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September 20, 2011

Exclusive: Amb. Dobbins Says Rabbani's Death Is Validation of Talks
Posted by Jacob Stokes

RabbaniToday former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani -- who as head of the Afghan High Peace Council was tasked with finding a political solution to the war in Afghanistan -- was assassinated by a suicide bomber. The bomber, who hid the bomb in his turban, posed as a member of the Taliban looking to discuss reconciliation with the government before blowing up himself and his target.

This tragic event is clearly a huge setback to the peace process, if for no other reason than it will further strain relations between regional and ethnic groups. Anand Gopal argues on the AfPak channel that Rabbani’s death is just the latest in a campaign to kill off players that aren’t amenable to a pro-Taliban deal.

But in an exclusive interview with NSN and Democracy Arsenal, Ambassador James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation and author of two landmark reports (here and here) on the process of peace talks in Afghanistan, explains that the attack shows the U.S. and the Afghan government are on the right track with negotiations. Amb. Dobbins explains:

Assuming that the assassination was in connection with [Rabbani’s] leadership of the Karzai Peace Council and his U.S.-backed efforts to launch a peace process, it suggests that some elements within the insurgency greatly fear this initiative, both because it has great public appeal throughout Afghanistan and because other elements of the insurgency have been seriously considering engaging in such a process. Tragic as Rabbani’s assassination is, I would thus see it as a validation of the course Karzai and the U.S. are on.

Remember, this week Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the network of the same name, said, “We would support whatever solution our shura members suggest for the future of Afghanistan,” meaning the Quetta Shura, or Afghan Taliban leadership. That was big news. Still is.

There’s no doubt that Rabbani’s death is a big blow, but we always knew the process would be prolonged at best. As Dobbins says, today's tragedy is in some ways a validation of the course American and the Afghan government have embarked on – not reason to depart from it.

Photo: ISAF

September 19, 2011

Wake Me Up When September Ends
Posted by David Shorr


Given the long-looming specter of "September" -- by now a clichéd codeword for the Palestinian push for UN recognition and its ramifications for Middle East peace -- I was grateful for an invitation to join an AIPAC-organized delegation of policy experts for a visit Israel this month. As it turned out, Palestinian issues and the upcoming UN meeting were hardly the only grist for discussion. Other open questions for Israel's future include (in order of prominence during our visit last week):

  • Relations with Egypt - where a late-night phone call from President Obama prompted an Egyptian commando operation to rescue Israeli staff trapped in their embassy by a violent mob
  • Relations with Turkey - where the Erdogan government threw Israel's ambassador out of the country
  • The Iranian nuclear threat - naturally
  • The popular uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad
  • Recent domestic protests over social and economic conditions within Israel itself

This is only my first post based on the trip, but with world leaders descending on New York for the global debate on Palestinian statehood UN General Assembly general debate, that's a fine place to start. Various motives and aims have been ascribed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but the essential thrust of his initiative is to pursue an alternate venue to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It's fair to say the Palestinian leader is forum shopping, but not in the usual sense that forum shoppers maneuver for advantage. From his perspective, he's been a captive customer at the company store, and it hasn't been a very good deal for him. Just to press the analogy as far as possible, it doesn't matter to Abu Mazen that he can't actually obtain statehood from another outlet; he's a thoroughly dissatisfied Peace Process customer. (For an outline of the underlying calculation, Bernard Avishai recommends this paper from the Palestine Strategy Group.)

Given that this raises pointed questions about a negotiated path to a two-state solution, take a look at the excellent "Think Again" piece on the two-state solution by our own Michael Cohen. It is interesting to compare the assessment from Michael's recent visit to the region with what our group heard. To begin with, the West Bank's current relatively stable conditions mean that the outcome at the UN shouldn't be viewed as a simple non-zero dynamic for Israel. As one Israeli expert told our group, decisive success by the Palestinian Authority at the UN would be bad for Israel's interests, and decisive PA failure in New York would be bad for Israel's interests. In other words, Israel would hardly benefit from Abu Mazen's loss of credibility or political strength. (For a clue to the political stakes for Abbas, see Hamas' vehement opposition to his UN initiative.) 

And then there's the danger of the total collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Many of our meetings discussed the possible fallout that could result from a cut-off of funds for the PA. If the Israeli government overreacts to the UN vote with too punitive a response, it could jeopardize the current excellent cooperation between the PA and the Israeli security services -- as a consequence only heightening the threats Israel faces.

Like Michael, our group also heard about the deepening skepticism among leading Israelis about reaching a two-state solution with the Palestinians. One Israeli tried to put expectations in perspective by describing two attitudes about seriousness: one that expresses seriousness by promising resolution within two years and another that pledges to get serious and take the necessary steps to resolve the conflict within 30 years. In other words, do short-term timelines really square with a realistic picture for how peace will be reached? Since the failure to achieve peace for 45 years since the 1967 War or 20 years since Madrid / Oslo is one of the core problems, I'm reluctant to suspend all near-term hopes. Still, the question doesn't have an easy answer.

The Israeli views I heard on our trip differed from Michael's account on at least one score, and the difference could offer a hopeful path. Michael reports that:

Israelis are either blissfully unaware of, or not bothered by, the humiliation that is the hallmark of Israeli occupation. Hours spent at checkpoints, searches by Israeli soldiers, and transit roads that restrict movement and turn what should be quick trips into daylong excursions are just a few examples of the minor degradations that are a daily part of Palestinian life. 

Actually, we heard several Israelis emphasize these very indignities. Indeed, we discussed the possibility of Israel easing some of these harsh conditions separate and apart from a (non-) two-state solution. Of course, harsh punitive measures after the UN vote would represent a move in the opposite direction. 

As I say, I plan to offer further reflections from the trip in later posts.

September 15, 2011

Is The Two State Solution Dead?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at Foreign Policy I have a new article looking at the question of whether the Arab-Israeli peace process is dead:

In the 18 years since the signing on the White House lawn of the Oslo Accords, which laid the groundwork for a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the idea of a two-state solution has gained wide acceptance. According to a joint Israeli-Palestinian poll from March 2010, 57 percent of Palestinians support it; among Israelis the percentage is even higher -- 71 percent. In both Europe and the United States, it's seen as the natural end point of this six-decade conflict. As U.S. President Barack Obama said in May, the "United States believes that negotiations should result in two states -- with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine." Nonetheless, we have reached the point where the ideas of two independent states and a negotiated resolution to the conflict reside on life support.

Read the whole thing here

September 14, 2011

NSN-POMED Event: Experts Discuss The New Middle East, Iran And The United Nations [VIDEO]
Posted by The Editors

P1030112 Yesterday, the sixty-sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly opened in New York, the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors convened for its second day, and reports out of Iran suggested modest yet significant progress on human rights and nuclear talks. Against this backdrop, the National Security Network and the Project on Middle East Democracy hosted a panel discussion of how the democracy movements sweeping the Arab world are interacting with regional dynamics to create new opportunities and challenges for the U.S. – and how this is playing out at the United Nations.

Watch the video here.

The discussion featured Dr. James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute, who reviewed AAI’s recent six-nation polls on Arab attitudes toward the U.S. and Iran; Geneive Abdo, fellow at The Century Foundation and the National Security Network; who discussed the internal politics of Iran and the country’s standing within larger regional dynamics; and Ted Piccone, senior fellow and deputy director for foreign Ppolicy at the Brookings Institution, who assessed the UN’s role, as demonstrated by how it has reacted to and influenced the Arab uprisings. Moderated by NSN Executive Director Heather Hurlburt, the panelists drew on their deep analytical expertise and field experience in the Arab world to explain how the international community can be most effective at supporting the Arab Spring and reshaping the global community for the better. 

Selected transcriptions from the call available after the jump. We will be updating with more transcripts over the next couple days, so if you're looking for more, go ahead and bookmark Democracy Arsenal. You can also check out POMED’s post on the event here.

Continue reading "NSN-POMED Event: Experts Discuss The New Middle East, Iran And The United Nations [VIDEO]" »

The Delusions of Ryan Crocker
Posted by Michael Cohen

25-Questions-To-Ask-Anyone-Who-Is-Delusional-Enough-To-Believe-That-This-Economic-Recovery-Is-Real-300x300 Our new man in Kabul, Ambassador Ryan Crocker is making quite a name for himself - and not in a good way.

Yesterday Taliban insurgents waged an audacious and highly coordinated attack on the US Embassy and NATO headquarters that went on for 20 hours and killed more than a dozen people. Ryan Crocker's verdict on the bloodshed and the fact that insurgents were able to launch a brazen assault in one of the most protected areas of the city. Meh

“These were five guys that rumbled into town with RPGs under their car seats,” Crocker said. “This is not a very big deal, a hard day for the embassy and my staff, who behaved with enormous courage and dedication. But look, you know a dozen RPG rounds from 800 meters away — that isn’t [the] Tet [offensive], that’s harassment.”

If this is harassment I would hate to see what an actual attack looks like. But this apparently has become Crocker's diplomatic m.o.

Last week Crocker said in an interview in the Washington Post that Kabul's biggest problem wasn't security or insurgent attack . . . but traffic.

The situation he found in Kabul this summer, he said, is considerably better than what he saw in 2002, when he helped set up the first post-Taliban government.

“It’s better than I thought,” he said. “The biggest problem in Kabul is traffic. Out in the provinces, even in Kandahar, you see traffic jams there. Kabul is a more liveable city by far than the Baghdad I left in 2009.” And not only for Americans: Afghan school enrollment has risen from 1 million to 8 million — and from 0 to 2.5 million girls. Life expectancy has increased by 20 years in the past decade

This is reminiscent of Mark Sedwill's brain-dead comments last year about how children in Kabul are safer than they are in London or New York. And in reality according to Justin Forsyth of Save the Children, "Afghanistan is the worst place on Earth to be born a child -- one in four children living there will die before they reach the age of 5." 

And then there were the comments Crocker made on the anniversary of September 11th when he argued that even ten years later; even as there is no al Qaeda in Afghanistan; and even as the organization's top leadership has been slowly whittled down by drone strikes . . . we can't leave Afghanistan:

“If we decide to go home before it is ready, you could see a Talibanization of this country and a return to the conditions that existed pre-9/11. You will see regenerated al-Qaeda getting back into the global jihad business.”

"We are here so that there is never again a 9/11 coming from Afghan soil," said Crocker who also added that “I do not think that al-Qaeda is out of business because they lost Osama bin Laden. Not by a long shot.”

Putting aside the fact that these comments contradict the Secretary of Defense who has said that al Qaeda is on its last legs and near defeat, what does it say about the US presence in Afghanistan? After ten years of fighting; after billions upon billions of dollars spent, apparently if we leave too early the whole thing will collapse and the Taliban will take over. It begs the question: if we've been so unsuccessful for the past ten years in propping up an Afghan government that can defend itself why continue to throw good money after bad as clearly it won't do much to make a difference?  This is not to suggest that the US should leave tomorrow, but the argument that if we leave Afghanistan the Taliban will soon take over is a pretty direct refutation of everything that we've done there for the past 10 years. How Crocker squares that with his other claims of progress is hard to figure. 

These were the sort of false arguments about the Taliban and al Qaeda that we were hearing in 2009; it's rather amazing that the US Ambassador in Afghanistan feels the need to trot them out again.

Finally, Crocker even threw cold water on the idea of political negotiations:

The ambassador is dubious that the largest Taliban factions, whose leaders are in Pakistan, will be ready to seriously negotiate with Karzai’s government, or with the United States, anytime soon.

This of course contradicts the President who has said that he believes progress on political reconciliation is possible. Of course we also know that representatives of the Taliban have been in discussions with the United States and that Mullah Omar has blessed these talks. So the argument that the largest Taliban factions are not interested in negotiations seems false. But even if one believes that negotiations with the Taiban are not possible, if it's the position of the US government that political reconciliation is the best means for ending the war in Afghanistan . . . why is our top diplomat in Afghanistan so openly deriding the possibility?

Look I understand that one of Ryan Crocker's jobs is to spin the war in Afghanistan for US audiences - and that his inclination is to try to accentuate the positive. But there is looking on the bright side - and there is being mendacious. Crocker looks like he's doing far more of the latter than he is the former.


September 12, 2011

Postcard from Paris: Ten Years Later, French Thoughts Still with America
Posted by The Editors

Sarkozy 9-11 This guest post is by Leah Pisar, who serves on the boards of the French-American Foundation and the National Security Network.

PARIS -- Yesterday, Nicolas Sarkozy put a small dent into French protocol and made a solemn visit to his neighbor, U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin, just a few doors down from the Elysée Palace, to take part in a commemoration of the September 11th attacks. (It’s unusual for a head of state to visit an Embassy.) Visibly moved, the French President expressed his country’s solidarity and friendship at this time of difficult remembrance.

Ten years after the terrorist attacks that shook the world and rallied the international community around America, a renewed sense of support and compassion is tangible throughout Europe. Many leaders have expressed it. President Sarkozy’s words echoed those of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac -- the first foreign head of state to visit Ground Zero and the White House in the immediate wake of the attacks. We all remember the unwavering support that poured in from across the Atlantic: For the first time since its creation in 1949, NATO invoked article 5 – which states that an attack on one member of the alliance shall be deemed as an attack on all.  And France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, famously headlined: “Today, we are all Americans.”

It was downhill from there. European allies were supportive of the war in Afghanistan, but a dangerous schism developed as Washington and its motley “coalition of the willing” prepared to go into Iraq. France did not offer its support, nor did Germany. Relations with America’s oldest ally soured terribly, leading to such silliness as turning “French fries” into “Freedom Fries”.  Things eventually fell back into place, as the Bush administration realized that America cannot go it alone and rekindled the dialogue.

Today, tensions over Iraq are all but forgotten and France is again on good terms with Washington, the NATO operation in Libya being heralded as an important multilateral success. At the same time, there is a sobering realization that the nature of the transatlantic relationship has changed since the end of the Cold War and even more so since 9/11. Europe is no longer the main theatre for international crises: They have moved elsewhere, out of area. With that in mind, there is a lingering concern that America no longer looks to Europe the way it used to, that it is focused elsewhere – on the Middle East, on Asia, on its own internal challenges.

But there is a need for Europe and America to work hand in hand to tackle these problems, together. The 9/11 commemorations, with a great sense of solemnity and and vigils planned throughout Europe, remind the Old Continent that we’re all in this together, be it geopolitically or economically. There is a very live sense of vulnerability. Over the last 10 years, European capitals have been hit by terrorism on a huge scale. And the pervasive feeling is, that unlike traditional commemorations, where one focuses on a past even, here we are commemorating a threat that is still live.

Ten years later, seen from Europe, the symbolism of 9/11 is strong and the memories are still fresh. The press seems almost exclusively focused on, even obsessed with, coverage of this morbid anniversary. And while there is some recalling of the Bush Administration’s mishandling of things and cavalier attitude toward international law, there is an overwhelming sense of sympathy and concern. 

This weekend, everyone is asking the same question: Where were you on 9/11?  It seems that everybody suffered some sort of trauma at the same time and that the West’s collective psyche was deeply affected. That Le Monde was right, and 10 years later, when thinking back to 9/11, many Europeans still feel that “today, we are all American.”

Image: Seattle P-I

Is America Safer?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the Atlantic I have a new piece up looking at the question of whether in fact the United States is living in a dangerous world. Not surprisingly I tend to think the fears of global threats are grossly overstated:

For all the warnings of imminent doom, rarely before in America's history has the United States been in less danger than it is today. And understanding that might be the single most effective tool for keeping America safe and secure in the 21st century.

The United States today faces no serious existential threat from a foreign actor, no great power rival, and no military competitor that imperils the American homeland. Part of this is the result of geography, but the larger reason is that no country that considers America a rival has much good reason to turn it into a potential enemy. After all, the backbone of our national security, the U.S. military, remains far and away the world's most powerful and fearsome . . .

Considering America's propensity to act rashly in the face of foreign "threats" understanding that the U.S. is, for the most part, a safe and well-protected country might be the single best tool for keeping America secure and resistant to the sort of over-reactions that made the last 10 years something of a lost decade.

You can read the whole thing here


The Washington Post Tries To Rewrite History . . . Again
Posted by Michael Cohen

Here's a question for DA readers: if you were to pick the most extreme over-reaction from September 11th what might it be? Guantanamo Bay? Torture? Warrantless wiretapping? Sure those all would be on the list, but I have a feeling the number one pick for most observers of American foreign policy over the past ten years would have to be the decision to invade Iraq - a war of choice against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 was not harboring al Qaeda and was not a direct threat to the United States. It was, of course, a conflict that did absolutely nothing to further US national security interests or substantially weaken al Qaeda.

Ignorance-is-strength-300x225 Yet in an ongoing efforts to wash its hands of responsibility for cheerleading this singularly calamitous event in American history, the Washington Post editorial page seems to think that the disaster of Iraq barely rates a mention.  In an editorial arguing that the United States did not overreact to 9/11 - a unique position to say the least - it mentions Iraq only 4 times (twice in passing).

It has only this to say about the war:

"The United States went to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence and was arrogantly ill-prepared for the responsibilities of occupation once Saddam Hussein fell."

Now do you see what Fred Hiatt and his fellow op-ed writers have done here? According to their interpretation of history the fault for the decision to go to war in Iraq lies not with public officials and their enablers in the mass media; or the pressure that the White House put on intelligence agencies to support pre-determined conclusions about the threat from Iraq - but rather with the intelligence itself. 

In fact, as the 2008 Senate report looking at pre-war intelligence on Iraq demonstrated, Bush Administration officials made comments about the threat from Iraq not backed up intel estimates:

Statements and implications by the President and Secretary of State suggesting that Iraq and al-Qa'ida had a partnership, or that Iraq had provided al-Qa'ida with weapons training, were not substantiated by the intelligence.

Statements by the President and the Vice President indicating that Saddam Hussein was prepared to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups for attacks against the United States were contradicted by available intelligence information.

Indeed, Fred Hiatt has been trotting out this malarkey about "faulty intelligence" off and on for several years ago (I wrote about it here in 2008). It wasn't true then; it's not true now. 

Instead of acknowledging how alarmism about jihadist terror bred a desperate and ill-advised over-reaction that caused the US to squander precious resources on a misguided conflict - for which the Washington Post was more than happy to lustily support - the editors at the Post would rather focus on the positive:

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon alerted Americans to genuine dangers that only a relative few had noticed. We have lived safely for the decade since not because we misread those dangers but because we responded to them in a manner in which, on balance, Americans can take pride. 

Again, nothing that the United States did in Iraq made one American safer - rather it took the lives of more than 4700 Americans, wounded tens of thousands of others and killed an estimated 100,000 Iraqis. Along with the 10 year engagement in Afghanistan it diverted trillions of dollars in resources away from pressing national challenges (Think Progress has a nice rundown of how that money could have been more effectively spent)

There are a lot of words to describe this series of events.

Pride is most certainly not one of them.

September 09, 2011

The Politics of Terrorism . . . Ten Years Later
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the Atlantic, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross rather counter-intuitively  Money argues that a decade after 9/11 the United States is less safe from terrorism. Considering that America's key jihadist enemy has been forced out of their safe haven, largely decimated from US military strikes and seen their ideology discredited across the Arab world and considering that the United States has improved intelligence sharing, strengthened homeland security and built up a hefty political will to deal with terrorist threats over the past ten years it seems a bit hard to imagine that America could possibly be safer. Nonetheless, Gartenstein-Ross has an interesting argument:

Safety is a product of our defensive capabilities and resiliency measured against an enemy's capacity to attack us. While al-Qaeda's capacity to attack us hasn't increased significantly, the United States has far weaker capabilities than it did 10 years ago: even if al Qaeda has experienced a decline in the past decade, then the U.S. has declined more steeply. 

The U.S.'s economic woes are well known. We have an economy in shambles and a national debt of more than $14 trillion. If this continues, we won't be able to maintain our current security apparatus and our ability to project power -- both seriously expensive enterprises -- forever. A decade ago, American safety came in part from the fact that we had the capacity, if needed, to ramp up resources to devote to the problem. In the coming decade, fewer resources will be available to devote to counterterrorism and to other problems the country faces.

The basic thrust of Gartenstein-Ross's argument is that the US has been so weakened by its overreaction to 9/11 that it lacks the capability, pocketbook and the will to respond appropriately to future attacks. "Our resilience has eroded in multiple ways," he argues.

I'm not seeing it. In the three years since the great crash, the US didn't cut back any resources or attention to the fight against "terrorism" - in fact the US largely increased them. President Obama sent nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan - doubling the number of American soldiers on the ground. Drone strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have been significantly ramped up. And the pursuit of Osama bin Laden took on greater urgency. In fact, the United States even found time to launch a war in Libya that was largely tangential to US vital interests. Where is the evidence that the United States, even in a period of austerity and budgetary pressures, has faced any obstacles in "ramping up resources to devote" to counter-terrorism or war-fighting in general?

As for the issue of whether "we won't be able to maintain our current security apparatus and our ability to project power." Wouldn't that be a good thing? Isn't it generally accepted that the US wildly overreacted in response to 9/11 and that our ability to project power led to policies that weakened rather than strengthened the United States? Wouldn't it be better if the United States didn't feel a desperate need to seek out foreign monsters to destroy whenever we feel that our security might be at risk?  Indeed, Gartenstein-Ross wisely makes this point - that in the wake of 9/11 we devoted too many resources to counter-terrorism and overspent on homeland defense. So I don't really understand why he thinks it would be an actual problem if the United States felt somewhat constrained in how it responded to a future attack. Don't we all wish George W. Bush had felt a bit more constrained after September 11th?

As much as I would like to agree with Gartenstein-Ross's argument I don't believe that even in an age of austerity "fewer resources" will be devoted to the fight against terrorism. Even with budget cuts for the Pentagon looming on the horizon the last part of the defense budget that will take a hair cut is the counter-terrorism brief, for what should be obvious political reasons. Indeed, you could probably make so me pretty significant cuts to the defense budget and still not demonstrably weaken America's ability to wage an effective counter-terrorism campaign.

And if we're hit again, fugetaboutit. If that happens, there is no limit to what Congress and the President will spend to respond.  

In the end, I think - again unfortunately - that the notion of economic stagnation imperiling our reaction to the next terrorist attack misunderstands the politics of terrorism. If there is one lesson that we should have learned over the past ten years it is that the federal government can mobilize plenty of resources in the name of national security.

Creating jobs and spurring economic growth . . . not so much.


The Legacy 9/11: The Militarization of Foreign Policy Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Soldiers and kids 2 Over at World Politics Review, I have a two-part series on how 9/11 sped up the proces of militarizing US foreign policy:

On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the single deadliest terrorist attack in American history -- the work, not of a foreign army, but of al-Qaida, a nonstate actor. The U.S. wasted little time in responding. The Taliban government in Afghanistan that had provided safe haven for the terrorist group was quickly deposed by a combination of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives working alongside Afghan anti-government forces. The leadership and core followers of al-Qaida were pushed fleeing in disarray across the Pakistani border. Since 2001, the group has been unable to successfully launch another attack against the continental United States.

This could have been the end of the story: a horrific attack and a lightning U.S. response, followed by a comprehensive national effort to protect the homeland from future terrorist assault. Instead, the so-called War on Terror went on to dominate not just America's collective imagination but also its foreign policy objectives, while transforming the role of its armed forces.
Since Sept. 11, the United States has devoted trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to the fight against terrorism, with the Pentagon becoming the sharp end of the American spear.

Read the whole thing here and check out part 2 of the series on some of the steps that can be taken to reverse this trend.

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