Africa, South America, you name it. Any developing country is going to say, this is the way we beat [the United States], and we're going to have a bigger problem." 

A setback or loss for the United States would be a "tremendous boost for jihadist extremists, fundamentalists all over the world." 

"It's certainly a clash of civilizations. It's a clash of religions. It's a clash of almost concepts of how to live." The conflict is that deep, he said "So I think if you don't succeed in Afghanistan, you will be fighting in more places."

"Second, if we don't succeed here, organizations like NATO, by association the EU, and the UN might be relegated to the dustbin of history."

How did a President who ran as a candidate on the message that he would "change the mindset" of American foreign policy end up with a national security advisor completely mired in conventional, unnuanced, Cheney-esque thinking about American power? And keep in mind this is one of the people in the Administration who was opposed to the Afghan surge.

You know a few months ago, Spencer and I got in an interesting back-and-forth after I complained that this Administration has a real dearth of strategic thinkers.

After reading this passage . . . well . . . I win.


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