Friday, February 26, 2010

Balking against the Unemployed

In a truly dispicable display, Senator Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky) is blocking the passage of a bill that would give a month's extension on unemployment benefits to Americans still struggling to find work. The New York Times reports the bill would also "extend federal subsidies to help pay health premiums for people who have lost health insurance along with their jobs."

Why is Bunning holding this up? Because he doesn't want the cost to add to the deficit. This is nothing more than dogmatic rejection-ism of Keynesian economics that will potentially lead to the suffering of millions of Americans. Apparently Bunning is "trying to make a point to the people of the United States."

That point is clear. There is no end to Republican obstructionism, even on matters of dire importance to millions of Americans. The government was asleep at the wheel when the housing bubble formed and the financial markets began trading air and now, thanks to Congressmen like Jim Bunning, they're doing their best to drive America into a tree.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Stay Engaged

Like Jason, I’m impressed by the Pillar-Nagl debate in the National Interest. Like Jason, I think both gentlemen make excellent points; I find myself agreeing with both to some extent. But, where Jason engages with Pillar in his questioning of the purpose of US involvement in Afghanistan, I diverge. Instead, I, like Nagl, recognize that not all conflict zones are created equally.

It seems that Pillar implicitly argues that the United States is only able to engage in one conflict zone at a time, that if it is involved in Afghanistan then it cannot deal with security threats in Yemen. Or, conversely, that the Underwear Bomber having operated from Yemen indicates that Afghanistan is no longer relevant to US national security concerns.

While US resources are finite—and its freedom of action has been severely curtailed since the 2003 invasion of Iraq—it is objectively not the case that United States is so tied up in Afghanistan that it cannot address other, smaller security threats. Various responses, including both military special forces and civilian covert attacks, have been used over the last year to address al-Qaeda branded security threats in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

It is also not the case that the Underwear Bomber’s non-Afghan point of origin is indicative of Afghanistan no longer being a threat to US national security. Abandoning Afghanistan presents at least two distinct threats. First, eight years of war in Afghanistan should have taught us above all that conflict separation based on such thing so arbitrary as the Durand line is nonsensical. The notion that abandoning Afghanistan will not have regional consequences is insane. There is no reason that, should Afghanistan collapse, the Pakistani Taliban will not begin to use Afghanistan as a safe haven as the Afghan Taliban have used Pakistan since 2002. It should be remembered that the Pakistani Taliban have a real beef with the state of Pakistan—they, unlike the Afghan Taliban, would actually like to see Pakistan collapse. Of course, the collapse of Pakistan is a nightmare scenario.

Second, while the hijackers that actually carried out the attacks were not Afghans, the freedom of action al-Qaeda enjoyed there certainly facilitated those and other attacks. Though al-Qaeda is a diffuse operation (diffuser now than it was in 2001), having a base of operations is useful to the organization. Were that not the case, bin Laden would not have relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan. Were that not the case, then it would be mere coincidence that so many of the terrorists that launched or attempted to launch attacks in Europe since 9/11 spent time in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Though the Underwear Bomber’s plot was hatched in Yemen, it simply does not follow that Yemen is the sole threat to the United States currently. Yemen is merely the most recent example of a phenomenon that we might take to be a natural law at this point: weak or failed states afford non-state actors space in which to incubate, train, and launch attacks. The degree of intervention required to ensure (so far as that is possible) US national security is a fact-specific question. In Afghanistan, there is not yet a state to which the territory can be left, the US ought remain engaged until such a state exists—hopefully the Marja operation and the rounding up of Afghan Taliban leadership is a step in the right direct (there are many people that think it is not, however). Yemen, however, presents different facts and different requirements. There, the state, though weak, exists. Working within the state’s apparatus to disrupt al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the best course of action. Additionally, as Nagl notes, the ease of access US military assets have to Yemen via the Arabian Sea also affords the US an ability to strike from a stand-off position which it does not enjoy in Afghanistan.

So, to answer Jason's question, we are trying to save ourselves. Long-term policy making is hard. It is harder still to execute. But it is absolutely necessary.

Who are we trying to save in Afghanistan?

In a fantastic debate published online by the National Interest, Paul Pillar and John Nagl debate whether Afghanistan is the right war. Pillar believes not. Nagl believes it is.

Pillar believes that we have done what needed to be done in Afghanistan. We have driven out Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but that now we are surging to build up a government in Kabul. He questions the continuing need to fight against the Taliban. He also questions the argument that leaving will allow the Taliban to return, and that a resurgent Taliban will bring with it Al Qaeda.

Pillar points to the underpants bomber as a reason why we shouldn’t focus so much attention on Afghanistan. The underpants bomber wasn’t part of the central Qaeda network, he was an operative for a Qaeda franchise based in Yemen. Pillar also protests to the constant supposition in our vernacular that this is a “war” on terror, drawing attention to the word “war” as a misnomer and hindrance to our ability to successful confront and defeat a diffuse, non-state actor with numerous franchises around the world and operatives often organizing in Western cities.

Nagl believes that this is the right war and the right strategy because allowing the Taliban to return to power (a likely outcome if we were to withdraw in the near term) would lead to a renewed safe haven from which Al Qaeda could plot attacks and coordinate actions, presumably with greater ease than they currently have in tribal areas of Pakistan. Nagl is very much preoccupied with force projections problems the US military would have after with withdraw from Afghanistan, repeatedly noting the distance from any accessible coastline for the US Navy. Nagl is also a full-throated supporter of building up the current Afghan government and Afghan military to address the threat caused by the Taliban. This support clearly comes from an assumption that if the Taliban were to return to power, Al Qaeda would return to its prior safe haven. Nagl notes that in other theaters, such as Yemen, force projection is not nearly as difficult as in Afghanistan. Nagl also emphasizes that these other theaters do not featured failed states in contrast to Afghanistan.

When I read the two pieces I found myself agreeing with points made by both Pillar and Nagl. Though I’m predisposed to agree with Nagl, I came out with one big question:

What or Who are we trying to save?

What is the intent of the surge? Is it to protect America? Will it do that beyond disrupting central Qaeda HQ? McDonald’s HQ is in Des Plaines, Illinois. If we quarantined Des Plaines would that have a huge affect on the ability of McDonald’s franchisers to find customer and suppliers?

Will Afghanistan return to Taliban rule in the wake of an American withdrawal at this time? What is the human cost should the Taliban return to power? Will a Taliban reemergence necessarily mean an Al Qaeda safe haven, thus increased freedom to operate and, presumably, launch more sophisticated attacks?

What or Who are we trying to save?

I don’t believe that the surge in Afghanistan is directly tied to the current state of national security in the United States. I believe our mission is really to build up a state so we could have a presence in the country not unlike our presence in Yemen, which is to say minimal. So we aren’t trying to save America.

Maybe we’re there to protect Afghanis. Maybe the retribution and persecution of a reemerged Taliban would be so violent, so vindictive that policymakers get queasy in the stomach thinking about it. But then you must consider how many Afghan civilians have died at the hands of NATO forces. Despite the assumed benevolence of our mission, we’ve caused thousands of deaths. Also, while trying to prop up a chronically corrupt, ineffectual central government that the Taliban doesn’t recognize we encourage violent attacks simply by being present in the country. Would the Taliban really need to engage in much military activity if we weren’t there? I would think the Afghan army would provide little resistance to a Taliban advance. So we aren’t really saving Afghanis.

Perhaps we’re trying to save face in a region we only so recently misread and cast aside when we no longer had use for her. The US sponsorship of the muhajedeen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent abandonment of these fighters and what the evolved into is still fresh in the minds of US policymakers. Maybe we’re trying to not repeat our mistakes and restore or save some of the legitimacy of the US as a valuable ally in the region, but then is the Afghan government really looking to ally with the US? Does that serve a purpose for their political leadership other then patronage? Pakistan doesn’t seem to be interested in having the US as an ally. Maybe we’re trying to save some face, but if we are it would appear we are doing it the wrong way.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Trouble with Bipartisanship

A CNN/Opinion Research Poll released today indicates that 67% of Americans believe Republicans aren’t doing enough to cooperate with Pres. Obama. Don’t get too excited, Democrats.

The historical data suggests that over the last year 7% more Americans blame Republicans for the lack of bipartisanship, while 27% more Americans blame Pres. Obama for not doing more to work with Republicans in Congress. Further, while the country is split over which Party is more to blame for the lack of cooperation in Congress, 54% of Americans believe that Democrats should take the first step towards bipartisanship by giving up some of their proposals.

Yes, after a year in which the Democrats and President Obama consistently invited the Republican Party into negotiations on major legislations (Stimulus Package and Healthcare, e.g.) only to have Republicans turn around and not vote for the bill or, worse, threaten to filibuster, the Democrats carry more blame for the lack of bipartisanship. Such is the danger of tilting at bipartisan windmills. Better to use bipartisanship as a cudgel and get what you want, than to have the football pulled out.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Do you have an alternative?

On Fox News Sunday Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour was on with Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm and topic one was the now year old stimulus bill. Here's what Barbour had to say with regard the the stimulus bill he originally contested:

"State government has benefited by the stimulus package, because it's poured in billions of dollars. The problem is we need private sector jobs...The first stimulus package was twice as much money as was needed. Then they could have created twice as many jobs with half as much money. If they're going to have a stimulus package, let's do something like have a holiday on the payroll tax. Let's do something that helps small business."

Here's my issue with the statements Governor Barbour made. Who is saying we could have created twice as many jobs with half as much money? Also, let's consider the payroll tax holiday, the only solution Gov. Barbour puts forward. His intimation I guess is that if you have a payroll tax holiday it will entice business to hire more workers since they will be freed from the burden of payroll taxes. The problem here is that the tax holiday would free up money, but only temporarily making this as about as effective a policy as the gas tax holiday that was bandied about in the summer of 2008. It sounds good, but doesn't make much economic sense.

Of course the larger hypocrisy here is the advocacy for a payroll tax holiday, further cutting revenue, further driving up the deficit less than a year after decrying a budget deficit so that our "children and grandchildren will be saddled with trillions more in debt." You want to talk common sense, how is it a good idea to get a deficit under control by not collecting revenue? What business thinks they can make a profit by not charging for its products? And don't believe the supply-side argument that lower taxes means more growth means more revenue. It's nothing more then economic voodoo.

Where's a real alternative?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It Feels Smarter

Over the past few days there has been increasing indications that the Pakistani government and the US government working in concert have taken some major strides in disrupting Al Qaeda/Taliban organizations in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The first big story was the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, now today two news stories come from the region. Two shadow governors for northern Afghan provinces have been captured inside Pakistan. The comes as news of a blast in the Khyber region that reportedly killed a local militant commander (Ben has suggested this could be the start of a Abu Nidal type paranoia). With all the news coming from Pakistan it's important to note the joint Afghan-US offensive moving block by block through Marja attempting to definitively root out this Taliban stronghold.

What does it all mean? It's hard to say, but what it feels like, all these bits of information coming together, it just feels smarter. It feels coordinated. It feels like an overriding strategic goal is shared among the different arms of the US defense apparatus and that goal is being achieved through the disparate, but inter-connected efforts of the US military, the Afghan military, the CIA, and the Pakistani ISI. Progress is slow in engagements such as these, but I am encouraged that it feels smarter. Whether or not it truly is we will only know with time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is More Stimulus Needed?

Not an original thought this morning, but this is from the Council on Foreign Relations and a solid aggregator of opinions as it relates to the stimulus bill one year on:

In February, President Obama proposed a $100 billion jobs bill that would include tax cuts for small businesses, social-safety-net programs, and aid to state and local governments. Republicans criticized the proposal for being a new and unnecessary round (NPR) of stimulus spending that would stifle private sector growth. But IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss Kahn in January 2010 urged advanced economies not to relax stimulus measures too early and to focus stimulus on creating jobs. At a January 2010 briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chief Economist of the World Bank Justin Yifu Lin explained the U.S. and global dilemma as follows: "If you exit from fiscal stimulus, you are going to have a dip. If you maintain the stability of a fiscal stimulus, the intensity may not be enough."

When you've got the World Bank and the IMF telling you more stimulus is a good idea, maybe you should listen. For the full article click here.

A Nice Curve

The Council on Foreign Relations has put out a Stimulus Package Report Card (h/t Kennedy). And you can see how the Recovery Act (Stimulus) money has been distributed near you here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

You Can’t Win Them All

Since at least Christmas, members of the Republican Party have been advancing a theme that President Barack Obama is Soft on Terrorism. Initially, President Obama was Soft on Terrorism because he did exactly the same thing President Bush had done in the same situation—namely, Mirandizing the Underwear Bomber. In the last week, though, the President has been ridiculed for being Soft on Terrorism by being more aggressive than President Bush.

Last week, as addressed here, Marc Thiessen published a piece in Foreign Policy questioning the Obama administration’s use of targeted killing. Thiessen feigned concern—and his concern was echoed by Karen DeYoung in the Washington Post—that the United States was killing so many members of Al Qaeda, the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban that US national security was being harmed. The use of Predator drones was indicative of a President unwilling to do what is necessary to secure America and unable to men and women in harm’s way. Utter nonsense, of course; this President has been more aggressive than his predecessor in disrupting militants in Pakistan. And, like his predecessor, he has extended US force into lawless portions of Somalia—why, Ms. Young, is it that a helicopter attack on a militant last year is indicative of his being Soft on Terrorism when President Bush’s use of an AC-130 gunship on a militant in 2006 was not?

But now, a fortuitous answer to these critics comes from Karachi, Pakistan:
The [Afghan] Taliban’s top military commander was captured several days ago in Karachi, Pakistan, in a secret joint operation by Pakistani and American intelligence forces, according to American government officials.
Unsurprisingly, this indicates that the President is aggressively continuing the United States’ campaign against the Afghan Taliban. It also indicates that, when the balance of target value and risk is right, he is willing to order the capture of that target. Further, and perhaps most importantly, it may indicate that Pakistan is willing to cooperate with the United States in its campaign against the Afghan Taliban—until now, Pakistan has seemingly been loathe to assist in the anti-Afghan Taliban campaign, preferring to take on what it sees as a greater threat: the Pakistani Taliban.

UPDATE: Two commanders of the Afghan Taliban have confirmed that the Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Baradar, has been captured. These two commanders claim that he was captured in the Marja area of Afghanistan--where the NATO offensive is taking place--rather than in Pakistan. It seems to me that what's important here is the confirmation of Mullah Baradar's capture. Given the Afghan Taliban's consistent claims that its leadership is in Afghanistan, not Pakistan, it is likely these commanders are trying to stave off the demoralizing impact of having to admit its leadership is not in Afghanistan.

UPDATE II: The New York Times reports this morning that Mullah Baradar was not the target of the raid in which he was captured. This, of course, throws cold water on the notion advanced above that his capture is evidence of risk-reward balancing for the employment of particular tactics in the Pakistan theatre. That said, the New York Times also reports that the Pakistani-led raid was instigated at American request, based on American intelligence. Thus, the most important aspect of Baradar's capture, the cooperation between the US and Pakistan against the Afghan Taliban, is preserved. As Kennedy notes above, it just feels smarter.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Again with the Doing Stuff

Nate Silver has a good post over at FiveThirtyEight that looks at slight boosts Democrats received after passing the House and Senate versions of Healthcare reform last year. Polling disclaimers aside, I think this goes to a point I was trying to make a couple weeks ago in the comments in a debate with Colin (here and here). It was my contention that Democrats will pay a political price in the autumn for Healthcare reform regardless of whether they pass a bill or not. I further argued that, on balance, getting something done was of greater political value than not getting anything done.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Getting It Right

Right now, in Afghanistan, in a joint US-Afghan operation is getting underway. In the wee hours of the morning, US Marines, paired with Afghan soldiers, began deploying into Marja, the Taliban’s main haven in Afghanistan. For weeks, NATO forces have been encircling Marja and broadcasting their intent to root out the Taliban there. As the New York Times notes, “The assault came as a surprise to no one.”

More surprising is the care and forethought put into the COIN strategy backing the assault on Marja. NATO is going in heavy with already identified “quick-impact” development projects—small projects designed to have an immediate, positive effect on the local populace like building wells—an Afghan civil administration ready to take control once the Taliban have been ousted, and NATO reconstruction teams ready with funding for longer-term reconstruction projects. While these might seem obvious components of a strategy designed not just to capture ground but to win sway over a skeptical population, they represent a sea-change after eight years of mishandling.

Still, it is imprudent to be overly optimistic. The duration of Taliban control of Marja (3 years) and repeated failures on the part of NATO to stick around will make it difficult to convince the denizens of Marja that NATO will be there for the long haul—the cautious Afghan may worry that cooperating with a transitory NATO force will earn them a label as a collaborator, inviting Taliban reprisals later.

Moreover, the Taliban have apparently dug-in in anticipation of the NATO operation. While there are reports that many Taliban fighters have fled, those that remain may have the capacity to render Marja a hornet’s nest, causing house-to-house fighting, incurring high civilian casualties ala the US assault on Fallujah in November 2004—descriptions of the staging of this operation bear an eerie similarity to that devastating attack. High civilian casualties, of course, will alienate the very people that NATO must win over in order to have modicum of success in Afghanistan.

Those concerns notwithstanding, it is heartening to hear the Marines and NATO use language that indicates a sincere responsiveness to the tenets of counterinsurgency. So long as those words translate into COIN-compliant kinetic activity, there may be hope for the eight-year NATO endeavor.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Green Movement Still Alive

Despite arrests and sabotage to the information infrastructure, it looks like anti-regime protests have broken out in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and Mashad. As always, it's difficult to tell from videos and images the scale of the protests, but from what I've seen so far they look large but not as large as the Ashura protests.

IranNews is live blogging, as is Tehran Bureau, and Andrew Sullivan is aggregating.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

31 Years of Islamic Revolution

Tomorrow is the 31st anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Ten days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeine returned from exile to Iran, the Iranian army mutinied and the Shah’s regime ended.

Tomorrow, like every major anniversary, event, or Shiite holiday since June 12, Iran was expected to be consumed with anti-regime protests. In anticipation of protests, though, the Iranian regime has been busy rounding up dissidents to prevent the 31st anniversary of the Revolution from becoming yet another bruise to the Islamic Republic. Previous rounds of arrests, trials, and executions did not prevent last year’s Ashura from being marked with the largest and most violent protests to date. Since then, two potential days of protest passed without noticeable incident. However, tomorrow may mark a turning point—without major action in the street, it might be reasonable to declare the Green Movement dead.

UPDATE: The folks at IranNews think tomorrow will be bloody.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wait One Minute

Every now and again, I stumble onto an article or opinion piece that stops me in my proverbial tracks. Marc Thiessen’s piece in Foreign Policy is one such item.

I think somewhere underlying Thiessen’s article is a deep skepticism of the drone campaign. He’s not alone. Jane Mayer put together a wonderful piece in the New Yorker last fall that did a good job of discussing the use of drones in Pakistan and their severe limitations. Notably, Mayer highlighted the high numbers of non-targeted individuals killed for each targeted individual eliminated. Setting aside human rights concerns, I question the efficacy of the drone campaign in light of our broader regional goals. I particularly wonder about the drone campaign encouraging otherwise neutral individuals to take up arms against the Pakistani state or the United States.

Thiessen, though, uses the drone campaign to accuse the President of endangering the United States by depriving the US of “vital intelligence” and of “shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.”

This is nonsense. Of course it is a truism that dead men tell no tales. But for Thiessen’s thesis to be true, the United States would have to have available to it a capability to capture and question the people targeted by the drones. Now, despite the hypocritical critiques offered by some, the problem with this premise is not the questioning, it’s the capturing.

The vast majority of the individuals being blown up are in the lawless FATA region of Pakistan. Many of the targets are affiliated not with Al-Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban but with the Pakistani Taliban. Whatever the arrangement the United States government currently has with Pakistan, it is clear that Pakistan does not want US soldiers on its territory—judging by the vitriolic reactions last week, American trainers are not even welcome.

Though Thiessen would have you believe that the Obama administration has put the United States in danger by eliminating a proposed CIA program to kill terrorists because it had an ethereal capture component, this is merely a straw man. This capability never existed. The Bush administration proposed these teams in 2002 and never managed to make them operational—in fact, I have questioned what this says about the US paramilitary operations previously. The last time the United States had a capability that resembles what Thiessen puts forward was, according to Steve Coll, under the Clinton administration, when the US put teams in the field to kill Osama bin Laden. Even then, though, the kill order was never given and the teams were never utilized. Thiessen thus presents a false choice between the use of drones, and a non-existent capture ability.

While I think there are legitimate questions to be raised about the use of drones and our strategic objectives, Thiessen’s piece represent an incredible contortion of the Obama-is-Soft-on-Terrorism narrative.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lucy and the Football

After a day or so of wide-ranging praise for the Lecturer-in-Chief following his performance at the GOP retreat on Friday, the theme driving the news cycle has become one of “engagement.” Headlines like, “Obama Engages,” or “Obama Continues Policy Outreach to GOP” have proliferated. But this is not new.

In fact, Obama’s first year is the story of relentless, futile attempts at bipartisanship. The President has repeatedly reached across the aisle and allowed Republican influence on bills only to see the GOP vote in unison against that bill. The effect of these efforts has been that the President not only ends up with watered-down bill (see, e.g., the Stimulus Package) but he ends up simultaneously throwing away political capital and angering his base. It has been, quite simply, a year of Lucy and the Football.

Yet, there seems to be something different here. Since the State of the Union, and including last week’s Q and A session with the GOP, the President has aggressively communicated his efforts at bipartisanship. Rather than being victimized by his constant, quixotic attempts to invite Republicans into the tent only to have them burn the tent down, he’s put the GOP on its heels. He has made it clear, vocally and repeatedly over the last week, that the door is open to the Republicans, that they can come in, but they’re going to have to compromise. He is doing his very best to convert the Grand Old Party into the Grand Obstructionist Party. For this, I applaud the President.

Rather than castigating himself on the altar of bipartisanship, the President is going to make the Republican Party pay the price, politically, for their nihilism. The President should keep up his vocal, aggressive challenge to the GOP that they participate in government. Good on ye, Mr. President.

Now, go pass Healthcare.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Facts and Gen. Hayden

The Washington Post published a report this evening that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day underwear bomber, is cooperating with investigators and providing intelligence about his training and his contacts. It seems clear that the unnamed Administration sources released this information to rebut "Soft on Terrorism" attacks on President Obama and Gen. Hayden's Op-Ed in the Washington Post that, just two days ago, argued that Mirandizing the underwear bomber placed US national security in jeopardy.