Saturday, October 31, 2009

Moot Points

Only three posts ago, I made the following observation about the major political problem facing Afghanistan:

The Karzai government...corrupt, disliked by the people, part of the problem, and I definitely don't trust the guy. Here is the kicker - whats the alternative? There is a run-off election coming up. If Karzai wins, we have the same problems. If Karzai doesn't win, then all of the sudden the leader of Afghanistan [Abdullah Abdullah] is not an ethnic Pashtun. That would be a serious problem, since Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group by far in Afghanistan and are the main component of the Taliban.

As it turns out, Abdullah Abdullah isn't even going to participate in the Afghan run-off election. Which means that Karzai and his corrupt, incompetent, disliked government wins by default. How can Barack Obama justify spending countless additional billions and more importantly the lives of additional US servicemen in the defense of a political dead-end? The reason the Soviets lost in Afghanistan is that the communist government they were backing was hugely unpopular. We're in the same situation.

Interestingly enough, while I'm very convinced that Obama won't send more troops to Afghanistan, I seem to be taking the minority view here. The markets at Intrade are saying that there is an 80% chance that Obama will send 10,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan before December is over. Recent bad news coming from the Afghan political realm doesn't seem to have budged those numbers much.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Being perfectly clear on 9/11

Here is John McCain on the importance of Afghanistan:

We must succeed in Afghanistan for many reasons, but one stands above all: the world walked away from Afghanistan once, and it descended into a cauldron of violence, hatred and human rights atrocities that served as the base for the worst terrorist attack in history against our homeland.

McCain falls victim to the temptation of absolutes here. There are certainly some situations where an unstable nation poses an immediate threat and therefore it is in the interest of national security that said nation be stabilized. Take France in the 1920s. You had Germany next door, with a population 50% larger. Germany only a decade prior was a leading world economic, industrial, and military power but had become an economic basket case with unprecedented hyperinflation. The people were pissed, and especially at France. THAT is the situation where you get worried.

Then consider Afghanistan and the USA. The last and only time that I know of Afghanistan having a strong central government was the Durrani empire several hundred years ago. The US and Afghanistan almost couldn't be farther away geographically. The US has about ten times the population of Afghanistan. The US economy is about 1,270 times larger. The US has military bases all over the planet and strong military alliances with the majority of nations in the world. Afghanistan, even under the Taliban, will have no nation-state allies, but they will have many enemies in their vicinity including Iran and Pakistan.

I just think we really need to keep things in perspective when we talk about threats to the USA. Afghanistan never will be a threat to the USA. The attacks on 9/11 were perpetrated by some dudes who happened to train in Afghanistan, but they could have just as easily have been trained in Europe, in the Middle East, or anywhere else. And if every "cauldron of violence, hatred and human rights atrocities" warrants nation-building as McCain says, we might as well start in Africa because most of it is going on there.

9/11 didn't happen because the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. 9/11 happened because we let crazy dudes with knives board an unarmed airplane with no cabin doors.

Tom Friedman on Afghanistan

Link here. I don't often link op-eds on my own blog, but I think this one was especially relevant. We often overstate our ability to impose our will upon people, and we should think long and hard about that when we look at Afghanistan. We take full credit for how Iraq turned out, but Friedman is right when he points out that the Sunni Arabs in Iraq decided they didn't want to live under Islamic law. That's what it came down to, and that's why the surge worked. There isn't a comparable situation in Afghanistan. And even if there was, so what?

Really, what are the Taliban going to do if we do pull out? They're not going to establish a strong centralized state that is going to arm itself and wage war on the West. They'll splinter off and fragment and continue to fight a civil war and keep the people in poverty. Our only concern will be to back the groups that are willing to fight Al Qaeda. Speaking of Al Qaeda, they have bases all over the world. Are they really going to set up their main operation in Afghanistan again, knowing that we'll be buzzing drones overhead for the next decade, looking for terrorist training camps to bomb? Why would they, when they could set up bases in other countries where we won't be looking so intensely? Somalia, Sudan, in the Middle East...or worse, Europe or Canada. At any rate, my money is that Obama doesn't significantly increase our troop deployment. Rather, I think he will redefine the mission and keep the current level of troops for a while before starting to phase them out. Here is Friedman's article:

It is crunch time on Afghanistan, so here’s my vote: We need to be thinking about how to reduce our footprint and our goals there in a responsible way, not dig in deeper. We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan.

I base this conclusion on three principles. First, when I think back on all the moments of progress in that part of the world — all the times when a key player in the Middle East actually did something that put a smile on my face — all of them have one thing in common: America had nothing to do with it.

America helped build out what they started, but the breakthrough didn’t start with us. We can fan the flames, but the parties themselves have to light the fires of moderation. And whenever we try to do it for them, whenever we want it more than they do, we fail and they languish.

The Camp David peace treaty was not initiated by Jimmy Carter. Rather, the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, went to Jerusalem in 1977 after Israel’s Moshe Dayan held secret talks in Morocco with Sadat aide Hassan Tuhami. Both countries decided that they wanted a separate peace — outside of the Geneva comprehensive framework pushed by Mr. Carter.

The Oslo peace accords started in Oslo — in secret 1992-93 talks between the P.L.O. representative, Ahmed Qurei, and the Israeli professor Yair Hirschfeld. Israelis and Palestinians alone hammered out a broad deal and unveiled it to the Americans in the summer of 1993, much to Washington’s surprise.

The U.S. surge in Iraq was militarily successful because it was preceded by an Iraqi uprising sparked by a Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who, using his own forces, set out to evict the pro-Al Qaeda thugs who had taken over Sunni towns and were imposing a fundamentalist lifestyle. The U.S. surge gave that movement vital assistance to grow. But the spark was lit by the Iraqis.

The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon, the Green Revolution in Iran and the Pakistani decision to finally fight their own Taliban in Waziristan — because those Taliban were threatening the Pakistani middle class — were all examples of moderate, silent majorities acting on their own.

The message: “People do not change when we tell them they should,” said the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum. “They change when they tell themselves they must.”

And when the moderate silent majorities take ownership of their own futures, we win. When they won’t, when we want them to compromise more than they do, we lose. The locals sense they have us over a barrel, so they exploit our na├»ve goodwill and presence to loot their countries and to defeat their internal foes.

That’s how I see Afghanistan today. I see no moderate spark. I see our secretary of state pleading with President Hamid Karzai to re-do an election that he blatantly stole. I also see us begging Israelis to stop building more crazy settlements or Palestinians to come to negotiations. It is time to stop subsidizing their nonsense. Let them all start paying retail for their extremism, not wholesale. Then you’ll see movement.

What if we shrink our presence in Afghanistan? Won’t Al Qaeda return, the Taliban be energized and Pakistan collapse? Maybe. Maybe not. This gets to my second principle: In the Middle East, all politics — everything that matters — happens the morning after the morning after. Be patient. Yes, the morning after we shrink down in Afghanistan, the Taliban will celebrate, Pakistan will quake and bin Laden will issue an exultant video.

And the morning after the morning after, the Taliban factions will start fighting each other, the Pakistani Army will have to destroy their Taliban, or be destroyed by them, Afghanistan’s warlords will carve up the country, and, if bin Laden comes out of his cave, he’ll get zapped by a drone.

My last guiding principle: We are the world. A strong, healthy and self-confident America is what holds the world together and on a decent path. A weak America would be a disaster for us and the world. China, Russia and Al Qaeda all love the idea of America doing a long, slow bleed in Afghanistan. I don’t.

The U.S. military has given its assessment. It said that stabilizing Afghanistan and removing it as a threat requires rebuilding that whole country. Unfortunately, that is a 20-year project at best, and we can’t afford it. So our political leadership needs to insist on a strategy that will get the most security for less money and less presence. We simply don’t have the surplus we had when we started the war on terrorism after 9/11 — and we desperately need nation-building at home. We have to be smarter. Let’s finish Iraq, because a decent outcome there really could positively impact the whole Arab-Muslim world, and limit our exposure elsewhere. Iraq matters.

Yes, shrinking down in Afghanistan will create new threats, but expanding there will, too. I’d rather deal with the new threats with a stronger America.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The real problems with Afghanistan

I've said before, there are many realities about Afghanistan that make our war there more difficult than is/was the case in Iraq. Some examples:

-While Afghanistan is both bigger and more populous than Iraq, they are close enough that I don't think either of these really makes a difference. More important is the landscape. Afghanistan is extremely rugged, mountainous, inhospitable, and rural. Iraq, on the other hand, is very flat and most of the population urbanized. As far as geography goes, Afghanistan was always more similar to Vietnam than was Iraq, even though people were quick to call Iraq "Bush's Vietnam".

-Our enemy in Iraq, for the most part, did not have a safe haven outside of Iraq. Thus it was just a matter of ejecting the insurgents from within by getting their protecting population to turn against them. In Afghanistan, our enemy simply runs across the border to Pakistan when things get too dicey. There is no evidence that the Pakistani military is going to be a reliable partner in going after the Taliban, either. Sure, they're going after the Taliban right now; the Taliban are waging full scale war against Pakistan. It makes one wonder, however, what the Taliban perception of the US presence long term is, that they are apparently unafraid to open up a second front while we're still around. Maybe they assume we're leaving soon. If we don't, they could just decide to stop fighting the Pakistanis for now (reach another truce), and are we going to be sure the Pakistanis will continue to fight them? History says they won't. Again, Vietnam was like Afghanistan in that our enemies had a safe haven, North Vietnam, where they were relatively safe, and where they could rest, re-arm, and recruit.

-Iraq has had a strong central government for a long time now so the people there are used to living under a strong central government. Afghanistan has been almost in anarchy for years, with a very decentralized power system. This makes our strategy of empowering the central Afghan government seem like a questionable one.

-In Afghanistan we are confronted with an ideological enemy, and those seem to be the most difficult to defeat. The Taliban are motivated by strong religious conviction in most cases, although arguably some are bought. In Iraq, we were able to quell a large part of the insurgency simply by putting them on our bankroll. I suspect that Taliban will be more expensive to buy off than former Baathist secular Iraqis. Again, we look to Vietnam. Our enemy there was motivated also by ideology, communism, which made them stubbornly resistant to our attacks.

All of these things being said, I do believe the United States *could* pacify Afghanistan and stabilize the country if it wanted to. With Iraq just about wrapped up, we have the troops. America definitely knows how to do counter-insurgency, thanks to experience gained in Iraq. It would take several years, but we could do it. So what then is the real problem? I see two of them:

1. Is it even worth it? I question whether it is. Afghanistan is just not a strategically important country and maybe won't ever be. The best argument that I've seen repeated in multiple places is that a Taliban revival will destabilize Pakistan. I'm not sure about this. Pakistan got on fine with the Taliban before 9/11, and anyway, Pakistan is just too big of a country for the Taliban to pose an existential threat to. Other arguments about an al Qaeda safe haven, America's reputation, et cetera have been thoroughly debunked over the last few weeks so I'll ignore those.

2. The Karzai government. Corrupt, disliked by the people, part of the problem, and I definitely don't trust the guy. Here is the kicker - whats the alternative? There is a run-off election coming up. If Karzai wins, we have the same problems. If Karzai doesn't win, then all of the sudden the leader of Afghanistan is not an ethnic Pashtun. That would be a serious problem, since Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group by far in Afghanistan and are the main component of the Taliban. Heck, "Afghan" is just another name for "Pashtun". So basically, we're stuck with a corrupt and ineffective government or one that will stoke even more insurgency just by virtue of what it is.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sorry, we're busy right now

I was very optimistic about the prospects of advances in the peace process between Israel and Palestine. I had to believe that Obama and Netanyahu were on similar pages and would be working behind the scenes to make something happen regardless of what their public pronouncements have been.

Since then I've been extremely disappointed, especially with Netanyahu who is someone that I held in high esteem. Obama asked of him one simple favor: stop expanding settlements into Israel. That is but a tiny concession in the grand scheme of things, and one that the Israelis should have made immediately. Instead, Netanyahu minced Obama's words and has "restrained" new settlement building but has not stopped what the Israelis call natural growth.

You know, San Diego CA is a big American city and it arguably will continue to grow in the future. But just because we need space for natural growth of the city doesn't mean that it can grow into Mexico and turn that into America. If Detroit someday needs to grow, it isn't going to grow north into Canada, it is going to grow south into Michigan. So this idea of "natural growth" is total BS.

I'm not sure what Netanyahu is up to, and perhaps he is buying his time till the next American administration, calculating that Obama's stance (that the Israelis will ultimately need to make concessions in any peace agreement, which is obvious to any reasonable person on the planet) will be replaced by the mainstream Republican position (Israel should never concede a single thing and yet still expect peace). That being said, Obama is still the president now. He represents the will of the American people, who have (rightly) supported Israel for years. I think it is a slap in our faces for Netanyahu to refuse a favor as simple as no longer expanding settlements.

Obama can't really do anything about this right now, from a political point of view. However, there are things he can *not do*. The UN's Goldstone Report was strongly critical of Israel for its war in Gaza and the Israelis fear that it may be used as the basis for some war crimes trials in other nations. As a counter, the Israelis intend to push for a modification to the international laws of war so that terrorism can be adequately accounted for. I might normally agree with these sorts of changes. But if I was Barack Obama, and the Israelis came asking me to support these proposals at the UN, I'd be too busy to help out. If Netanyahu can't be bothered to do us a favor, I don't see why we should go out of our way to help him out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Here come the thought police

*** Update ***

Some good dissent here. I'm still going to buy the book and read it for myself.

*** End Update ***

The authors of the fantastic book Freakonomics are writing a sequel. In SuperFreakonomics, the authors apparently have some very interesting things to say about the global warming situation. So much so that the global warming thought police have started coming after them already, even though the book hasn't been released yet.

I've read a lot of commentary from the two authors, Dubner and Levitt, in addition to their book. They make very sound, factually supported arguments and they make them in good faith. I can't say the same about the whole climate change crowd. It has become more religion than science, which I think in large part has to do with the fact that climate change is being used as a vehicle for the environmental movement to accomplish some of their larger objectives. And actually, its not that I disagree with those goals; I love nature as much as the next guy. It's that I disagree with scaring people about an impending apocalypse to score political points.

As I've written before, I don't put much thought into the global warming hype for various reasons (ten of them actually). And I also don't take many of the loudest voices on the issue seriously. When someone is telling us that climate change will end the world, but we can't build more nuclear power stations to slow it, my bullshit detector goes off (illogically, nuclear power is still anathema to the environmental movement). At any rate, I can't wait to read this new book. If the global warming thought police are buzzing this loudly about something written by a couple of economists, its got to be good.

Friday, October 16, 2009

No interracial marriages

The Louisiana Justice of the Peace: "I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way," Bardwell told the Associated Press on Thursday. "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else."

Full story here.

A Louisiana Justice would refuse to marry the parents of the current President of the United States. Think about that for a second. Where else in the United States would a public official even think about pulling some crap like that? The Republican Congressmen who heckle the president during his speeches, or call his wife "uppity", or just are exceptionally nasty in general; where do they all come from? And how is it that the rest of the GOP lets them get away with it?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Nobel Prize? Weird.

*** Update ***

Here is Obama's reaction to winning the Nobel Prize. I have to say, he handled it very well. My favorite quote:

"And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action -- a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."

Meanwhile, I hope he uses this momentum to start making some real foreign policy gains. I will be very clear however that I do not envy the decision he must make about Afghanistan. This was the "just war", a war that was neglected for 7 years while Bush focused on Iraq. History is very clear on this: Afghanistan is not an easy place to control. What makes our mission exponentially more difficult are two facts that are becoming more and more apparent. One is that we are not defending a legitimate, elected, democratic government like we are in Iraq. The administration of Karzai is corrupt and ineffective, and probably won the recent election by fraud. The second fact is the reality that Afghanistan is really not that strategically important.

For me, the situation with the Karzai administration is the deal breaker. I don't think we should waste any more American blood and treasure on that country. I think we should draw down in Afghanistan and consolidate our gains in Iraq, ensuring with active diplomacy and engagement that Iraq doesn't slip. With Afghanistan no longer an issue, we can move on to more important questions; Iranian nukes, North Korea, Israel/Palestine.

*** End Update ***

I'm sure everyone has heard now, Obama has won a Nobel Peace Prize.

They cited his goals towards nuclear disarmament and his steps to revive international diplomacy. As far as international diplomacy goes, that should be a given for the President of the United States. Only a fool would assume that he can afford to piss off all of our allies and do everything unilaterally.

As far as nuclear disarmament is concerned, he did some important stuff with Dick Lugar as a senator securing loose Russian nuclear materials, but he hasn't actually established any treaties or the like to improve the nuclear weapons situation. He hasn't resolve the Iran issue, which stands to serve as the biggest blow to the NPT in years. He hasn't resolved the North Korean question.

Meanwhile, as far as a Peace Prize is concerned, the war in Afghanistan is in limbo right now and we don't know where it will end. Guantanamo isn't closed, although presumably Obama wants it to be. And, I don't know if anyone caught this, but Obama isn't going to meet with the Dalai Lama. Now to be fair, we do owe the Chinese a cool trillion dollars. You don't go up to the person who loaned you a crapload of money and slap them in the face. That being said, the Chinese are clearly overly sensitive about the Dalai Lama issue and Obama bending to their whims at the first pass seems questionable. Of course, he does need Chinese cooperation on Iran, North Korea, and the international financial crisis. Obama also gave a great speech at Cairo, but we have yet to see any solid gains in the Middle East peace process.

This isn't to say that someday Obama couldn't accomplish all of these things, and if he did then he would deserve a medal. But at this point he hasn't accomplished any of them, and Americans know it. His winning this medal is extremely premature and is going to undermine him, not strengthen him. Already one of the biggest vulnerabilities that Obama has is that he is all talk and no action. Winning a Nobel Prize for meaning well is a blow to him and it cheapens the award as a politicized European merit award. Terrible. I wish someone on the Nobel Committee would have asked him if it was appropriate, and if they did, I wish he would have said no.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I agree with this assessment

Obama's trip to Copenhagen was pretty stupid.

Honestly, how did the Obama administration believe this would end well? There are only two possibilities:

1. He fails. A victory for his political opponents while his supporters are wondering why he isn't fixing the economy, Afghanistan, and health care.

2. He succeeds. Now we kinda look like a bunch of jerks, don't we? Here we've had the Olympics in the states many times, and it has never been in South America even once. And just when it looks like it might be, we send our President over and the IOC suddenly picks Chicago? It would reek.

The Olympics. The fake Presidential Seal during the campaign. The Greek columns at the nomination speech. There have been a string of little things that makes one wonder why there isn't someone on Team Obama that doesn't recognize a bad idea before its acted upon.

Monday, October 05, 2009

A follow up post

Lets pretend that we all agree that it is OK to torture terrorists. One reason we still don't want torture to be national policy is because we can't always be sure that the people we capture are terrorists. We could always torture the captives to find out whether or not they are terrorists, of course, which would retroactively justify the torture. A good option for those who have no problems with sadistic circular logic.

At any rate, this is a similar reason why we shouldn't have the death penalty: we can't always be sure that the person is guilty. If we have 100 men accused of murder and we know 99 are guilty but only one is innocent, do we just kill them all? Of course not. Murdering an innocent man is a greater travesty than letting 99 guilty men escape death by rotting in jail. And of course there are other arguments* against the death penalty that people can make; its more expensive, inhumane, et cetera. This one is sufficient for me.

*Another good argument against capital punishment for people who adhere to Christian beliefs was listed among the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses. It's a complicated one: "Thou Shalt Not Kill". The interpretation of this obfuscated commandment is still an object of enduring confusion for many people, especially Christians who live in Texas.