News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Earlier this week, I posted about the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Iran Energy Report calling for the United States to target nearly a dozen Chinese oil and energy firms for doing business with Iran. Accompanying that report, Reuel Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz of FDD penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal putting the challenge in starker terms: they want a direct showdown with China and Russia over Iran.
Gerecht and Dubowitz noted that the Iran sanctions imposed by the United States in 1996 fizzled out, but that lately both Europe and Japan have started to cut back commercial ties with Iran, especially in the energy field. “But,” the authors assert, “China and Russia have filled the void.”
That’s not strictly true. Neither China nor Russia have the financial and technological ability to replace US and Western investment in Iran’s lagging energy sector. Iran is suffering enormously from a collapsing energy infrastructure, although that crisis has been gathering for three decades, thanks to bungling and economic mismanagement by Iran’s mullah regime. Both the Chinese and the Russians would dearly love to exploit the West’s abandonment of Iran, and to make money there and to secure oil and gas contracts, but they’re not exactly “filling the void.” Indeed, if Iraq has any hope of breaking away from Iran’s gravitational pull in the next five or ten years, it’s because Iran can’t provide Iraq what it needs, namely, hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and gas investment to rebuilt Iraq’s shattered industry—sums that can only come from the West and from the Arab Gulf states.
Yet, as Gerecht and Dubowitz correctly point out in some detail, key Chinese firms such as CNPC and CNOOC, along with Russia’s Lukoil, have intensified their involvement in Iran. That’s too much for the authors, who want the United States to slam both countries with economic sanctions, even though it was “surely infuriate Moscow and Beijing, as well those in Washington who have worked to ‘reset’ our relations with both countries.” Soon, they note, the State Department will issue its much-anticipated “blacklist” of foreign firms doing business with Iran, and the authors hope and pray that CNPC, CNOOC and Lukoil will be on it. Helpfully, they suggest tough measures that could be mobilized against the holdings of all three companies in the United States and, possibly, Canada. They conclude, ominously:
“We were always going to have a test of wills with Russia and China over Iran. That day has arrived. Connoisseurs of power politics—Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, and Ali Khamenei—are watching. So is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will decide one of these days whether a nuclear-armed Iran is acceptable, or not.”
But, writing in their essential blog, The Race for Iran, Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett throw cold water on the idea that, despite legislation enacted earlier this year, the United States can or should target foreign firms dealing with Iran. They write that such sanctions are “blatantly illegal”:
“We have long been critical of congressional infatuation with Iran-related secondary sanctions bills—and successive US administrations’ supine acquiescence to such measures. We think, first of all, that secondary sanctions are bad Iran policy: they do not generate anything approaching strategic leverage over Iranian decision-making, but help to undercut whatever credibility Tehran might still be willing to ascribe to American professions of interest in ‘engagement.’
“But, beyond this, secondary sanctions are lousy foreign policy: they potentially antagonize some of America’s most important international partners, for no constructive purpose. One of the more antagonistic qualities of secondary sanctions is that, as a lawyer would put it, they represent an extraterritorial application of national law—in other words, they are blatantly illegal. America’s closest allies—including Britain along with the rest of the European Union—have made clear that, if Washington were ever so foolish as to apply Iran-related secondary sanctions to an “EU” company, the EU would file a complaint against the United States in the World Trade Organization.”
And, they point out, because of all this, secondary sanctions have never been used: “Not once.” That, among other considerations, explains why the post-1996 sanctions mentioned by Gerecht and Dubowitz didn’t work.
It’s like a tag team match: the neoconservatives and the labor unions are teaming up to go after China. And in both cases, energy figures prominently in the fight. China, of course, is always a convenient target for anyone looking for a scapegoat for America’s misfortunes. In the case of the neocons, they love to blame China for undercutting US efforts to isolate and pressure Iran over its nuclear program. And for the labor unions, as I reported in a recent feature in The Nation, “China in the Driver’s Seat,” blaming China for stealing American jobs is par for the course.
In different ways, both the neocons and the unions are demanding that the Obama administration take strong action to punish, isolate, and sanction China.
Let’s start with the neocons. The latest salvo from that side is a report from the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank and advocacy group that is heavily focused on Iran, the Middle East, and the “war on terrorism.” In a report issued September 15, the FDD helpfully provides the federal government with a list of ten Chinese companies that do energy business with Iran, and it calls on the White House to “punish” China and “blacklist” the ten firms. The intent is to force China to halt its oil and gas trade with Iran. Among the companies named by FDD are China’s very biggest state-owned entities, including the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) and the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC).
The companies, FDD warns ominously, “have invested in Iran’s oil and natural gas sectors, provided Iran with key energy equipment, technology and services, supplied Iran with refined petroleum, and purchased Iranian petroleum products.” None of that, of course, violates international law, nor does it violate the UN sanctions on Iran, which were supported by China. But the FDD wants nothing less than the total economic isolation of Iran, and it blames China for undermining the unilateral sanctions that the United States seeks to implement against Iran. No rational observer would see anything wrong in China trying to meet its energy needs by dealing with a major world producer such as Iran.
From the other side, the AFL-CIO and its allies, including pro-labor Democrats in Congress and anti-China, xenophobic Republicans—including a vocal Christian-right contingent—want the United States to slam China with economic and trade sanctions in order to force China to revalue its currency, the renminbi. This week, both the House and Senate are holding hearings on the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act (H.R. 2378), legislation backed by the AFL-CIO, the Steelworkers and others, such as the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), a project of the Steelworkers. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, vastly oversimplified a highly complex dynamic by suggesting that slamming China would fix the US jobs problem:
Immediate action on currency manipulation [by China] is the single most important step the US government can take to create jobs at no cost to taxpayers. H.R. 2378…is urgently needed to address a serious and ongoing problem for American workers and manufacturing.
Carl Levin, along with the Steelworkers, is calling for an investigation into China’s government support for green energy technology. "With green technologies promising to be a growth sector in manufacturing, American companies cannot afford to compete with a Chinese government willing to break international trade rules and norms,” Levin writes. “The Chinese government’s requirement to use domestic suppliers and production for green and renewable technology is patently unfair."
And there’s more. What’s most worrying is the possibility that the neocons and the AFL-CIO will make common cause of their China-bashing. So far, the Obama administration and most of the corporate Republicans don’t want to confront China, because the big banks and corporations that call the shots on Capitol Hill are content with the situation as it is and because they are worried that a trade war with China could unravel the global economy. But for populists on the right and left, and China-bashing neocons who want a Pentagon-led showdown with China might yet come together.
Anxious, it seems, to dispel the idea that the New America Foundation supports peace in Afghanistan, today the NAF scrounged up a former adviser to none other than Dick Cheney to spew nonsense about the failing occupation of Afghanistan as a “war of necessity.”
The NAF forum today followed last week’s release of a study by the Afghanistan Study Group that called into question the very premises of the war and suggested a sharp drawdown of US forces by 2011. The ASG study was organized by Steve Clemons, senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at NAF, who helped assemble a team of nearly fifty experts, academics, and policy analysts who issued a report entitled “A New Way Forward: Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan.”
On Tuesday, the NAF presented the other side, bringing Bergen and the former Cheney aide, Michael Waltz, to a forum that sounded dire warnings about the stakes in the war.
Waltz, who advised Cheney in 2008 and who served in Afghanistan as a US army commander in charge of a Special Forces unit, said that he’d been holding his tongue until now, refusing invitations from various thinktanks—presumably including the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. But on Tuesday, Waltz declared that he couldn’t stand it any longer, because he was “so disturbed…by the Afghanistan Study Group” and its report. Hefty, square-shouldered and square-jawed, the former military officer blasted President Obama’s decision to announce a timetable for starting the withdrawal of US forces in July, 2011. The war, he said, is a “war of necessity…not an optional effort,” and he said that the United States “must prevail.”
"I was mortified at the July 11 announcement,” he intoned. Because of it, he warned, tribal elders and other leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan concluded that the United States is pulling out, and no longer want to work with the United States. Not only that, but he complained that the United States isn’t spending enough money nor sending enough soldiers to Afghanistan, despite Obama’s two surges that nearly tripled the American commitment. “We still haven’t resourced it properly,” he muttered.
In the Q&A, I asked Waltz a two-part question: if he’s so upset about the supposed under-resourcing of the war, why didn’t he make a lot of noise during the Bush administration, when he was a Cheney lackey? It was Bush, after all, who allowed the war in Afghanistan to drag on for nearly a decade while he invaded Iraq. And, I asked, does his militant opposition to Obama’s withdrawal timetable reflect the sentiment inside the US military, including the views of General Petraeus and General McChrystal, who seem to be organizing an insubordinate rebellion against the White House?
Waltz responded that to the extent that he could make his views known to Cheney et al., he argued for escalating the war, and he said that in its last months the Bush administration drew up plans to add 30,000 troops to the conflict, a plan that was passed on intact to the incoming Obama administration. But he refused to comment on the anti-Obama, anti-timetable grumbling within the US command, even though it was the blatant disparaging of the White House by McChrystal and Co.—including in the famous article in Rolling Stone, a magazine to which I’ve contributed several articles on Afghanistan—that got McChrystal first reprimanded by Obama (last September) and finally fired.
Waltz, backed by Bergen, conflated the Taliban and Al Qaeda. One of the chief merits of the ASG report is that it made a clear distinction between the Taliban, a local, Afghan insurgency, and Al Qaeda, a globally focused international terrorist group made up of non-Afghans. The ASG pointed out, correctly in my view, that even if the United States leaves Afghanistan, there is little likelihood that the Taliban will take over the country; that even if the Taliban does seize control of some territory in Afghanistan after a US departure, it won’t necessarily bring back Al Qaeda; and that even if Al Qaeda does re-enter Afghanistan it won’t be able to establish a useful safe haven because American counterterrorism forces will destroy any bases or facilities it sets up. But Waltz insisted that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are deeply entwined, alongside the Haqqani group (based in Pakistan), and that defeating Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Haqqani, and their allies is a vital American interest.
Bergen, too, sharply criticized Obama’s July 2011 plan, echoing criticism from the military and from various right-wing ideologues and neoconservative hard-liners. But Bergen admitted that, when the December 2010, review rolls around, the civilians in the White House—including Vice President Biden and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel—are going to push for a drawdown. Stay tuned.
A mostly centrist, Nixonian-realist task force calling itself the Afghanistan Study Group issued a deeply flawed but potentially useful report this week called "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." The task force, organized by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation and directed by Matthew Hoh, an ex-Marine and former State Department official who resigned to protest the mishandling of the war, included some four dozen denizens of think tanks, academics and former US government officials.
The Afghanistan Study Group hardly proposes an end to the war, suggesting a years-long drawdown of US forces from the current level of about 100,000 to 68,000 in October, 2011, and 30,000 by July, 2012, with the possibility that tens of thousands of American forces might remain in Afghanistan for years after that if they "contribute to our broader strategic objectives." Despite its flaws, however—and it is a consensus document—the report might help push open the door a crack to allow the start of a national debate over a bungled and inept, unwinnable conflict.
If ever the emperor had no clothes, the brutal and destructive war in Afghanistan is it. Within weeks of 9/11, President Bush bungled his way into an unnecessary war, riding a wave of vicious anger and desire for revenge among a traumatized US population. In going into Afghanistan in October, 2001, Bush had the support of not only the blindly enraged body politic but virtually the entire class of pundits, armchair strategists, editorial boards, thinktanks and self-proclaimed strategists—nearly all of whom, safe to say, were blissfully and almost totally ignorant of the country that they were loudly proposing to invade. Like a mad bull, America ignored a handful of naysayers who suggested that perhaps it might be best, first, to work with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda confreres, even if it took a few months or more. Along with bloodthirsty right-wing Republicans and the neoconservative faction, the war was lustily supported by Republican realists, moderates and virtually the entire establishment of the Democratic Party, too. At the time, I was the Washington editor of The American Prospect, and I resigned in protest, at the end of September, 2001, when that liberal magazine happily joined the bandwagon for war.
Nine years later, the United States still doesn't understand the country it's occupying. And, in Washington, few if any among the political and military establishment are willing to admit that like Iraq, Afghanistan was a war of choice, and that America made the wrong choice. Somehow, however, a consensus developed that Iraq was the "bad war," and, as President Obama, John Kerry, and others insisted, Afghanistan was the "good war." Now, Democrats seem locked into the belief—undeterred by the catastrophic failure of the US invasion of Afghanistan—that it is still the right thing to do, on the theory that if sending 30,000 troops to the wrong place isn't getting results, sending 30,000 more to that same wrong place might help, and then when that doesn't work, why, send another 30,000! And Republicans, who seem to believe that if we don't fight Muslims over there, why, they'll build dastardly mosques right here, are Obama's best allies.
Enter the Afghanistan Study Group.
In choosing that name, the Afghanistan Study Group clearly wanted to mimic the 2006 Iraq Study Group. (Its report was titled, "The Way Forward: A New Approach.") At the height of the Iraq disaster, the ISG issued a scathing indictment of the war and, in its core conclusion, proposed an immediate drawdown of US forces, leading the removal of all American combat troops by early 2008, i.e., within a year. That, too, was a consensus document, but it's worth pointing out that the members of the ISG included two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense, a former attorney general, a former justice of the Supreme Court and other senior officials, with strong bipartisan support among members on Congress, who funded the ISG. The ASG, on the other hand, involved no former senior officials and it had no official or semi-official support, starkly illustrating the fact that in Washington there is little or no appetite, thus far, to challenge the "good war," even nine years later. (Even so, it ought to be pointed out that the ISG, despite its recommendations, was virtually ignored by President Bush, who ordered the vaunted "surge," thus prolonging the war in Iraq another three years, at least. Only last month did US combat brigades finally depart Iraq, while leaving behind 50,000 heavily armed troops.)
It should be pointed out that, because of the establishment consensus in support of the war, the ASG is stepping into a minefield. Most of Washington's think tanks, even liberal ones such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress, are far to the right of where the ASG is. Even within the New American Foundation itself, Clemons has not found universal support, since some of NAF's leading lights, such as Steve Coll and Peter Bergen, are far more hawkish on Afghanistan than the consensus embodied by the ASG.
To its credit, the Afghanistan Study Group challenges head on many of the shibboleths that are repeated by supporters of the war. The ASG says that America's interest in Afghanistan does not justify the cost, that the threat from Al Qaeda is minimal and can be contained, that the Taliban isn't likely to seize control of Afghanistan even if the US effort winds down, and that the conflict in Afghanistan is an ethnic, sectarian and rural-versus-urban civil war. Specifically, it says:
The decision to escalate the U.S. effort in Afghanistan rests on the mistaken belief that victory there will have a major impact on Al Qaeda's ability to attack the United States.…
A U.S. drawdown would not make Al Qaeda substantially more lethal.…
The current U.S. military effort is helping fuel the very insurgency we are attempting to defeat.
The ASG also points out that there's little reason to believe that counterinsurgency will prove successful. "Our military strategy is failing because the prerequisites for success do not exist. We have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open, where they would be easy to defeat, because they can melt away into the countryside or withdraw across the Pakistani border.… Adding more troops will not solve this problem."
And, importantly, the ASG makes the point that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not identical. "Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not the same, and in fact have many differences and disagreements," the ASG report says. It adds that if then United States leaves Afghanistan, it's unlikely that the Taliban will return to power, and that even if it does take control in certain areas of the country the Taliban isn't likely to bring Al Qaeda back. To quote the ASG at length:
A Taliban victory is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment. The Taliban is a rural insurgency rooted primarily in Afghanistan's Pashtun population, and its seizure of power in the 1990s was due to unusual circumstances that no longer exist and are unlikely to be repeated. Non-Pashtun Afghans now have ample experience with Taliban rule, and they are bound to resist any Taliban efforts to regain control in Kabul. Moreover, the US military presence has helped the Taliban rally its forces, meaning that the group may well fragment and suffer a loss of momentum in the face of a US drawdown. Surveys suggest that popular support for the Taliban among Afghans is in the single digits.
Even with significantly reduced troop levels, we can build a credible defense against a Taliban takeover through support for local security forces, strategic use of airpower, and deployment in key cities without committing ourselves to a costly and counterproductive COIN (counterinsurgency) campaign in the south. And if power-sharing and political inclusion is negotiated, the relevance of the Taliban as an alternative to Kabul is likely to decline.
And even if the Taliban were to regain power in some of Afghanistan, it would likely not invite Al Qaeda to re-establish a significant presence there. The Taliban may be reluctant to risk renewed U.S. attacks by welcoming Al Qaeda onto Afghan soil. Bin Laden and his associates may well prefer to remain in Pakistan, which is both safer and a better base from which to operate than isolated and land-locked Afghanistan.
Most importantly, no matter what happens in Afghanistan in the future, Al Qaeda will not be able to build large training camps of the sort it employed prior to the 9/11 attacks. Simply put, the U.S. would remain vigilant and could use air power to eliminate any Al Qaeda facility that the group might attempt to establish. Bin Laden and his associates will likely have to remain in hiding for the rest of their lives, which means Al Qaeda will have to rely on clandestine cells instead of large encampments. Covert cells can be located virtually anywhere, which is why the outcome in Afghanistan is not critical to addressing the threat from Al Qaeda.
What the ASG woefully ignores, understates, or dismisses, however, is the fact that the Taliban is not merely a rural insurgency but a lethally organized force supported by Pakistan and its intelligence service, the ISI. The war in Afghanistan is, indeed, a civil war, but one in which one side is vigorously supported by Pakistan and the other side, largely represented by the former Northern Alliance and powerful segments of the Afghan government and parliament, is backed by India, Iran and Russia. The ASG notes, in passing, the Pakistan ISI involvement, but it doesn't give it the prominence it deserves, especially since it is Pakistan that has the ability to bring most, if not all, of the Taliban to the bargaining table.
Which brings up another flaw in ASG report. It has very little to say about the importance of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Perhaps, among the members of the ASG task force, there was too much disagreement on this point. But Afghanistan watchers know that there is a huge battle between advocates of "reintegration"—that is, bringing low- and mid-level Taliban fighters into an accord with Kabul—and "reconciliation," that is, a top-level deal with senior Taliban commanders, the leadership in Quetta and their Pakistani sponsors. Over the past year, President Karzai has been pushed and pulled between these two objectives. The United States, while dithering, has mostly been resolutely opposed to reconciliation, while Karzai has openly supported the idea. The ASG has little to say about this important issue. It largely avoids it, and when it addresses it, the ASG says that political outreach "should be open to those among the fragmented Taliban who are willing to engage in genuine reconciliation, a step that can help marginalize those Taliban who remain defiant." That sounds suspiciously like the current U.S. attitude, which imagines a distinction between "good Taliban" and "bad Taliban." To strike a deal with the Taliban, it will be necessary to give Pakistan a prominent seat at the table, which is something that the ASG avoids discussing in detail.
As it leaves Afghanistan, the United States would do well to try to facilitate a deal between India and Pakistan, in which Pakistan represents the Taliban—just as the United States left Vietnam after reaching a deal with North Vietnam, which represented the Viet Cong. In that negotiation, Hanoi allowed the United States to maintain the fiction that North Vietnam and the VC were separate entities, and the United States pretended to believe that it was leaving behind two countries, North and South Vietnam. Yet everyone around the table knew that when the United States left Vietnam, it was all over, and the country would unite under Hanoi's rule. The United States lost that war. And it's losing this one.
Which is why the ASG's support for a prolonged American presence is so distressing. Here's what it says:
The Study Group recommends that President Obama firmly stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in the summer of 2011—and earlier if possible. U.S. force levels should decline to the minimum level needed to help train Afghan security forces, prevent massive human rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control beyond the Pashtun south, and engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed. We recommend a decrease to 68,000 troops by October 2011, and 30,000 by July 2012. These residual force levels should be reviewed as to whether they are contributing to our broader strategic objectives in the fall of 2012—and if not, withdrawn in full over time.
Nowhere does the ASG justify the idea of maintaining 30,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2012 or longer. If the war in Afghanistan is not a vital American interest, if the sacrifice of so much blood and treasure isn't worth it, then why support an extended US occupation? Steve Clemons, in defending the ASG's approach, suggests candidly that given the current political conditions in the United States, this is the farthest that a serious task force can go and still be taken seriously. Perhaps. But at a small dinner of several dozen people at a Washington, DC, restaurant on Thursday night, a journalist asked the authors of the ASG report if they've rethought any of the conclusions they drew. Steve Walt of Harvard University, a principal author of the ASG report, said that he'd registered the comments on some left-leaning critics who said that the task force was wrongly seeking a "graceful" exit from Afghanistan, when in fact the best the United States could do was just to pack up and go home.
Could Iraq fall apart, the Washington Post asked General Odierno, the departing US commander in Iraq, this week. "It could," Odierno replied.
That's why Tony Blinken's answer to my question at a US Institute of Peace event on Tuesday is especially troubling. Blinken is Vice President Biden's top aide for national security, and since Biden has the Iraq portfolio for the White House, his views are particularly important.
Since Iraq might, indeed, fall apart, I asked Blinken, are there any conceivable circumstances in which President Obama might renege on the plan to withdraw the remaining 49,000 US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011? What if Iraq falls back into violence and civil war? In response, Blinken called it a "hypothetical" question and he refused to comment. He added that the remaining US forces in Iraq—two of whom were killed yesterday by a rogue Kurdish soldier—are "fully prepared to deal with any contingencies that develop." Though both President Obama's own commitment and the terms of the US-Iraq treaty negotiated in 2008 by President Bush call for the removal of all US forces by the end of 2011, Blinken would not say definitively that the troops would leave no matter what. I don't know what Blinken's definition of hypothetical is, but it isn't hypothetical to say that there are no circumstances that could lead Obama to halt the withdrawal or, even worse, to reverse it and add more troops.
Part of the reason that Iraq might fall apart is that Iran, which has enormous influence in Iraq, is positioned to stir up trouble against the United States and its role in Iraq, especially if US-Iran relations deteriorate sharply over other issues, such as Iran's nuclear program. I asked Blinken if the Obama administration has any sort of dialogue with Iran over Iraq, something like the direct talks between the United States and Iran that took place sporadically in Baghdad during the Bush administration. Blinked said no. "We do not have a dialogue with Iran about Iraq," he said.
Despite Obama's pledge to end the war in Iraq, Blinken made it clear that the United States believes that it can retain an important and lasting role in Iraq going forward, including a robust military relationship. The United States is setting up an Office of Security Cooperation at the US embassy in Baghdad, whose purpose will be to work with the Iraqi defense ministry and Iraq's armed forces on bolstering its military capacity and selling US weapons systems to Iraq. Indeed, said Blinken, those weapons systems will serve as the "connective tissue" tying Iraq and the United States together. (That's because each system requires a steady supply of replacement parts and upgrades, along with hundreds or thousands of US personnel, including contractors, to train, maintain, and enhance the systems.)
Needless to say, Iran will not view a burgeoning US-Iraq military relationship with equanimity, nor will they see US efforts to push Iraqi politicians into creating a US-leaning government that shuts out Iran's friends. Blinken, for instance, made it clear that the United States does not favor the including of the anti-American Sadrist movement in the Iraqi government, if and when a government is ever formed. Rather, the United States is exerting its influence to push Prime Minister Maliki and former Prime Minister Allawi into a grand alliance, according to various reports, while minimizing the role of the Shiite bloc, which includes the Sadrists. Such a deal may or may not be possible, and there's no forward movement yet. But clearly both Iran and the United States and playing a zero-sum game at present to influence the creation of a government in Iraq that leans one way or the other.
Blinken said that Iran has so far failed to exert influence. He cited the "development of a new nationalism" in Iraq which wants to reduce Iran's role—though, pointedly, he did not say that that same nationalism is bitterly opposed to America's influence, too. But Blinken did acknowledge that by virtue of geography, history, and religious affinity (i.e., Shiism), Iran will always have influence in Iraq. And he noted that 75 to 80 percent of Iraqis want the United States to leave Iraq. Still, it's clear that the Obama administration isn't giving up on the idea that the United States can turn Iraq into an eastern version of Egypt, that is, a conservative, pro-US Arab country that relies on Washington for military support. Given Iran's proximity, however, and the fact that Iraq, unlike Egypt, has vast oil resources to fuel its independence, that seems unlikely at best.
Writing in the Washington Post today, Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist in Ramallah, makes an important point about the timing of the Middle East peace talks launched last week (yes, again) and set to continue in mid-September in Egypt.
Kuttab notes that the scheduling of the talks is carefully timed to the US election calendar. He notes that by starting the process now, in advance of the mid-term elections in November, President Obama can bask in the glow of early posturing by both sides, since both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are likely to make dovish and conciliatory statements at the outset of the talks. Then, with the elections safely past and the 2012 presidential elections still far away, the real pushing and shoving can begin. That's good, if you believe that Obama intends to put pressure on the parties (read: on Israel) to get the outlines of a settlement done by the end of the one year deadline that the White House has set. As Kuttab says: "Holding the talks now allows for positive press and photo opportunities before the midterm elections, while any potential arm-twisting will be completed long before the start of the presidential reelection season."
That’s the optimistic scenario. Lots could go wrong. The whole process could blow up in late September if Israel ends its moratorium on new Jewish outposts in the occupied West Bank. Also, it isn't at all clear that President Obama intends to do what's been rumored, namely, to put forward an American peace plan if, as expected, the talks stall. And the Israelis are masters at stalling and obfuscating, having had decades of practice befuddling previous presidents. But if Obama does intend to outflank AIPAC and the Israel lobby, then finessing the electoral calendar is a smart strategy. Most presidents, Middle East watchers know, don’t even think about Israel-Palestine talks until late in the second term, when they are lame ducks who don't care any longer about AIPAC.
Even though there have been rumblings for a year or more that the Obama administration believes that fixing the Palestine problem is important for US national security, since a great deal of the anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world is founded on resentment of the US-Israel partnership, it's far from certain that Obama will follow through. Kuttab provocatively suggests that if the talks falter, the Palestinians will call Obama's bluff by declaring a state on their own and seeking international recognition, which would force Obama either to give the new Palestine his support or risk being seen as an Israeli pawn.
As Kuttab writes: “If the talks fails because of Israeli obstructionism, Palestinians will have no choice but to declare their state unilaterally and hope the world will recognize it. Those Americans who witness Palestinian conduct in the negotiating room over the coming year will have to decide whether to recognize the state or keep this conflict festering.”
Of course, it also isn't clear whether Abbas and his allies will risk such a confrontation by declaring a state even if the talks fall apart. As Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator now at the New America Foundation, notes, Abbas is precariously isolated not just from Hamas but from other Palestinian factions in his own base who suspect that the talks are a charade. "Much of Fatah, the other smaller factions that make up the PLO, and virtually all of organized and mobilized Palestinian civil society and diaspora groups have now placed themselves in opposition to this week's process and to the negotiations and negotiators," Levy wrote in the Huffington Post last week.
Despite an avalanche of Israeli and pro-Israeli propaganda in recent weeks attempting to portray Netanyahu as a peacemaker, it's extremely unlikely that the Israeli leader has any intention of budging on core issues such as the settlements, Jerusalem and Israel’s supposed Biblical right to "Judea and Samaria." If he budges, it will be because he's kicked uphill. Such kicking, if it ever happens, won't talk place until mid-2011, however.
Let's get the good news out of the way first, in President Obama's Iraq speech last night. Here it is: he said that the US combat role in Iraq has ended and that Iraqis have "responsibility for the security of their own country." He said that "all US troops will leave by the end of next year." And he promised, once again, that US troops will begin to leave Afghanistan, too, next July.
That's about it. Now the bad news.
Most distressingly, Obama treated the war in Iraq as if it were a minor, tactical disagreement, rather than a fundamental, black and white difference between two irreconcilable views. "I am mindful that the Iraq war has been a contentious issue at home," he said. "It is time to turn the page." To underline the point, he mentioned that he'd telephoned former President George W. Bush before delivering the speech, though he mercifully spared us details of that conversation. Needless to say, the unprovoked invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 was a clear-cut, criminal war of aggression, making it far more than a merely "contentious" issue. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died for no good reason, and many thousands more are likely to perish as Iraq's bitterly divided body politic settles its differences with guns and bombs over the next five or ten years. Millions of Iraqi children have been traumatized beyond repair. By going into Iraq, the United States alienated its friends, weakened its alliances, emboldened its adversaries, blackened its reputation, squandered a trillion dollars, suffered tens of thousands of dead and wounded, utterly failed to spread democracy and freedom in the region, vastly strengthened Iran's strategic position in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and devastated a nation by shattering its economy, its state institutions and its very social fabric in a manner that will take at least two generations to repair. None of this seems to have occurred to President Obama, who wants to turn the bloody page.
Almost as distressing was Obama's half-hearted reference to Bush's vaunted surge. By now, in much of the mainstream media, it's become part of the catechism that the surge "worked," that the addition of 30,000 combat forces in January, 2007, resulted in a great success. (Obama, like many Democrats, liberals, and some realist-minded Republicans, opposed the surge.) Here are the facts: early in 2006, many Republicans knew that the war in Iraq was a disaster, and they wanted out, before the voters could express their disdain for Bush, Cheney and Co. at the polls in 2006 and 2008. The Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, was created to nail down an exit strategy, and they did, proposing a year-long timetable for withdrawing US forces. But the surge prolonged the war, which could have ended in late 2007 or early 2008, at the latest, by three more bloody, combat-filled years. Nor did the surge calm the crisis. The decline in violence, to the extent that it did occur, came for two intertwined reasons: first, because Sunni tribal leaders banded together to fight Al Qaeda and other extremists; and second, because Iran made a strategic decision to rein in allied Shiite militias, halt the supply of IEDs and other weapons to its allies on the Shiite side and convince Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shiite militant leaders to stand down, which they did.
The very agreement that Obama cited last night, which calls for the complete withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2011, was the result of a deal struck between the United States and Iraq long before Obama's election, and the only reason that the deal worked is because Iran, which opposed it at first, eventually acquiesced. Tehran convinced its many friends and allies in the ruling coalition under Prime Minister Maliki in 2008 to go along with the US-Iraq withdrawal accord in order to weaken American influence in Iraq, and in that they have succeeded. Tehran also brokered an uneasy ceasefire between Maliki and Sadr in 2007, and it has worked hard, though without complete success, to strengthen its ties to the various Shiite and Kurdish factions that dominate Iraqi politics. Because of its proximity, Iran will continue to exert a gravitational pull on Iraq, which no longer has an effective army to defend itself against its larger neighbor. The withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq—although the 50,000 that remain aren't exactly unarmed—signals just another phase in the decline of American influence in Iraq.
What Obama failed to mention is that the next sixteen months will be a severe test of his sincerity about withdrawal.
First, the centrifugal tendency of Iraqi politics may pull that country apart again, hurtling it back into civil war even as US forces continue to draw down, and that will create great pressure on Obama at home to slow or reverse the withdrawal.
Second, Iran has many cards to play, and if US-Iran relations deteriorate further, despite the apparent resumption of Iran's dialogue with the world's great powers later this month, Iran can use its muscle in Iraq to make life hell for the United States.
And third, the neoconservatives and proponents of the war—those inconvenient advocates of the illegal invasion of Iraq that Obama refuses to battle politically—are revving up demands that the United States settle in for the long haul in Iraq. As indicated by Paul Wolfowitz's obscene op-ed in the New York Times on Tuesday, in which he compared Iraq to South Korea and suggested that tens of thousands of US forces remain in Iraq indefinitely, the neocons want Obama to justify their outrageous decision to go to war in Iraq by preserving and extending a US military role there for years to come. In Wolfowitz's analogy, Iran plays the part of North Korea (and "Red" China), and they'd like nothing more that to use the continuing turmoil in Iraq to justify a South Korea–style US presence.
Unfortunately, despite Obama's words in pledging to withdraw US forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, he will find himself under enormous pressure to renege on that promise. And there's precious little reason to believe that he won't cave in to that pressure, particularly if Iraq devolves into civil war sometime in 2011.
Will Iraq, finally, fall apart? As U.S. forces in Iraq – which stood at 144,000 at the start of the Obama administration – fall from their current 56,000 to 50,000 by the end of the month, the trauma of the past seven years threatens to erupt once again. More than five months after the March 7 elections, there is no Iraqi government, and none in sight. And here’s the problem: without some sort of understanding between the United States and Iran, whatever government in Iraq eventually emerges will be hopelessly divided. On top of that, there’s no movement toward a resolution of the Arab-Kurdish split in Iraq, either.
The Obama administration spent the week engaged in happy talk about Iraq, touting the scope of its withdrawal, pledging that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and putting an optimistic spin on the news. Hitting the airwaves, speaking to reporters, giving speeches, and appearing at Washington conferences, top U.S. officials involved with Iraq generally glossed over the horrific violence inflicted on Iraq by an unnecessary and criminally illegal war, and they suggest that the future is rosy. Colin Kahl, the Defense Department’s point man for the Middle East, told a packed conference at Center for a New American Security, where he used to work, that the insurgency is mostly gone, that Al Qaeda is “decimated” and “weaker than it’s ever been,” that the Shiite-led Mahdi Army is “largely disbanded,” and that other Shiite militias in Iraq’s south are not a worry. “We don’t judge that they represent a strategic threat to the government of Iraq,” he said. The Sons of Iraq, the name given to the Awakening movement of mostly Sunni, former insurgents that was backed by the United States starting in 2006, is a bit restless, he suggested, but there’s no sign that they’re returning to the ranks of the insurgency.
At the same meeting, Michael Corbin, the State Department’s top officer for Iraq, dismissed the influence of Iran. “The record shows that Iraq is standing up to foreign [i.e., Iranian] influence,” he said. He said that Iran’s clients in Iraq – meaning the Shiite-led alliance of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, sponsor of the Mahdi Army – have been “pushed back.” Asked whether Iran is exercising a “veto” over the formation of a new government in Iran, Kahl said, “I don't think that there’s an Iranian veto.” He said that Iran has used “every arrow in its quiver” to extend its influence in Iraq, and failed.
If the administration really believes that it’s checkmated Iran in Iraq, and that it can push for the formation of an American-leaning government there to the zero-sum exclusion of Iran’s own interests, then they’re making an enormous mistake. Not only does Iran see Iraq as a place for countering American influence in the region, but from a strategic perspective Iran will never allow the coming to power of a government in Iraq that could become a powerful adversary to it – especially one whose armed forces are armed and trained by the United States. According to today’s New York Times, at the very least the United States is planning to supply Iraq with advanced weapons, including M-1 tanks, F-16 fighter jets and other sophisticated equipment, all of which will come with contingents of U.S. soldiers and contractors for training, maintenance, and resupply.
By all accounts, the United States wants to see a government formed by the two biggest winners of the March 7 election, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya and Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law. That, in turn, would exclude the ISCI-Sadr alliance, and although Iran has ties to Maliki, too, it would be seen in Tehran as a U.S.-sponsored anti-Iranian government. So far, political currents in Iraq seem to be running strong against such an alliance, despite U.S. pressure in that direction. (The latest version of that alliance would have Maliki back as prime minister and Allawi in charge of the security portfolio.) Instead, there are strong reports that Allawi is looking toward an alliance with ISCI and Sadr, shutting out Maliki, who’d refuse to join any arrangement that doesn’t allow him to retain his post. According to Iraqi sources, a deal between Allawi and the ISCI-Sadr group would put Adel Abdel Mahdi in the prime minister’s spot, with Allawi as president. Such an arrangement would probably be much more to Iran’s liking. There are many other possible combinations, of course, but the bottom line is that Iran isn’t likely to sit idly by while a new Iraqi government is put together with American support.
Strangely enough, during the Bush administration the United States engaged in a series of political talks with Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad in search of a U.S.-Iran understanding on Iraq. But during the Obama administration, no such talks have occurred, despite Obama’s oft-stated willingness to talk to Tehran. (In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius reports that the United States plans to talk to Iran about stabilizing Afghanistan. If so, why not Iraq, too?)
Despite the happy talk from the administration, even the withdrawal of U.S. forces is occurring under fire. Reports the Post: “Commanders spent weeks studying the perils of the 360-mile nighttime drive through the sweltering, dusty desert of southern Iraq. Powerful roadside bombs lined the two-lane road. And Shiite militias have stepped up attacks against U.S. bases in southern Iraq in recent weeks. As a precaution, the military demanded that journalists accompanying the soldiers on the trip refrain from disclosing details of their departure until early Thursday, when the last group was scheduled to cross the Kuwaiti border.”
Many of those “Shiite militias” – the ones that Kahl says pose no strategic threat – are linked to Iran.
The Times reports, citing U.S. officials, that the United States plans to sharply increase the number of private U.S. contractors in Iraq, using them to protect the sprawling U.S. embassy in Baghdad and satellite offices and consulates in Mosul, Kirkuk, Irbil, and Basra. And they won’t be shooting blanks:
“Defending five fortified compounds across the country, the security contractors would operate radars to warn of enemy rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress, the officials said.”
The State Department itself will take on a paramilitary role:
“The State Department plans to acquire 60 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, called MRAPs, from the Pentagon; expand its inventory of armored cars to 1,320; and create a mini-air fleet by buying three planes to add to its lone aircraft. Its helicopter fleet, which will be piloted by contractors, will grow to 29 choppers from 17.”
And the Pentagon is cagily toying with the idea of keeping 5,000 to 10,000 troops in Iraq after the 2011 deadline, if the Iraqi government requests them.
Like clockwork—well, like clockwork only if the clock mechanism is really slow, since the report was five months late—on Monday the Pentagon issued the latest in its series of annual, congressionally mandated reports on China's military capabilities, intention, and strategy. If you have a couple of hours, you can read all eighty-three pages of the report, entitled "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China, 2010."
As we shall see, the Pentagon report is chock full of rather alarming rhetoric about China's military power, especially its focus on Taiwan, its missile buildup, and its inexorable efforts to float a modern navy that would allow China to project its power around the Indian and Pacific oceans. But the facts are unavoidable: China spends only a tiny fraction of what the United States spends on its armed forces. China has little or no real ability to project its power abroad, yet. And, unlike the United States and NATO, China has attacked no one, at least not since border skirmishes with India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979.
The report says that China is, not surprisingly, concerned about threats to its energy supply—not surprising, because the United States wreaked havoc on the Persian Gulf by invading Iraq, and thus canceling Chinese contracts with Iraq for the supply of oil, and because the United States is threatening to make it worse by attacking Iran, a major source of China's energy supplies. It says:
Beijing is also seeking to ensure supply from as many producers and through as many transport options as possible. Although energy independence is no longer an option for China, Beijing still seeks to maintain a supply chain less susceptible to disruption from outside factors.
Though China is engaged in constructing a huge network of oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and the Middle East, the report notes that the pipelines won't ensure that China can secure the energy it needs:
Evaluation of proven global oil reserves indicates that China's future energy needs can only be met through suppliers in the Persian Gulf, Africa, and North America—all extraction points that will continue to require maritime transport. Pipeline projects, for example, will do little to minimize Beijing's vulnerability in the Strait of Hormuz."
Given that China is, by the Pentagon's own admission, vulnerable to losing its energy lifeline because of external disruption, you'd think that the Defense Department would acknowledge China's legitimate interest in securing those supplies. But even though China is barely at the entry level stage in terms of having a navy that doesn't stop the Pentagon from ringing alarm bells. It notes that China is fast expanding a naval base on Hainan Island off its southeast coast, conducting an R&D program for building aircraft carriers, improving its "over the horizon" ability to use missiles to carry out precision strikes on naval vessels, growing its submarine fleet, and more. The Pentagon is especially concerned about the possibility, down the road, that China could use its military, including anti-ship missiles, to intimidate US naval forces in the western Pacific.
In a background briefing at the Pentagon, US officials laid out their concerns, in full military-speak, using terms such as "area denial capabilities," i.e., China's alleged capability to keep US or other forces out of an area:
"We're obviously concerned about a range of anti-access aerial denial capabilities that the Chinese appear to be—appear to be developing. And that's an area that we're keeping a very close eye on so that we can develop appropriate responses.…
"We remain concerned about the lack of transparency from China into the force projection and anti-access, area denial capabilities it is acquiring, the intentions that underlie those acquisitions and the resources dedicated to that task."
Also from the Pentagon briefing:
When we talk about China's military developments, we put it into a very, you know, long-term, you know, kind of historical context as well. And as China's developing, you know, these capabilities, it is putting them in a position where they'd be able to exercise greater political and military influence in the region.
Obviously there are things that the Department of Defense does, both unilaterally and also work that we do with our allies and partners in the region, to be able to, you know, maintain stability and to be able to maintain the capacity and the infrastructure that allows us to be able to advance and defend our interests in the region.
Reports the Wall Street Journal:
"A particular concern for the U.S. is China's development of an antiship ballistic missile with a projected range of nearly 1,000 miles. The missile is meant to give the PLA the capability of attacking ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific, the report said.
"Some experts say the missile could herald the end of U.S. naval domination. Others say the PLA has yet to conduct any realistic tests of the conventionally armed ballistic missile and has no reliable way of targeting U.S. carrier task forces when they are at sea because China doesn't have enough low-earth-orbit reconnaissance satellites."
The latest entry into the trumped-up debate over the fate of women in Afghanistan comes from Judy Bachrach, an editor at Vanity Fair. It’s all part and parcel of a campaign, by some well-meaning people and some not so well-meaning, to justify America’s failing counterinsurgency policy in that devastated nation by raising the banner of women’s rights, a debate kicked off by the now ubiquitous Time magazine cover photograph of an Afghan woman whose face was mutilated, allegedly by a Taliban-allied, reactionary tribal potentate. Referring to a CNN interview of Nancy Pelosi by Christiane Amanpour, Bachrach writes:
For effect she shoved the photo of the mutilated face right under the speaker’s startled gaze, adding: "To put it right down to its basics, is America going to abandon the women of Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan, again?"
“To put it right down to its basics—Yes, Christiane. We are. You can bet your ass Nancy’s not going to tell you this, in fact she’ll tell you nothing at all substantive on your show in response to any of your questions, but abandonment is the American way.”
To her credit, Bachrach does go on to admit that the United States is not in Afghanistan because of the plight of its women but, as Pelosi told Amanpour, “because it’s in our own strategic national interest.” But, since the Time cover hit the newsstands, it’s allowed proponents of the war to argue that America has a moral obligation to defend that country’s woman against the predatory nature of the Taliban.
However it’s being used by the supporters of the war, it’s an issue that progressives and antiwar activists need to address squarely, too.
The issue is, what might happen if there is a Taliban restoration in Afghanistan. Now, it's true that it's possible to argue that the departure of US and NATO forces might not inevitably lead to a Taliban comeback. It's even possible to argue that the US presence in Afghanistan makes a Taliban comeback more likely, not less. But that's not the issue. The question is: might they come back? Might they seize Kabul, or just entrench themselves, in the manner of the autonomous Kurdish zone in Iraq, in the Pashtun areas? Personally, I'm an agnostic on this question. But it's foolish to dismiss the possibility, even probability. It's one thing to argue that the Taliban is a complex organism with many moving parts, and that it would be resisted by non-Pashtun minorities in the north and west and by liberal and enlightened Afghans everywhere. Still, it might come back, especially if Pakistan decides that's the game it wants to play.
If the Taliban does come back, it would be a bad thing for Afghanistan—and not just for women. Women may have their noses sliced off when they act uppity, and schools for girls may close. But the cultural backwardness and reactionary politics of the Taliban will slice across all sexes, ages and ethnic groups. In other words, the Taliban's comeback isn't just bad for women. Both men and women will be forced to live under the benighted and despicable reign of the Taliban's thugs. Like the reign of the mullahs in Iran, the Taliban is bad news for all. Men and boys, like women and girls, will be forced to abandon modern life; they will be crowded into oppressive Islamist schools, compelled to forget that they live in the twenty-first century, and beaten or killed for listening to music, reading banned books (pretty much everything but the Koran), watching DVDs or flying kites. Tribal and clan leaders who are more enlightened, who'd like to bring Afghanistan into the modern world, will be slaughtered, just like tribal leaders who opposed the Taliban in FATA were obliterated by the hundreds since 2001.
Is this a women's issue? I don't think so. Now, it's true that the sorts of reactionary drivel that comes from the Taliban is intrinsic to the institutionalized cultural life of that part of the world, in which men come first, women are treated as property, and so on. That is, only part of the deadening and oppressive conditions that existed under Taliban rule 1994-2001 arose because the Taliban were political reactionaries; some of it was already there, deeply ingrained into Afghan life. Indeed, even since 2001 there have been numerous reports of both official and unofficial mistreatment of women and women’s rights by warlords, local and provincial official, and by the supposedly enlightened government in Kabul. It' s chicken-and-egg problem, and I'm not sure whether Afghanistan in the 1990s was so bad because the Taliban imposed an alien system or because an inherently reactionary system was already there and that that system helped produce the Taliban. Either way, however, the Taliban and its allies are bad news.
The problem, as I said, can't be ignored by saying, "Oh, if the US leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban won't come back." The fact is, if the United States does leave Afghanistan, it is at least a 50-50 possibility that they'll storm back into power, and that civil war will result. (The US is leaving Iraq, and there is a real possibility that there, too, the result will be civil war sometime in late 2011 or 2012.)
What's sad is the naked attempt by supporters of the war to put the women's issue out front so shamelessly. That's because it's effective. Back in the 1990s, when the Clinton adminstration, Khalilzad et al. were happily ready to make deals with the Taliban-in-power, it was the women's issue that overthrew those efforts, riled up Hillary Clinton and helped push the Taliban regime into Untouchable Land. Don't think for a minute that the war supporters who bemoan the issue of women-under-the-Taliban don't remember that. The fact remains that the forces of reactionary political Islam are dangerous and oppressive, whether its power is wielded by the CIA (in backing the anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s), by Shin Bet (in supporting the rise of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood between 1967 and 1987) or by the ISI.
Yet the US has neither the right to fix Afghanistan nor the ability. All the economic aid in the world isn't going to do it, and promises of US postwar assistance to Afghanistan are a joke, if indeed the Taliban comes to power. Can you imagine any US Congress appropriating a dime to help Afghanistan in that case?
Progressives need to take a cold-eyed look at the consequences of leaving Afghanistan. Pollyannish views and soothing bromides won't cut it.
If there is any hope for Afghanistan after the United States leaves, that hope will reside in two places. First, India, Iran, Russia and the 'Stans will have to assert themselves in support of anti-Taliban Afghans. Second, Pakistan will have to decide whether supporting the most reactionary elements of the Taliban movement is worth continuing a bloody civil war that is the most likely result of America's departure. As I've argued for a long while now, the July 2011 deadline from President Obama ought to light a fuse on American diplomacy aimed at getting all of those parties to underwrite a deal that starts with an accord with the Taliban. I've spoken to Indian government officials who recognize that a deal with the Taliban ultimately is what's needed, even if they'd like to see Pakistan's influence radically diminished. Perhaps, inside the Taliban, there are relatively more enlightened individuals and pragmatists willing to acknowledge at least the minimal rights of Afghan women. But whether that’s true or not, some sort of deal is going to be cut eventually.
Is that abandonment? Maybe so.