Category Archives: Afghanistan

Legitimacy: Who can generate it?

This is a huge question in Afghanistan. It was earlier a huge question in Iraq– but it turned out that Nuri al-Maliki had a wily (and previusly unrecognized) understanding of this question.
Does Abu Mazen understand it? Good question…
(Note: John Locke may have been a racist, an investor in the transatlantic slave trade, and had many other moral flaws. But he was, nonetheless, the prime author in western thinking of the concept that legitimacy stems from the consent of the governed.)
These days, generating “legitimacy” in Afghanistan is a deep, deep problem. So are elections, which are (a) very hard to organize, and (b) necessarily very divisive in post-conflict contents.
Back to the more inclusive loya jirga approach, maybe? December 2001.

Peter Galbraith, oil contracts, and Kurds

Reidar Visser informs us today that the independent-minded US “free-lance diplomat” Peter Galbraith reportedly, from 2004 through 2008, held a five-percent share in the production-sharing agreement concluded between the small Norwegian private oil company DNO and the Kurdish Regional Government.
Galbraith, a longtime supporter of Kurdish (and before that Croatian) independence, was most recently working as deputy to Kai Eide, the head of the UN’s mission in Afghanistan. Eide fired him last week for, essentially, insubordination.
Back in 2003-05, Galbraith was an influential adviser to the US occupation authorities as they drew up Iraq’s new, heavily decentralized Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) and Constitution, and to various Kurdish political leaders. He was also hailed– and published– by major western news organizations as a credibly neutral (and presumably disinterested) analyst of Iraqi constitutional affairs.
But now it appears that, instead of being the idealist and the brave proponent of the rights of embattled minorities that he had always portrayed himself to be, in reality he was acting as a one-man East India Company, consorting with compliant “locals” (= “natives”) to rip off their country’s resources.
Visser writes,

    Norway’s most respected financial newspaper, Dagens Næringsliv (DN), has been focusing on the operations of DNO,… especially reporting on unclear aspects concerning share ownership and its contractual partnerships related to the Tawke field in the Dahuk governorate. One particular goal has been to establish the identity of a hitherto unknown “third party” which participated with DNO in the initial production sharing agreement (PSA) for Tawke between 2004 and 2008, but was squeezed out when this deal was converted to a new contract in early 2008, prompting a huge financial claim of around 500 million US dollars against DNO which has yet to be settled. Today, DN claims to present proof that one of the two major “mystery stake-holders” involved in the claim was none other than Peter Galbraith, who allegedly held a five-percent share in the PSA for Tawke from June 2004 until 2008 through his Delaware-based company Porcupine… DN has published documents from Porcupine showing Galbraith’s personal signature, and today’s reports are complete with paparazzi photographs of Galbraith literally running away from reporters as they confront him in Bergen, where he is currently staying with his Norwegian wife. He refused to give any comment citing potential legal complications.
    If proven correct, the implications of this revelation are so enormous that the story is almost unbelievable. As is well known, DNO has been criticised for the way its operations in the Kurdistan region interfere with Iraq’s constitutional process. To their credit, though, DNO are at the very least perfectly forthright about their mission in the area: They are a commercial enterprise set up to make a maximum profit in a high-risk area currently transitioning from conditions of war. Galbraith, however, was almost universally seen as “Ambassador Galbraith”, the statesmanlike former diplomat whose outspoken ideas about post-2003 Iraq were always believed to be rooted in idealism and never in anything else. Instead, it now emerges, he apparently wore several hats at the same time, and mixed his roles in ways that seem entirely incompatible with the capacity of an independent adviser on constitutional affairs.

Visser then notes the multiplicity of “hats” that Galbraith was wearing as he strode around post-invasion Iraq in the early years of the US occupation– including “ABC News consultant” (a generously compensated gig, that one usually is), and a compensated consultant for “Kurdish clients”, as well as a constitutional adviser in general and a fairly prolific author of pro-partition analyses.
Visser gives an excellent, detailed analysis of the influence Galbraith claimed he had, and the influence he almost certainly did have, on the drafting of the ‘Transitional Administrative Law’ (TAL) that was imposed on Iraq by Bush appointee Jerry Bremer in March 2004– quoting Galbraith’s own words from the book he published in 2006 that was notably titled The End of Iraq:

    Galbraith urged the Kurds to be maximalist about their demands: “The Bush administration might not like the Kurds insisting on their rights, I said, but it would respect them for doing so (163)”. Then, leading up to the TAL negotiations in the winter of 2004, Galbraith worked specifically for the Kurds in framing their demands. It is very easy to see how the Kurdish gains in the TAL and not least in the 2005 constitution are based on this contribution from Galbraith. Galbraith writes, “On February 10 [2004], Nechirvan [Barzani] convened a meeting at the Kurdistan national assembly of the top leaders of the PUK and KDP. I presented a draft of a ‘Kurdistan chapter’ to be included in the interim constitution [i.e. the TAL]… Except for a few matters assigned to the federal government (notably foreign affairs), laws passed by the Kurdistan national assembly would be supreme within the region. The Kurdistan Regional Government could establish an armed force…The Kurdistan Region would own its land, water, minerals and oil. Kurdistan would manage future oil fields (and keep revenues) but the federal government in Baghdad would continue to manage all oil fields currently in commercial production. Because there were no commercial oil fields within Kurdistan as defined by the March 18, 2003 boundaries, this proposal had the effect of giving Kurdistan full control over its own oil…The permanent constitution of Iraq would apply in Kurdistan only if it were approved by a majority of Kurdistan’s voters (166–67).” Subsequent achievements noted by Galbraith as personal successes include staging the informal 2005 referendum on Kurdish independence (171).
    The influence of Galbraith can be discerned already in the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law (where the principle of residual powers for the provincial entities was put in place), even if Galbraith was dissatisfied with the relatively long list of powers accorded to Baghdad and blamed the “centralising” policies of Paul Bremer and the Bush administration generally for this “defect”. But his hand is even more evident in the 2005 constitution, which combines residual powers for the regions with the supremacy of local law (albeit not if it contradicts the constitution, a “shortcoming” Galbraith later tried to gloss over), and which also specifically mentions the regional right to local armed forces…
    While he was advising the Kurds on the principles of federalism and trying to persuade an American Democratic audience about the virtues of partition as an alternative to the Bush administration policies in Iraq, Galbraith supposedly held a 5 per cent stake in an oil field whose profit potential was directly governed by the constitutional and US policy decisions Galbraith was seeking to influence (his suggestions also included the idea of a permanent US airbase in Kurdistan).Under any circumstances, this new development is likely to strengthen the tendency among Iraqis to be more critical about the details of the 2005 constitution and not least the historical context in which it was conceived – a criticism that even Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki articulated during the run-up to the last local elections. Seemingly, Maliki’s ideas of rectifying this towards greater centralism (i.e. removing some of Galbraith’s pet projects from 2005) have met with success among voters so far.
    Another problem related to this issue is the close association in the past between Galbraith and the apparent Iraq tsar of the current Obama administration, Vice-President Joe Biden…

Visser concludes by noting,

    It is of course somewhat ironic that these revelations should come at a time when Galbraith seems to possess the high moral ground in another controversy also involving Norwegians and Middle Eastern conflicts: The ongoing dispute with UN diplomat Kai Eide over Afghanistan’s elections result.

Personally, I don’t think that Galbraith does occupy the moral high ground in his dispute with Eide. It was a matter of insubordination– by an arrogant American– to his boss within a duly authorized and well-run UN mission. If he disagreed with Eide (as he evidently did) there were things he could do other than try to make end-runs around him.
Anyway, do go read all of Visser’s excellently argued piece there at Historiae. You cannot leave any comments there– but you can at the linked post on his blog. Or, of course, you can leave them here, with a very good chance that Reidar will read them here, too.
By the way, Dagens Næringsliv is apparently going to be publishing follow-up pieces on this matter.

China and the US in Afghanistan

It’s good to put yourself into the shoes of others from time to time. For a while now, I’ve been trying to imagine the conversations that the Central Committee of the Chinese Committee Party doubtless hold from time to time about the various overseas adventures (!) of the US military.
I’m guessing they were intrigued but not, in the circumstances, very surprised by Pres. G.W. Bush’s original decision to invade Afghanistan in October 2001. That invasion brought the US military into a country that shares a short and extremely inhospitable border with China. So the arrival of the US military there– and in various of the other Central Asian Stans that share longer borders with China– must have caused the CCP planners some concern. But the US campaign was wholly focused on Islamist opponents of one variety or another; and it did significantly distract the attention of US military planners from the confrontations they had previously been gaming over in the South China Sea and other areas where China would be the direct target…
(Hainan incident, anyone? That had been GWB’s debut involvement in international affairs, remember.)
So after October 2001, I’m guessing it was “watchful waiting” for the guys in the CCP as they watched the US military maneuvering around the inhospitable mountains of Central Asia.
Then, 18 months later, came the US invasion of Iraq. I’m imagining the guys in the CCP being delirious with delight, toasting Rumsfeld in copious mao-tai or whatever, rubbing their eyes in amazement at just how amazingly stupid the leadership of the US could be!
And then, over the six years that followed, they watched quietly as Washington poured vast amounts of treasure and blood into Iraq in a campaign that very soon started to seriously degrade both the US military and the US economy.
Finally, after the November 2006 elections, Bob Gates’s realism started to pull the US ship of state slowly around from continuing too strongly with that folly.
But then, there was (and still is) the US campaign in Afghanistan.
Now, I’m thinking that the guys in the CCP are having serious second and third thoughts about that. Oh yes, how fabulous (from their POV) to see Washington continuing to degrade the American military and economy even more– over yet another completely un-“winnable” military campaign in a distant-from-the-US Asian country. But there is this other thing the CCP guys very strongly (and probably quite realistically) believe in, which is the deep inter-dependence of the US and China in world affairs.
There’s a portion of the US-China relationship that’s fairly zero-sum-gamey. But there is another portion, which I– and I think they– believe is bigger, which is pretty win-winny (though still not without some elements of competitiveness: sibling rivalry, if you will.)
Win-winning-ness is most evident in the economic relations between the two countries. But it is also present in the need they both share to find a way– preferably, of course, a way that is based neither on confrontation nor on oppression– to deal with various strong currents in the Muslim ummah.
So how long can Beijing go on just watching as the US beats itself to a bloody pulp in Afghanistan? And/or, at what point will the guys in Beijing choose to step in and, first, “offer” their help; or, at a later point, perhaps even start to insist that Washington take it?
Might we be reaching the first of those two points just now?
… From time to time I try to check up on what various Chinese sources are saying about the US’s various military adventures. Which is another way of saying that in between those times, I don’t pay the topic nearly enough attention.
But this week, helpful JWN commenter JohnH directed me to this recent piece in Asia Times, written by a retired, senior Indian diplomat… And that piece then sent me to this important article, authored, as the AT piece says, by deputy general of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, Li Qinggong, and published by Xinhua in English on September 28.
Li writes,

    Afghanistan’s political and social turmoil has been aggravated by different intentions of the participating nations that constitute the coalition forces.
    In the short term, the fragile Afghan regime is finding it difficult to tame its restive domestic situation. Still, a prescription could help bring the country out of the mess if key players adopt a peaceful and reconciliatory approach in their push for the end of the war.
    The United States should first put an end to the war. The anti-terror war, which the former US administration of George W Bush launched in 2001, has turned out to be the source of ceaseless turbulence and violence in the past years.
    To promote much-needed reconciliation among the parties concerned, the US should end its military action. The war has neither brought the Islamic nation peace and security as the Bush administration originally promised, nor brought any tangible benefits to the US itself. On the contrary, the legitimacy of the US military action has been under increasing doubt.

And here’s where it gets even more interesting:

    Support from the international community is needed to help Afghanistan make a substantive move toward peace. The international community can take advantage of the ever-mounting anti-war calls within the US to prompt the Obama administration to end the war and withdraw US troops. Germany, France and Britain have planned an international conference this year to discuss the gradual withdrawal of Afghanistan military deployment. International pressures may offer Obama another excuse to withdraw US troops. The UN Security Council should carry the baton from the three European nations to convene a conference on the Afghanistan issue and try to reach a consensus among its five permanent Security Council members and draft a roadmap and timetable for resolution of the thorny issue. In the process, a ticklish issue is whether parties concerned can accept the Taliban as a key player in Afghanistan and how to dispose of the Al Qaeda armed forces, an issue that has a key bearing on the outcome of any international conference on the Afghanistan issue.
    Surely, an international peacekeeping mission is needed in the absence of US troops. With the aid of international peacekeepers, the Afghanistan government and its security forces can be expected to exercise effective control over domestic unrest and maintain peace and security.

So far, this still looks like a very preliminary trial balloon. But it is a trial balloon that this evidently well-connected figure has now gone ahead and floated, in the government’s own English-language media.
It’s one we should all think about.
… Longtime JWN readers will be well aware that one argument I’ve made repeatedly over recent years is that the western nations who constitute NATO are just about the worst instrument one could image for trying to “pacify” Afghanistan; and that if the help of non-Afghan outsiders is needed for this task– as it seems to be– then having the UN play the lead role would be far more effective than imagining that “the west” can do this job alone. (Or, perhaps, at all.)
Just one final note. There’s an ardent young American “COIN”- admirer called Andrew Exum who’s gained some publicity in the past couple of years for the blog he “cheekily” decided to call “Abu Muqawama” (Father of the Resistance). Recently, Exum and his blog got hired by a “liberal hawkish” new think-tank in Washington called the Center for a New American Security, which is famous mainly for the fact that its previous head, Michele Flournoy, is now the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy. (Several other previous CNAS people have also gone into the Obama administration. Not, altogether, good news: I have a deep wariness about liberal hawks.)
So anyway, yesterday the breathless young Exum reported on his blog that around the halls of CNAS,

    there is a pretty lively debate among the scholars and staff who work here about whether or not we should continue a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan when we might instead be focusing on preserving our energies for rising powers. Obviously enough, those of us who work on Afghanistan and counterinsurgency feel one way (more or less), while those who work on China and the rest of Asia feel another way (again, more or less… )

This strikes me as an incredibly naive– but also revealing– view. “Rising powers” obviously refers to China. But what still-extant “energies” is he talking about preserving? Energies for fighting China sometime in the future? Can he really mean that?
Also, is he telling us that the people at CNAS who “work on” China are working mainly on thining about plans for a future military confrontation with it? If so, that is very worrying indeed. (But not surprising, all in all, from such a hotbed of liberal hawks.)
But here’s where Exum’s naivete lies. Rather than the US fighting China any time soon (or ever), my judgment is that at some point within the next 4-5 years, the US government will be begging China and the rest of the international community to help it to find a way out of Afghanistan.
Unusually enough, I agree more on this point with Robert Kaplan than I do with Andrew Exum. Kaplan wrote in the NYT yesterday,

    if we stay in Afghanistan and eventually succeed, other countries will benefit more than we will. China, India and Russia are all Asian powers, geographically proximate to Afghanistan and better able, therefore, to garner practical advantages from any stability our armed forces would make possible.

Actually, at this point, whether the US stays in Afghanistan or leaves, and whether it “succeeds” there (whatever that means) or doesn’t, then the sheer indisputable fact of the costs the US has paid on account of its two military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past eight years (both initiated by GWB) means that all the elements of US national power have been considerably degraded over the past eight years, while important elements of the national power of China and Russia– I’m not so sure about India– have meanwhile continued on a path of growth.
I guess ever since I did the little bit of research that led to this August 2008 blog post on the sheer size and scope of China’s investments in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve had this idea that one of the main effects of George W. Bush’s two big military (mis-)adventures in distant countries has been to make those countries safe for Chinese mercantilism.
Now there’s irony for you, eh?

US-UN power tussle over Afghanistan?

Eight years ago today, the US– with the help of non-trivial allies like Russia, Iran, and India– launched its invasion of Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter (though not before) the UN gave a sort of retroactive imprimatur of approval to the invasion. Then in March 2002, the Security Council created the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Its staff members, now numbering more than 1,000, have the mission of supporting the political and the socio-economic reconstruction of the country.
The US has, however, remained until now as the main external decision-making force inside Afghanistan. That may be about to change, due to the severe resource constraints the US is facing and the evident failure of the US-led occupation forces to resolve Afghanistan’s extremely deep political/security crisis.
Anyway, Pres. Obama is engaged right now in the wide-ranging deliberations that are needed as he addresses the incredibly complex conundrums that his administration faces in Afghanistan. (Another legacy of GWB, we can note.)
Meanwhile, a whole parallel crisis has started erupting in the relations between the US and the UN in Afghanistan. It has been precipitated mainly by the recent actions taken by cowboy US diplomatic “entrepreneur” Peter Galbraith
Until very recently Galbraith was working as deputy to UNAMA’s Norwegian head Kai Eide. But last week Eide abruptly fired fired Galbraith after he publicly accused Eide of suppressing information that UNAMA had gathered about numerous, allegedly serious irregularities in August’s Afghan elections.
Now, Galbraith or someone presumably close to him, has turned that raw data over to the Washington Post, which today published a digest of some of the most damaging parts of it.
The WaPo does not describe how it got hold of this (presumably illegally supplied?) data. But it also does not question its authenticity. Indeed, the reporters in question, Colum Lynch and Joshua Partlow, write,

    Dan McNorton, the U.N. spokesman in Kabul, did not challenge the authenticity of the spreadsheet, but he said it should be read with caution. “The information that you have is unsubstantiated raw data and should be treated as such,” he said.

Regarding Galbraith’s own personal history and credentials, we can note that he was an early and strong supporter of Croatia’s move to secede from the Yugoslav (“Southern Slav”) federation, and was subsequently Pres. Clinton’s first ambassador to Croatia. He was a strong cheerleader for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Before and since 2003 he has been a very loud proponent of Kurdish independence and the partition of Iraq.
His actions have often had a gadfly, very destabilizing aspect to them, and though he has been described as a close ally of Obama’s AfPak representative, he was not working for Holbrooke or for the US government in the position he occupied in UNAMA.
The lead of today’s WaPo piece says this:

    Voter turnout data kept confidential by the United Nations’ chief envoy in Kabul after Afghanistan’s disputed August presidential election show that in some provinces the official vote count exceeded the estimated number of voters by 100,000 or more, providing further indication that the contest was marred by fraud.
    In southern Helmand province — where 134,804 votes were recorded, 112,873 of them for President Hamid Karzai — the United Nations estimated that just 38,000 people voted, and possibly as few as 5,000, according to a U.N. spreadsheet obtained by The Washington Post…

Disturbing allegations, indeed.
Lynch and Partlow write,

    Galbraith pressed Eide to turn over to international monitors the United Nations’ estimated turnout data, which indicated that many fewer voters cast ballots in certain provinces than the number of votes recorded by election officials. Galbraith said Eide refused to share this data with the internationally led Electoral Complaints Commission once it became clear that the information reflected poorly on Karzai.
    In an interview last week, Eide acknowledged withholding the data, saying that the information could not be verified and that he required a formal request in order to share it. He said he was confronted by a “confusing situation” in which “a lot of information was coming from sources that had their own agenda. We can’t just hand over a bunch of information if we haven’t made a solid assessment of it.”
    Eide added that he “really feels offended” by allegations that he favored Karzai, saying he had taken a balanced approach that enjoyed the “unanimous” support of the international community.

Well, Eide is evidently trying to make the best decisions he can, in the very difficult position he finds himself in, in Kabul, caught between the continuing indecision of Washington over Afghanistan and the slow shift in the global balance from “the west” to “the rest.”
The big decisions that will need to be made in Afghanistan will at some point be made, not by Kai Eide but by either Pres. Barack Obama or some “concert” of the world’s great powers, once the US makes the decision– that now seems almost inevitable to me– to ask the other members of the UN Security Council to help bail it out of the extremely difficult situation it finds itself in, in Afghanistan.
Eide, remember, works for the Security Council, acting through the agency of the cipher-like UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon and his UN Department of Peacekeeping Affairs.
Here at JWN, I have been one of very few voices inside the US who have argued for several years now that responsibility for supporting and enabling the reconstruction and political reconstitution of Afghanistan should rightfully and most effectively be undertaken by the UN, rather than under some form of US-led (including US-NATO) “leadership”.
Let’s never forget how geographically and culturally distant the US is from Afghanistan, or the fact that the Security Council’s two non-western permanent members have much greater propinquity to Afghanistan and much deeper direct interests in securing the country’s stabilization than does the US.
(I see that Robert Kaplan has just started discovering things about Beijing’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan that I’ve been writing about for more than a year now.)
Anyway, for those watching how the shift in the US-UN relationship (or “west-rest” relationship) are now playing out over Afghanistan, today’s WaPo piece provides some intriguing tidbits of evidence.
Lynch and Partlow write,

    U.N. officials have accused Galbraith of seeking to overturn the Afghan constitution in his zeal to thwart Karzai’s election victory, saying he sought to “disenfranchise” large numbers of potential Karzai voters by closing 1,500 of 6,900 polling stations in volatile regions in southern and southeastern Afghanistan that are populated by members of the president’s Pashtun ethnic group.
    Senior U.N. officials also asserted that Galbraith urged Eide in a meeting in early September to consider annulling the elections because of fraud, to convince Karzai and Abdullah to step aside, and to set up a transitional government headed by Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist who finished in fourth place with 2.7 percent of the vote. Galbraith, according to these officials, offered to seek support for the plan from Vice President Biden.
    “Here’s a man, a U.N. representative, advocating an unconstitutional change of government,” Vijay Nambiar, Ban’s chief of staff, said of Galbraith. “Of course he was recalled. What would you have expected us to do?”
    Galbraith declined to discuss the details of the meeting but said there had been no formal proposal for a new government or a mission to Washington. “It’s a smoke screen to obscure the real issue, which was whether the U.N. should handle electoral fraud,” Galbraith said. “There was no mission to Biden or anybody else because there was no plan to do this.”

We can note that over past years Galbraith worked very closely with Biden over his plans for partitioning Iraq.
Close coordination between UNAMA and the US authorities in Kabul is very evidently something that’s not only desirable, but absolutely essential. But the idea that Galbraith might act as a kind of “back channel” to Obama through Biden seems destabilizing and confusing, though somewhat typical of his previous MO’s.
Lynch and Partlow noted that,

    On Saturday, Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan… [told] a gathering of two dozen diplomats that the United States has full trust in Eide. “The U.S. Embassy has full confidence in UNAMA and its leadership,” said Caitlin Hayden, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman.
    Edmond Mulet, the U.N. assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, also defended the envoy. “Kai has the full support of the secretary general and of the most important stakeholders, the member states, including the United States, and all the ambassadors and special envoys sitting in Kabul,” he said.

Meanwhile, Galbraith is kicking his heels here in Washington. Actually, having watched him from a distance, I feel pretty certain he’s not just kicking his heels, but must be up to something.
My sense of the current bottom line on this story is that the days when Americans– whether Presidents, presidential envoys, or cowboy diplomatic operators like Peter Galbraith– could just between them determine the entire fate of distant countries with little regard to the needs or preferences of non-Americans are now rapidly coming to an end.

Afghanistan: Obama’s Vietnam?

There’s a rapidly growing discussion here in the US about “what to do in Afghanistan.” Some of it is thoughtful, well-informed, and serious. Like this piece by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in today’s WaPo, which argues that the two best options look to be “Go all-in, or fold.”
(Actually, that’s only one choice, since the US citizenry and budget are quite incapable of doing what would be needed to “go all-in” in that very distant and logistically intimidating country.)
I note that one aspect of the way path forward that just about nobody in the US discourse has yet started talking/writing about is the idea, that I consider crucial, that it does not have to be, indeed should not be, the US that dominates all decisionmaking and international action regarding Afghanistan, going forward.
Members of the US commentatoriat are so US-centric! It still boggles my mind. I suppose that right now, this is still part of the legacy of the 1990s, when the US was the sole and uncontested Uber-power in the world…
Anyway, that caveat notwithstanding, Frank Rich had a fascinating piece in today’s NYT in which he noted a new aspect of the strong relevance the Vietnam precedent has for the decisions Obama currently faces over Afghanistan.
Rich noted that George Stephanopoulos recently blogged that the latest “must-read book” for members of Obama’s “war team” is Lessons in Disaster, a book published last year about a guy called McGeorge Bundy and “the path to war in Vietnam.” Bundy was John Kennedy’s national security adviser.
Underscoring the book’s relevance, Rich notes that when it came out last year, no less a person than Richard Holbrooke, now Obama’s chief emissary for Afghanistan and Pakistan, reviewed it (in late November) in the NYT.
Holbrooke’s review is well worth reading. He gives some helpful info about the background to the writing of the book. He also refers to a much earlier essay he himself had written about Bundy that he had titled, ““The Smartest Man in the Room Is Not Always Right”, noting that, having known Bundy a little bit, he had had him in mind when he wrote it.
Holbrooke concluded the review with this:

    Bundy never believed in negotiations with the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese. This, coupled with his enduring faith in the value of military force in almost any terrain or circumstance, were his greatest errors. They contributed to a tragic failure. With the nation now about to inaugurate a new president committed to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan, the lessons of Vietnam are still relevant.

These two little insights into the mind of Richard Holbrooke belie an awareness of the limitations of being “the smartest man” and of the value of military force that I, for one, find a little reassuring.
Much of the current analogizing between the US in Vietnam and the US in Afghanistan focuses on the decisions Kennedy faced in 1961. Other commentaors have focused on decisions faced by his successor, Lyndon Johnson, in 1964.
Last week, I had a couple of good conversations with Dr Jeffrey Record, a very thoughtful guy who teaches at the US Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, who has written a lot of good studies of the big mistakes the Bush administration made in Iraq.
Record has also studied the US performance in Vietnam very closely. As we talked last week, he explored the 1964-2009 analogy a bit. He noted that in 1964, Johnson faced much the same kind of “big” decision Obama now faces– whether to increase the US force commitment substantially, or find a way to ramp it down…
And like Obama today, Record said, Johnson was concerned both about trying to win some serious, big-picture reforms in domestic social policy and about the possibility of a political backlash inside the US if he should be seen as “backing down” from the confrontation in Vietnam.
In 1964, Johnson made the fateful decision to escalate. Rather than investing his domestic political capital in defending a decision to de-escalate in Vietnam, he invested it in pushing through a number of important “Great Society” social reforms at home, instead.
Later, the Vietnam part of that decision would come back to haunt him badly…
On balance, then, it seems good that Obama and his people are all reading what sounds to be an excellent study of the decisionmaking of those earlier years.

Long knives, Washington, Afghanistan, part 2

I’ve been thinking more about the timing of the WaPo’s publication of Woodward’s bombshell and the accompanying materials this morning.
It seems clear to me Woodward must have had the text of the McChrystal Assessment for a number of days. His colleagues had the time to do some good follow-up reporting with Gen. Jim Jones and other senior officials. Also, the WaPo and the Pentagon had time to negotiate the amounts of the assessment that the WaPo could put onto its public web-site. So obviously, the folks inside the administration knew that Woodward had it and the WaPo was going to publish it.
Yesterday, Obama was doing his big t.v. blitz– going onto five major t.v. news-discussion programs to discuss primarily health-care but also aware he’d be getting questions about Afghanistan and other issues.
Here’s what he said on Afghanistan on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

    When we came in, basically, there had been drift in our Afghan strategy. Everybody acknowledges that. And I ordered a top to bottom review. The most important thing I wanted was us to refocus on why we’re there. We’re there because al Qaeda killed 3,000 Americans and we cannot allow extremists who want to do violence to the United States to be able to operate with impunity.
    Now, I think we’ve lost — we lost that focus for a while and you started seeing a– a classic case of mission creep where we’re just there and we start taking on a whole bunch of different missions.
    I wanted to narrow it. I did order 21,000 additional troops there to make sure that we could secure the election, because I thought that was important. That was before the review was completed. I also said after the election I want to do another review. We’ve just gotten those 21,000 in. General McChrystal, who’s only been there a few months, has done his own assessment.
    I am now going to take all this information and we’re going to test whatever resources we have against our strategy, which is if by sending young men and women into harm’s way, we are defeating al Qaeda and — and that can be shown to a skeptical audience, namely me — somebody who is always asking hard questions about deploying troops, then we will do what’s required to keep the American people safe.

Well, strictly speaking, back on March 27, when he made the decision based on that first “top to bottom review”, he decided to expand both the troop numbers and the troop mission in Afghanistan. Only at some later point did he decide he wanted to “narrow” it.
In their piece in the WaPo today, Rajiv Chadrasekaran and Karen DeYoung write that the chaos surrounding the holding of last month’s Afghan election was a turning point for the administration.
Also, note the apparent put-down of McChrystal in what Obama said.
So, a couple of quick points here. Did the WaPo delay the publication of today’s news reports to allow Obama to get his version out to the public first– or was there some other reasoning behind the timing of publishing these stories?
Also, McChrystal may well not last long in his job.
But whether he does or not, the bigger issue here is that Obama and his national-security team are going to have to do some very broad thinking (as I noted earlier– see # 2 here) if they want to find a way to ramp down the currently huge risks the US/NATO troops face in Afghanistan.

Long knives out in Washington over Afghanistan

You can criticize Bob Woodward– and I have– for the insidery, back-scratching nature of most of his recent journalism. But he still manages to pull out a significant number of real news items.
Wow! In today’s WaPo, he has a piece describing a document (PDF) that was most likely leaked to him by someone on the staff of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, in which McC warned that

    he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict ‘will likely result in failure.’

The leaked document was sent by McChrystal to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on August 30, under the title “COMISAF’S INITIAL ASSESSMENT”. (COMISAF is the acronym for “Commander of the [US-led] International Security Assistance Force”.)
I have not had time to pore over the PDF version yet. But Woodward and various other writers at the WaPo evidently have done so. The PDF version posted on the WaPo website is one for which they received a security clearance after certain portions were removed.
An accompanying article by Rajiv Chadrasekaran and Karen DeYoung gives an account of some– but certainly far from all– of the political context within the Obama administration, within which someone took the decision to leak this very sensitive document to Woodward.
Chandra and DeYoung write,

    From his headquarters in Kabul, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sees one clear path to achieve President Obama’s core goal of preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing havens in Afghanistan: “Success,” he writes in his assessment, “demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.”
    Inside the White House, the way forward in Afghanistan is no longer so clear.
    Although Obama endorsed a strategy document in March that called for “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy,” there have been significant changes in Afghanistan and Washington since then. A disputed presidential election, an erosion in support for the war effort among Democrats in Congress and the American public, and a sharp increase in U.S. casualties have prompted the president and his top advisers to reexamine their assumptions about the U.S. role in defeating the Taliban insurgency.
    Instead of debating whether to give McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, more troops, the discussion in the White House is now focused on whether, after eight years of war, the United States should vastly expand counterinsurgency efforts along the lines he has proposed — which involve an intensive program to improve security and governance in key population centers — or whether it should begin shifting its approach away from such initiatives and simply target leaders of terrorist groups who try to return to Afghanistan.

And then, they have this devastating put-down of McChrystal:

    McChrystal’s assessment, in the view of two senior administration officials, is just “one input” in the White House’s decision-making process.

They add:

    Obama, appearing on several Sunday-morning television news shows, left little doubt that key assumptions in the earlier White House strategy are now on the table. “The first question is: Are we doing the right thing?” the president said on CNN. “Are we pursuing the right strategy?”
    “Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy, I’m not going to be sending some young man or woman over there — beyond what we already have,” Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” If an expanded counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan contributes to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda, “then we’ll move forward,” he said. “But, if it doesn’t, then I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or . . . sending a message that America is here for the duration.”

I have a few quick reactions to this important news:

    1. I am really glad that Obama is looking at a range of options other than trying to continue the effort to mount a countrywide “counter-insurgency” campaign in Afghanistan that would also involve trying to build a functioning state system in the whole of that very complicated country.
    2. In the range of other options he’s looking at, he should certainly be looking at options that involve bringing other significant international partners into the operation rather than just, as at present, members of the NATO alliance. NATO is so much the wrong implement through which to be acting in Afghanistan, for the reasons I’ve blogged about a lot here over recent months. Other powers, located much closer to Afghanistan, have both (a) a much stronger direct interest in seeing some form sustainable stabilization take root there than members of distant NATO do, and (b) much greater capability– in terms of being both geographically and culturally closer to Afghanistan– to act effectively there. These nations include China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan (which has its own problems, of course), and most of the other Central Asian nations. The UN would seem to be so much the most appropriate body to convene and lead this new form of help for Afghanistan.
    3. Of course this would signal– and be a part of– a much broader shift in the balance of power in world politics between “the west and the rest.” But this shift is happening, anyway.
    4. Very evidently there is a huge, deep, and significant debate within the Obama administration over whether to continue with a “COIN”-only approach, or not. Chandra and DeYoung indicate that this seems to pit some military commanders (McChrystal and Chairman of the JCS Adm. Mike Mullen) against the civilian leadership in the White House.
    5. Unmentioned thus far have been the views of Gen. Petraeus, the highly political general who as head of CENTCOM is McChrystal’s immediate superior and thus stands between him and Mullen in the chain of command. Unknown also is the position in this tussle of Secdef Gates.
    6. All of the above people serve, of course, at the pleasure of our elected president. But a pointed resignation of any one of them, if he should disagree with the decision that Obama eventually makes, would be a major political blow to Obama. That gives all of them clout– but probably Gates and Petraeus the most clout of all.
    7. The leaking of McChrystal’s assessment seems very like a move to cover the rear-end of the military leaders in the– increasingly much more likely– event that the US/NATO “mission” in Afghanistan ends up in some degree of defeat, ignominy, chaos, or worse. Woodward tells us that McChrystal’s assessment concluded by saying, “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.” But if McChrystal or anyone in his office had anything to do with the leaking of the document, then that act would indicate that the leaker really did not not judge “success” to be very likely at all.
    8. Woodward’s acquisition and leaking of this document are a reminder of the big journalistic coup of his early career in the 1970s, when he and Carl Bernstein leaked details of the dirty tricks President Nixon used against the Democrats during the Watergate affair. But they have more in common, substance-wise, with the 1971 leaking to the NYT of the “Pentagon Papers”, an internal Pentagon assessment that pointed to the unwinnability of the US-Vietnam War.

Anyway, the leak of the McChrystal assessment is a huge story. Chapeau to Woodward.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, “benchmarks”

Excellent analysis, as usual, from Reidar Visser on Biden’s latest trip to Iraq.
Noting that this is Biden’s second visit to Iraq as Vice-President, Visser writes,

    If anything, what these visits have demonstrated twice is that US leverage is quickly disappearing from Iraq. Biden today informed the press that no further “benchmark legislation” would be passed this side of Iraq’s parliamentary elections scheduled for 16 January 2010 (hopefully that statement was offered as a prognosis, since this issue supposedly is for the majority of the Iraqi parliament to decide!), whereas Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki used the opportunity of his joint press conference with Biden to coolly steer clear of any reference to national reconciliation issues…
    Biden’s frank assertion that he expects no major national reconciliation initiatives prior to the elections is useful in two ways. Firstly, it is good news in itself. It is often not realised that to leave these issues in suspense during the elections could actually have a positive impact on Iraqi politics in that voters may get the opportunity to discuss basic constitutional issues in Iraq in a less sectarian and confused atmosphere than that which prevailed during the two 2005 elections and ahead of the constitutional referendum that year…
    Biden’s comments are also useful in that they highlight the limited window that remains for the Obama administration to exercise diplomatic influences in Iraq’s internal political process. If Biden is correct, not much more will be attempted this side of the 16 January 2010 elections. On that day, it is possible that the Iraqi people will reject the SOFA in the referendum that will coincide with the parliamentary elections, in which case the Maliki government will notify Washington that they have one year to leave the country and the logistics of getting out will likely become the preoccupation of the Obama administration. But even if the SOFA is accepted by the Iraqi people, the time that remains for the US between January and the end of 2011 is in practice highly restricted. Combat forces must be out by August 2010, and Washington has already factored in a couple of months in the post-election period to secure a stable transition – meaning that by the time a new government has been formed and serious discussion of national-reconciliation issues can recommence, probably no earlier than April 2010 if past experience is anything to go by, the mechanisms of withdrawal will probably occupy most of the Obama administration’s attention. On top of this, the first batch of constitutional revisions will be passed by a straightforward majority decision in the Iraqi parliament; any crisis over Kurdish objections will erupt only after a subsequent referendum, probably in late 2010 at the earliest…

I always thought Washington’s earlier attempt to impose political “benchmarks” on a– supposedly already sovereign– Iraqi government was patronizing, colonialist, ham-handed, and unrealistic. Now, it is being rapidly buried (and no-one in Washington is paying much heed, at all.)
It is intensely depressing, though, to see the Obama administration now ginning up an effort to define political benchmarks for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Have they learned nothing from the fate of the “benchmarks” defined for Iraq?
It is also as though people who live in the Washington policy bubble have zero awareness of how their actions are viewed by that 95% of humanity who happen not be American. Including, of course, Afghans and Pakistanis.
Erm, guys, I would like to introduce you to this thing called “the printing press.” Also, the “wireless telegraph.” And I’ve heard tell, too, of a device called “The Inter-Tubes.” Of course, if you’re still living in the days of the quill pen and the pony express, you could perhaps imagine that people living outside the US might not learn of your plans for colonialist-style arrogance.

In 2009, as 2001: US needs Iran, Russia

On September 12, 2001, as US military planners started examining the options they had t counter-attach against Al-Qaeda and its hosts in Afghanistan, they and their colleagues in the State Department rapidly realized that if they wanted to actually topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan they’d need the help of two key nearby powers: Iran and Russia– and to a lesser extent, India.
They got the help they needed from those regional actors, and went ahead with the invasion operation.
Now, eight years later, the US/NATO forces are still in Afghanistan. And those forces are in deep trouble there. (Osama Bin Laden, btw, is still at large.)
The 95,000 US/NATO forces in Afghanistan are already significantly dependent on Russia and Iran, to be able to maintain their presence in that craggy and distant land. If their commanders are to avert the many worse catastrophes that loom there, they will need even more help from both Russia and Iran.
That is part of the essential background to the decision the State Department announced yesterday, that the US will be participating in the meeting that the Tehran government proposed Wednesday, between Iran and the P5+1 group.
Dafna Linzer of ProPublica notes at that link,

    Iran reiterated many of its previous ideas for talks while scaling back specific requests made in previous proposals [2] (PDF). Among other things, Tehran called for an end to hostilities and for talks on issues of specific concern to Iran, such as drug trafficking and security in the Middle East. Unlike previous Iranian proposals, this one does not contain a litany of past grievances with the United States and does not assert an Iranian commitment to advancing its nuclear efforts.

On Friday, Russian PM Vladimir Putin expressed his country’s clear opposition to any further escalation of outside pressure (whether sanctions or military force) against Iran.
There is now confirmation from Tel Aviv that Israeli PM Netanyahu made a secret visit to Moscow shortly before Putin announced this decision. If, as we can assume, he discussed the Iran file while there, then evidently he failed to prevent Putin from making that clear decision against escalation.
The Israeli government and its many powerful and well-organized supporters inside the US have been vigorously campaigning for all non-Iranian powers– especially the western governments– to ratchet up the level of pressure they place on Iran.
Today in Israel, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who is also Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, gave an interview to Reuters in which he seemed somewhat seriously behind the curve, still arguing that Russia and China might get on board the anti-Israel campaign.
I doubt it. Maybe it’s time for Israel and its supporters in western countries to grow up and take a realistic look at the fact that within the world community that needs to make the decision on this matter they are in a very small minority.
And quite evidently, very few people– even in the strongly pro-Israeli United States– will be in a mood to forgive Israel if its actions towards Iran put at risk the lives of 60,000 US service members in Afghanistan.

Continuing bad news for US/NATO in Afghanistan

Actually, perhaps trending pretty rapidly toward the truly catastrophic?
Joshua Fost of Registan blogged earlier today that “Ghazni Province is falling to the Taliban.” (Map and basic info on Ghazni are here.)
Later in Foust’s post, he seems to backtrack a bit, writing,

    There’s no way to know if that’s what is going on in Ghazni. There is almost no media presence there… and non-essential [US/NATO] units are starting to avoid the area (one friend told me the special forces there are advising non-SOF groups to stay away because of the danger). Without more information, we don’t know for certain how things are shaping up in the province as a whole, but given how many districts had zero voting during the elections (reportedly 11), it’s pretty clear the Taliban are claiming the province bit by bit.

The problems reported there regarding the recent election are part of the even broader crisis of governance and legitimacy that is facing the US/NATO presence in the country.
Today, too, the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission “annulled ballots from dozens of polling stations in Afghanistan’s presidential election… kicking off a lengthy fraud investigation that could keep Afghans locked in political uncertainty for months.”
Interestingly, Ghaszni was one of the three provinces described by the ECC with the most fraud identified in its reported election results.
On ABC TV news tonight, I heard US special envoy Richard Holbrooke expressing what seemed like a first attempt to fudge on the sanctity of the Afghan elections. He was arguing something like, “Oh, here are problems in elections everywhere… ”
Perhaps, Richard. But not problems on the order of the problems the ECC is uncovering.
Meanwhile, additional indications of the extent of the Taliban/insurgent influence in the country come from the series of maps at this website for the NGO International Council on Security and Development (though I don’t think the main there is completely probative.)
But also from this account by recently released NYT journo Steve Farrell of the four days he spent as a captive of Taliban in northern Kunduz province.
He wrote,

    There was no doubting the absolute force of their writ in the area southwest of Kunduz, which we traversed time and again, in an area of cornfields, rice plantations, mud brick villages, waterways and other farmlands, measuring perhaps eight miles long by three or four miles wide. They drove down lanes, through villages, stopping at will and talking to residents, boasting about how the people provided a willing intelligence service to them. The extent of volition was impossible to determine, but the Taliban were the only armed presence I saw there for four days.
    Interestingly, they paid when they needed gas for the car, instead of just commandeering it, which they could have easily done. Some villagers appeared very friendly, others more wary and formally polite.
    Motorists unfailingly gave way as soon as they saw a Taliban car coming in the other direction, and snapped to a smile and an Islamic greeting. Whether through consent or fear was impossible to read on the faces of villages who were rarely allowed glimpses of us, except at favored stops and safe houses…

All this makes me hope that the US and NATO militaries have well-developed “Emergency Plans” for the consolidation and subsequent evacuation of the units that have been spread so broadly throughout the whole of craggy Afghanistan over recent months. (Not least, because they were busy preparing for the election.)
But even more, I hope the Obama administration and its NATO allies have a political “Emergency Plan” for how they will ask the world’s non-NATO big powers and Afghanistan’s neighbors to help extricate them from this mess.
Of course, it will be quite normal for these other powers to require some kind of significant political quid pro quo for this.
… All this happening now, and tomorrow is another September 11…