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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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Looking Past Karzai

Is the White House thinking about getting out of Afghanistan?

Just as Hamlet's mother and his murderous uncle rushed to marry with unseemly haste, even before his slain father's body was cold, the United States is hastily pretending that the Afghan election is over and done with. It was, President Obama admits, "messy." Now it's time to look ahead, and to deal with the reelected President Karzai, warts and all, they say.

But the United States, and the world community, is going to have to look past Karzai.

Here, to start with, is a partial transcript of an exchange between George Stephanopoulos of ABC's This Week and Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's top political advisers, in which Jarrett talks about bringing the war "to a close":

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. Let's talk about Afghanistan for a second. We see today the opposition candidate to President Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, has said he's not going to run in the run-off. Is this a welcome development or is the White House worried the questions about this election will cast a cloud over President Karzai and make it more difficult for the president to implement his strategy?

JARRETT: We don't think that it's going to add a complication to the strategy. It's up to the Afghan people and their authorities to decide how to proceed going forward. We watched the election very carefully. And we're going to work with the leader of the Afghan government and hopefully that's going to improve the state of conditions for the people in Afghanistan, and also help us as we try to bring this war to a close.

Let's hope that Jarrett is reflecting inside-the-White-House discussions that center not on escalating the war, a la General McChrystal and his COIN cult, but on ending it. If so, and in that limited sense, Karzai might be one piece of the puzzle. But as I wrote in my Nation piece last week, "How to Get Out," any solution for Afghanistan will require a wholesale effort to remake the Afghan political compact to include lots more Pashtuns, the Taliban, and many other insurgents. I wrote:

"Then comes the tricky part: 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."

Karzai, who referred to his "brothers" in the Taliban during his vitctory speech this week, probably understands that the Taliban has to be included. But Karzai seems unwilling to give up the privileges and power (including the power to rake in corrupt profits) that go along with being Afghanistan's president.

The Washington Post provides a blow-by-blow account of efforts by Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, to divide up the spoils in the wake of the election. Reading that piece, it seems unlikely that Karzai can be the vehicle for any real change.

The London Times reports that Obama has given Karzai a six-month deadline, after which the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan. Here's the money quote, from an Afghan official close to Karzai:

"If he doesn't meet the conditions within six months, Obama has told him America will pull out. Obama said they don't want their soldiers' lives wasted for nothing. They want changes in Cabinet, and changes in his personal staff."

As Jarrett hinted (if, indeed, that is what she meant), the Karzai crisis is the key to unlock the Afghan exit door. Politically, it gives Obama the excuse he needs to pack up and leave.

Iran Split on Nukes

One thing I heard over and over again during my visit to Tehran in June was that the two sides in Iran's political divide were intent on sabotaging any US-Iran deal concluded by the other side. If President Ahmadinejad moves toward an agreement with the West over Iran's nuclear program, anaylsts told me, the centrist-reformist opposition would denounce it and work to unravel it. On the other hand, if former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi won the election, reformists told me, he would move toward exactly such a deal -- and the right-wing, including Ahmadinejad, would howl and oppose it.

Well, Ahmadinejad won, Mousavi lost -- at least, that's how the story goes -- and voila! the prediction has come true. Ahmadinejad wants a deal, and Mousavi is trying to wreck it.

Yesterday, on his web site, Mousavi issued a militant criticism of Ahmadinejad's diplomacy. Mousavi bitterly denounced the plan, supported by Ahmadinejad, to ship the bulk of Iran's enriched uranium to Russia and France for use in fabricating fuel for a medical-use reactor. That accord, announced October 1, in the first US-Iran talks in thirty years, was widely seen as a breakthrough. But Mousavi is having none of it. He said:

"The discussions in Geneva were really surprising and if the promises given (to the West) are realised then the hard work of thousands of scientists would be ruined."

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad is sounding like a dove:

"As long as this government is in power, it will not retreat one iota on the undeniable rights of the Iranian nation. Fortunately, the conditions for international nuclear cooperation have been met. We are currently moving in the right direction and we have no fear of legal cooperation, under which all of Iran's national rights will be preserved, and we will continue our work."

Still, Iranian officials told the US and the P5 + 1 that it is having second thoughts about the agreement. According to various media accounts, Iran's negotiators have said that they will not ship out the bulk of the enriched uranium -- instead, they will dispatch batches of fuel, piecemeal, as they refine additional uranium. Under such a plan, Iran will retain a stockpile of low-enriched uranium that is enough, analysts say, to manufacture a single bomb. (That, of course, would require Iran to further enrich its low-enriched uranium to weapons grade, a very time-consuming and laborious process.)

In many ways, it isn't surprising the Mousavi would emerge as a staunch defender of Iran's nuclear program. In the early 1980s, it was Mousavi and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, his current backer and ally, who teamed to oppose a decision by then-Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to end the nuclear program that began under the Shah. But Mousavi's opposition to Ahmadinejad's deal is pure political opportunism. He is using the nuclear issue as part of his all-out war against Ahmadinejad's rule. It is just one example of the radioactive nature of nuclear politics in Iran -- and it reveals why the talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 will be difficult and complex.

That's precisely why bluster, threats and sanctions are a bad idea. The talks are going to take a long time. In the end, they may or may not succeed. Stripped of the political back-and-forth, the fact of the matter is that nearly all sides in Iran would like a deal that protects Iran's basic right to enrich uranium, for peaceful purposes, under appropriate international supervision. But they will fight like cats and dogs over who gets the credit for it. The centrists and the reformists -- i.e., Rafsanjani and Mousavi -- do not want Ahmadinejad to gain international legitimacy by striking a breakthrough deal with the West.

Hillary Clinton, speaking to CNN from Pakistan, sensibly sounded less than alarmist about Iran's back-pedaling, even as various hawks condemned Iran's maneuvering. Said Clinton:

"We are working with the IAEA (the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency), with France, Russia ... who are all united and showing resolve in responding to the Iranian response and seeking clarification. So I'm going to let this process play out."

Still, the question must be asked, What exactly does she mean by "let this process play out." Clinton, among the more hawkish players in the administration on Iran, may well have concluded that as soon as the talks run into a roadblock, it will be time to seek tougher new sanctions on Iran -- including a gasoline and refined petroleum products embargo. Other harsh sanctions are being prepared, and knee-jerk hawks in Congress are reading legislation.

J Street, Obama, and Israel

I spent yesterday afternoon at the J Street conference, the meeting of the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobbying group that was founded last year. (A piece that I'd written on J Street and AIPAC appeared in Mother Jones in August.)

The conference was very well attended, with something like 1,500 people taking part. Many of them were liberal, mainstream Jewish activists who would appear to be J Street's real target audience. The J Street philosophy is that there is a kind of "silent majority" of US Jews who aren't happy with Israel's expansionist polices and intransigence, and who don't believe they're represented properly by right-leaning groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Milling around, I spoke to a number of those in attendance. A couple of rabbis, from Massachusetts and California, said that the conference was an opportunity to meet with like-minded, liberal, pro-peace Jews. "When I stand up in my pulpit, with any kind of criticism of Israel, over settlements, Gaza, to say anything other than, 'Go, bomb them when you want,' it's considered anti-Israel," saud Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater from Pasadena. "So it's thrilling to be here, to say, 'We love Israel, we believe in Israel's security, but the status quo isn't acceptable."

That about sums up J Street's message. But it isn't enough to get even grudging support from Israel itself. Michael Oren, the American who serves as Israel's ambassador to the United States, rebuffed a J Street invite to attend or speak, saying that he was upset about "certain policies that caused concerns, aroused concerns," telling the Jerusalem Post: "I conveyed these concerns to J Street," but adding that his concerns were not "sufficiently allayed."

The highlight of the conference was an address by General James Jones, the US national security adviser, who pledged that the Obama administration will take part in future J Street events as well. "You can be sure this administration will be represented at all future conferences," said Jones. In his speech, Jones pronounced the standard boilerplate about the unbreakable bond between Israel and the US, but for the most part the liberal audience sat on its hands, erupting into applause instead when Jones spoke forcefully about the crisis in Gaza and about the importance of creating a "contiguous," viable, independent Palestinian state. Jones also said that if he could tell President Obama to solve any single one of the world's many problems, "This would be it." (Of course, Jones can tell that to Obama.) The Israel-Palestine conflict affects many, many other problems around the world. "This," he stressed, "is the epicenter."

Many pro-Israeli hardliners don't like hearing talk like that, since they reject the idea that solving the Israel-Palestine conflict would have what Jones called "ripples." But most diplomats consider it a no-brainer that getting Israel to accept a Palestinian state would make Obama's stated goal of rebuilding relations with the Muslim world a lot easier.

On the sidelines of the conference, I interviewed Ami Ayalon, a former director of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency, who told me that Obama made a mistake in going to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey so far to talk about peace -- but not to Israel. He said:

"Obama made a mistake by not coming to Israel. In Israel, Obama is not considered a friend, in the eyes of the Israelis. If you do not come to talk to us, people ask why. If you do come, tell us everything! Tell us things we do not want to hear. But say it in Jerusalem. And, go to Ramallah! But don't do it from Washington."

This is a point of view often heard from moderate Israelis and some J Street types: that, by going to Israel, Obama can reassure the security fears of ordinary Israelis who feel like Obama might abandon them. I'm not sure. There is a time when Obama certainly ought to go to Israel, and maybe a high profile trip there could be useful, at some point. But I'm not convinced it would have any real effect. Still, it's true that many fearful Israeli voters are flocking to far-right politicians precisely because they are panicked about the loss of American support. It may be that the threat of reduced American support for Israel, coupled with the announcement of a tough-minded US plan for a solution (borders, Jerusalem, right of return) is what's needed now. Earlier, right-wing Israeli governments have fallen apart or been voted out when faced with a possible deterioration of US-Israel relations.

For J Street, that is a key unanswered question: Will J Street support the White House if it decides to turn the screws on Israel, to pressure the Israeli government by threatening reduced US support for Israel's military, and so on? I wonder. At yesterday's J Street event, Representative Wexler, an outspoken Jewish-Zionist member of Congress who is close to Obama, litertally shouted into the microphone (while introducing Jones) about the presence of 1,300 US troops who've just arrived in Israel to take part in a huge military exercise having to do with anti-missile defense systems. They will be there, he shouted, for the "indefinite future."

In the end, a final deal between Israel and Palestine will indeed require US security guarantees for Israel. Nearly everyone agrees on that. But to get from here to there, it might be necessary to remind the Israelis that US support is not open-ended or infinite as long as Israel maintains its implacable hostility to a viable Palestinian state.

The Iraqi Time Bomb

More and more, it seems that the Obama administration has utterly forgotten about Iraq. With its laser-like focus on Afghanistan and its diplomacy with Iran, it's rare that Iraq gets any attention. (That's true, too, even in The Dreyfuss Report.) A whole team of State Department and NSC staff is mobilized on the Iran issue, Afghanistan and Pakistan have their special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, and even the Sisyphus-like effort to deal with the Palestine-Israel problem has its own special envoy, George Mitchell. But Iraq is an orphan. At times, it's like the White House has put Iraq in a box called "George Bush's blunders," and it doesn't plan on looking into the box. There's no go-to person in the Obama administration for Iraq. Ambassador Christopher Hill, who's relatively new on the job, isn't an Arabist or an Iraqi specialist, and he's taking -- perhaps appropriately -- a hands-off attitude toward the swirl of Iraqi politics.

But the devastating attacks in Baghdad -- twin car bombs that killed more than 150 people and wrecked the Iraqi Ministry of Justice and the provincial council complex -- are a sign that Iraq is still simmering. The bombings were very similiar to the August 19 attacks that destroyed the Iraqi foreign ministry and finance ministry. Then, as now, the bombers struck at the very heart of the Iraqi government.

In January, Iraq will hold elections to determine whether Prime Minister Maliki remains in power. The parliamentary elections have spurred numerous Iraqi factions to maneuver in advance of the vote -- and most of those factions have armed wings, paramilitary forces and, in the case of the Kurds, whole national armies at their disposal. So far, despite the urgency of the problem, the current Iraqi parliament bas been unable to devise a formula for holding those elections and to pass a law governing them, though there are reports today that a compromise deal has been reached.

The main players in the election drama, so far, are Prime Minister Maliki, a religious Shiite politician from the fundamentalist Islamic Dawa party who's planning to run as a born-again Iraqi nationalist under his State of Law party banner; a broad coalition of Shiite religious parties, backed by Iran, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc; a secular, centrist bloc organized around former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his Iraqiyya party, which has support from ex-Baathists, nationalist Sunnis, and many secular, nationalist Shiites, too; and, of course, the Kurds, who control their independence-minded fiefdom in three northern provinces of Iraq.

There is also an amorphous group of dissident Sunnis, including some of the Awakening (sahwa) movement, some parties based in provinces such as Anbar and Ninewa (Mosul), and various Sunni religious parties and individuals, some of which may opt to run as a formal coalition. A new formation, the Unity of Iraq Alliance, which includes some Sunnis and some important Shiites, is emerging, too.

The best continuing analyses of Iraqi politics is the blog by Reidar Visser, a Norwegian political scientist who is a long-time observer of Iraqi affairs. (If you're interested in the details of the various Iraqi coalitions, take a gander at Visser's take on the Iran-backed, Shiite religious Iraqi National Alliance, Maliki's State of Law bloc, and the multu-ethnic, cross-sectarian coalition called the Unity of Iraq Alliance.)

The perpetrators of the huge bomb attacks are unknown. Not unexpectedly, every Iraqi faction is blaming its enemies. Maliki is blaming Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Baathists, but at the very least the attacks have severely hurt Maliki's main cliam to leadership, namely, that he's kept Iraq safe. Many Sunnis are blaming Iran, charging that Iran's intelligence service is orchestrating the Baghdad attacks in order to force Maliki to abandon his independent electoral stance and sign on to the Shiite bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance. And, indirectly speaking for the Shiite bloc, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran has blamed "foreign agents" for the attacks:

"The bloody actions being committed in some Islamic countries, including Iraq, Pakistan and in some parts of the country (Iran), are aimed at creating division between the Shiites and Sunnis.... Those who carry out these terrorist actions are directly or indirectly foreign agents."

Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the bombings, but such claims have to be taken with a grain of salt.

The basic fact remains that, as US forces draw down, Iraq is perched on the brink of renewed civil war. One flashpoint is Kirkuk and other areas of Iraq claimed by the Kurds. Many Sunnis are increasingly resentful of Maliki's arrogance, his refusal to accommodate Sunni demands, and his fealty to Iran. And various Shiite militias, including the Sadr's Mahdi Army and the ISCI Badr Brigades, are likely to support their electoral efforts with armed might. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Obama's Afghan Compromise?

With 14 more dead Americans today, in three helicopter crashes, it's beginning to look like President Obama will, after all, opt for a significant escalation of the war -- at least, according to the Wall Street Journal. On Saturday, the paper reported the first substantial leak about the president's plans after the weeks-long policy review:

"The Obama administration is moving toward a hybrid strategy in Afghanistan that would combine elements of both the troop-heavy approach sought by its top military commander and a narrower option backed by Vice President Joe Biden, a decision that could pave the way for thousands of new U.S. forces.

"The emerging strategy would largely rebuff proposals to maintain current troop levels and rely on unmanned drone attacks and elite special-operations troops to hunt individual militants, an idea championed by Mr. Biden. It is opposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, and other military officials.

"One scenario under consideration, according to an official familiar with the deliberations, calls for deploying 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. reinforcements primarily to ramp up the training of the Afghan security forces. But Gen. McChrystal's request for 40,000 troops also remains on the table.

"People familiar with the internal debates say Mr. Obama rejected a strictly counter-terror approach during White House deliberations in early October. One official said Pentagon strategists were asked to draft brief written arguments making the best case for each strategy, but the strategists had difficulties writing out a credible case for the counter-terror approach -- prompting members of Mr. Biden's staff to step in and write the document themselves.

"Signs the White House is moving towards Gen. McChrystal's view of the conflict mounted Friday as the 28 North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers endorsed the commander's counterinsurgency strategy and signaled they might be open to modestly increasing their military and civilian contributions to the war effort."

If this is true, there's a gloomy way to assess it, namely, that Obama is intent on "winning" the war, whatever it takes, and that an increase of 10,000 to 20,000 US forces -- even if called "trainers" -- is just a downpayment. The more optimistic, or shall I say, charitable interpretation is that this is another "feint" by Obama, i.e., that the president understands that the war isn't winnable, and yet he's unwilling to suddenly reverse course and set a drawdown timetable. (Training Afghans is Senator Carl Levin's preferred solution, as hopeless as that task might be.) Christine Fair, the AfPak specialist, is willing to give the latter interpretation to what Obama might do. As she told me in a recent interview:

"I do think we need to keep the training mission. In fact, it's possible that we could even scale up our troops in order to get the hell out. Right now, the training mission is woefully understaffed. Only one in three spots are filled. So if you put troops in, and you put them on a training mission so that instead of a kinetic mission we build up those forces so we can get the hell out. And we need to put up a big tin pot, saying, ‘These troops can't support themselves.'"

Fair, an intelligent observer, is a strong opponent of the COIN (counterinsurgency) cult, and she ridicules those who conflate the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Here's a partial transcript of her comments, in our interview. It's worth reading in full:

Q. Do you have any idea of what Obama's going to do?

FAIR: "No, I think we are genuinely in a place of confusion about what our national interests are. And it doesn't help that there's this class of people who say that if we don't decisively defeat the Taliban, then Al Qaeda will come back. Or – my favorite is – if we let the Taliban come back, then Al Qaeda will come back. And of course that's a moronic view, because the Taliban never even left Afghanistan. The Taliban are back. They didn't leave. They consolidated their position, they expanded their position, and they've made new inroads into places that were previously secure.

"So we need to be asking a different question, which is not, ‘How do we defeat the Taliban?' Because that assumes that the Taliban are defeatable, given our national resources and – I don't know how to say this nicely, this be-caped, kleptocrat narco-trafficker president who got reelected through massive fraud as our partner in Kabul. So the question we should be asking is not, ‘How do we defeat the Taliban?' but, ‘How do we secure our interests vis-à-vis Al Qaeda in spite of the return of the Taliban?'

"And this return of the Taliban, I might add, was also facilitated by Karzai himself. I mean, I was there as an election monitor, and the news was absolutely rife with stories about deals that were made by Karzai whereby stuffed ballot boxes would be returned through [Taliban] territory without problems, while at the same time no individual would actually have to cast a vote, so the Taliban would not have egg on their faces for letting people vote! So Karzai actually facilitated deals with the Taliban to enable his electoral fraud. And in other cases, Taliban commanders contested the election at the provincial level, either directly or through proxies. They basically threatened any of the competition. So at the level of political engagement, the Taliban are already in the game.

"And there's another thing that drives me nuts, apart from conflating Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which seems to be the name of the game. And that's that the term ‘Taliban' has come to mean everything and nothing. Just because we can't deal with Mullah Omar doesn't mean that some commander in a narco-trafficking district in Helmand is not flippable because he's controlled by Mullah Omar. So what's needed is a real, honest debate about what's happened, what mistakes have we made, which ones are recoverable and which ones aren't?

"And that's another reason why this COIN approach won't work. Some mistakes that we made, we can't recover from. Like letting the Northern Alliance back in, these recuperated warlords that Afghans hated. Not only did we let them back in, we made them the outsourcers of our security problem. So that led to a number of problems. Because when the Pakistanis saw that the Northern Alliance were back, despite our promises that we wouldn't let the Northern Alliance take Kabul, the Pakistanis read that as giving the Indians the keys, because they were back, supplying the Northern Alliance, they had an air base in Tajikistan they were using to resupply the Northern Alliance, they had a military officer there to train the Northern Alliance. So when the Pakistanis view the Northern Alliance as an Indian proxy, it was for good reason: they were an Indian proxy! I actually met an Indian brigadier general who claimed that he trained the Northern Alliance from the base. A lot of this is out in the open domain, whereas the Indians used to deny it. And now that's out, the Indians say, ‘If it wasn't for us you wouldn't have the Northern Alliance to go into Afghanistan with.' And the Indians are very proud of their record with the Northern Alliance. And so that also explains why when the Northern Alliance came back, the Pakistanis very quickly reassessed what the Americans understood about what they were getting involved in, i.e., we didn't understand much. And that it wasn't in their interests to dump the Taliban. I think that's why, in very short order, the Pakistanis supported the United States at the strategic level while still very much maintaining their strategic engagement with the Taliban as well."

Q. If there's a way out of this, do we need to start with the Pakistanis, get them to bring the Taliban to the table? And maybe that means giving the Pakistanis and the Saudis some stuff that they want, because we need their cooperation?

FAIR: "That's one formulation of the problem. I have a somewhat different take. If you believe that the Taliban is our key national security concern, then what you say is right. I don't think they are our preeminent national security concern. The Taliban are a bunch of hillbillies. They are a parochial, territorial insurgency. Despite all of the hullaballoo, they don't really have an international agenda. These guys are focused on Afghanistan, period. Our concerns are Al Qaeda. And there are more Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, and there are more international terrorist groups operating in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. A vast majority of these international terrorist conspiracies that have been busted in Europe and the U.K., their footprints are in Pakistan. Obviously, Jaish-e Muhammad, Lashkar-e Taiba, the list goes on and on and on. These guys are all in Pakistan. And Pakistan has been using militant groups for six decades as part of their policy. …

"So I would argue that we've got this so completely bass-ackwards that it's almost comical! We've got these troops in Afghanistan, so we've got to placate Pakistan, cajole it, make it feel important, throw money at it, because we need Pakistan to support the logistics. So we have this narrative that says, to stabilize Afghanistan we need to get Pakistan's support. Stabilizing Afghanistan's not the goal. Quite the contrary. We need to be in a different place in Afghanistan so we can play hardball with the Pakistanis. So the idea is, we have to stabilize Afghanistan, so we need to get Pakistan and all these other clowns on board? That's not our objective. Our objective is to wrap up international terrorism, limit our exposure to it, and to preclude a nuclear exchange on the Indian subcontinent, and to preclude nuclear proliferation. And all of the return addresses for those problems are right there in Pakistan. And because of our position in Afghanistan, we are so adversely positioned to deal with Pakistan."

Q. So, what do you think we should do?

FAIR: "I think we should do what's currently being discussed, which is: realize we can't win the counterinsurgency, because it's not ours to win. Foreigners don't win at counterinsurgency, locals do. And locals are not going to win this, because this local government is just so sub-optimal! Bad government is worse than no government at all. We can keep building the Afghan army, the police – but they can't ever pay for it. They can't pay for their own election! How are they going to pay for an army?

"I think we should go ahead, keep throwing resources at training, try to set up some trust fund to pay for this when it stabilizes, but really get our troops out of kinetics. The more troops we have killing people, the harder it is. Everyone blames us for everything. When the Taliban kills civilians we get blamed, because without us there would be no insurgents. When we kill civilians, the Taliban of course exaggerates the numbers and says that we killed women and children going to the mosque, or whatever, whatever makes us look really bad. We get blamed for propping up this corrupt government. So I think we should be scaling back the COIN effort, recognizing that it's not winnable. … Rather than sending our men and women to their doom, we should be asking questions. What is the alternative to COIN? Take for granted that we're going to lose the COIN. How do we secure ourselves against Al Qaeda?"

Q. But is Al Qaeda such a big threat?

FAIR: "I'm with you. This has been a fake argument."

That Afghan Runoff Election

Don't expect any miracles after President Karzai's decision to accept a second round in the much-disputed Afghan elections. (The latest totals give Karzai 49.7 percent of the vote from the August election, just under the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Earlier, Karzai had claimed 54 percent of the vote.)

First of all, it's unlikely that a second round of elections will be much fairer, or better run, than the fraud-marred first round. Turnout, which was estimated to be about 30 percent in the August round, may fall further. In Pashtun areas, and in areas where the Taliban is strong, turnout was often 5 percent -- or less.

Second, the extreme international pressure on Karzai makes him seem puppet-like, in spite of his defiance. He was called or visited by virtually the entire US government, and British Prime Minister Brown called Karzai three times in three days. Senator Kerry, who traveled to Afghanistan, met repeatedly with Karzai. In deciding to go along with a second round of elections, perhaps Karzai was acceding to the inevitable. But to many Afghans, his decision will look like what it is: a humiliating capitulation to US-UK pressure and intimidation. That can hardly enhance Karzai's ability to present himself as a credible national leader.

Third, whatever the outcome, the road ahead is extremely difficult. Perhaps Karzai will be reelected, the most likely outcome. Perhaps Karzai and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, will strike a deal, either after the election -- to form a coalition of sorts -- or before it happens, thus making a second round unnecessary. But in either case, the resulting government in Kabul will still be seen by the armed opposition, including the Taliban and its allies, and by the majority of the ethnic Pashtuns as one-sided, representing the interests of the old Northern Alliance, and the ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities that dominate it.

The path to a passably stable Afghanistan will require a new Afghan national compact, one that results in a rebalanced, power-sharing agreement between the ruling powers in Kabul and the Pashtuns. That, in turn, will mean accommodating the Taliban, or most of it, and winning the support of the Taliban's backers in Pakistan.

President Karzai has repeatedly declared his willingess to negotiate a deal with the Taliban and to convene a tribal council for reconcilation among Afghanistan's factions. Once the election crisis is out of the way, it will be critical for the United States and world powers to support Karzai in that direction -- making it clear, at the same time, that Karzai may ultimately have to step aside to make it work. That's the political solution to the war, and it will have to be underwritten by Afghanistan's neighbors, especially Pakistan, India and Iran, who are all heavily invested in support of Afghanistan's factions. (Iran, for instance, has strongly backed Abdullah.)

Too often, the Obama administration seems to indicate that they see the emergence of a new Afghan government under Karzai as critical to the counterinsurgency (COIN) policy that the generals are addicted to. But that's a formula for a Thirty Years' War. A new Afghan government could indeed kick start a solution there, but only if it's focused on a diplomatic and political settlement, not an escalated war.

Who Is the "Taliban"?

David Rohde's series "Held by the Taliban," which began running in the New York Times on Sunday makes gripping reading. (You can read Part I here and Part II here.) But so far, at least, it seems that Rohde isn't clear on what the Taliban is. And his confusion is important, because one's view of the Taliban is critical for US policy going forward. If the Taliban is one and the same with Al Qaeda, religious fanatics dedicated to a global jihad against the West above all, with no willingness to compromise, then that's one thing. But if the Taliban is a compex social organism whose leaders are separate and distinct from Al Qaeda, and if it's possible to persuade some or most of the Taliban's leadership and commanders to sit down and talk, then that's something else.

At first, Rohde seems to imply that his view that the Taliban was not as militant and vicious as Al Qaeda was foolish:

"I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of 'Al Qaeda lite,' a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.

"Living side by side with the Haqqanis' followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world."

What exactly is Rohde getting at here? He says that he was wrong to believe that the Taliban was aimed at "controlling Afghanistan," then he notes that he is being held by "Haqqanis' followers" -- who are not the same as the Taliban, which is based in Quetta, Pakistan -- and then he mentions "hard-line Taliban," implying that there is a softer version.

Then Rohde muddies the picture even further. Later in Part I, he says:

"I saw the Haqqanis as a criminal gang masquerading as a pious religious movement. They described themselves as the true followers of Islam but displayed an astounding capacity for dishonesty and greed."

Wait a minute! Earlier he told us that the Taliban are religious fanatics who want to create a worldwide emirate of Islam -- and now the Haqqanis are portrayed as "masquerading" as pious. Which is it?

Still later, still in Part I, he says:

"I still did not know which Taliban faction had abducted us."

Okay, so the Taliban has "factions." To me, that means that some of it -- perhaps most of it? -- might be willing to negotiate, rather than slit the throats of all foreigners and less-than-pious Muslims.

Toward the end of Part I, Rohde adds:

"In my mind, Qari and Atiqullah [two of his captors] personified polar ends of the Taliban. Qari represented a paranoid, intractable force. Atiqullah embodied the more reasonable faction: people who would compromise on our release and, perhaps, even on peace in Afghanistan."

That makes sense, and it reinforces the idea of Taliban factions. So it seems that Rohde believes that some of the Taliban are amenable to the idea of a peace settlement.

Truth is, the Afghan insurgency is a volatile and highly complex phenomenon, involving three interlinked insurgent groups, the Taliban itself (based in Quetta and run by Mullah Omar and his council, or shura), the Haqqani group, and the Hizb-e Islami group of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.The three are partners of sorts, but they are different entities with their own ties to supporters, including links to the Pakistani ISI. Alongside them, and working with them, are various criminal gangs, drug organizations, timber and diamond smugglers, tribal chieftains and warlords, the shattered remnants of Al Qaeda, Uzbek militants, and more.

The counterinsurgency devotees in Washington and at Centcom want to peel away faction by faction, village by village, tribe by tribe, those who might opt to pledge fealty to the regime in Kabul. Even assuming that President Karzai's de-legitimized government could ever command the support of such rebels, getting them to go along would take many, many years of patient persuasion, bribes, and threats, along with years of heavy fighting to "clear, hold, and build" those areas.

Alternately, the United States, NATO, and (hopefully) a new Afghan government can seek a deal with the top- and mid-ranking Taliban leaders, in part by getting Pakistan's army and the ISI on board. That's the political solution that doesn't require General McChrystal's Thirty Years' War-style COIN approach.

McGovern: 'Need An Exit Strategy'

Earlier this month, for a forthcoming article in Rolling Stone about President Obama's Afghanistan policy, I interviewed Representative Jim McGovern (D.-Mass.), who's called on the White House to declare its "exit strategy." A majority of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives backed McGovern's call, and polls show that something like two-thirds or three-quarters of Democrats around the country believe that the war in Afghanistan isn't worth fighting.

As McGovern points out in the interview below, in Congress some Democrats are reluctant to challenge President Obama. But McGovern says: "The further we get sucked into this war, the harder it will be to get out of it."

Q. What do you think about General McChrystal's call for more US forces in Afghanistan?

MCGOVERN: "To me the issue is more than about sending troops. The question is, what is our policy? There's no clear mission. I offered an amendment to the defense authorization bill a few months ago that would have required the secretary of defense to submit to Congress his exit strategy for the military in Afghanistan. And we had 138 votes. Barack Obama said on 60 Minutes, we need an exit strategy. [Secretary of Defense] Gates has said, we need an exit strategy. What is so controversial about asking them to provide an exit strategy? I'm not looking for a date certain. But what they need to tell us is, at what point does the military contribution to the political solution end? And when do our troops come home?

"I don't know what the policy is. Is the policy to defeat all the Taliban and create a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan? Well, we just had an election, and President Karzai stuffed the ballot boxes. By all accounts, this was a mess of an election! And so, we're gonna put our confidence in this government? The government we are now supporting is corrupt, incompetent, and engaged in election fraud.

"We want this administration not to send 40,000 troops. And we want them to define policy. Right now the fight is over, do you go with McChrystal or do you go with [Vice President] Biden? I'd rather go with Biden than McChrystal, but the Biden solution has some problems, too. The further we get sucked into this war, the harder it will be to get out of it.

"I voted for the authorization to use force right after 9/11 to go after Al Qaeda. That authorization was very specific about going after Al Qaeda. It said nothing about what we're doing now. Al Qaeda's in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden moved to a different neighborhood. And in some ways it's a safer neighborhood, because the U.S. military can't do whatever it wants in Pakistan. So, OK, what are we doing? Help define it for us."

Q. McChrystal seems to be challening the president directly. He said in London that Biden's strategy is wrong.

MCGOVERN: "You can argue whether a lot of the statements and leaks that have come from the generals are appropriate. When you're having a policy review, this is kind of an odd way to do it, when you have generals speaking to the press left and right, and giving speeches left and right. Putting that aside, I go back to my question, what is the definition of our mission? What I'm looking for is some clarity. McChrystal says, it we get more troops, this conflict is winnable. What does winnable mean? Answer the question! At what point do you seeing this winding up? What are you trying to do? If we're trying to build a good government, I wouldn't trust Karzai to tell me the time of day."

Q. What's the overall feeling like on Capitol Hill?

MCGOVERN: "People are very concerned. Having said that, if you're a Democrat, the president of the United States is a Democrat. He's taking on issues, very courageously, like health care reform, and you want to be as supportive as you can be. And I think people are nervous, reluctant to be more forceful in their opposition to what McChrystal is saying, because they don't want to hurt the president. … There's this kind of anxiety about taking on a president that in every other area is doing an incredible job, so it's difficult to get up and challenge the president.

"On the other hand, if he asks for another 40,000 troops, I don't know where the votes are. We got 138 votes on our amendment, and I know that since that time a lot of people have come to me and said they wish they'd voted with me. So I think that number goes up. The majority of the Democratic caucus voted with me on that exit strategy amendment."

What's the next step, in your opinion?

MCGOVERN: "I got 57 people to sign on to an letter asking the president not send more troops to Afghanistan. And every day there are Republicans standing up on the House floor saying that every day that Obama doesn't send those 40,000 troops he is giving comfort to the enemy. We have to wait and see what happens, what the president decides. I hope he decides not to increase forces there."

Q. Senator Feingold has called for a "flexible timetable" for a US withdrawal.

MCGOVERN: "I think Russ Feingold is right on target. … There's no question that the Taliban are not good people. But the problem we face is, the Taliban are from there. This is not an outside force, like Al Qaeda, coming into Afghanistan. And not every one who calls themselves Taliban thinks the same way. But they do all agree about opposition to a foreign occupation. … [Al Qaeda] is in Pakistan now. By going down the road of larger and larger military occupation, not only is it counterproductive, but how do we sustain all this? We're already in debt up to our eyeballs. Does Afghanistan pose a national security threat to the United States?"

In his report, McChrystal himself admitted that the United States and its allies don't understand the social, cultural, and political conditions in Afghanistan.

MCGOVERN: "When he says that, it reminds me of Robert McNamara talking about Vietnam. He admits, in one of his books, that we didn't know Vietnam, we didn't understand the country, the geography, the sense of nationalism. … When someone admits that they don't know about the country they're going to occupy, it makes me very nervous."

"If the president decides not to go the route that General McChrystal is asking for, then we need to start talking what a flexible withdrawal would look like. I would not send people to war without a clearly defined mission, and a beginning, a middle, a transition, and an end. We do not have that in Afghanistan.

"What the hell is the objective? Tell me how this has a happy ending. Tell me how we win this. How do we measure success? What are the benchmarks? I voted against the supplemental bill on Afghanistan because there was a whole lot of money in there with no benchmarks, and no conditions, and no nothing! … Congress has a role in this. We have not had a full debate on this. During the [funding] debate a whole bunch of us got up and made speeches, but we haven't really had a real debate on Afghanistan. And we better.

"What is ‘working'? I mean, you could send a million troops there, and put a lid on it, but is that ‘working'? To me, working is, I want to know when I leave that it is sustainable. This is not sustainable. Backing a government that doesn't have the support of its people is just not sustainable."

Iran Flexes Muscle in Iraq

Several top Iraqi politicians have been making the rounds in Iran lately, getting support from Tehran in advance of elections scheduled in Iraq for January. Among the politicians: Ammar al-Hakim, the son of the late Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the former Iraqi prime minister who leads a breakaway faction of the Islamic Call (Dawa) party in Iraq.

Their tour, which reflects Iran's intimate relationship to many Iraqi politicians, is a sign that Iran is paying close attention to Iraqi politics. Over the summer, top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Leader, urged Shiite Iraqis to re-unite into a unified movement for the elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads another faction of Dawa, initially wanted to join the Shiite bloc, but he demanded too much as a condition for joining, and he eventually opted out. The new Iraqi bloc includes Hakim's ISCI, the Sadrists, Jaafari's Dawa faction, and other Shiite groups. (Maliki still maintains close ties to Iran, however.)

The issue of Iran's influence in Iraq is critical for President Obama's policy toward both countries. The ongoing US talks with Iran, if they make progress, could create space for Iran and the United States to work together on stabilizing Iraq in 2010, when at least 70,000 US troops are scheduled to leave Iraq. But if the US-Iran talks falter, Iran could use its influence in Iraq to create conflict, greatly complicating the planned US pullout. And, of course, if the US-Iran conflict escalates toward confrontation and war, Iran can use its military, intelligence, and political power in Iraq to inflict casualties on American troops there.

Last week, Hakim -- himself a cleric -- visited several top Iranian ayatollahs in Qom, including Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah Ali Safi Golpayegani, both relative hardliners in the Iranian spectrum. Shirazi told Hakim that "security in Iraq and Iran are inseparable," and he issued a not-so-veiled criticism of US allegations that Iran supports violent Shiite groups that attack US forces, according to the Tehran Times, saying:

"I am surprised to hear some countries saying Iran helps terrorists in Iraq, while Iraq's peace and security is our security and the two countries are not separable."

The Tehran Times added:

"The ayatollah also warned that the enemy is promoting Iranophobia and Iraqophobia, expressing hope that the two countries could thwart the enemy's efforts through joint cooperation.

"Everyone should be aware of the enemy's plots and this fact that the enemy is greedy about Iraq, he added."

Golpayegani, the other ayatollah, told Hakim that Iran's Shiites should stick together under the leadership of the Iraq-based clerics in Najaf, including Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Persian-born mullah who is the chief religious leader in Iraq and who commands the devotion of Shiites worldwide. It was Sistani who helped assemble the sectarian Shiite-only voting bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, that included the Hakims, Maliki, and Muqtada al-Sadr, in 2005.

In Tehran, Hakim also met Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki all of whom pledged support for Iraqi national security efforts.

Jalili told Hakim that US forces in Iraq are a threat to both countries:

"Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili, in a separate meeting with Ammar Hakim on Sunday, said the presence of foreign forces in Iraq is a major threat to the country's security situation.

"Jalili added that the presence of occupying forces in Iraq is hindering the country's progress."

Hakim, a thirty-something political neophyte who's inherited his father's mantle, didn't go so far as to agree with his Iranian interlocutors, at least according to the Iranian media. Unlike Sadr, who's made no bones about denouncing the US force, the Hakims have been careful not to express outright opposition to the US role in Iraq. On the contrary, both the Hakims and Maliki have welcomed US assistance to the Iraqi armed forces and police, as long as that assistance is used to build up the Shiite-led military. But they've resisted including Sunni forces into the army and police, especially the remnants of the Sons of Iraq movement -- the Awakening, or sahwa -- that was funded and sustained by the United States. The Sons of Iraq militia, which were organized by former anti-US resistance fighters and Sunni tribal leaders, have been abandoned by the United States lately, and they've splintered. Some support Maliki, but many of them are drifting back into sullen opposition if not armed resistance.

Feingold: Need an Afghan 'Timetable'

For a forthcoming (later this week) article on Afghanistan for Rolling Stone, I interviewed Senator Russ Feingold, one of the few members of the Senate who's been willing to speak up to criticize the current policy in the war. The senator has proposed a "flexible timetable" for withdrawing US forces. Here's a slightly edited transcript of the interview:

Q. What do you think our approach ought to be in Afghanistan?

Feingold: "The whole problem is, the question, what should we do in Afghanistan? That's not the question. The question is, how should we effectively fight Al Qaeda? It's a global threat, and how does Afghanistan fit into that? Too often, it's what do we do with Afghanistan, and by the way how do we deal with Al Qaeda?

"Now we deal with Al Qaeda in every country in the world without invading the country. We deal with them in Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, in European countries, in our own country, with various means that range from law enforcement to military action to other kinds of actions. Recently we were able to get rid of one the greatest threats we had, someone who was hiding in Somalia, without invading Somalia!

"So I think the burden is on those who want to continue an occupation to show that putting more and more resources and more and more American blood into Afghanistan is the best way to stop Al Qaeda globally. I think that's entirely unconvincing. The best argument they have is somehow the Taliban with then take over Afghanistan and then Al Qaeda will move their whole operation into Afghanistan again. That's not at all clear. And that's not at all clear that it's any worse-case scenario than Al Qaeda setting up shop in Yemen or Somalia or where they are now, in Pakistan. And there's no reason in my mind why they're suddenly going to say, 'Oh, gee, let's leave Pakistan, where we're very well hidden, and let's go back to Afghanistan.' The whole thing is on a very weak premise.

"Now the president's goal is the right goal. The goal is to look at this regionally, and say, 'We've got to stop Al Qaeda.' Implementation of the goal, with regard to Afghanistan, doesn't seem to fit that mission. Although it's related, at best it's tangentially related, as opposed to being at the core of the issue, which is, how do we stop this global network?"

Q. I saw General Barno at Heritage Foundation, and he said that proposing timetables for Afghanistan is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, close to treason.

Feingold: "These are the same kinds of arguments that we heard in regard to the idea of an Iraq timetable, which I proposed in 2005. I wonder if he'd apply that language to the U.S. military which is operating according to a timetable in Iraq. The last president approved it, this president approved it, and I don't hear anyone saying that's treason or giving the enemy comfort. What it does is, it gives the people of Iraq comfort, so they believe that we're not staying there forever. We need to give that same comfort to the people of Afghanistan. The best thing that ever happened to us in Iraq was letting people know that we're not staying there indefinitely. And we had to put with these same sort of criticisms, that we're leaving in the middle of the night. We're not leaving in the middle of the night, we're telling people exactly when we're leaving. Why wouldn't that same logic apply to Afghanistan?"

Q. When you say, flexible timetable, what do you mean?

Feingold: "Let's give the administration the first opportunity to say, 'Here's our plan. We can accomplish these goals in this time period, and we believe we can start withdrawing the troops at this point, and we believe we can have all, or virtually all, of them out by this point.' I think it is first the obligation of the administration, of the executive branch, to do that. However, if they do not, if they refuse to, then we have to start proposing our own timetables, just as we did when we were stonewalled by the Bush administration. I think we're going to get different treatment by this administration. But I'm prepared to take whatever steps I need to, in consultation with other members of Congress that I'm already having, to make those proposals if necessary."

Q. Are you optimistic that they're looking at other alternatives than another escalation?

Feingold: "Certainly optimistic would be an overstatement with regard to my feelings. I have some hope that, given the clear evidence that this might not be a good idea, that they're rethinking it. I realize though that they're terribly split, that there's enormous political fear that if you don't continue this troop buildup you'll be seen as somehow surrendering, and I don't minimize the danger of that sort of argument to cause people to make mistakes. So I can't say I'm optimistic. I just hope they're listening and that they realize that the best thing for America is not to get stuck in a giant, growing military commitment in Afghanistan."

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