Tuesday, June 29, 2010

More on Afghan Mineral Wealth

AFP reports that the Taliban have threatened to attack any companies attempting to extract minerals from Afghanistan.  This is wholly unsurprising.  I actually find it a little odd that the Taliban felt the need to state their threat explicitly.  It would seem to me clear—threat or no threat—that any company doing business with the Karzai government would become a target, just as aid organizations have been targeted.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On McChrystal

The now infamous profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone makes for compelling reading. McChrystal comes across as a deeply dedicated and committed commander. For all the hyperventilation over the disparaging remarks McChrystal has for Vice President Biden and others in the Obama administration, what is most interesting is how clearly McChrystal understands counterinsurgency—and how clearly the author of the piece, Michael Hastings, does not.

Passages like this one are particularly telling:
During the question-and-answer period, the frustration boils over. The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence. They want to be able to fight – like they did in Iraq, like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal. "We aren't putting fear into the Taliban," one soldier says.
"Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing," McChrystal says, citing an oft-repeated maxim that you can't kill your way out of Afghanistan. "The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn't work."
"I'm not saying go out and kill everybody, sir," the soldier persists. "You say we've stopped the momentum of the insurgency. I don't believe that's true in this area. The more we pull back, the more we restrain ourselves, the stronger it's getting."
"I agree with you," McChrystal says. "In this area, we've not made progress, probably. You have to show strength here, you have to use fire. What I'm telling you is, fire costs you. What do you want to do? You want to wipe the population out here and resettle it?"
A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn't have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian. "That's the way this game is," McChrystal says. "It's complex. I can't just decide: It's shirts and skins, and we'll kill all the shirts."

That McChrystal gets it, understands what must be done to achieve any sort of success in Afghanistan, makes it that much worse that he must now, in my view, be relieved of command. In what is truly epic irony, the man the article describes repeatedly as knowing just how far to push against a system and survive, in allowing this profile to be done, he has pushed too far.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Economic Assessment

Alan Blinder's Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday is a fantastic analysis and defense of Obama administration economic policies. Blinder is a professor of economics at Princeton and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. He was moved to write by a recent poll demonstrating extraordinarily low marks for the Obama administration's economic policies.

Let's start with two indisputable facts. First, both the financial system and the economy are in far better shape today than they were in the dark days of January or February 2009. For example, even though unemployment is higher now, it is receding rather than soaring, dropping to 9.7% in May from 9.9% in April. Second, the growth of the U.S. economy over, say, the last 12-18 months beat virtually every forecast made back then. I know, because I stuck my neck out on this page with a forecast viewed as too optimistic in July 2009, and the U.S. economy did better than I predicted.

. . . .

Why the bad reputation [for the stimulus package]? The main reason appears to be that the White House's January 2009 forecast was too optimistic -- projecting, for example, an unemployment rate around 8% by the end of 2009 if the stimulus passed. (It was actually 10%.) Notice the reasoning here: Since unemployment turned out worse than expected, the stimulus must have failed. Did someone say non sequitur? Let's see. If the Yankees lose a game 13-11, as they did one day last month, the hitters must have failed. Right?

Try to imagine any government spending a massive sum like $862 billion without creating or saving millions of jobs. More specifically, suppose peak-year spending from the stimulus bill was about $300 billion -- which is roughly correct -- and that our hapless government just sprinkled its purchases around at random. On average, each job in our economy accounts for about $100,000 worth of GDP. (We are a highly productive bunch!) So $300 billion worth of additional GDP should be the product of about three million more jobs. Do we really believe the stimulus produced only a small fraction of that -- or none at all?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lessons Learned from the Anbar Awakening

A friend and I are reading Al-Anbar Awakening: U.S. Marines and Counterinsurgency in Iraq 2004-2009 together, intending to talk over the lessons learned by the Marines in their part of the United States struggle to learn “to eat soup with a knife.” I just opened the book this evening and began reading the forward, which is written by Gen. John F. Kelly—who I had the opportunity to speak with almost a year ago. Immediately I was struck by what he had to say. Here are a few passages I found note worthy:

In Iraq to a very large degree, we—the U.S. military and civilians—were the source of the insurgency. Honest men and women can argue the whys, what-ifs, and what might-have-beens, but ultimately, it was mostly about unfulfilled promises and the heavy-handed military approach taken by some over the summer of 2003 that caused events to spiral out of control.
And, as far as why the Anbaris turned against the insurgency:

To [the Anbaris], their alliance with [al-Qaeda] was a marriage of convenience to fight the U.S. occupation. Al-Qaeda brought dedication, organization, funding, and a willingness to die. Over time, however, it overplayed its hand and wore out its welcome by forcing an extreme Islamic agenda on a generally secular and very tribal culture. Al-Qaeda’s campaign evolved from assistance, to persuasion, to intimidation, to murder in the most horrific ways, all designed to intimidate Anbari society—tribes and sheikhs alike—to adopt the most extreme form of Islam . . . . It was increasingly directed at the sheikhs themselves, and just as importantly, it began to have an impact on the business of tribal leaders.
More to come. Obviously, the value of lessons learned is the portability (or not) of the lesson to other contexts. From Iraq to Afghanistan, say.

Killing Off The Awakening

I'm with Ricks' friend in Iraq.  I don't think it's armed Shi'as that are killing off the awakening.  Were I seeking to restart an sectarian civil war in Iraq, I'd start by eviscerating Awakenings—and the tribes that undergird it. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Weird Story of the Day

AFP reports that a 50 year-old California man was arrested in Pakistan on a quest to kill Osama bin Laden.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Just What It Needs

The New York Times leads with a story today detailing the discovery of vast amounts of mineral wealth in Afghanistan. According to the article, the United States "has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan." The deposits include iron, copper, gold, lithium, and cobalt—minerals necessary for everything from heavy industry to high technology. A Pentagon source reportedly describes Afghanistan as the "Saudi Arabia of lithium."

The Times article highlights the possibility the mineral wealth has to transform the Afghan economy. That is certainly so. Unfortunately they also have the possibility of transforming the Afghan conflict—a political one—into a rent-seeking conflict and exacerbating the already outrageous amounts of graft and corruption retarding that country's development.

Even without the mineral wealth, Afghanistan suffers from epidemic corruption. Already, the heroin trade adds a degree of complexity to counterinsurgency that has proven extraordinarily difficult to surmount. Warlords, Taliban, civilian farmers, and members of the Afghan government all profit or draw their livelihoods from the cultivation of poppies for heroin delivery. Interdicting the trade has the possibility of alienating or impoverishing the local populace, undermining COIN's overall efforts. The common profiting from the trade gives elements of the Afghan government or warlords who nominally support ISAF reason to cooperate in a limited way with the Taliban.

The difficulty of extracting minerals from the ground—as compared to harvesting poppies—may make mineral wealth an unlikely complicating factor to the Afghan war. However, the experience of blood diamonds in Africa should teach us that complicated extractive resources can be tapped by seemingly unsophisticated armed bands and used to fuel already entrenched conflicts.

Vast mineral wealth also raises the strategic importance of Afghanistan. Afghanistan already held substantial strategic import due both to its location geographically and untapped petroleum and natural gas reserves. Copper, gold, and lithium—ores necessary for high tech devices—will have only increasing value and importance. The scale of the deposits hinted at by the New York Times articles suggest that Afghanistan will be of increasing interest to Iran, Pakistan, Russia, the United States, and China. This has the potential of increasing the number of spoilers involved in any conflict-resolution or accommodation process. It also may open doors to the Karzai government otherwise foreclosed to it; giving it alternatives to dealing with the United States—an already fraught relationship.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Contesting the Constructionist Argument

Recently retired Justice David Souter have a fantastic commencement address at Harvard last week where he outlines several reasons the constructionist theory of constitutional law (he calls it the "fair reading model") is so flawed, and how progressive decisions from the bench isn't judicial activism, but rather the product of progress and the passage of time.

He cites specifically the Pentagon Papers case, where in the First Amendment's press protections are in direct conflict with latter Amendments concerning the government's responsibility to provide security. He makes much of the "paired desires" of the American people, which often stand in conflict. He notes,

"The court has to decide which of our approved desires has the better claim, right here, right now, and a court has to do more than read fairly when it makes this kind of choice. And choices like the ones that the justices envisioned in the Papers case make up much of what we call law."

If you have 15 minutes, read the whole thing. It's a remarkable argument.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cutting through the bullsh*t

I quick linked a posting from the Economist a couple days ago, but their reporters continue to get to the heart of the matter on the oil spill. Column inch after column inch and minute after minute of cable news channel cacophony demands that President Obama be more angry, be more present in the gulf. They demand he spend more time on the ground. What they don't tend to discuss is what exactly the president should be DOING, just that he should be LOOKING angry.

I find this commentary ridiculous and I'm not alone in that. The Economist again has a blog post up on this subject. They quote Clive Crook of The Atlantic when he says, "Apparently it is a great idea to elect a president who is calm in a crisis, except when there's a crisis. Then what you need is somebody to lead the nation in panic."

The President of the United States MUST do more than one thing at a time. I am frustrated with people who complain about the optics, but have very little in the way of criticism for the substance of the government's and the president's reaction. Serious problems demand serious people.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Economist Piece

From the Economist's Democracy in America blog comes a fantastic response to the chattering classes hurling blame on President Obama.