News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
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.
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."
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.
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.
QUESTION Sen. McCain?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
It's time to fire Robert Gates.
True, it was Obama who made the decision to escalate the war. And by all accounts, the president was comfortable with the decision he made, having spent two years defending the idea that the United States should intensify its commitment to the "right war." At the same time, however, Obama was under enormous pressure from the military, from Gates, and from other hawks to acquiesce to General Stanley McChrystal's call for 40,000 troops. For those who oppose the war in Afghanistan, firing the president isn't an option. But firing Gates is. Over the course of the next few months, and up to 2011, the battle for Obama's mind on Afghanistan will be waged on a number of fronts. Doves will have to work hard to guarantee that Obama seeks a political settlement, negotiations with the insurgents (including the odious Taliban). They will have to work hard to persuade the president not to go down the path of escalating the war still further into Pakistan. And they will have to work hard to convince Obama not to swallow hole the ubiqitous counterinsurgency (COIN) doctine that McChrystal and Co. advocate. All of that starts with Gates, and getting rid of Gates can be a crucial marker in that fight.
When he was selected, many analysts -- including me -- were dismayed by the choice. Not only was Gates a hawkish Republican with a checkered record, including well-documented manipulation of intelligence about the Soviet Union during his CIA career in the 1980s, but by choosing a Republican Obama was giving in to the canard that Democrats are weak on national security and defense. By selecting Gates, Obama was saying, in effect, "I need a conservative Republican to be my interlocutor with the generals."
At the time of his selection, it was rumored that Gates would serve only a year or so, as a kind of transitional figure. But Gates is a wily, bureaucratic infighter, and he knows the game. No doubt he wants to stay on.
To be sure, Gates is not a neoconservative. He has long advocated the realist-centrist view of Iran, he supports negotiations with Tehran, and he was a member of the realist-centrist Iraq Study Group convened by James Baker and Lee Hamilton in early 2006. (That body, you'll recall, called for a year-long drawdown of US forces in Iraq and for talks with Iran to support it.) But Gates is a hawk on Afghanistan, and his recent role in the Afghan policy review has been pernicious at best.
In fact, it was Gates who engineered the rise of General McChrystal. Gates, sources say, was the moving force behind the dismissal of the plodding but competent US commander in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, last spring, replacing him with McChrystal, the chief advocate of a nation-building, long war COIN program in the military, along with General David Petraeus, the Centcom commander. Though Obama signed off on the appointment of McChrystal, the president was only dimly aware of the politics of the choice, including McChrystal's intended strategic shift in Afghan policy.
As an important story in the Wall Street Journal pointed out this week, Gates is the key architect of the escalation strategy. He was, the Journal notes, "focused on Afghanistan for decades":
"During a stint as the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s, Mr. Gates helped oversee the covert U.S. effort to funnel weaponry and money to the Islamic militants battling the former Soviet Union."
The story adds:
"When Mr. Obama began weighing whether to retain Mr. Gates, the defense chief's belief that the U.S. should send more troops to Afghanistan was a key factor in the president's decision to keep him at the Pentagon, administration officials say."
"Mr. Gates began putting his personal stamp on the Afghan war in May, when he unexpectedly ousted the top U.S. commander there, Gen. David McKiernan, and replaced him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. At the same time, Mr. Gates helped shift the overall U.S. mission in Afghanistan to counterinsurgency, which focuses on protecting local civilians from militant intimidation instead of hunting down insurgents.
"When the administration began reviewing its Afghan policy this fall, Mr. Gates flew to a Belgian airbase for a secret meeting with Gen. McChrystal, who told him he needed roughly 40,000 troops to reverse the Taliban's momentum."
And it concludes:
"'Everyone talks about Afghanistan is Obama's war, but it's really Gates's war now in a way that it never was before,' said a military official with recent experience in Afghanistan who is supportive of Mr. Gates's strategy. 'Gates has the commander he wants, the troops he wants, and the strategy he wants. He'll get a lot of credit if we win, and a lot of the blame if we don't.'"
By calling for Gates' ouster, I'm not letting Obama off the hook . But for progressive Democrats, and for members of Congress opposed to Obama's decision, getting rid of Gates is a crucial pressure point that can help ensure that the 2011 timetable for starting to pull US forces out of the war stands firm.
According to the Los Angeles Times, which published the first full account of the decision-making process leading up to Obama's West Point speech, Gates resisted the setting of the 2011 timetable, whose idea came from Obama himself. Reports the Times:
"The date was first discussed as part of internal planning. The idea of sending a public signal to enemies and allies alike that the U.S. was already planning a pullout was of particular concern to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, a key member of the war council."
The article adds that Gates weighed in constantly in opposition to the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawal:
"Gates had doubts about announcing the date for starting withdrawals. In the past, he had been opposed to such public deadlines.
"Several times during the strategy review, Gates had spoken with administration officials about the 1989 decision to halt U.S. aid to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew, and about the long-term damage it did to American standing in the region. He did not want the Afghans or Pakistanis to feel that they were being abandoned for a second time."
Gates' role is being defended by various conservative and neoconservative players, who've been chortling with joy over Obama's decision to escalate the war, even as they denounce the idea of 2011 pullout date. Consider the following from Stephen Hayes, the rght-wing analyst who wrote a fawning, authorized biography of Vice President Cheney, and who scribbles for the execrable Weekly Standard:
"White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seems to have a real problem with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Either that or Gibbs is so dim that he doesn't realize that when he misrepresents Afghanistan troop requests at the end of the Bush administration he's trashing Gates -- President Obama's top defense policymaker.
"On Tuesday night, President Obama made the following claim: 'Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. That's why, shortly after taking office, I approved a long-standing request for more troops.'
"At the White House briefing yesterday, ABC's Jake Tapper pressed Robert Gibbs about the claim and asked him to specify when such requests took place.
"Gibbs: 'Again, what President Obama was talking about were additional resource requests that came in during 2008, which we've discussed in here.'
"Robert Gates was Defense Secretary in 2008. Barack Obama kept him in that job and, according to numerous accounts of his decision to sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, relied heavily on advice from Gates in coming up with his new strategy. So is Gates to blame for these resource requests that did not arrive?
"Gibbs is right about one thing. Those requests from 2008 had been discussed at the briefings before. What he failed to mention is that he was wrong back then, too. A Pentagon official close to Gates, speaking of the White House claims, told The Weekly Standard, 'on the facts, they're wrong.'"
It's time for Gates to go. Perhaps Hayes might write a glowing biography of Gates, too.
Is he lying to us? When President Obama talks about withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan in July, 2011, does he mean it? Or is that a clever ruse in order to blunt criticism from the left, and from congressional Democrats, of his decision to escalate the war?
Personally, I'm willing to take him at his word. Why? Because Obama is doing in Afghanistan exactly what he said he'd do during the campaign, after his election, and after taking office. And I don't think he's doing it primarily for political reasons, either. Having had lengthy discussions with many, perhaps most, of Obama's advisers on Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past two years, it's clear to me that those adivsers believe passionately that vital US interests are at stake in that conflict. It's no surprise that they've convinced Obama, too.
That's not to say that Obama, before last night's speech, wasn't under intense political pressure to jack up the war. The generals, especially David Petraeus, the Centcom commander, and Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, made no bones about what they wanted, and it was clear that Petraeus and McChrystal weren't shy about making common cause with the Republicans and the neoconservatives. And plenty of hawkish Democrats, including the ever-reliable Representative Ike Skelton, felt the same way. It's tempting to argue that Obama could have faced all of them down had he decided to draw down US forces, but that he lacked the political courage. After reviewing all of the evidence, I don't agree that the president was acting out of a lack of courage. I think that his decision to surge US forces in Afghanistan reflects a mature, considered decision on his part to do what he thinks is the right thing. (Unfortunately, it's wrong.)
Like many others, I hoped that those in the administration, such as Vice President Biden, who wanted to de-escalate the war, would prevail. That's not to say that what Biden reportedly proposed, a limited focus on counterterrorism with a smaller US footprint, was the best option. (I've outlined, at some length, my own views on Afghanistan, including for The Nation, in a recent piece called "How to Get Out." I don't think Obama read it.) But at least what Biden allegedly argued is better than what Obama decided. Still, the point is, unless you've been blinded by the celebrity glare that has surrounded Obama since he burst onto the scene, there's no excuse for being surprised at what he decided. He told us what he thinks many times, he told us what he'd do, and then he did it.
Which brings me to the 2011 issue.
It's easy to be cynical about that date. It's conditions-based, the administration says, meaning that the precise nature of the US drawdown in Afghanistan, how fast it might occur, and when it starts exactly are going to be based on many factors: the situation on the ground, the state of the insurgency, the strength of the Afghan army, the role of Pakistan, and many others. Still, for the first time -- and it's not nothing -- the United States has set a sell-by date for its Afghan policy. Obama has declared that the US effort in Afghanistan must show clear signs of success by 2011, or else it's time to pick up the ball and go home. At the same time, if by some miracle the success that the president says he seeks in Afghanistan is achieved by then, as unlikely as that seems, well, then it's time to declare victory and go home, too. So write down that date: July, 2011, and let's hold the president to it. By then, for certain, politics will be a major factor, since Obama will be facing reelection. (And, very possibly, running against General Petraeus.)
So Obama wasn't lying to us in 2008, when he called the war in Afghanistan the "right war." He wasn't lying to us in March, 2009, when he sent the first reinforcements. And he wasn't lying in August, 2009, when he said that the war in Afghanistan was, in his view, a vital national security concern. (Despite the fact that Al Qaeda is a shattered, mostly harmless group now and despite the fact that the Taliban, still supported by our ally, Pakistan, hasn't shown any inclination to attack the United States.) If he wasn't lying then, why should we be cynical about his July, 2011, date?
To be sure, July, 2011, is supposed to be the start date, not the end date, for withdrawing US forces. At the time, we'll be well along toward withdrawing the remaining US forces in Iraq, too, scheduled to be cleared out by December, 2011. But I believe Obama when he says that he wants to end the war in Afghanistan, and I believe that ultimately he'd like to have virtually all US forces out of both Iraq and Afghanistan before the 2012 elections, so he can run for reelection as the president who ended both of the wars he inherited.
It's easy to enumerate the obstacles. And Obama, who's not exactly experienced in the politics and policy of south and central Asia -- he's a community organizer from Chicago, and a state legislator who didn't even complete his only term in the US Senate, remember -- may not understand all of the underlying difficulties. The success that he'd like to achieve is, very likely, not doable. But setting a schedule nineteen months down the road, in July, 2011, means that the president has plenty of time to organize a diplomatic and political strategy for the war that is aimed at enlisting Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and China to pitch in on a deal that would rebalance the Afghan government, bring in the alienated Pashtuns, talk to the Taliban, or most of it, and start getting out. Of course, there's no reason he couldn't start doing that now, while drawing down US forces right away, but that's not what he's doing.
It goes too far to say that the president has done what critics such as Senator Russ Feingold and Representative Jim McGovern have called for, which is to set a flexible timetable for a withdrawal. Both of them, and many others -- including me -- argue that the time for that is now, not a year and half after an expensive and bloody surge. But it is what it is,and we shouldn't be surprised.
It's utterly wrong to look at what Obama has decided and call him Bush. He's not Bush. He, and his team, aren't supporters of global, military hegemony by the United States, nor does Obama accept the neoconservative doctine of a global war against political Islam in all its forms, from Iran's regime and the Taliban to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rest. Obama understands that it's a multi-polar world, in which the United States is still the biggest player in the military and security arena. But he's no progressive. As I argued in The Nation back in July, 2008:
Obama seems likely to preside over a restoration of the bipartisan consensus that governed foreign policy during the cold war and the 1990s, updated for a post-9/11 world. That conclusion arises from an in-depth examination of the Illinois senator's views as well as dozens of interviews with foreign policy experts, including lengthy exchanges with the core group of Obama's foreign policy team and other participants in his task forces on the military, Iraq and the Middle East. It's also based on a careful review of speeches and position papers, Obama's 2007 article in Foreign Affairs and a key chapter, "The World Beyond Our Borders," in his book The Audacity of Hope. All this suggests there is a gap between Obama's inspirational speeches and the actual policies he supports. "So far, what you're seeing is rhetoric that we can make bold changes in our foreign policy," says John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. "But when he lays out specifics, it's not as transformational as the rhetoric." Will Marshall, director of the right-leaning Progressive Policy Institute of the Democratic Leadership Council, agrees. "On most of the details, he's aligned with the general Democratic consensus," Marshall says. Says Tom Hayden, the veteran activist and former California state senator, "At best, he will be a gradualist."
Even as he pledges to end the war in Iraq, Obama promises to increase Pentagon spending, boost the size of the Army and Marines, bolster the Special Forces, expand intelligence agencies and maintain the hundreds of US military bases that dot the globe. He supports a muscular multilateralism that includes NATO expansion, and according to the Times of London, his advisers are pushing him to ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on in an Obama administration. Though he is against the idea of the United States imposing democracy abroad, Obama does propose a sweeping nation-building and democracy-promotion program, including strengthening the controversial National Endowment for Democracy and constructing a civil-military apparatus that would deploy to rescue and rebuild failed and failing states in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
So, no surprises. It's foolish to believe that liberal Democrats in Congress can sway the president's course in Afghanistan. They'll be swamped by the emerging coalition between the GOP and hawkish and centrist Democrats, who will happily fund the war. As Katrina vanden Heuvel has written, the climb toward a new, more progressive US foreign policy is a steep one.