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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Afghanistan: Talks with Taliban Underway; Obama Shifts Course to Back Negotiations; Haqqani Forces, Too, Start Talking

With the war in Afghanistan entering its tenth year today, perhaps there really is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sometime this summer, the Obama administration shifted gears to support a negotiated deal with the Taliban. That’s according to the Washington Post, which reported on Wednesday that talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban are underway. Equally important, according to the Post, is the fact that the White House now supports the talks, which seems reasonable in light of the fact that Obama is committed to start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in July.

Now it makes sense why General Petraeus, the counterinsurgency fiend, brought up the fact that talks might be getting started.

So far, only a few thinktankers, such as Gilles Dorronsoro, and pundits such as Fareed Zakaria, have come out strongly in favor of talking with the Taliban, even though there’s no other way out of the war other than having the United States simply packing up and leaving.

According to the Post, there has been a recent “change of heart by the Obama administration,” which officially pooh-poohed talks to end the war. A European official quoted in the story says that the change took place over the summer. A US official, speaking anonymously, said that “the time for real negotiations has only now arrived.” That latter statement is patently false, but it’s designed to imply that the escalation ordered by Obama last year has somehow turned the tide and forced the Taliban to the bargaining table. In September, the Post says, Obama pushed his national security team to work harder for a political solution.

Steffan di Mistura, the UN representative in Afghanistan, is quoted: “There is only one format for the next months. It is political dialogue, reconciliation, deal.”

According to the story, talks took place in Dubai, in the UAE. The talks were “secret, high-level talks over a negotiated end to the war.” Most important is the fact that the Taliban side was represented by people who could speak for Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura, the leadership of the Taliban allegedly based in that Pakistan city. The article noted that Pakistan is demanding a central role, as expected, in the talks. “They try to keep very tight control,” said a source.

On Thursday, a churlish Post editorial pooh-poohed its own story. It harrumphed that Karzai will make a deal that the United States shouldn’t accept. “Karzai would settle for a deal that gives the Taliban a share of power and perhaps control over parts of the country, in exchange for an end to the war and the promise of a break with Al Qaeda.” That sounds like a pretty good deal to me, but the Post calls it “morally repugnant,” as if crushing and destroying the Taliban is the only way out of the war.

Despite some reports that the Haqqani group, supposedly the hardest of the hardliners involved in the insurgency and the ones closest to Al Qaeda, aren’t part of the talks, the Guardian reports today that both Afghanistan and the United States are also engaged in contacts with the Haqqani forces: “Hamid Karzai's government held direct talks with senior members of the Haqqani clan over the summer, according to well-placed Pakistani and Arab sources. The US contacts have been indirect, through a western intermediary, but have continued for more than a year.” Like the Taliban, the Haqqani group is closely allied to the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.

There are plenty of other reports about the talks, too. The Wall Street Journal reports: “Afghan officials, retired Pakistani security chiefs and former Taliban leaders are meeting in Kabul, trying to find ways to open peace talks with the insurgents—possibly by dropping key Western-backed conditions to such a reconciliation. The meetings, sponsored by the United Arab Emirates and held Tuesday and Wednesday in Kabul's luxurious Serena Hotel, don't involve insurgents. The Taliban's position is to refuse all peace contacts as long as US-led international forces remain in the country. President Hamid Karzai's aides and other officials said, however, that the Afghan government would be ready to abandon some previously announced ‘red lines.’”

This is all good. Stay tuned.

United States, Iran Vie for Influence in Iraq

Fully seven months after the March 7 parliamentary election in Iraq, there's the first glimmer of a chance that an Iraqi government coalition might be within reach. Whether or not it happens, and what it looks like, has a lot to do with future American influence in Iraq. And it will be the result of an ugly, behind-the-scenes power struggle between the United States and Iran over which country will be the dominant power in Iraq.

It's complicated. Try to follow along.

The March 7 election resulted in a sharp division of Iraqi politics along ethnic and sectarian lines. A mostly secular party called Iraqiya, led by secular Shiite Iyad Allawi and supported by nearly all of Iraq's Arab Sunni voters, won ninety-one seats in the 325-member parliament. Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law coalition, which drew votes almost entirely from Shiites, won eighty-nine seats. A coalition of religious Shiites, cobbled together from fractious Shiite parties with Iran's support, won seventy seats, most of which came from the party led by Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-American cleric who lives in Iran. And the separatist Kurds, who are themselves fragmented, won fifty-seven seats. Because the next prime minister would need 163 seats to succeed—and, in practice, quite a few more than that to maintain a stable government—some sort of grand bargain is necessary.

Last week, Muqtada al-Sadr agreed to support Maliki's return as prime minister. That set off alarm bells in Washington, because Sadr is unalterably opposed to the US occupation of Iraq and he'd likely oppose any extension of the American presence beyond 2011, when the last of the remaining 50,000 American troops are scheduled to leave. Though Sadr has nationalist tendencies, in recent years he's drawn increasingly closer to Tehran, and a big role for Sadr in the next Iraqi government drew a strong reaction in Washignton because it would mean that Iran, not the United States, was emerging as the most powerful player in Iraq. Ken Pollack, a former CIA officer and Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Post

"The Sadrists having a key role in the next government of Iraq [is] one of the few redlines that the Obama administration had. This is something that Iran has been trying to do for months. Clearly this is a big win for Iran and really bad for us."

 
And Dan Serwer of the US Institute of Peace told the New York Times:

"An Iraqi government that owes its existence to the Sadrists and lacks the strong support of Allawi would necessarily be one that leans in Tehran's direction."

But note the qualifier about "the strong support of Allawi." Indeed, Allawi is not out of the picture, not by a long shot. Lately, there are reliable reports that Allawi and Maliki are talking about some sort of grand coalition, one that would still marry the newly formed Maliki-Sadr alliance to Allawi's bloc. It isn't a done deal, and lots could go wrong.

Until now, Allawi has declared forcefully that he'd never support a government led by Maliki. But according to the terms of the purported deal, Allawi would become president of Iraq, and Maliki's position as prime minister would be greatly weakened. Indeed, according to various reports, President Allawi would have power over foreign affairs, defense, oil and energy, i.e., pretty much everything that's important. Reportedly, the deal between Maliki and Allawi was brokered by none other than Sadr, who's been in regular contact with Allawi for a long time.

The United States has strongly supported the inclusion of Allawi in the next government, and so have Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Arab Gulf countries and Turkey. All of them see Allawi as more representative of the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, and therefore more likely to resist Iran's vast and growing power inside Iraq. But, in a bad sign for the United States, the Maliki-Allawi-Sadr deal seems to have been assembled not in Washington, but—yes—in Tehran. Recently, Allawi met with Syria's President Assad, and by some accounts asked Assad to work with Iran on a deal. Assad, a close ally of Iran's, visited Tehran over the weekend, where he met with Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. The reports of the Allawi-Maliki deal surfaced soon after Assad's talks in Tehran.

The United States, of course, isn't sitting on the sidelines. Vice President Biden, who has the Iraq portfolio for the Obama administration, has been on the phone with every Iraqi leader who'll talk to him, but it's quite certain that list doesn't include the Sadrists, who put together the deal with Iran's backing.

PressTV, the Iranian outlet, carried an interview with Hassan Danaie-Far, Iran's ambassador in Baghdad, who praised the Sadr-Maliki politicking. "The development is a turning point for exiting the deadlock over the formation of Iraq's government," he said. And, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Danaie-Far smugly noted: "We have connections and ties to all political groups in Iraq."

If Maliki and Allawi do strike a deal, along with Sadr, the United States will no doubt try to put a lipstick on it, noting that all along Washington has wanted a broad coalition government in Iraq that involves all factions. (The Kurds, who fancied themselves kingmakers, will have little choice but to go along with the government coalition as it takes shape.) But the reality is that as US forces drawdown next year, the influence of Iran will continue to grow. Eventually, of course, Iraq will reassert its nationalism. Only last week, the Iraqi oil minister announced that Iraq has vastly more oil than previously reported, a total of 143 billion barrels of reserves, surpassing Iran as the world's second-largest reservoir of oil after Saudi Arabia. Iraq, too, will have access to Western, Russian and Chinese investment and technology, while Iran is ever more isolated and its oil and gas industry falls into stagnation. But for now, through sheer geopolitical influence, Iran is the big dog in Iraqi politics.

Lieberman, Graham: Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran

In case you missed it last week, Senator Joe Lieberman provided the missing two-part harmony to Senator John McCain's famous riff on "Barbara Ann." But when McCain said, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb Iran," he was joking, sort of. Lieberman, unfortunately, is serious.

Until now, calls for bombing Iran have been mostly limited to the unelected warmongers of the neoconservative right, led by the redoubtable Norman Podhoretz of Commentary and various denizens of the American Enterprise Institute and other think tanks. But in a September 29 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Lieberman joined their ranks, calling on President Obama to use the famous military option that he's always leaving on the table.

Calling Iran "extreme," "expansionist," and "terrorist," Lieberman praised the sanctions that have been piling up against Iran this year. But he seems to have missed utterly the point of economic sanctions: if they work at all, they take time—years, in most cases. Lieberman seemed almost alarmed at the fact that the "fanatical" regime in Iran is probably going to come back to the negotiating table this month. He said:

"We have now come to the moment in this long struggle when the Iranian regime must understand that we will not wait indefinitely for sanctions to work."

How long is the senator from Connecticut willing to wait? Only until the end of 2010. And then:

"If [sanctions have] not produced meaningful change in Iran's nuclear weapons policy by then, we will need to begin a national conversation about what steps should come next. This inevitably will involve consideration of military options."

Lieberman went on to wax orgasmic about the pleasure of blowing Iran to smithereens:

"It is time for us to take steps that make clear that if diplomatic and economic strategies continue to fail to change Iran's nuclear policies, a military strike is not just a remote possibility in the abstract, but a real and credible alternative policy that we and our allies are ready to exercise if necessary. It's time to retire our ambiguous mantra about all options remaining on the table."

According to the CFR transcript, Lieberman received applause for these comments, rather than laughter, derision, catcalls and shouts of "Get that idiot out of here!"

Nor did any of the questioners in the Q&A that followed suggest that Lieberman was off his rocker. (One questioner, in fact, appears to have been the father of one of the people who advises Lieberman on national security.)

Lieberman's comments on bombing Iran followed similar remarks from another deranged member of the Senate, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, who mde it three-part harmony, just like the Beach Boys, with McCain and Liberman. Graham, of course, is the third member of the Senate's Unholy Trinity—dare we call it an Axis of Evil?—whose other two members are McCain and Lieberman. As Fox News breathlessly informs us, Graham recently weighed in on bombing Iran, too, declaring:

"From my point of view, if we engage in military operations as a last resort, the United States should have in mind the goal of changing the regime...not by invading (Iran), but by launching a military strike by air and sea. If you use military force against Iran, you've opened up Pandora's box. If you allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, you've emptied Pandora's box. I'd rather open up Pandora's box than empty it."

According to Fox, Graham made it clear that he sees a military attack on Iran as "inevitable."

Inside the government, including at the highest levels of the Obama administration, it's safe to say that almost no one takes the idea of bombing Iran seriously. (I say "almost," because it's unclear what Dennis Ross, the senior Middle East policy aide at the National Security Council, thinks.) Equally, the military brass, from Admiral Mullen on down, have been opposed to using military action against Iran, especially while the United States is engaged in simultaneous wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. By touting sanctions, the administration is punting. When challenged by hawks, Obama can say, "What do you mean I'm soft on Iran? We're sanctioning the heck out of them!" Of course, he knows that the sanctions can't have immediate effect. Perhaps, over time, the constriction of Iran's economy—particularly its oil and gas industry—will lead more and more Iranian power brokers to put pressure on Ayatollah Khamenei, the leader, to oust Ahmadinejad and install a more compromise-minded president. Or, an economic crisis could spark civil unrest, leading to strikes and demonstrations that can't be contained by paramilitary Basij thugs. If any of this might happen, it's not likely to be soon.

It's possible to make the exact opposite case, namely, that economic sanctions will strengthen the regime by causing Ahmadinejad's militant base to blame the Great Satan (rather than Ahmadinejad) for Iran's economic problems. Sanctions also strengthen the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which reaps billions in profits from sanctions-busting smuggling operations. And, of course, shutting down Western investment in Iran's oil and gas industry is like putting out a welcome mat for China's oil industry to move in and set up shop.

But Lieberman's deadline of the end of 2010 is insanity cubed. Even if the sanctions don't backfire, it's not likely that they'll work by then. They aren't even designed to work that quickly.

Crisis in Pakistan: Possible Army Coup in Works, as US and Pakistan Clash

Pakistan, it seems, is playing its trump card in the current crisis with the United States.

The trump card, of course, is Pakistan’s control of the vital lifeline that supplies the more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan with everything they require, including fuel. More than 80 percent of US supplies pass by land from Pakistan to Afghanistan over mountain passes at places like Torkham. Without Pakistan’s help, the entire American effort in Afghanistan would collapse overnight.

Yesterday, in protest of a US military attack on a Pakistani border post that killed three Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan closed Torkham. Today, “militants” burned two dozen NATO oil tankers that were filled with fuel for the US-NATO war next door. (Since Pakistan has had a long history of creating, arming and training militants and terrorists, including the Taliban, it’s likely that those who carried out the attack on the tankers were acting on behalf of the Pakistani army and its intelligence service, the ISI.

Meanwhile, the army and the ISI appear once again on the brink of a coup d’état to oust Pakistan’s corrupt and discredited civilian government and either install a military dictator or rule from behind the scenes. There are various scenarios, including the installation of Nawaz Sharif, the rival politician who is much closer to the Pakistani military than the current President Ali Asif Zardari, and who also maintains better relations with the Taliban and with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s key Arab ally. It’s an internal political crisis in Pakistan that’s been building ever since the 2008 ouster of the previous military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, and it was drastically exacerbated by the floods that devastated the country. (Musharraf, incidentally, announced today in London that he’s forming a political party. Reports AP: “Musharraf says the only way to tackle Pakistan's ailing economy and its political infighting—problems exacerbated by recent floods—is to further bolster the army's role.”)

Needless to say, the United States has thrown lots of fuel on the fire by recklessly attacking Pakistan intensively this month. In September, there were at least 20 drone attacks on targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghanistan border, and two armed helicopter attacks across the border into Pakistan, including the one yesterday that killed the three Pakistani soldiers. An Pakistani army officer told the Washington Post that the US action represents a direct challenge to Pakistan’s sovereignty and is a case of “attacking the Pakistani army.” Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said: “We will have to see if we are allies or enemies.”

David Ignatius, who’s in Pakistan, held an interview with a senior ISI official. Writing in the Post, Ignatius quotes the ISI officer’s response to the killing of the soldiers: “Pakistan is not a walkover country. I will stand in the way of the convoys myself.”

But Ignatius gets to the heart of the matter by saying that so far the United States has not worked with Pakistan at all on reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan. As I wrote last week, Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington is one of the few regional experts who’s courageous enough to argue that the way out of Afghanistan for the United States is to work with Pakistan in pursuit of a deal with the Taliban, since Pakistan can bring the Taliban—or most of it—to the negotiating table. But Ignatius reports that the ISI official says that American efforts in Afghanistan aren’t working, and that for some reason Washington hasn’t approached Pakistan or the ISI about getting the Taliban to sit down and talk. He reports: 

The ISI official was skeptical that the United States was making much military progress in Afghanistan. (‘Is there a US strategy?’ he asked.) And he questioned the American premise that by killing enough insurgents, it could ‘bargain from strength’ and force the Taliban into a settlement. He complained that the United States isn't sharing its thoughts about reconciliation with the Taliban, even though Pakistan would be crucial in facilitating any deal. Privately, the ISI has argued that if America is serious about reconciliation, it should start with the Haqqanis, the hardest challenge.

If the Pakistan military does seize power, once again the United States will find itself allied to a Pakistani military dictatorship. Because CIA Director Leon Panetta has been in Pakistan meeting with army and ISI officials this week, it’s certain that there will be a widespread perception that the CIA instigated the coup d’état. In fact, even before the floods, Pakistan was a political and economic basket case, and it’s always been true, as many observers have noted, that “while some countries have armies, in Pakistan the army has a country.” The civilian institutions in Pakistan have not put down roots, and it’s safe to say that few Pakistani have any faith in corrupt leaders like Zardari. The United States may, indeed, welcome an army takeover, but in fact the two countries are on sharply differing paths. The Obama administration wants Pakistan to attack the Taliban and its allies inside Pakistan, especially in North Waziristan, while the Pakistanis have no intention of doing so. Pakistan considers the Taliban as critical for maintaining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, including the Haqqani network.

Instead of raining drones down onto Pakistan’s territory in a vain effort to wipe out the Haqqani forces and the Taliban, the United States ought to sit down with the ISI and figure out how to talk to the Taliban in search of a deal.

Petraeus Cites Karzai-Taliban Peace Talks, While American Troops Escalate War

It's hard to know what to make of General Petraeus's announcement yesterday that senior Taliban officials are engaged in negotiations with President Karzai. Here's the exact quote:

"There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that."

Petraeus added: "This is the way you end insurgencies." 

Later this week, Karzai will appoint the members of the High Peace Council, the body that was created by the peace jirga that Karzai held last summer, an event that was greeted with suspicion and a distinct lack of enthusiasm by the United States. Its members are supposed to conduct talks with any and all members of the insurgency, including top officials of the Taliban, in search of "reconciliation." (The United States and the military have been opposed to reconciliation, favoring a limited—and useless—process called "reintegration," involving low-level Taliban fighters.)

The Times called Petraeus's comments, which were made during a news conference, the "first explicit public suggestion that there is extensive, behind-the-scenes contact between the insurgency and the Afghan government."

Everything else about American policy in Afghanistan suggests an effort to upset or derail a political settlement. At the same time the talks are taking place, US forces have drastically stepped-up the bombing of Pakistan's tribal areas, with an all-time high of twenty drone strikes across the border. Most worryingly, Petraeus also issued "veiled warnings," according to the Times, that American ground forces might cross the border, too, representing essentially an invasion of Pakistan by the United States. US Special Forces are drawing up plans for cross-border strikes. The ostensible reason for the escalation against Pakistan is that the United States is increasingly frustrated with Pakistan's refusal to after Taliban and allied forces, such as the Haqqani network. Problem is, it's unlikely that the Taliban will come to the bargaining table without Pakistan's support—indeed, without Pakistan's dragging the Taliban kicking and screaming to the table under Pakistani tutelage. But the United States continues to insist that Pakistan go to war against the Taliban and its allies, which seems calculated explicitly to sabotage, not encourage, a Pakistan-Taliban peace delegation to talks with Karzai. And the increased US attacks on Pakistan have drawn sharp rebukes from Islamabad.

Next, the United States has finally launched its military offensive in the Kandahar area, sending forces into three districts around the city: Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai. All three have been Taliban strongholds, and Zhari is a strategic area that is the hometown of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. (Sixteen American troops were killed in the first five days of the offensive in the three districts.) Perhaps the Kandahar offensive is all for show, aimed at demonstrating progress in advance of the December 2010 policy review by the White House. Perhaps the military believes that by going after the Taliban in its base, it can make it appear that the Taliban is negotiating out of weakness, rather than strength.

It's difficult to see any coherence in all of this. Still, it's encouraging that Petraeus seems to support Karzai's negotiations with the Taliban, and for the first time.

Cyberwar Against Iran: Is Obama Already at War with Tehran?

For several years now, there have been reports that the United States has been waging what amounts to technological warfare against Iran, using sophisticated industrial sabotage measures to weaken and undermine Iran’s nuclear industry—and, according to the New York Times, these efforts began during the Bush administration but accelerated under President Obama. And, for the past several years, there have been widespread reports that Iran’s nuclear program has been slowed or crippled by some unexplained malfunctions that have, among other things, caused Iran to spin far fewer centrifuges at Natanz, its enrichment plant, than earlier.

Now, it appears, there is a serious computer worm affecting Ian’s nuclear industry, along with other Iranian industrial facilities. Called Stuxnet, the worm appears to be a case of outright industrial sabotage or cyber warfare, created and unleashed not by rogue hackers but by a state. According to the Seattle Times, the time stamp on the Stuxnet virus reveals that it was created in January 2010, meaning that if the United States is behind it, it’s Obama’s doing, not Bush’s.

If so, and if the United States is behind it, then Obama is already at war with Iran. Cyber warfare is no less war than bombs and paratroopers. Besides the United States, of course, Israel is high on the list of countries with both motive and capability. Iran’s PressTV, a government-owned news outlet, quotes various Western technology and cybersecurity experts saying that either the United States or Israel is behind Stuxnet.

The Times reports that Stuxnet is highly specific, aimed “solely at equipment made by Siemens that controls oil pipelines, electric utilities, nuclear facilities, and other large industrial sites.”

The Stuxnet infection was detected by VirusBlokAda, a Belarusian computer security company, in July. Like other forms of warfare, the Stuxnet attack is causing collateral damage, spreading to computer networks outside Iran.

The Times notes, somewhat obliquely, that while President Obama talks often about spending huge sums to protect the United States from computer warfare, it also spends a lot of money to develop an offensive capability against other countries:  “President Obama has talked extensively about developing better cyberdefenses for the United States, to protect banks, power plants, telecommunications systems and other critical infrastructure. He has said almost nothing about the other side of the cybereffort, billions of dollars spent on offensive capability, much of it based inside the National Security Agency.”

The Stuxnet virus has also affected Iran’s nuclear power plant at Bushehr, constructed by the Russians. According to the Tehran Times, Iranian officials have admitted the attack and they’re working to contain it. “Iranian information technology officials have confirmed that some Iranian industrial systems have been targeted by a cyber attack, but added that Iranian engineers are capable of rooting out the problem,” reported the Tehran Times. The paper also quoted a top Iranian official saying: “An electronic war has been launched against Iran.” The same official, Mahmoud Liaii of the Industries and Mines Ministry’s tech office, added that the virus “is designed to transfer data about production lines from our industrial plants to [locations] outside of the country.”

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz  quoted a European firm, Kaspersky Labs, thus: “Stuxnet is a working and fearsome prototype of a cyber-weapon that will lead to the creation of a new arms race in the world.”

Make no mistake: this is serious stuff. I'm not one of those naïve, Pollyanna-ish types who believe that Iran is merely interested in peaceful uses of nuclear power. (For one thing, it doesn't have an nuclear power industry that needs fuel, and it won't have one for at least fifteen years.) Iran would never suffer the painful sanctions and international isolation that it faces merely to defend a theorectical right to develop a civilian nuclear industry. Perhaps its leaders see the nuclear program as a giant bargaining chip or as a way to gain attention for itself. No one wants to see Iran get the bomb, including Russia, China and, yes, The Dreyfuss Report. However, Iran is not very close to having that capability: so far, it hasn't even tried to enrich uranium to the highly enriched state needed to build a bomb, and if and when it does the world will know,. And, if bombing Iran's nuclear facilities isn't the answer, neither is launching war by other means.

Afghanistan: It's Time for a Ceasefire, and Negotiations

One of the smartest people in Washington, when it comes to Afghanistan, is Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, an establishment thinktank. For a while now, Dorronsoro has been writing about the increasingly hopeless war, and he’s proposed a plan for negotiating with the Taliban and other insurgents as a way out of the stalemate. Earlier this year, he wrote a paper for Carnegie called Afghanistan: Searching for Political Agreement. And on Thursday, Dorronsoro appeared at an event sponsored by Carnegie.

Dorronsoro starts with a bleak but on-the-mark assessment of the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by the Obama administration. The US counterinsurgency force in Helmand and Kandahar can’t possibly succeed in less than five years, he said, if at all. Not only are things getting worse in the south, but conditions are deteriorating nearly everywhere in Afghanistan, including the northern provinces, where a “non-Pashtun Taliban” is gaining strength. “Everybody,” he said, “is anticipating the victory of the Taliban.” As a result, locals in areas not traditionally associated with Taliban control are making deals with Taliban-style leaders.

The problem in Afghanistan isn’t corruption, Dorronsoro says, but the sheer absence of central government in nearly all provinces, as governors and local potentates break away from Kabul. Not only are local politicians moving away from the government, but the insurgency is gaining momentum. “In more and more local districts, the Taliban are in charge,” he said.

Dorronsoro believes that the Taliban will negotiate a ceasefire if they’re promised a share of power in Kabul, and he believes that Pakistan—whose military intelligence service, the ISI, controls the Taliban leadership in its Pakistani hideouts—can force all, or nearly all, of the Taliban to the bargaining table. The result won’t be pretty, he predicts, since a coalition government involving the Taliban would lead to a more sharia-oriented state and to political losses for Afghan minorities and women. But he argues that the Taliban won’t want Al Qaeda to establish itself in Afghanistan again.

Unlike many analysts who argue that the Taliban is so diverse and fragmented that it can’t be considered as a party to serious negotiation, Dorronsoro argues the opposite. He says that the Taliban is a highly organized, fairly well-controlled organization that has installed unchallenged shadow governors in nearly all Afghan provinces and a logistical pipeline that crisscrosses the entire country. When the Taliban has power in certain areas, its leaders don’t fight with each other. “Where is the proof that the Taliban is divided?” he asked.

On the other hand, it is the Afghan government that may have trouble organizing itself as a negotiating partner, not the Taliban. “[President] Karzai has no political support,” he said. “He has no real power. Karzai doesn’t represent much in Afghanistan. He’s just a guy in Kabul.” He has lost whatever support he had in the north, among supporters of the former Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban in the 1990s. As a result, Dorronsoro asked: “Put the Taliban at the table. Who’s on the other side?”

Because Pakistan has so much leverage over the Taliban, for now at least, the Pakistani military and the ISI can bring the Taliban to the table. “We should be happy that somebody has leverage over the Taliban,” he said. “We should put the Pakistani army in the loop, because they are the only ones who can deliver the Taliban.” Dorronsoro said that the ISI exerts tight control over the Taliban, and he suggested that Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban chieftain, might even be holed up on a Pakistani military base. But even if the Taliban’s leaders are in Quetta or another Pakistan city, they’re surrounded, watched, and controlled by ISI. If negotiations start, those Taliban who don’t want to go along with what Pakistan wants can be turned over to the CIA in short order, meaning that nearly all of the Taliban will go along. On the other hand, Dorronsoro said, once the Taliban is back in Kabul, they’ll separate themselves from Pakistan as quickly as possible, since there’s no love lost between the Taliban leaders and the ISI.

Answering skeptics, there’s no downside to negotiations now, Dorronsoro said. If they succeed, great. If only some of the Taliban accepts a deal, and some doesn’t, that still should be considered progress. So, he concluded, “Let’s try a ceasefire and see if the Taliban is interested or not.”

Woodward: Obama Wants Out of Afghanistan

Just when I was ready to (nearly) give up on President Obama’s Afghanistan policy and put him squarely in General Petraeus’s khaki pocket, along comes Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars  to cheer me up.

Unlike the New York Times, which “obtained” an advance copy of Woodward's new book, and the Washington Post, where Woodward works, I haven’t read the book yet. Still, it has some very intriguing gossip about the decision-making in the White House over the bungled and failing war.

Not all of it cheers me up, of course. The revelation that the United States maintains a secret, CIA-backed covert army of Afghan nationals, 3000 strong, that occasionally crosses the border into Pakistan in search of bad-guy Taliban members is pretty scary.

But Woodward makes it clear that Obama has been virtually at war with his military commanders, including Petraeus, since the earliest days of his administration. Petraeus, sounding precisely like General McChrystal, who got himself fired after yammering about Obama in Rolling Stone, blusters at one point (“after a glass of wine”) that Obama is “[fucking] with the wrong guy.” So much for civilian control of the armed forces! As the Times notes, “General Petraeus was effectively banned by the administration from the Sunday talk shows but worked private channels with Congress and the news media.” McChrystal did the same thing, in 2009, leaking madly to the media (including Woodward, who got ahold of McChrystal’s strategy paper last summer) and giving high-profile interviews on shows such as 60 Minutes. Woodward makes clear that Obama wants out. At one crucial White House meeting, Obama says:

“This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan. Everything we're doing has to be focused on how we're going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It's in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”

And, my favorite:

“I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”

 And finally, in a quote that Petraeus saw as a personal repudiation, this from Obama: 

“In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, 'We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.' We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission]…unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.” 

Of course, it’s hard to square those sentiments with the fact that Obama in the end pretty much gave McChrystal and Petraeus what they wanted. But, he added the July 2011 timetable. And according to Woodward, Obama wrote a detailed memo outlining his own strategy for the war, and he won a commitment from all his advisers, including Petraeus, to support it. 

One of the biggest sources of tension reported in the book is between the generals and Obama’s political people, who recognize that the war isn’t popular. Throughout, Obama seems aware that he is in danger of morphing into President Bush, fighting a losing war endlessly, while losing political support at home. At one point, Obama says, “I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

Despite Failing War, Obama and Petraeus Form Alliance

The violence-prone, fraud-marred parliamentary election in Afghanistan is only the latest failure in the nine-year-long US war, but it's looking less and less likely that the White House is seriously thinking about changing gears. So far, at least, it appears as if President Obama isn't prepared to cut his losses in the war and order a sharp drawdown of troops next July, when, at least according to his stated policy, US forces will begin to leave Afghanistan. Worse, it looks like the much anticipated December 2010 presidential review of war policy is being reduced to a rubber-stamp approval of General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency scheme.

At least, if we believe two major stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times by their chief diplomatic correspondents in the last few days.

The first piece, by Helene Cooper, David Sanger and Thom Shanker of the Times on September 17, was titled, “Once Wary, Obama Relies on Petraeus.” Its central point, bolstered by insider quotes from White House staffers, was that Obama is increasingly in harmony with Petraeus. The president and the general are "meshing well, advisers say," they reported, adding that the president strikes a "deferential tone" toward Petraeus even though Petraeus "has made clear that he opposes a rapid pullout of troops from Afghanistan beginning next July." And the Times team reported:

General Petraeus, who led the Iraq surge and was a favorite of Mr. Bush, has slowly worked himself into the good graces of a president who was once wary of him.

The article quoted Leslie Gelb, the über-insider at the Council on Foreign Relations, thus:

"They are joined at the hip, but the leverage lies with Petraeus. And Petraeus has made plain, publicly, that after July 2011, he doesn’t think there should be a rapid pullout."

The second piece, by Karen DeYoung of the Post on September 18, was titled "White House sees no big changes in Afghan war." Its lede:

Despite discouraging news from Afghanistan and growing doubts in Congress and among the American public, the Obama administration has concluded that its war strategy is sound and that a December review, once seen as a pivotal moment, is unlikely to yield any major changes.

Although outside experts—including a task force organized through Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation—believe "that the administration's path in Afghanistan is unsustainable and its objectives are unclear," reported DeYoung. Obama intends to disregard growing public opposition to the war and keep the strategy in place. She quoted a senior White House official as follows:

"The fundamentals are in the place where they should be. [Any adjustments] will be akin to moving the rabbit ears around a little bit to get better reception. I don't think we'll be changing the channel come December."

Of course, when Obama announced his second escalation of the war last December 1, he made a big deal of the fact that he'd review policy and strategy a year later. Now, if DeYoung's reporting is correct, the White House is signaling that the review will mean nothing at all. Which is exactly what General Stan McChrystal and General David Petraeus argued all along.

Since last summer, Petraeus and McChrystal have engaged in an insurgency of their own, bullying the White House, threatening to ally with prowar Republicans in a direct challenge to presidential authority, leaking favorable documents to the media, and, in McChrystal’s case, engaging in outright insubordination that threatened the very foundation of civilian control of the military. Based on what the Post and the Times are reporting now, their insurgency is even more successful that the Taliban’s.

Useless Sanctions on China: Robert Reich Says 'Forget It,' Better to Rebuild American Industry

Earlier this month, in The Nation, I wrote a 5000-word piece describing the debate among progressives over the challenge from China.

 More and more, as the economic crisis continues and unemployment stays high, many politicians, labor officials and economists want to blame China and worse, take it out on China by punishing Beijing with sanctions, tariffs and other measures, even at the risk of trade war. That’s why Robert Reich’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor comes as a breath of fresh air.

 Reich says that “it’s naive to assume all we have to do to get the Chinese to do what we want is to threaten them with tariffs.” He points out that China might well retaliate, undermining the US economy, too, and that China isn’t likely to change what they believe is a key political and economic strategy just because the United States makes it more expensive for them to keep it. And, he says, “even if China did allow its currency to rise against the dollar, there’s no reason to think this would automatically generate lots more American jobs.”

 He concludes: 

“What worries me most about all this tough talk about China is it diverts attention from the real problem. American isn’t suffering high unemployment because we’re buying too much from China and not selling them enough. Trade with China is a small portion of the US economy. … The central challenge we face isn’t to rebalance trade with China. It’s to rebalance the American economy so its benefits are more widely shared.”

 On September 17, an editorial in the New York Times joined many others in slamming China and praising the Obama administration for talking tough about trade with China. But the Times, at least, warned that some in Congress (mostly Democrats supported by the AFL-CIO) want to go too far: 

“The administration will also have to be careful not to unleash something it can’t control. Protectionist impulses run frighteningly deep in Congress.” 

What the United States needs to do, of course, is to create a domestic industrial policy to revive manufacturing, tax the rich, strengthen education and job training, and other measures to revive American decline. One country that has done a lot of that already is Germany, as a Washington Post article this week provided a stunning glimpse into why the Germans don’t exhibit the kind of anti-China hysteria that so many Americans do. Unlike the United States, which has a huge and growing deficit with China, Germany’s trade is almost in balance, and Germany has managed to export huge amounts of high-tech goods, including BMWs, to China. Said the Post: 

“Vilified in the United States as a great sucking sound on the American economy, China is courted here as a revered client. Fast-growing demand from Asia's giant is helping to fuel the strong German recovery, and Germany now stands as proof that a rich nation can profit off China's rise.” 

The data show that Germany imports $8.2 billion in goods from China each month, but it exports $6.2 billion in return, meaning that its trade balance is almost even. In sharp contrast, the United States imports $33.3 billion a month from China, while exporting a paltry $7.3 billion. Read it and weep. As the Post says: “When it comes to building a healthy trading relationship with China, Germany is cooking America's goose.” 

The Chinese market is vast and growing. By 2020, according to reports from the automobile industry, Chinese consumers will buy about 40 million cars per year, more than twice the number sold in the United States at the very peak of auto sales, before the current slump pushed the number down to around 12 million. Even by 2015, Chinese auto sales will surpass 25 million a year. Why is it that Germany can supply that market, and America can't?

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