Thursday, October 30, 2008

Afghanistan War, the Iraq War and the next President

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), gives us a glimpse at what he sees as the next President's priorities in foreign policy in The World That Awaits Newsweek 10/25/08 (11/03/08 issue), whose title sounds like a Halloween horror thriller.

The CFR is rightly famous as a key organization of the foreign policy Establishment. (Though it also figures in Bircher-type conspiracy theories. But what doesn't?) The CFR's is home to both "Realist" and "liberal internationalist" foreign policy viewpoints. They have given the neoconservative viewpoint that largely dominated the Cheney-Bush administration space in their long-running Foreign Affairs journal. But CFR is generally far more reality-based than the neocons.

Haass perspective is surprising in some regards. Maybe the title is misleading in terms of his actual focus in writing the article. But in Newsweek's version, there is only one passing mention of climate change. But in "the world that awaits" the next President, that is going to be a pressing problem. It already is, but Cheney and Bush don't care.

Haass has a shaky premise about the Iraq War, essentially assuming that things are going smoothly and withdrawing American troops is practically a done deal and won't present great problems:

Consider Iraq, the issue that most dominated the foreign policy of Bush. There will be ample time for historians to sort out the wisdom (or lack thereof) of embarking on this costly war of choice. The priorities now are to gradually reduce U.S. force presence, back the integration of Iraq's Sunni minority into national institutions, persuade Arab states to help the government and resume a dialogue with Iran on Iraq's future. The good news is that many of the arrows in Iraq are finally pointing in the right direction and it will not dominate your presidency. The bad news is that you know you are in for a rough ride when Iraq is the good news.
Maybe it could go that smoothly. And maybe Dick Cheney is a nice man.


But an Obama administration will be taking constant political criticism from the Republicans and OxyContin hate radio for every move he makes to withdraw troops. Some of our infallible generals will also see that their soberly considered "military opinion" that withdrawing from Iraq will mean Al Qa'ida armies will be marching into Washington in a couple of years is widely aired. And once Obama is elected, Republicans instead of celebrating the glorious success of The Surge will suddenly discover that Iraq is a dangerous place with a war going on. And they will be relentless attacking Obama and the Democratic "appeasers" for allowing the The Surge's wonderful progress to disappear beginning Nov. 5.

Haass' comments on Afghanistan sound fairly sensible in their general form.

The arrows are pointing in the opposite direction in Afghanistan. The Taliban is gaining ground; security is deteriorating; drugs and corruption are rampant. More U.S. and NATO troops are needed, but any increase will need to be temporary, given rising Afghan nationalism. The chief priority should be training Afghanistan's Army and police. Regular talks are needed with those with a stake in the country's future, including Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and NATO. The government should be encouraged to meet with Taliban leaders willing to accept a ceasefire. Counterdrug efforts, while essential, should be targeted and low-key, lest an alienated populace grow more so.

It may be better to view Afghanistan and Pakistan as one problem, since Pakistan provides sanctuary for the Taliban. Pakistan's government appears unable or unwilling to control its own territory. The country's return to democracy is at best incomplete and fragile; its economy has slowed. The world's second-most-populous Muslim nation — home to 170 million people, several dozen nuclear weapons and many of the world's terrorists, including Al Qaeda - is failing. Promised assistance should continue to flow; additional economic and military aid should be provided to bolster the government, but only if Islamabad accepts conditions on its use. Military incursions targeting terrorists need to be limited to those instances where there is a high likelihood of accomplishing something truly substantial. [my emphasis]
I tend to think that warnings about Pakistan becoming a "failed state" are overblown. But getting nuclear nonproliferation back on track with Pakistan is essential. Haass is ambiguous on the Taliban, but he does say that NATO should be seeking peace talks with "Taliban leaders willing to accept a ceasefire". What he doesn't say is that it no longer makes sense for the US and NATO to be waging counterinsurgency war against the Taliban, i.e., radical Pashtun Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Protracted counterinsurgency wars are a problem in themselves. Especially when its the United States occupying an Islamic country for years on end, fighting and dropping bombs on villages. It's past time to wrap the Afghanistan War up and bring the US and NATO troops out.

An escalation of the US/NATO troops levels in Afghanistan only makes sense now if it is part of an exit strategy including a near-term withdrawal. Otherwise, we'll be seeing more of the phenomenon defined by Theo Sommer in Die Zeit, Afghanistan, wie lange noch? 23.10.2008:

Es ist paradox: Je mehr Soldaten nach Afghanistan geschickt worden sind und je mehr sie »in die Fläche« gehen, desto stärker ist die Unsicherheit im Lande gewachsen. Die Zahl der gewalttätigen Zwischenfälle stieg in den ersten neun Monaten dieses Jahres um ein Drittel auf 1400 oder 40 am Tag. Es gab 3000 Zwischenfälle mit improvisierten Sprengkörpern (IED), jeden Tag 15. Die Hälfte davon wurde von den Koalitionstruppen entdeckt, auf den Rest fahren sie mit ihren Fahrzeugen auf. Die IED-Detonationen verursachen fast zwei Drittel der Koalitionsverluste.

[It's a paradox: The more soldiers that are sent to Afghanistan and the more that go into the tougher areas, the more the insecurity in the country increases. The number of violent incidents climbed in the first nine months of this year by a third, to 1,400, or 40 per day. There were 3,000 incident is improvised explosive devices (IED), 15 per day. Half of them were discovered by the coalition, the rest they drove over with their vehicles. The IED detonations are responsible for almost two thirds of the coalition losses.]
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is sending up a trial balloon via the Associated Press (who granted anonymity to "two senior defense officials") that they are thinking along the lines of an immediate increase of 20,000 troops versus the 10,000 they've been discussing before now.

And the San Francisco Chronicle reports on the U.S. [death] toll in Afghanistan 10/30/08: "As of Wednesday, at least 553 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department."

Uzbekistan? Pakistan?

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