Monday, December 28, 2009

What to do about the Green Movement

Stephen Walt is right:
First, we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them. So our official position needs to measured and temperate, and to scrupulously avoid any suggestion that we are egging the Greens on or actively backing them with material aid.

Second, this is an especially foolish time to be rattling sabers and threatening military action. Threatening or using force is precisely the sort of external interference that might give the current regime a new lease on life. If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing. I don’t object to making it clear how much the U.S. government deplores the regime’s repressive measures, but this is one of those moment where we ought to say less than we feel.

. . . In fact, the velvet revolutions were a triumph of slow and patient engagement from a position of strength. The upheavals in Eastern Europe were an indigenous phenomenon and the product of containment, diplomatic engagement, and the slow-but-steady spread of democratic ideals through the Helsinki process and other mechanisms. And the first Bush administration was smart enough to keep its hands off until the demise of communism was irreversible, which is precisely the approach we ought to take toward Iran today.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Iran on Fire

Marking the seventh day since Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's death and Ashura, opposition protesters have taken to the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Qom, among other cities. The protests have been large and endured some violence with 12 protesters reportedly killed already--including, importantly, Mir Hussein Mousavi's nephew. Protests have been marked by chants of Marg Bar Dictator--down with the dictator--and Allahu Akbar.

For updates on what is happening in Iran, check out Iran News Now, Andrew Sullivan, Tehran Live, or Tehran Bureau. The LA Times, NY Times, and the BBC have done a pretty good job reporting, as well.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Afghan Strategy Update

Rajiv Chandrasekaran provides a disheartening report on the progress towards Pres. Obama's new Afghan Strategy in the Washington Post:

Members of Obama's war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war. The disagreements have opened a fault line between a desire for an early exit among several senior officials at the White House and a conviction among military commanders that victory is still achievable on their terms.

The differences are complicating implementation of the new strategy.

UPDATE: Joe Klein explains why Chandrasekaran's report is disheartening.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Iran, Warmongering, and the New York Times

Every now and again, the New York Times lends its editorial pages to an individual bent on bombing Iran. Last year, it allowed Benny Morris to publish a saber-rattling screed that argued for an immediate Israeli or American assault on Iran—thankfully, Benny Morris’s call was ignored.

Wednesday, the Times allowed Alan J. Kuperman to echo Morris’s call and urge bombing of Iran. Kuperman’s unpersuasive argument—that bombing would not undermine Iran’s opposition movement and that Iran’s response would either be negligible or deterrable—is based on a selective, inapt reading of history as well as a gross overstatement of Iran’s current activities and the United States ability to respond. Absurdly, Kuperman premises his argument on the (incorrect) notion that Iran has violated international law and then suggests, ultimately, that the United States take action that would clearly violate international law.

Kuperman suggests that bombing Iran would only temporarily retard Iran’s opposition movement. He finds authority for this proposition in the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999. He notes that NATO bombing temporarily bolstered Milosevic’s popularity but that within a short time, pro-democracy forces ousted Milosevic. But opposition movements are necessarily parochial—to claim that because, in the one instance of Serbia, external use of force only temporarily and weakly magnified the citizenry’s nationalism, that similar external use of force in the case of Iran will have a similarly weak effect is nonsensical. Kuperman has here indulged nothing more than a post hoc, ergo proctor hoc logical fallacy. Indeed, examples of attacks resulting in a rallying-around-the-flag effect abound: the United States following Pearl Harbor or September 11 are instructive.

Kuperman further tortures reason by arguing that the United States could attack Iran and suffer relatively little cost because of the size of the US air force. Kuperman believes that Iran would not retaliate for a strike against its nuclear facilities because Iranian retaliation would invite a wider bombing campaign. Given the large (and growing) deployment of American troops in countries neighboring Iran, and the ability of the Iranians to exert influence in each of those countries—to say nothing of Iranian cooperation vis-à-vis Afghanistan—Iranian retaliation for American bombing would appear to be guaranteed. The threat of additional American bombing is unlikely to serve as a deterrent for Iran because the amount of bombings required to make Iranian retaliation cost prohibitive is quite large. History has demonstrated that the threat of air assault on an entrenched regime does little to dissuade such a regime in its offensive actions; that only a lengthy, wide reaching bombing campaign, or a bombing campaign coupled with a ground assault puts an end to the offensive action—see, for example, the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999 or the air war in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Unlike either of those examples, bombing Iranian nuclear sites (and the wider bombing campaign Kuperman invites following the inevitable Iranian retaliation) does not have the benefit of either legality or moral force. Though not Security Council authorized, NATO bombing in Serbia was widely by the international community seen as a moral necessity to end Milosevic’s genocide in Kosovo. While an Osirak-like strike would likely receive mild public condemnation and private support, a wider bombing campaign would be vociferously condemned, reviled, and would only further undermine US public diplomacy goals in the developing world. It would also be illegal.

It is also no answer for Kuperman to assert that Iranian retaliation could be weathered because Iran already aids its proxies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though Kuperman is correct, he conflates Iranian proxies with those forces actively engaged in combat with the United States. He also ignores that any materiel support Iran may give to these proxies could be ratcheted up and that the proxies who aren’t harrying US forces could be unleashed.

Finally, bombing Iran’s nuclear sites will not solve the problem. As Kuperman himself notes, there are likely nuclear sites US intelligence is unaware of, US bombing may not effectively reach many of the hardened Iranian sites, and destroying even those sites will not halt—it may at best delay—Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Unilaterally bombing Iran’s nuclear sites may not be the worst policy option available to US decision makers, but it is close.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan Speech

Tonight, the President made a strong argument for continued US commitment to Afghanistan in his speech from West Point:
[T]he American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now - and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance - would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.
In the process, he also outlined a classical counterinsurgency strategy:
These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.
He then outlined a broader US national security vision—something that the United States desperately needs:
And unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies.

So as a result, America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict. We will have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold - whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere - they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.

And we cannot count on military might alone. We have to invest in our homeland security, because we cannot capture or kill every violent extremist abroad. We have to improve and better coordinate our intelligence, so that we stay one step ahead of shadowy networks.

We will have to take away the tools of mass destruction. That is why I have made it a central pillar of my foreign policy to secure loose nuclear materials from terrorists; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to pursue the goal of a world without them. Because every nation must understand that true security will never come from an endless race for ever-more destructive weapons - true security will come for those who reject them.

We will have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone. I have spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships. And we have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World - one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.

Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values - for the challenges that we face may have changed, but the things that we believe in must not. That is why we must promote our values by living them at home - which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America's authority.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What If . . . ?

Last night, in a conversation regarding the economy and fiscal policy, I was asked, “What would happen if the United States stopped paying for welfare programs?” I responded that people would die. But the question asked—though a stark and cold one—is a good one. The inquirer was concerned that the money spent by the United States on social welfare programs could be better directed by individual; he was curious whether taking the money that funds those programs and returning it to the tax payers that earned them would result in more jobs.

Above is a chart comparing the highest individual income tax with the annual unemployment rate and change in annual real gross domestic product from 1940-2008.* In the post-War era, the Eisenhower administration featured the highest individual tax rate (91%) while the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations hosted the lowest and second lowest highest individual income tax rate regimes. While during the Eisenhower administration the unemployment rate averaged 4.875%, during the George H.W. Bush administration it averaged 6.14% and during the George W. Bush administration it averaged 5.265%.

It is of course a truism that the economy is more complicated than to lend itself to full description with just GDP, highest income tax rate, and unemployment. The above describes only that merely lowering the highest individual tax rate does not yield greater employment levels. And, in reviewing the chart, it appears that lowering the highest individual income tax rate does not generate GDP growth. A more complete analysis should include a discussion of the amount of tax payers that actually pay that highest individual tax rate.

Turning now to an actual welfare program, when asked about cutting social welfare I immediately thought of WIC. So, what would happen were WIC eliminated? In 2007, WIC cost the federal government $5.4 billion. Also in 2007, 1.1 million tax returns were filed at the highest individual rate (35%). Now, distributing the cost of WIC over the income tax brackets at the same proportion it was taxed, and dividing those values by the number of returns filed in that bracket tells us that by eliminating WIC, each of the 1.1 million filers in the highest tax bracket would have saved $577.49, or 2/10 of a percent of the lowest earner captured by the 35% bracket. On the other hand, WIC service 8.3 million pregnant women and infant mothers.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

“Most of the Taliban in my area are young men who need jobs”

Today the New York Times reports on another positive COIN policy development in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the United States is allowing Afghan tribal leaders to select development projects and then employing former-Taliban fighters to complete the projects.

This program of bringing insurgents into the fold by offering them employment tacks closely with US programs in Anbar--there, US construction contracts were awarded to the tribes that composed the Anbar Awakening Council. It also follows closely the tenets of COIN. Employing military-age men simultaneously drains the surplus of idle, aggressive young men and provides those young men with an alternative means to support their families beyond taking $20 to plant a roadside bomb.

The sorts of abuse reported in today's Washington Post, however, undercut US efforts in Afghanistan. Curtailing detainee abuse is--and ought to be--one of the highest US policy objectives.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Sons of Afghanistan

In September of 2006, as the Sons of Iraq—the so-called Anbar Awakening—began to emerge in Al Anbar province. At that time, one of the leaders improbably boasted that after they defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq, they would go to Afghanistan and defeat Al-Qaeda there. And so they have . . . after a fashion.

The New York Time reported yesterday that the United States and its allies have begun arming independent, indigenous anti-Taliban militias. These militias, like the Awakening Councils in Iraq, have grown-up organically. Unlike the Awakening Councils, the Afghan militias do not appear to be localized to any particular region of Afghanistan. Rather, they appear to be spread throughout Afghanistan. Also, unlike the Awakening Councils, they do not appear be overtly nationalist. Apparently, the anti-Taliban militias are something of a village-by-village or valley-by-valley response to the Taliban that the United States hopes to harness and coordinate into a tribal uprising.

As the Awakening Councils gained momentum in the spring of 2007, I wrote that, while the Sons of Iraq were clearly serving a useful end, the emergence of an armed group not necessarily loyal to the State—and one the Shiite central government clearly feared—could be dangerous. My fear then was that if the Iraqi central government did not achieve some sort of condominium with the Sons of Iraq, Iraq would eventually witness another round of sectarian violence, this time between two entities armed and supported by the United States. Fortunately, the Iraqi Central Government and the Sons of Iraq have been able to work together, and the civil war has not be renewed.

Afghan Awakening Councils do not present the same threat of civil war. However, building any armed power structure outside of the State is inherently dangerous. That said, in the case of Afghanistan, devolving power to the tribes may be the appropriate solution to the vexing problem of how to stabilize Afghanistan.

I have, in the past, drawn parallels between Somalia and Afghanistan—the threat their respective instabilities pose to US national security. Somalia, as strange as it may sound, may possess an example of the utility of devolving power to traditional tribal structures: Somaliland. Somaliland is a stable, self-governing, and democratic entity in northern Somalia. Its success may be attributable to the indigenous, tribal-based reconciliation process it underwent in the early 1990s—a reconciliation process that was successful in marked contrast to the constant, on-going failure of externally grafted reconciliation processes in rump Somalia.

All of the above is to suggest that a widespread tribal uprising, supported by the United States, will not in the near-term result in a strong, central government. However, unlike the corrupt Karzai regime, grafted on Afghanistan from outside forces, the indigenous tribal structures may actually be able to police their individual domains, and extend necessary stability throughout Afghanistan.

Of course, the twin difficulties of convincing the Pashtun tribes to abandon the Taliban, and of convincing the tribes that have taken up arms against the Taliban not to later turn those arms on even a weak Afghan state remain. That said, US support for the tribal militias represents a heartening step towards pursuing a coherent strategy that both reflects Afghan realities and is responsive to real US national security needs.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not So Rogue

Several months ago I wrote about Sarah Palin and the myth making surrounding her. At the time, Time Magazine labeled her a Renegade and featured her visage on its cover. Now that Ms. Palin has released her book, "Going Rogue," it seems appropriate to revisit the matter. Palin is not a rogue. Instead, Palin is a rather mundane charlatan, affecting a folksy, populist manner for base (pun-intended) appeal.

Appropriately, an article appears in today's Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune discussing a forthcoming analysis of Palin's speech patterns, noting:

David Bowie, an English professor specializing in linguistics at the same university, said Palin didn't use so many informalities before she ran for national office.

"She doesn't sound like that when she's speaking to Alaskans," Bowie said.

Afghan Realism

Secretary of State Clinton appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos yesterday to discuss the Afghan strategy review. It is clear that Secretary Clinton understands the role the United States should play in Afghanistan:

But we have no illusions. This is not the prior days when people would come on your show and talk about how we were going to help the Afghans build a modern democracy and build a more functioning state and do all these wonderful things. That could happen but our primary focus is on the security of the United States of America. How do we protect and defend against future attacks. We do not want to see Afghanistan return to being a safe haven and a staging platform for terrorism as it was before. That is what is driving the President to make the best decision he can make.

Hopefully, Sec. Clinton’s remarks yesterday represent the emerging consensus within the administration.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Strategic Disharmony

CBS reported yesterday that President Obama has settled on a deployment of nearly all of the 40,000 requested by Gen. McChyrstal (McChrystal’s request for additional troops included 3 options: 10,000; 40,000; or 80,000 troops). The Obama administration has denied the report.

At the same time, the AP reports that NATO expects to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan with a view towards increasing the number of advisors tasked with training Afghan security forces. The limited ability of the Afghan security forces has gained more attention of late as questions of the purpose of NATO’s deployment have increased with talk of sending additional troops. These questions have only been exacerbated by the Afghan election and subsequent runoff debacle.

Finally, McClatchy reports that the price of food has spiked across Afghanistan following the UN’s decision to remove international aid workers in response to last week’s bombing.

The UN’s move is understandable but it could not have come at a worse time. If the Obama administration is planning to increase troop deployments, as CBS reported, then the US is committing itself to a more robust counterinsurgency strategy. At least, that is what the move should auger, assuming that the Obama administration has done the necessary predicate work to arriving at that decision—namely, determining the purpose of US involvement in Afghanistan, a goal (or endgame) and a broader strategic vision for the region and US national security. But, as has been discussed in this space at length, counterinsurgency requires more than additional troops. It requires stability, both through added security (troops) and economically—pulling foreign aid workers from the country, causing food prices to increase dramatically at the outset of winter, is as damaging as providing the Afghan Taliban with weapons and ammunition, perhaps more so.

Of course, the United States cannot dictate the UN’s deployment of aid and aid workers. And, while the deployment of aid under UN aegis arguably ensures a measure of protection for aid workers, the disaggregation of aid from security likely is at cross-purposes with NATO goals. Perhaps, at long last, it is time for the United States to reconsider its anemic reconstruction effort. A more robust, integrated reconstruction and civil society development effort that mirrors the military component in size, resources, and command-and-control may be a better solution.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

About Tuesday Night

The Caucus Blog over at the New York Times gives an overview of post-mortems following Tuesday's elections. One aspect of Tuesday’s election loss in Virginia likely to be overlooked is the quality of the Democratic field program. Ignoring Virginia’s organizational failings, however, will prove disastrous for the Democratic Party over the long-term.

To be sure, there are many factors that played a significant role in Deeds’ defeat. He was a poor candidate from the outset; the political climate works against democrats—the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a persistent recession only showing signs of improvement very recently, the drawn-out and unrealized healthcare reform process—and a hangover from the long 2008 presidential campaign.

Organizationally, however, the Virginia Coordinate campaign represents an epic failure of leadership. Following the Virginia Democratic Primary, many of the senior field positions were filled by veterans of the Obama for America campaign. These individuals, by virtue of their sweeping success in the 2008 presidential and primary campaigns, had excellent claims to these roles. However, their involvement with the Obama for America campaign was not necessarily indicative of their personal abilities. Indeed, the electric quality of their candidate, President Obama, deprived them of the challenges familiar to organizers in the past—challenges that teach organizers how to organize and separate those that are able to build effective machines and those that are not.

Friday, October 30, 2009


John Cassidy of the New Yorker has a post detailing the role of the Stimulus Package in yesterday's numbers revealing 3.5% annualized GDP growth in the 3rd quarter:
The three most striking figures in the G.D.P. report were that consumer spending on durable goods, such as cars and refrigerators, rose at an annualized rate of 22.3 per cent; residential investment (spending on housing) rose at an annualized rate of 23.4 per cent; and exports of goods made in the United States rose at an annualized rate of 21.4 per cent. All of these things can be traced directly to official efforts to stimulate the economy

[emphasis added]. You can read the GDP report here.

The Republic, Moral Imperatives, and The Golden Rule

Senator Tom Coburn has an illuminating profile in yesterday’s New York Times. I say illuminating because it makes plain his disdain for Congress, his colleagues, and basically anything he doesn’t like. Indeed, the reporter does not address and Sen. Coburn does not provide an explanation for seemingly chronic obstructionism except to imply that someone has to do it.

Beyond stifling the democratic process and abusing the privilege of his position he also makes at least one ridiculous statement. Towards the end of the article, in explanation for his opposition to healthcare reform, he says, “If you look historically, every great republic has died over fiscal issue. That is the biggest moral issue of our time.” If he expounds on this statement the reporter declined to include it. I dare say the reporter couldn’t include any exposition on the statement because it’s patently false as Coburn has framed it.

To my knowledge no republic has gone broke and suddenly died. There have been crises, massive loans, and rescues but not sudden death. Much to the contrary republics have “died” because of the income polarization of the haves and have-nots. Two prime examples include the French Revolution and even, to a lesser degree, the American Revolution. When the wealth of a nation is to consolidated in the upper rungs of the income ladder. When the poor get poorer, and when the government refuses to address this inequity you get revolution. Anyone would be hard pressed to say that one’s level of income has no connection to the level of healthcare they receive. Sen. Coburn would have you think that providing healthcare to the have-nots would lead to the end of our republic, when history teaches us that the exact opposite is true.

Sen. Coburn also calls this the “biggest moral issue of our time.” Now it’s unclear if he means the fiscal issue is the greatest moral issue or if he means the survival of the republic, a survival he falsely sees threatened by healthcare reform, is a great moral issue. What is clear is that for him there is not morality involved as it relates to ensuring basic healthcare to all US citizens. This seems entirely backward to me.

I balk at anyone suggesting the survival of our republic is a moral imperative. It implies a level of hubris regarding out own form of democracy that is dangerous and untethered from the reality of the imperfections in our system. It also assigns a kind of spiritual superiority to our system of government which complicates compromise. Of course, it’s not as if Sen. Coburn spends much time worrying about compromise anyway.

Instead, if one were to bring morality into the healthcare debate, it is the morality spoken of so eloquently by the late Robert F. Kennedy. Our moral imperative is to our fellow man, our fellow citizen. We are obligated by our interconnection as people to do what we can to provide for our neighbor when he or she can not provide for themselves. Why is this a moral imperative? Why in our hyper-capitalist society, built on ferocious individualism should we care for our neighbor? Because there could come a day where any one of us falls on hard times and needs a helping hand. I’m not a tremendously religious person. I don’t attend Bible study every Sunday as Sen. Coburn does, but I remember the golden rule. Treat others as you, yourself would like to be treated. Perhaps if Sen. Coburn heard "no" as much as he said "no" he would be a more humble public servant and more compassionate elected representative of this republic.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Game One

This blog is dedicated to politics and policy. And, let's be honest, it focuses on foreign policy. But I can't help but remark on last night's Game One of the World Series.

I'm a Yankees fan. So last night's Game One loss to the Philadelphia Phillies is, to put it mildly, disappointing. That said, Cliff Lee pitched a heck of a game. It is rare enough for a pitcher to go a full nine innings during the season, for Cliff Lee to go the distance in Game One of the World Series, against the Bronx Bombers, at Yankee Stadium is impressive. Much respect, Cliff Lee. Much respect.

That said, Yanks in 5.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pawlenty, the Right, and the Dangerous Game

Joe Klein, in condemning Bill O'Reilly and the folks at Fox News, is more strident than I was when condemning Gov. Tim Pawlenty in this space a few days ago:

I'd say that the constant wink-wink implications that the President is (a) a communist or socialist, (b) not an American, (c) maybe a Muslim, (d) a friend of terrorists, (e) a front man who is taking orders from...others, (f) committed to misreading or abrogating the Constitution of the United States or (g) a threat to our basic institutions--these approach sedition. [emphasis added]

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Painful Status Quo

The miserable state of political discourse in this country is well described by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker through a review of Cass Sunstein's new book On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done. This, I think, is a fair assessment of the madness:
Sunstein himself has recently been the object of a right-wing disinformation campaign. As soon as word got out that he was going to be nominated by the Obama Administration to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the American Conservative Union set up a Web site on him. It was called
. . . [F]inally, Fox News’s Glenn Beck got into the act, exhorting, in a Twitter message to his supporters, “FIND EVERYTHING YOU CAN ON CASS SUNSTEIN.” (In an interesting twist on group polarization, some liberal bloggers, who had initially not been keen on Sunstein’s nomination, decided at this point that it must be O.K.; as one of them put it, “If Glenn Beck and the other loons are against him, how bad could he be?”)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Corroding America

The Hill reports today that Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), in an interview with Newsmax magazine, said the President is “corrosive to the . . . pillars of our country – to markets, private enterprise, individual responsibility, freedom and liberty.”

To describe any public figure as “corrosive” to the “pillars of our country” cannot be dismissed as mere political rhetoric. Such an attack is—and can only be viewed as—a sweeping broadside designed to undermine the President and establish him as an “other.” If there were any question remaining whether Rep. Pawlenty would seek the 2012 Republican nomination, he has now disabused America of it.

It is, though, disingenuous (and, potentially, dangerous) for Gov. Pawlenty to describe President Obama as “corrosive” to such things as “markets, private enterprise, individual responsibility, freedom and liberty.” Indeed, were the nonsensical accusations of socialism not treated as reasonable, honest concerns by news organizations, remarks like Pawlenty’s would be laughable. Unfortunately, as we have seen over the course of the last several months, such ridiculousness must be refuted.

Under the banner of the free market, fiscal responsibility, freedom and liberty, Pawlenty seeks the nomination of a Republican party responsible for cutting taxes while engaging in incredibly reckless, unwarranted and voluntary deficit spending (see, e.g., Operation Iraqi Freedom). Pawlenty seeks the nomination of a Republican party responsible for corporate welfare both through no-bid contracts (see, e.g., Haliburton) and through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (yes, passed by a Democratic Congress but orchestrated, signed, and necessitated by a Republican administration). Pawlenty seeks the nomination of a Republican party responsible for the Patriot Act, Warrantless Wire Tapping, Free-Speech Zones, and eight of the most damaging years to the Constitution.

Pawlenty thus desires the mantle of a party more aptly described by his anti-Obama abuse than the target of said abuse. In short, Pawlenty will not only prove to ultimately be corrosive to America, he represents a party that has proven itself already corrosive to America, its values, its primacy, its national security, and its economy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

People’s War Awareness

In the New Yorker, Steve Coll deconstructs the Pashto-language “Book of Rules” distributed by the Taliban’s Military Committee to its fighters over the summer. The excerpts Coll points to demonstrate that the Taliban’s Military Committee at least is well aware of the importance of its fighters relationship with the civilian Afghan population. That the Taliban Military Committee is cognizant of the feedback loop inherent in its people’s war underscores the importance of a US strategy hyperaware of its affect on the Afghan population.

Coll’s article is also a timely reminder for the Obama administration and its critics that the Taliban, too, engage in strategy reviews and that arriving at correct—as opposed to quick, reflexive—conclusions is what yields success.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How Long is Too Long?

Over the last few weeks, as President Obama has been engaged in a review of the Afghan strategy, many commentators have breathlessly suggested that “he’s taking too long.” This criticism is wholly unfounded.

By way of comparison, the Bush administration kicked off its review of strategy in Iraq by appointing the Iraq Study Group in March of 2006. The ISG spent nine months meeting, taking evidence, and debating strategy before publishing its report and recommendations on December 6, 2006. The Bush administration then ignored the ISG’s findings and recommendations, and then took another five weeks before President Bush announced the Surge strategy on January 10, 2007.

Additionally, the war conditions in Afghanistan are markedly different from those in Iraq. As I’ve pointed out before, the conditions in Afghanistan are such that fighting effectively ceases during the winter months – medieval though it may seem, there is an actual fighting season in Afghanistan. Combined with the amount of time necessary to deploy additional resources in Afghanistan, the regularized fighting season gives this administration plenty of time to review the strategy it inherited from the Bush administration and come to grips with the critical question of the Afghan campaign: what is the United States’ goal? It must be from the answer to that question that strategic, tactical, and resource decisions flow.

None of this is to suggest that the Afghan strategy review should not be approach with a sense of urgency. It absolutely should. However, the review process has not taken too long—in this case, effective solutions are of greater utility than quick answers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Civilian Component of COIN

The New York Times has a dour report on the civilian component of COIN operations in Afghanistan. One of the many difficulties of counter insurgency is that it necessarily implicates non-security disciplines, technical and governance capacity building. Without those components, the security component of COIN is simply tilting at windmills. Without providing security stability is impossible, effective governance and technical capacity building become irrelevant—and, particularly in the American division of labor, results in gross stagnation of those efforts. The two prongs of COIN are bound-up together and both are necessary for any successful effort.

The Times report describes a deteriorating situation, though it reads as it may be a bit of hyperbole. More worrying is that the civilian efforts themselves—aside from the question of those efforts reaching the Afghan people due to security concerns—may be insufficient:
Henry Crumpton, a former top C.I.A. and State Department official who is an informal adviser to General McChrystal, called those stepped-up efforts inadequate. “Right now, the overwhelming majority of civilians are in Kabul, and the overwhelming majority never leave their compounds,” said Mr. Crumpton, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. “Our entire system of delivering aid is broken, and very little of the aid is getting to the Afghan people.”
While the number of civilian advisors seems doubtlessly anemic, the harsh Afghan winter and the regularized annual fighting season gives the United States nearly a six month window of opportunity to not only revise the strategy brought to bear in Afghanistan but to deploy the troops and technocrats necessary to implement that strategy effectively.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Holbrooke in the New Yorker

Last week's New Yorker has an excellent profile on Richard Holbrooke, the United States Special Representative to Af-Pak:
Kissinger once said, “If Richard calls you and asks you for something, just
say yes. If you say no, you’ll eventually get to yes, but the journey will be
very painful.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

Strategic Depths

Over the weekend the New York Times published an article analyzing the evolution of American strategy in Afghanistan through the lens of a firefight that occurred a year ago in Nuristan province. That firefight featured a large, well coordinated assault on an American outpost, nearly overrunning that outpost and killing 9 US troops. The next day, an eerily similar assault occurred in the same province – this one, a coordinated assault on two American outposts – killing 8 US troops.

This weekend’s assault, coming during the Obama administration’s high-profile Afghan strategy review, will doubtlessly focus attention on the controversial question of whether to deploy more US troops to Afghanistan. I’ve advocated for that as part of a broader counter insurgency strategy in the past – and I continue to believe that that is the correct approach for the situation at hand.

In fact, the New York Times article reporting this weekend’s assault on the American outposts featured comments from the Governor of Nuristan, Jamaluddin Badar:
The fighters had come from Pakistan, [Mr. Badar] said, after military operations pushed them out of their bases there. He said the strike was led by a Taliban commander named Dost Muhammad, whom he described as the shadow commander for the Taliban in Nuristan.
I have argued in the past that, as the Afghan Taliban have used Pakistan for safe-haven and strategic depth, so will the Pakistani Taliban, should the United States abandon Afghanistan. I have also argued that which side of the border functions as a safe-haven for the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban depends on the level of pressure exerted by anti-Taliban forces in the neighboring state. Mr. Badar’s comments apparently bear this argument out and demonstrate that Pakistan’s on-going push against the Pakistani Taliban is having an effect.

Rather than react to the coordinated assaults on its outposts in Nuristan, the United States should recognize that the fight in Pakistan and the fight in Afghanistan are integrally related. Here, now, the stability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are at stake. The United States should reinforce its position, provide sufficient troops and civilian assistance to wage an effective counter insurgency, and to aid Pakistan by denying the Pakistani Taliban Afghan breathing room.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Being Named Mehsud May Be Hazardous To Your Health

The AFP and BBC report that the younger brother of Kalimullah Mehsud, younger brother of Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a clash with Pakistani forces in North Waziristan on Monday. Hakimullah Mehsud, the late Kalimullah’s older brother, is the current leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban – commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban. Hakimullah inherited his job from Baitullah Mehsud who was killed by a drone strike in August.

Faced with the ongoing joint US-Pakistani pursuit of Pakistani Taliban, it’s becoming quite dangerous to be a Mehsud in Pakistan.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Protecting the Population

The crux of counter insurgency strategy is coaxing the population to support you rather than the insurgency – the winning of hearts and minds. To do this, the counter insurgency force must protect the population; the counter insurgency force must also define itself in opposition to the insurgency: counter insurgents can provide security, insurgents cannot; counter insurgents can provide justice, insurgents cannot; counter insurgents protect the population, insurgents cannot.

On this last point, protecting the population, NATO’s forces in Afghanistan have been dreadful. Instances of ISAF airstrikes killing dozens of Afghan civilians have been abundant over the last eight years. It is to Gen. McChrystal’s credit that in response to the disastrous airstrike in May that he issued an order acknowledging the counter productive nature of airstrikes and heavily restricting their use.

So, one would think, today’s report of 30 Afghan civilians killed when their passenger bus struck a roadside bomb near Kandahar would work to NATO’s favor, beginning to wean the population of Kandahar from the insurgents. However, in today’s bombing, we can see the paradoxes of counter insurgency well illustrated. While the population will turn against NATO for collateral damage emanating from its use of air strikes, a bombing like today’s will not compel the same reaction vis-à-vis the insurgents. Rather, the population will look at today’s bombing and ask, “Why can’t NATO secure the highways, and prevent bombings of passenger busses?” The question is a fair one. NATO cannot secure the highways for many reasons, not least of which is that there are too few NATO troops in Afghanistan generally, and in Kandahar province in particular.

Afghans will not countenance the indiscriminant killing of their brothers and sisters by either NATO or the Pashtu insurgency. But, the technological advantage, the foreign origins, and the transitory nature of the ISAF sets the standard of conduct for NATO much higher – and for the insurgency, much lower. The careful, conscientious use of force by a sufficiently large contingent of NATO troops is the only way forward in Afghanistan.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Generals Kelly and McChrystal

This past Monday, the same day that Gen. McChrystal’s confidential report was leaked, I had the pleasure of speaking with Major General John Kelly, USMC. Gen. Kelly is currently serving as deputy commanding General of Camp Pendleton. Prior to his current posting, he served three tours in Iraq, from the invasion until last year. During his most recent tour, he commanded the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Anbar Province. Effectively, from February 2008 until February 2009 he was running the show in the province where the Sons of Iraq – or Awakening Councils – were born, and where the tide against the nationalist, Sunni insurgency began to break.

Gen. Kelly was remarkably candid throughout his discourse and, when asked whether we can win in Afghanistan, his answer was simultaneously cautious and unequivocal. Gen. Kelly averred at the notion of winning but he stated without equivocation that the ultimate endorsement of COIN strategy in Iraq – the sort of thing I’ve argued for in this space previously – is absolutely reproducible and necessary in Afghanistan. Which, unsurprisingly, is the sort of thing that Gen. McChrystal has argued for and is why the request for additional forces is necessary must be fulfilled. Additional forces are not sufficient, however; they must be tasked with protection of the population not simply hunt-and-kill operations, the commitment must be long-term, and the commitment of more troops must coupled with civil-society and works projects.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Online Polls Redux

Finally, an example of a good online poll question.

CNN Quickvote: What is your favorite dinosaur?

Tyrannosaurus Rex

I'm going with triceratops.

The Equivalency of Death Threats

Joe Klein’s latest article in Time reveals a stunning misunderstanding of counter-insurgency. In a broad attack on NATO’s current strategy in Afghanistan, Klein points to Lt. Col. John Nagl who says the heart of the Pashtu insurgency is in Kandahar, not in neighboring Helmand where the US has concentrated forces since this past spring. Lt. Col. Nagl is probably right that the heart of the Pashtu insurgency is in Kandahar but his analogy to Fallujah is flawed. Unlike the Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, the Pashtu insurgency has strong links to the opium trade and disrupting their ability to collect rents from opium is integral to turning the tide.

But Joe Klein makes an even more fundamental error. He writes:
It will resist any suggestion to leave Helmand and redeploy to Kandahar. "That
would be a death sentence for all the people in Helmand who have supported us,"
a military expert told me. It is a compelling argument but, ultimately, a flawed
one; death sentences are being delivered every night in Kandahar.
Klein is wrong. Counter-insurgency demands gaining the local population’s trust. For the local population to work with, let alone trust, NATO forces, it must believe that NATO will stick around – it cannot believe that NATO forces will be transitory, moving into an area, taking advantage of local support, and then leave, abandoning the local population to returning Taliban fighters and exposing it to reprisals. For most of NATO’s 8 year history in Afghanistan, it was undermanned to provide the sort of guarantee of long-term presence and involvement to warrant local support and trust. Only now is NATO beginning to reach areas of the country long controlled by the Taliban – to leave those areas, as Klein suggests, would be to destroy any goodwill earned and reinforce the local population’s belief that NATO is transitory and cooperation is a death sentence. In this way, death threats in Helmand and death threats in Kandahar are not equivalent. NATO should not abandon Helmand. Kandahar should come next, but not at the expense of Helmand and NATO’s ultimate goals.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Society Becoming Less Civil?

Online polls frequently get on my nerves because, instead of asking for pure opinions, they ask people to hazard uneducated guesses on questions that are ultimately empirical. Case in point is a Quick Vote poll from earlier today, which asked:

“Is society in general becoming less civil?”

Respondents, who for the purposes of this post I will assume were predominantly American, overwhelmingly answered “yes.” I am skeptical of this assessment. My cynicism about the role of deliberation in liberal democracy aside, situating the current state of American discourse in historical perspective gives us no reason to believe we have become less civil. Certainly the tenor of the health care debate, taken as a whole, is not more contentious than the discourse that characterized the Iraq debate, or even Bill Clinton’s health care plan. Going back two more decades, it may even be safe to say we’ve made serious improvements since the Vietnam controversy and the civil rights debate in the 60s.

Fortunately, we have relatively objective measures of civic attitudes and behavior. The World Values Survey has compiled data on political and social attitudes with hundreds of survey questions to hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries since the early 1980s. I’ve compiled summary data for a few indicators (many of which are commonly employed in political behavior research) of civic attitudes in the US that were available for multiple years. A casual analysis of the results below provides some interesting, if ultimately inconclusive insights about variation in civic attitudes in America. First, interpersonal trust, one of the most widely used indicators of civic-ness in comparative survey research, has stayed remarkably constant since 1995. Second, the proportion of people that identified members of another race as people they would be uncomfortable having as neighbors has stayed relatively constant as well. Third, the proportion of people identifying with their local geographic unit, as opposed to the country as a whole, has not changed significantly. As anomalies, active membership in charitable organizations seems to have decreased, as has the proportion of people that report a high level of life satisfaction (although this effect could be from my aggregation of the responses). In short, although none of these indicators directly measure the vitriol of discourse, they do suggest that political and social behavior in the US has changed little, at least since 1995. I suppose it’s always possible that this particular health care debate brings out the worst in people, but I think that’s a tough case to make. (By way of caveat, I have not performed any statistical tests on these data, and I use “significant” in the colloquial, and not statistical, sense.)




Total Sample




Interpersonal Trust

Most People Can Be Trusted




You Can’t Be Too Careful




Member of charitable/humanitarian organization

Not a member



Inactive member



Active member



Would not like to have as neighbor- members of different race





Not mentioned




Life satisfaction













Geographical identification










That said, the CNN poll is interesting because it can be used as an indication of people’s perceptions. If relatively objective indicators of civic attitudes have not changed significantly, a really interesting question is why people perceive behavior to have done so. By way of one speculative hypothesis, the internet is a non-costly form of communication that facilitates the distribution of extreme discourse, even if the absolute number of people that harbor those opinions is relatively unchanged. Other thoughts?