Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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

Iraq Simmering

This news is really important. I will write something over the weekend about the news from Iraq, which isn't good. Suffice it to say that with Iraq's elections less than two months away, renewed civil war is not out of the question.

Blind in Afghanistan

One of the paradoxes of America's bumbling intervention in Afghanistan is that the United States knows next to nothing about the country it is occupying. Not only that, but America's learning curve is so steep that it will be years, or decades, before our military and our intelligence services finally figure out which end is up -- if they ever do. Which raises the question: how does years-long counterinsurgency learning curve sqaure with President Obama's pledge to start withdrawing troops by July, 2011?

I raise that question because that deadline will be long come and gone and US forces there still won't have any idea what they're doing.

Last October, in a column here entitled "McChrystal Admits: We Don't Understand the Afghans," I quoted fairly extensively from General Stanley McChrystal's leaked, 66-page report on the war, in which he acknowledged that the United States and its allies, under the umbrella of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), are blind to Afghanistan's complexities. In the report, McChrystal wrote:

"ISAF has not sufficiently studied Afghanistan's peoples, whose needs, identities, and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley."


"Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population."

Now comes Major General Michael T. Flynn, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, who released a paper through the Center for a New American Security that sharply criticizes America's floundering intelligence effort in Afghanistan. (You can read the entire 28-page document here.) In the executive summary, General Flynn writes:

"The paper argues that because the United States has focused the overwhelming majority of collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, our intelligence apparatus still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade."

Flynn brags about the recent creation of the "Information Dominance Center," whose Orwellian title suggests a comprehensive effort to figure out the country that we stumbled into nine years ago. The key quote from Flynn's report says otherwise:

"Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-makers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency."

Meanwhile, a scathing piece in the New York Times notes that the US military is pathetically deprived of the kind of people it needs before it has any idea about what to do in Afghanistan. The Times reports that Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is very concerned about the lack of Afghan experts inside the armed forces:

"In a memo sent last month to the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, Admiral Mullen expressed concern that the services were not consistently providing the 'best and the brightest leaders' for the program's corps, whose members will work in the field and at headquarters.


"'In many cases, the volunteers have been the right people for this very critical program,' Admiral Mullen said in the one-page memo, dated Dec. 14. 'However, I am concerned that this is not the case across the board.'"

To fix the problem, the military is stepping up training, recruiting, and language instruction, but on a timetable that suggests a years-long COIN effort, since the graduates of this effort won't even arrive in Afghanistan until mid-2011, exactly when the withdrawal of US forces is supposed to start:

"The program was conceived as a way to develop a pool of uniformed experts who would spend several years rotating between assignments in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and desk jobs in Washington or other headquarters working on the same regional issues. At the outset, volunteers receive cultural training and 16 weeks of language instruction in Dari, Pashto or Urdu. In time, they are expected to provide a deep bench for assignments that could significantly alter the course of the war.

"The military expects to fill all of the positions by the summer of 2011. The first 304 positions -- including trainers, military planners and advisers to Afghan ministries -- will be assigned in Afghanistan and Pakistan by November 2010."

Chas Freeman, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me years ago, after the US blundered into Iraq, "We haven't invaded Iraq, we've invaded the Iraq of our dreams." What President Bush and his fellow bunglers did was to invade a country it knew virtually nothing about. The same can be said of Afghanistan. In both cases, the nations that America dreamed about have turned into nightmares.

Holding Firm on Iran

With the start of the new year, pressure is building on the White House from assorted hawks, hardliners, neoconservatives, and pro-Israel lobbyists for President Obama to abandon his policy of engagement and dialogue with Iran in favor of a confrontational strategy.

So far, at least, it appears as if the president isn't persuaded.

The intelligent approach to Iran, of course, is to relax and wait it out. During my recent visit to China, that was the message from several Chinese officials and analysts, who told me that the problem of Iran's nuclear program is years away, since Iran isn't close to being able to build a bomb, while political changes on the ground in Iran are more likely over the next several years. That was the message, too, from a discussion with a top Israeli official last summer, after Iran's election crisis, who acknowledged that his own calculations had shifted, and that it was now more likely that Iran would undergo political change before its hawkish, Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime could develop a military nuclear capability.

The Obama administration may be smart enough to understand that it has no real option for confrontation with Iran. Military action is unthinkable; broad economic sanctions aren't going to happen, since China and Russia won't participate and other nations such as India, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates would resist them; and unilateral U.S. sanctions (such as a gasoline embargo) would only backfire. Smart or not, however, the White House doesn't believe that it has the luxury of doing nothing about Iran's bluster and defiance, so it's settled on the idea of "targeted" sanctions that would focus on Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

Gary Sick, a leading analyst on Iran at Columbia University, points out on his blog that Obama has dealt cleverly with the pressure for a year-end reversal of his Iran policy. (The problem, of course, is partly of Obama's own making: early in 2009, around the time of his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Obama set a rough deadline of the end of the year for measurable progress in his opening to Iran, and so far at least it's hard to find any tangible progress, although the talks that occurred on October 1 appeared at first to signal some positive gains.) In his blog posting, entitled "Strategic Leaking," Sick makes the point that rather than cave in to right-wing pressure for a confrontational strategy with Iran, Obama finessed the problem by having top officials leak information to the Washington Post and the New York Times about his strategy for Iran policy in 2010.

"First, give an exclusive [leak] to the Washington Post just before the New Year's 'deadline' that makes two major points: (1) The administration's policy of engagement has succeeded in creating turmoil and fractures within Iran's leadership, i.e. the policy has been a success, not a failure; and (2) the administration is planning for highly targeted sanctions that will hit the Revolutionary Guards rather than the average Iranian citizen. That sends a clear signal to the congress that its infatuation with petroleum sanctions is not replicated in the White House, for all the reasons listed above, and to the uber hawks that there will be no rush to war with Iran in the new year. At the same time, launch a major rhetorical campaign by the president in support of the civil and political rights of the Iranian opposition."

Then, writes Sick:

"[As] many as six top administration officials meet privately and anonymously with two NYT reporters to let them in on some more secrets: (1) In another cunning success, the administration has outed the covert Iran bomb production facility at Qom thereby rendering it useless; (2) hint that the administration may be responsible for sabotaging Iran's centrifuges, which accounts for the fact (completely unacknowledged until now, despite being reported for the past two years by the IAEA) that Iran is not actually using about half of its installed centrifuges; (3) reiterate that the coming sanctions are to be aimed at the Revolutionary Guards, not the average Iranian citizen, and are likely to succeed because the regime is so weakened internally; and (4) declare unequivocally that the Iranian 'breakout capability,' i.e. its ability to shift from nuclear energy to actually building a bomb, is now years away."

A great deal of heat was generated by the December, 2009, vote in the House of Representatives in support of a bill by Rep. Howard Berman, the California Democrat, that would empower the White House to impose tough new sanctions on Iran, especially over its imports of gasoline and refined petroleum products. All year, this was a top priority for AIPAC and the Israel lobby. Since its passage, however, the White House has reportedly been letting senators know that it would prefer that the Senate not take up the House bill, in which case the Berman bill would be no more than an irritant in US-Iran relations. (Of course, even if it passed the Senate, Obama would not be forced to impose unilateral gasoline sanctions, since the bill gives him a chance to opt out.)

Iran is too politically divided at present to respond productively to Obama's offer to engage. That doesn't mean that the regime in Tehran is likely to collapse in the coming weeks, although despite intensifying violence the Green Movement is still acrive in the streets and opponents of the regime (including former Prime Minister Mousavi and Iranian professors and intellectuals) are speaking out more assertively.

Pakistan's Trump Card

The Pakistani army may or may not decide to take power once again in Islamabad. Off and on, for decades, Pakistan has been ruled by its military, usually with American support or acquiescence. During the 1980s, General Zia ruled Pakistan, after seizing power in a coup d'etat against President Bhutto, later hanging him, and he Islamicized Pakistan, squashing the country's secular tradition, then cooperating with the CIA and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s jihad against the USSR and its Afghan allies. In the 1990s, General Musharraf seized power, and he ruled for more than a decade, overtly and covertly supporting the Taliban's rule -- and, after 2001, the Taliban-led insurgency. To this day, for reasons of state, Pakistan's army continues to support the Taliban.

A new round of political upheaval has been triggered in Pakistan, with the Supreme Court's decision to void the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that provided a get-out-of-jail-free card to key civilian leaders of Pakistan. Included among those leaders are its utterly corrupt president, Asif Ali Zardari, and several top officials, including the minister of defense and the minister of interior. Those ministers, and others, have been told by the authorities not to leave town, i.e., they are forbidden to travel abroad, and pressure is on Zardari to resign.

If Pakistan has any hope of breaking the military's stranglehold on power, that hope rests in the civilian parties, including Zardari's Pakistan People's Party -- the party of the late President Bhutto and his daughter, Benazir, Zardari's late wife, who was assassinated on her return from exile -- and the more religious-centered Pakistan Muslim League (N) of the Sharif brothers, including Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister. Neither the PPP and the Muslim League, however, are true mass-based political parties. Instead, they have become vehicles for the personal and political ambitions of the corrupt families who control them. By default, the leadership of the democratic, civilian movement in Pakistan has fallen instead to the lawyers' movement and to the courts, but it's hard to see how those forces could emerge as a credible political movement that could lead the country. In Pakistan, nominally a democracy, actual democrats are few and far between, and it will take a long time for any of Pakistan's political parties and movements to put down roots and grow into true democratic parties. Meanwhile, it isn't clear that the army will allow that to happen.

Will the army take over? Right now, most analysts suggest that the army can bide its time, sitting back and watching the civilians flounder, confident in the knowledge that they can seize power at any time.

What does this mean for President Obama's Afghanistan policy?

Having committed 100,000 US troops to the war, the Obama administration finds itself in a quandary. Its own generals have acknowledged that the war cannot be won militarily. They know that success in Afghanistan, even as they define it, depends on a political settlement. And they know that the Afghan insurgency -- and its three interrelated commands, i.e., the Taliban in Quetta, the Hekmatyar party, and the Haqqani group -- is sheltered in Pakistan, whose leaders support and/or tolerate them. Out of frustration, and aware that the United States cannot neutralize the Afghan insurgency as long as it has bases and logistical support in Pakistan, the Obama administration is putting the squeeze on Pakistan, threatening to bomb insurgent command centers in Quetta, a populous city of nearly one million, and pounding its fist to demand that Pakistan halt its support for the insurgents.

The danger for the United States in this strategy is that Pakistan has a stranglehold over US forces in Afghanistan. If the United States tries to push the Pakistani military too hard, it can respond by interfering with, reducing, or -- in extreme circumstances -- cutting off US supply routes through Pakistan to US forces fighting the war in Afghanistan. There's precedent for this. Not too long ago, Pakistan briefly cut off the US supply chain. And, especially with the coming addition of 30,000 US forces, the United States will be even more dependent on Pakistan for day-to-day supplies, including food, fuel, and armaments. (The vast bulk of US supplies travel overland from the port of Karachi, through Pakistan, and over the treacherous mountain passes to US bases in Afghanistan.

In other words, the US war in Afghanistan against the Taliban is hostage, logistically, to the Taliban's main allies, the Pakistani military.

It isn't clear what the Obama team is thinking. Perhaps they believe that the civilian government in Islamabad, which is somewhat less pro-Taliban than the military, and somewhat more open to a political deal with India, Pakistan's arch rival, can somehow change Pakistan's policy of supporting the Taliban and other terrorist groups, such as the fanatics who attacked Mumbai and the myriad Kashmir-oriented terror groups that Pakistan supports. But because the Pakistani army, and its intelligence service, the ISI, holds most of the cards, that's not too likely. Perhaps they believe that they can force the Pakistani army to capitulate, in part by threats of US military assault on Quetta and other insurgent strongholds, but there's no indication that will happen.

Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist formerly with the RAND Corporation, believes that if greater pressure is put on Pakistan, it will lash out. "There's not a lot of evidence that Pakistan conciliates. It's a neurologically insecure state, and in the past they've tended to respond to pressure with asymmetric warfare," she says, meaning support for Islamic insurgents and terrorism. The Pakistani army hates the United States, she says, and by going after the Taliban the United States is "going after Pakistan's strategic assets." In response, Pakistan might well decide to cut off the US supply chain, after which the whole US war effort in Afghanistan would collapse. "Pakistan knows this!" says Fair. And by sending even more troops into Afghanistan, the United States has made itself more, not less, dependent on the good graces of the Pakistani army, she says.

That's why it's critical for the United States to seek a political deal with Pakistan, and with its Taliban allies. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which support the Taliban and both of which are nominally US allies, can persuade the Taliban to make a deal. For Pakistan, such a deal would have to protect what it sees as its vital interests in Afghanistan, most of which revolve around preventing the expansion of India's influence there.

Despite Obama's foolish policy of escalating the war, and despite the dangerous pressure on Pakistan militarily (including the reported threat to attack Quetta), there are some reports that the United States is quietly engaged in an unofficial dialogue with the Taliban, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. By promising to start withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan in July, 2011, Obama has started down the road to true negotiations. For most of the Taliban, if not its most incorrible extremists, what they want is a timetable for a US withdrawal, plus a greater share of power in ruling Afghanistan. That's Pakistan's key interest as well. As I wrote in The Nation special issue on Afghanistan in October, in an essay called "How to Get Out":

"The president should encourage the convening of an international Bonn II conference involving the UN, the major world powers and Afghanistan's neighbors--including Iran, India and Pakistan--to support the renegotiation of the Afghanistan compact. At the table must be representatives of all of Afghanistan's stakeholders, including the Taliban and their allies. In advance of that, the United States should join other nations and the UN to persuade President Karzai, his main electoral opponents and other Afghan politicians to form a coalition that would create an interim caretaker regime until the establishment of a more broadly based government.

"At the same time, the United States must launch a diplomatic surge aimed at persuading, cajoling and bribing Afghanistan's neighbors to support the effort, including Taliban supporters, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and opponents, including Iran, India and Russia. Obama must recognize that Pakistan is a key part of the problem, not the solution: the Afghan Taliban are not a formless, leaderless group. They are an arm of Pakistan's army and its intelligence service, the ISI, and they have an address: Rawalpindi, the garrison city that is the headquarters for the Pakistani military. The message of the world community to the Pakistani military must be clear: Pakistan's legitimate interests in Afghanistan will be recognized, but Pakistani support of terrorist groups, whether aimed at Afghanistan or Kashmir, is simply not acceptable.

"As a central part of the diplomatic effort, Obama must strongly encourage Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to bring key elements of the three interlinked insurgency movements--the Taliban, the Hezb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network--to the bargaining table. Elements of those groups that opt not to participate are unlikely to present more than a nuisance challenge to the government in Kabul, if cut off from Pakistani support. China, Pakistan's ally, which has a vital interest in Central Asia, should be willing to use its influence in Pakistan to make sure Islamabad and Rawalpindi are on board.

"Similarly, Obama will have to work to get Iran, India and Russia to help persuade the remnants of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras) to make room in Kabul for an enlarged Pashtun role, including the Taliban, in what could become a stable power-sharing arrangement. The ongoing US-Iran talks can be a useful forum to reach agreement between Washington and Tehran on common interests in stabilizing Afghanistan.

"Last, the United States must take the lead in creating a global Marshall Plan to help Afghanistan rebuild its war-shattered economy, build a passable infrastructure and establish the rudiments of a national government. The United States must be realistic about what it can accomplish--and what it cannot. It cannot remake Afghan society, change its cultural mores, modernize its religious outlook, educate its women or reshape the tribal system that prevails in its rural villages. It can break Al Qaeda and, as it exits, leave behind at least the possibility that Afghans will begin to create a sustainable society. But it must recognize, above all, that what it leaves behind won't be pretty."

Talking to the Taliban

Kudos to the Washington Times for a terrific piece about talking to the Taliban.

It's been widely reported, over the past several years, that Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, several top Afghan officials -- including President Karzai's brother -- and others have been engaged in talks with top- and mid-level Taliban officials. But the Times reports that the CIA is also involved.

According to the paper, the talks are being conducted currently with mid-level Taliban officials "connected to Mullah Omar," the Taliban chieftain, who "has been hiding in the Pakistani metropolis of Karachi and was brought there with the knowledge of Pakistani intelligence."

From the report:

"Several Pakistani, Middle Eastern and U.S. officials said in interviews that Saudi and Pakistani officials, acting with tacit American encouragement, are talking with 'second tier' Taliban leaders connected with Mullah Omar. The Washington Times reported recently that Mullah Omar has been hiding in the Pakistani metropolis of Karachi and was brought there with the knowledge of Pakistani intelligence.

"'You've got a lot of players involved in the effort,' said a U.S. official with knowledge of the talks, 'not just within the U.S. government, but foreign partners, too.'

"The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, added: 'U.S. intelligence isn't the lead on talking to members of the Afghan Taliban who may be interested in discussing reconciliation. But when it makes sense, the [U.S.] intelligence community is brought in for its expertise, relationships and judgment.'

"Such meetings were reported to have taken place in the Saudi holy city of Mecca in September 2008, but they continue elsewhere today.

"[Kenneth] Katzman [of the Congressional Research Service] said Qayyum Karzai, a brother of the Afghan president, participated in the 2008 talks. He also said there were meetings in January in Saudi Arabia and contacts in the United Arab Emirates."

The Washington Times adds:

"A Western diplomat based in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Pakistani and Saudi officials are using their 'connections and influence within Afghan Taliban to elicit some meaningful way to end the deadlock.'

"A senior Pakistani official who is familiar with the talks and also asked not to be named said that 'the U.S. is trying to leverage the Taliban in order to find a resolution to the war in accordance with President Obama's strategy.'"

If Obama's July, 2011, deadline to begin withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan means anything at all, he'll have to expend enormous resources between now and then in search of a political and diplomatic solution. Rather than launching hellfire-and-damnation attacks against the Taliban in its Pakistani redoubts, which would be counterproductive and amount to a virtual war against Pakisan, a supposed ally, Obama is going to have to get Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to being Mullah Omar, or his representatives, to the bargaining table.

That's not as easy as it sounds. Mullah Omar is a nut, and he's unlikely to agree to any kind of compromise with the "crusader and Zionist" enemy. But Pakistan, which exercises vast leverage over Omar and his Taliban fanatics -- including Gulbuddin Hekmaytar and the Haqqani clan, based in Waziristan -- might be able to make the Taliban an offer it can't refuse. Before Pakistan will do so, however, the Pakistani army and its intelligence service, the ISI, must be given assurances that Pakistan's strategic interests in Afghanistan will be protected. That's the only reason why Pakistan's army supports the Taliban in the first place.

Obama may have acted stupidly by ordering tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Still, there's hope that, in his mind at least -- and in the minds of US diplomats -- he's created some political space for a negotiated settlement.

McCain Rejects Quetta Attack

On Pakistan, at least, Senator John McCain appears slightly to the left of Barack Obama. Just as it was during the 2008 presidential campaign. Yesterday, during his appearance at the Heritage Foundation to speak about the war in Afghanistan, I asked McCain about threats emanating from the Obama administration to bombard Quetta in pursuit of the Taliban's leadership.

The question has echoes of 2008. Back then, in the second presidential campaign debate, you'll remember, Obama declared forthrightly that he would be prepared, if elected president, to pursue the bad guys across the border into Pakistan, regardless of that little thing called Pakistani sovereignty -- and McCain was opposed. (He called Obama's idea "remarkable," shaking his head, then.) Here's the relevant transcript:

QUESTION Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?

OBAMA I do believe that we have to change our policies with Pakistan. We can't coddle, as we did, a dictator, give him billions of dollars and then he's making peace treaties with the Taliban and militants.

What I've said is we're going to encourage democracy in Pakistan, expand our nonmilitary aid to Pakistan so that they have more of a stake in working with us, but insisting that they go after these militants.

And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.


MCCAIN You know, my hero is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt used to say walk softly -- talk softly, but carry a big stick. Sen. Obama likes to talk loudly.

In fact, he said he wants to announce that he's going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable.

You know, if you are a country and you're trying to gain the support of another country, then you want to do everything you can that they would act in a cooperative fashion.

When you announce that you're going to launch an attack into another country, it's pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: It turns public opinion against us....

We need to help the Pakistani government go into Waziristan, where I visited, a very rough country, and -- and get the support of the people, and get them to work with us and turn against the cruel Taliban and others.

And by working and coordinating our efforts together, not threatening to attack them, but working with them, and where necessary use force, but talk softly, but carry a big stick.

Yesterday, during McCain's Heritage Foundation event, I asked the senator about reports that the administration was planning to strike Quetta. His answer was a bit long-winded, but clearly McCain expressed continuing opposition to a US strike into Pakistan, preferring instead to let Pakistan handle it. Here's the transcript:

QUESTION I'm Bob Dreyfuss from The Nation. During the campaign, you and Senator Obama disagreed about the idea of taking the war across the border into Pakistan. He suggested that was a good idea, and you expressed some concern about taking the war into an allied country. Now there's a lot of talk about going after the Taliban shura in Quetta., ... putting pressure on the Pakistanis but also threatening to do it ourselves with drone attacks or other attacks. Do you think that's a good or a bad idea?

MCCAIN I think the best idea is to get our Pakistani friends and allies to help out in that effort, number one. And number two, as we all know, it's no secret, that there are Predator, across-the-border operations taking place against specific targets, with the agreement -- or maybe I shouldn't use the word 'agreement' -- with the silence of the Pakistani government concerning that. Third, I would like to point out that if we were having this conversation about eight or nine months ago, there was enormous question about the capability and commitment of Pakistan, indeed, about the very stability of the Pakistani government. They will continue to have difficulties, but the capability of the Pakistani miitary has far exceeded most expectations, their operations into Waziristan and other areas. In fact, there was a time a month ago that they were complaining that we weren't doing enough on the Afghan side of the border. So I still believe that an outright US military attack into Pakistan would probably arouse already seriously latent -- in some cases, not so latent -- anti-American sentiment. And I don't think we have exhausted the option of the Pakistani military carrying out this mission over time.

By no means, of course, is McCaina an AfPak dove. On the contrary, he spent the bulk of his time at Heritage praising the president's decision to escalate the war, and he lambasted Obama for declaring that he will start withdrawing US forces in July, 2011. "It doesn't matter if we call it a 'cliff' or a 'ramp,' it's still an exit sign," said McCain. He added: "We cannot afford to lose this conflict. The repercussions of defeat would reverberate for decades if we do." He called on President Obama to use his rhetorical powers to convince the country that winning the war in Afghanistan is an urgent priority, and he pledged to do his utmost to rally support for the president's policy. "America needs to know why winning this war is so important to our national security."

Incidentally, McCain himself didn't explain why it is so important. It's a difficult case to make, since Al Qaeda is nearly vanquished and has little or no presence at all in Afghanistan, and since the Taliban is solely focused on restoring its benighted rule to Afghanistan, and it hasn't made any threats against the United States or its allies. Above all, since the Taliban can't be defeated militarily, it isn't clear why the addition of tens of thousands of US troops will make things better.

However, even McCain acknowledged, in his talk yesterday, that a crucial part of the US effort in AfPak is diplomatic, something that Obama has de-emphasized in recent speeches. McCain said that it is critical to involve Afghanistan's neighbors in search of a solution. "No one disputes that Afghanistan's neighbors will have influence in Afghanistan," he said. "The question is, what kind?" The United States, said McCain, has to broker a deal for regional cooperation to help stabilize Afghanistan.

Bombing Quetta?

If Afghanistan is Vietnam, and the Taliban is the Viet Cong, then, according to the analogy, Pakistan is North Vietnam. The really odd thing about that extended analogy is that, in the case of Vietnam, North Vietnam's ally was the USSR. But Pakistan's ally is, well, the United States.

Which points up the utter absurdity of the contemplated drone attacks into the Taliban's refuge in Quetta, Pakistan.

For years, since the early 1990s at least, Pakistan has been the chief sponsor of the Taliban. When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, only three countries recognized its rule: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. After 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan with its token force -- in alliance with the India-backed Northern Alliance -- Pakistan pretended to stop supporting the Taliban, but its military command and its intelligence service, the ISI, continued to provide not-so-covert support. Despite the eight year US war next door, Pakistan has refused to halt its support for the Taliban, and it has allowed the Taliban leadership to operate freely from safe havens inside Pakistan, from Karachi to the tribal areas in Pakistan's northwest to, especially, the teeming urban center of Quetta, in the Baluchistan area of southwest Pakistan.

For weeks now, the United States has been telegraphing its intention to bombard Quetta in order to strike at Mullah Omar, the one-eyed pirate who leads the Taliban, and his confreres. The Los Angeles Times reports today:

"Senior US officials are pushing to expand CIA drone strikes beyond Pakistan's tribal region and into a major city in an attempt to pressure the Pakistani government to pursue Taliban leaders based in Quetta.

"The proposal has opened a contentious new front in the clandestine war. The prospect of Predator aircraft strikes in Quetta, a sprawling city, signals a new U.S. resolve to decapitate the Taliban. But it also risks rupturing Washington's relationship with Islamabad."

The paper quotes a Pakistani official who says, "We are not a banana republic." If the US attacks Quetta, a city of nearly one million, the senior Pakistani official added: "This might be the end of the road."

Until now, beginning in 2008 under the Bush administration and accelerating this year under President Obama, the United States has conducted a regular series of drone attacks aimed mostly at Al Qaeda terrorists in North and South Waziristan and other areas of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The FATA attacks, while nominally denounced by the government of Pakistan, have in fact been supported by the Pakistani military, because they've been targeted against Al Qaeda and elements of the Pakistani Taliban who've been responsible for horrific attacks in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, including the assassination of President Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, and mass-killing bomb attacks. The protest-too-much critisicm of the drone attacks by Pakistan are for domestic consumption only, meant to temper the reaction of the nationalist and Islamic Pakistani populace which is decidedly anti-American.

But an attack on Quetta, and on the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is something else entirely -- and not just because bombing Quetta would probably result in mass civilian casualties.

Why? Because the core of Pakistan's military elite sees the Afghan Taliban as a strategic asset. The Taliban is Pakistan's ace-in-the-hole against India's burgeoning influence in Afghanistan, and they're not likely to give it up without a fight. By taking on the Taliban's shura in Quetta, the United States is in effect making the war in Afghanistan a war against both the Taliban and the Pakistani military.

It's true that Pakistan's politics is complicated. First of all, the Pakistani military and the ISI are not Islamic fanatics. Most of the generals are whisky-drinking secularists. But they see the Taliban as a tool, and they intend to use it. Meanwhile, Pakistan's civilian government, under President Zardari, is less than enamored of the Taliban, but they don't have the control over the military that they'd need to reign in the army's support for the Taliban. Already, the Pakistani army is unhappy with what they see as a pro-Indian tilt by the diplomacy-minded Zardari government. In fact, the military would be much happier, it seems, if former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family mafia, who are close to Saudi Arabia, would take over power from the very unpopular Zardari. The Sharifs, too, are far more sympathetic to the Taliban than is the Zardari clan. In recent years, Sharif has taken part in secret talks with the Taliban, sponsored by the king of Saudi Arabia.

By attacking Quetta, the United States is effectively declaring war on Pakistan. It appears that the Obama administration is calculating that Pakistan is so dependent on the United States that if push comes to shove the Pakistanis will capitulate. That's a dangerous gamble, one made more complicated by the fact that Pakistan is allied with China in a de facto coalition against India.

The ever-receding diplomatic solution for Afghanistan involves a US-sponsored deal with the Taliban, Pakistan, and their allies, on one side, and with India, Russia, Iran, and their Afghan allies, on the other. Or has Obama forgotten about diplomacy entirely?

The Iranian Souffle

Last June, when I was in Iran to cover the presidential election for The Nation, I happened to run into a middle-aged Iranian war veteran on the street. I was on my way to President Ahmadinejad's campaign office to in a vain effort to arrange an interview with his campaign manager. Nearby was Ahmadinejad's presidential office complex, and the man who approached me worked in that office. He pulled up his shirt to show me his war wounds, suffered during his service in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Without much prompting, he told me what he thought of the clerical regime that controls Iran.

"The mullahs are like idols," he said. "They must be broken!"

In today's Iran, that is not an unusual sentiment.

A year earlier, during another visit to Iran, dozens of Iranians told me point blank that it was time for regime change. Walking into the vast and sprawling Tehran bazaar, a centuries-old marketplace, two brothers pulled me aside. "Do you know the mullahs?" one of them asked me. "We hate them. They are stupid."

At rallies for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister who led the Green Movement, it wasn't uncommon for rallygoers to tell me that the problem wasn't Ahmadinejad, but the whole concept of an Islamic republic. Many of the supporters of Mousavi supported the bearded intellectual and his activist, artist wife in spite of their professed allegiance to the clerical regime, seeing a Mousavi victory as a stepping stone to far more sweeping change.

The story in the New York Times today by Robert Worth reflects that sentiment. Called "In Iran, Protests Gaining a Radical Tinge," Worth reports that many of the protestors in the current round of demonstations are adopting outright regime-change demands. In one case, he says, protestors did the unthinkable: they "burned an image of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution." Last June, I flew into Tehran airport with Worth, who'd been assigned to cover the Iran story because Michael Slackman, the paper's bureau chief in Cairo, was persona non grata in Iran, adn he now covers Iran from Beirut. Worth's story today ought to be read in full, but here's an excerpt:

"During Monday's demonstrations, the civil tone of many earlier rallies was noticeably absent. There was no sign of the opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi, a moderate figure who supports change within the system, and few were wearing the signature bright green of his campaign.

"Instead, the protesters, most of them young people, took direct aim at Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chanting, 'Khamenei knows his time is up!' They held up flags from which the 'Allah' symbol -- added after Iran's 1979 revolution -- had been removed."

For some time now, it's been clear that even many of the reformists and establishment figures who form the opposition have been caught in an uncomfortable position. On one hand, they've found themselves leading a mass movement for change that was building momentum even before the fraudulent, June 12 election results were announced. On the other hand, most of them are regime loyalists who want to preserve the system, if not its leaders. As a result, there is a growing chorus inside Iran of moderates and reformists demanding that the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seek to compromise with the opposition before the entire edifice comes crashing down. So far, at least, there isn't a shred of evidence that the leadership of Iran is compromise-minded -- quite the opposite. In fact, it's increasingly apparent that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad represent a government that looks like a naked military-authoritarian one, and they seem ready to use force, including stepped-up assassination and harassment of Iranians abroad to preserve their rule.

But here's the point.

The political earthquake shaking Iran is far more important than Iran's quixotic quest for nuclear weapons. I've noted in this column that the "political clock" in Tehran is ticking faster that the "nuclear clock." Put another way: Iran's political superstructure is likely to collapse long before Tehran can find its way to becoming a nuclear-armed power. That's a view that is fairly widely accepted; in fact, last summer a very senior Israeli official told me that he is convinced that Iranian politics is now moving more quickly than nuclear development.

For the Obama administration, what this all means is that the so-called nuclear crisis over Iran isn't really a crisis at all. Certainly, Iran has the right to conduct nuclear research and to enrich uranium, on its own soil, for peaceful purposes. It isn't at all clear that the current rulers of Iran have peaceful purposes in mind, of course. But they might not be around long enough to worry about. Whether the regime survives depends, in no small part, on what Obama does. If the United States pushed too hard to crippling economic sanctions, while deemphasizing the diplomatic engagement with Tehran, it will only strengthen the hardliners, weaken the opposition, and push Iran into a closer alliance with China and Russia. The turmoil in Iran is cooking away. Like a souffle, it needs time to rise. Jumping up and down on the kitchen floor, banging the pots and pans, and other signs of violent impatience won't help.

Iran: No Sanctions!

Back in the spring, and several times since then, President Obama suggested that if progress hasn't been made in the talks with Iran, he'd move toward harsher measures, including what Secretary of State Clinton has called "crippling sanctions." That time is drawing near, and assorted hawks are clamoring now for Obama to put up or shut up. "You said you'd get tough with Iran," they're saying. "The time is now."

Of course, the time isn't now. After the October 1 session in Geneva, where some limited success was achieved, the talks have stalled, exactly as I (and many others) predicted. Iran's internal politics is muddled, and neither the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, nor President Ahmadinejad, are in a position to strike a deal with the Great Satan just now. They're under attack from conservatives and reformists opposed to the Oct. 1 deal, which would have sent the bulk of Iran's enriched uranium to Russia and France for processing, and the anti-Ahmadinejad opposition is showing renewed signs of strength, as evidenced by this week's round of demonstrations by students and others.

But, in spite of the apparent consensus among the big powers – which produced a tough new resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month – there's zero chance that either Russia or China will support anything like the embargo on refined oil and gasoline that Obama, in the past, has said he supports. And other key countries, such as India, which has good relations with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, through which much of Iran's gasoline imports are transshipped, aren't likely to back sanctions either. The very best Obama could get, if he goes to the UN Security Council for yet another round of sanctions, is another symbolic set of sanctions that have no force at all.

Despite that, the stupid season is starting.

In front of the stupid parade is Representative Howard Berman. For most of the year, Berman has been huffing and puffing about pushing forward a bill that would enable the president to impose the sort of "crippling sanctions" that Clinton wants. (Even though, of course, unilateral sanctions by the United States, without Russia or China, will hardly be crippling.) Earlier in the year, despite huge pressure from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Berman refused to move his own bill ahead, in deference to Obama's diplomatic effort to engage Iran. Now, concluding that diplomacy has failed, Berman, who pushed his bill through committee at the end of October, is demanding that the House of Representatives pass the bill next week.

As the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) says about Berman's bill, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA):

"IRPSA would expand unilateral, extraterritorial sanctions and target companies exporting refined petroleum to Iran or helping to develop Iran's oil refining industry. Before the hearing, Rep. Berman amended the legislation to make lifting the sanctions in it conditional on Iran ceasing all uranium enrichment."

As opponents of IRPSA have noted, weak, unilateral sanctions don't work, they have counterproductive consequences, and they force Iran's leaders to respond with defiance. (At the same time, strong, multilateral sanctions don't work either: while they can have enormous effect on Iran's economy, they only end up hurting the Iranian people – including the opposition, whose leaders oppose sanctions – and they still provoke the same defiance by Iran's leaders.) Furthermore, because the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its allies have established vast smuggling networks and a military-industrial complex, the IRGC actually benefits from sanctions because they enhance its smuggling activity.

Sadly, it isn't only AIPAC who's supporting sanctions. The dovish organization J Street, which calls itself "pro-Israel, pro-peace," apparently doesn't view "peace" as applying to Iran, since J Street has stupidly endorsed the Berman IRPSA. It's no surprise: for months J Street has expressed its support for a hard line on Iran, in regard to sanctions, even though it has supported Obama's talks with Iran. (So has Berman, of course, and even AIPAC hasn't explicitly opposed the talks.) It's a black mark for J Street.

The always edifying trio of Jim Walsh, Tom Pickering, and William Luers remind us, in a piece for Arms Control Today, why sanctions against Iran are a bad idea, especially now. They conclude:

"In short, both the opportunities and the stakes with Iran may have increased. Given the challenges that can be expected in any negotiations, the P5+1 needs to be clear about the strategic objective: permit Iran to operate under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but create the inspection, monitoring, and transparency arrangements to assure the best firewall against weapons development. The six countries also need to be open about how to get there, through a negotiation that accepts Iran's legitimate activities, including enrichment under appropriate safeguards, and does the maximum to block the illegitimate ones. They should avoid all-or-nothing gambles, artificial deadlines, and a preoccupation with tactics. If they do, it may be possible to avoid new sanctions, proliferation, containment, or even war."

The reality is that the United States faces bleak alternatives with Iran. Since war, or military action, is unthinkable – and would lead to catastrophic consequences – and since sanctions will backfire, the only real choices are a negotiated deal with Iran or, instead, grudging acceptance that Iran can build a nuclear bomb if it wants one. To get a deal, as I've repeatedly argued, including in The Nation, the United States has to acknowledge Iran's right to enrich uranium, on its own soil, under the kinds of safeguards that the IAEA could put in place. It's time for Obama to make it clear that he's ready to do so.

As long as we're talking about the stupid season, I can't let NIAC off the hook. Just as J Street is kowtowing to its American Jewish supporters by pushing for sanctions on Iran, NIAC is kowtowing to its American Iranian supporters by demanding another sort of stupid, and counterproductive effort, namely, by asking Obama to bring human rights into the discussion. Happily, NIAC opposes the IRPSA sanctions bill. But by calling on Obama to start blabbing about human rights in Iran, NIAC is making a huge mistake.

In a piece originally written for the Huffington Post, Trita Parsi and Dokhi Fassihian say:

"Before nuclear diplomacy moves towards a premature ending, the Obama administration must act quickly to reinvigorate its human rights agenda. … Let there be absolute clarity that from a moral standpoint, the United States supports the Iranian people's quest for democracy and human rights. Silence betrays that clarity."

Well, of course, the United States supports the democratic movement in Iran. In my view, Obama has made that exceedingly clear. But, what exactly, does NIAC want the United States to do? At a critical stage of the negotiations, when Iran's politics are inflamed, for the United States to proclaim its support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karroubi, and the Green Movement would be tantamount to wrecking the talks. It would force Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, who've endorsed the October 1 accord, to refocus on the Great Satan's interference in Iranian affairs and make it impossible for them to budge an inch toward a compromise.

The Boston Globe, too, weighs in on this:

"Even while continuing to pursue a negotiated resolution of the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, Obama ought to express Americans' solidarity with the democratic movement in Iran. The students there, playing on the meaning of Obama's name in Persian ("he's with us''), have been chanting to him: Either you are with us or you are with them. The right choice could not be more obvious."

The right choice is obvious: Obama ought to shut up about human rights in Iran, and certainly not introduce a human rights component into the talks with Iran! I say this as someone who spent two weeks in Iran at the time of the June 12 election, and who spent many hours in conversation with the green-clad voters, activists, and students who mobilized for a new Iran before, during, and after the election. I've looked into their eyes. But I told them then, and I believe now, that each time the United States expresses support for their movement, it plants another kiss of death on their cheeks.

Exit: 2011, Part II

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post carried feature-length, page one articles yesterday analyzing the inside debate over President Obama's Afghanistan policy. The Times piece, by Peter Baker, was called: "How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge' in Afghanistan." The Post story, "Obama pressed for faster surge: Afghan review a marathon," was written by Anne E. Kornblut, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung.

Take some time and read both of them in full. But here I'm summarizing some key points that emerged in the two stories, reflecting what I see as a clear division between Obama's own point of view and that of his more hawkish advisers, including General McChrystal, General Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Gates, and Secretary of State Clinton. The differences fall into two key areas. First, Obama consistently rejected the all-out, nation-building counterinsurgency strategy whose chief advocate was, of course, McChrystal. And second, Obama insisted throughout the months-long review that the United States must plan for an exit. According to the two newspaper accounts, at least, tthe 2011 date is a firm one, in Obama's mind at least.

Let's highlight some of the key moments.

One turning point in the discussion, according to the Post, came when McChrystal declared that his mission, as he saw it, was: "Defeat the Taliban." Speaking on the record, General Jones, the national security adviser, says that McChrystal had concocted a strategy that "was obviously something much bigger and more longer-lasting . . . than we had intended." Here's the relevant passage:

In June, McChrystal noted, he had arrived in Afghanistan and set about fulfilling his assignment. His lean face, hovering on the screen at the end of the table, was replaced by a mission statement on a slide: "Defeat the Taliban. Secure the Population."

"Is that really what you think your mission is?" one of those in the Situation Room asked.

On the face of it, it was impossible -- the Taliban were part of the fabric of the Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan, culturally if not ideologically supported by a significant part of the population. "We don't need to do that," Gates said, according to a participant. "That's an open-ended, forever commitment."

But that was precisely his mission, McChrystal responded, and it was enshrined in the Strategic Implementation Plan -- the execution orders for the March strategy, written by the NSC staff.

"I wouldn't say there was quite a 'whoa' moment," a senior defense official said of the reaction around the table. "It was just sort of a recognition that, 'Duh, that's what, in effect, the commander understands he's been told to do.' Everybody said, 'He's right.' "

"It was clear that Stan took a very literal interpretation of the intent" of the NSC document, said Jones, who had signed the orders himself. "I'm not sure that in his position I wouldn't have done the same thing, as a military commander." But what McChrystal created in his assessment "was obviously something much bigger and more longer-lasting . . . than we had intended."

That's coherent with my understanding of what Obama and his advisers believe, namely, that the goal in Afghanistan is not to defeat the Taliban but merely to stall its momentum so that negotiations can take place. The position of Obama and his advisers is, in my opinion, wrong, since talks with the Taliban -- and with their sponsors in Pakistan's military and intelligence service, the ISI -- could begin now. Still, it's clear to me that Obama does not subscribe to McChrystal's long war policy. Thus, the 2011 end date.

As the Times piece points out:

Just two weeks before General McChrystal warned of failure at the end of August, Mr. Obama described Afghanistan as a "war of necessity." When he announced his new strategy last week, those words were nowhere to be found. Instead, while recommitting to the war on Al Qaeda, he made clear that the larger struggle for Afghanistan had to be balanced against the cost in blood and treasure and brought to an end.

The Post adds:

On Oct. 9, after awaking to the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama listened to McChrystal's presentation. The "mission" slide included the same words: "Defeat the Taliban." But a red box had been added beside it saying that the mission was being redefined, Jones said. Another participant recalled that the word "degrade" had been proposed to replace "defeat." ...

Said a senior White House adviser who took extensive notes of the meeting: "The big moment when the mission became a narrower one was when we realized we're not going to kill every last member of the Taliban."

The Times notes that McChyrstal's insubordinate political comments, including during a speech in London in which he said that Vice President Biden's less ambitious strategy would fail, provoked enormous anger in the White House, adding:

The furor rattled General McChrystal, who, unlike General Petraeus, was not a savvy Washington operator. And it stunned others in the military, who were at first "bewildered by how over the top the reaction was from the White House," as one military official put it.

It also proved to be what one review participant called a "head-snapping" moment of revelation for the military. The president, they suddenly realized, was not simply updating his previous strategy but essentially starting over from scratch.

In the course of the discussion, Obama told his aides: "This is America's war. But I don't want to make an open-ended commitment." The Times notes that McChrystal was shocked and stunned by the memo from US Ambassador Eikenberry in Kabul that played down the need for more troops, signalling an important division within the deliberations:

The cable stunned some in the military. The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official, was "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" -- military slang for an expression of shock. Among the officers caught off guard were General McChrystal and his staff, for whom the cable was "a complete surprise," said another official, even though the commander and the ambassador meet three times a week.

Throughout the discussion, Obama was conscious of the Vietnam analogies, and he directed his speech writer, Ben Rhodes, specifically to prepare a rebuttal to charges that Obama was repeating LBJ's blunders. At every turn, Obama was committed to a timetable that starts an exit, though he seems to have deferred to objections from Gates by building in the idea that the post-July, 2011, withdrawal would be conditions-based:

On ... Sunday, Nov. 29, he summoned his national security team to the Oval Office. He had made his decision. He would send 30,000 troops as quickly as possible, then begin the withdrawal in July 2011. In deference to Mr. Gates's concerns, the pace and endpoint of the withdrawal would be determined by conditions at the time.

"I'm not asking you to change what you believe," the president told his advisers. "But if you do not agree with me, say so now." There was a pause and no one said anything.

"Tell me now," he repeated.

Mr. Biden asked only if this constituted a presidential order. Mr. Gates and others signaled agreement

"Fully support, sir," Admiral Mullen said.

"Ditto," General Petraeus said.

Is there flexibility in the idea that the 2011 date might be postponed after the next review, in December, 2010? Obama says no:

Mr. Obama then went to the Situation Room to call General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The president made it clear that in the next assessment in December 2010 he would not contemplate more troops. "It will only be about the flexibility in how we draw down, not if we draw down," he said.

In spinning the decision, on yesterday's talk shows, Gates, Clinton, and Jones were fuzzy, of course, about the meaning of the 2011 deadline. Jones called it a "ramp," not a "cliff," meaning that the withdrawal would be gradual. Gates, in particular, seemed to relish emphasizing that the withdrawal could be, well, one soldier, as reported today in the Times:

"There isn't a deadline," Mr. Gates said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "What we have is a specific date on which we will begin transferring responsibility for security district by district, province by province in Afghanistan, to the Afghans."

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Gates said that under the plan, 100,000 American troops would be in Afghanistan in July 2011, and "some handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time."

Gates, Jones, and Clinton, who appeared on many of the Sunday talk shows, were speaking in part to calm the objections from the US military, from Republicans, and from some officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But none of them said that the 2011 date is meaningless.

In coming weeks and months, whetever the news from the battlefield -- and all of the new US forces won't even be in place completely until late summer or fall of 2010 -- those opposed to the escalation of the war will have to rally around the 2011 date. For better or worse, that's the touchstone now, for US Afghan policy. To say that it is "conditions-based" is ridiculous. What does that mean? As in Iraq, proponents of escalation will make the weirdly paradoxical case that if the situation is good in 2011, we can't withdraw, since the relative stability hinges on the US presence, while if the situation is still violent and out of control, we can't withdraw, either, since US forces are needed to stabilize things!

One added item regarding Pakistan. Astonishingly, even at the highest levels of the US government, it isn't known whether Pakistan's military and the ISI are friends or enemies. From the Times piece:

Many of the intelligence reports ordered by the White House during the review dealt with Pakistan's stability and whether its military and intelligence services were now committed to the fight or secretly still supporting Taliban factions.

Ultimately, of course, Obama's decision is based on faulty assumptions, however cerebral Obama's mind is. He's made a huge mistake. Perhaps Frank Rich put it best, addressing the troubling nature of Obama's escalation:

Obama's speech struck me as the sincere product of serious deliberations, an earnest attempt to apply his formidable intelligence to one of the most daunting Rubik's Cubes of foreign policy America has ever known. But some circles of hell can't be squared. What he's ended up with is a too-clever-by-half pushmi-pullyu holding action that lacks both a credible exit strategy and the commitment of its two most essential partners, a legitimate Afghan government and the American people. Obama's failure illuminated the limits of even his great powers of reason.

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