Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is Iran's Opposition Growing or Shrinking?

More protests and clashes in Iran this weekend; after a protest-turned-violent over the death of the leading opposition cleric, this weekend's unrest came during a Shiite religious festival (of sorts) in honor of the 7th century martyrdom of Mohammed's grandson.

The protests are certainly getting their fair due of attention in Iran, and wearing on the nerves of the ruling "conservatives," but are they effective? Good question. A progressive opposition movement's exposure usually does, over time, lead to an increase in popularity (like in the United States during Vietnam). And as much as violent crackdowns have a serious human toll, they may be winning sympathy for the opposition movement from any fence-sitters left. In addition, the crackdowns are hardening the young men and women (especially women) in the movement now--over time, the old men of the conservatives will die off, and the progressives will strike themselves a big win, maybe in 2014.

But will they run out of steam by then? Or even if they do win, will it be too late for the US to close the Iranian nuclear pandora's box, as it were?

Thinking about this has gotten me to try to get into the head of the President, and figure out what he's doing. He's shown a great deal of restraint with Iran, which a lot of folks oppose. But think about this: should we authorize a strike to take down the Iranian nuclear program, we'd be giving Ahmedinejad and his crew the most incredible propaganda that they could hope for to harden their position. A strike would further radicalize the Iranians, make them more Western-phobic, and even undermine the legitimacy of the opposition movement (Ahmedinejad would have some credence to his accusations of Western influence and manipulation in Iran). No, a strike might be disastrous.

But just how much is the US staying out of Iranian affairs? Surely, opportunities for subtle propaganda influence are not simply being ignored. Even something as simple as Voice of America, a shameless, open alternative network to the Iranian state-run media, is having an effect.

The Iranians are not nearly as good at information control as the Chinese, and the United States is probably taking advantage of that fact as much as Iran's own opposition movement is. This, of course, is a guess. No overt cooperation will happen with the opposition movement, both to protect its legitimacy and to protect its integrity: no Iranian wants to be an American stooge, and the Green Movement won't allow itself to be a puppet.

But the incredible restraint shown by the Obama administration towards the Iranian regime may indicate some intelligence that we don't have. Will there be an internal overthrow of the regime? I think it's unlikely (the population is divided and poorly armed), but if popularity for the opposition movement in 2014 is strong enough, truly sweeping reform could be on the way. And I might be wrong about the level of armament of the population--the Basij militiamen are technically civilians, and are allowed to keep weapons in their homes. Surely, there are guns floating around Tehran in numbers. And the opposition movement is surely making efforts to show that the Ahmedinijad/Khaimeni regime has violated Shiite Islamic law. Under Shiite law, the population has not only a right, but a duty to overthrow regimes that are antithetical to the tenets of Islam. Certainly the motivation and legitimacy for armed revolt are there. If the means are there, too, then the Obama administration's stance makes perfect sense--stay out of Iranian internal politics as much as possible, and let the opposition's support grow slowly over time, until it is ready.

But then again, when was the last time an armed revolt took down a modern, well-armed government? It's been a while.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Geopolitical Complications at Copenhagen

The problems at the various climate summits are economically quite simple--there is both a tragedy of the commons problem (in the emitting of carbon dioxide) and a freerider problem (in the halting thereof). Even Europe has has largely decided that the moral payoff for "leading the way" in CO2 control is not sufficient to break its back alone, especially if it enables other economies to slurp up the CO2 "availability," as it were, that they create.

This, of course, is why anyone trying to control global CO2 output needs a treaty. But it is not so simple to simply forge a treaty on this and tell everyone to stop producing. Should all countries cut a portion of their CO2? Should we create a baseline CO2/capita standard which countries must meet? What, instead, of a CO2/GDP/capita standard? These different standards can be abstractly debated on their own merits, but each representative at Copenhagen is undoubtedly going to support the one that best suits their own self-interest.

Right now, one of the big hang-ups seems to be the US-Chinese rivalry, which stems far beyond simple fairness, egalitarianism, equity, whatever, into rather unsubtle geopolitical/economic warfare. The Chinese want to walk away with a "promise" to reduce CO2 output by a certain percentage, but do not want any oversight into their own in-house emissions reporting. The US, of course, is unwilling to sign anything that lets the Chinese get away with zero transparency, while the US gets constant comb-overs by the EU to make sure that it is putting in sufficient efforts to curb CO2.

And again, this goes beyond fairness, or effectiveness. Could the world at large reduce CO2 production to whatever reasonable levels it sets for itself without the Chinese getting on board until some years from now? Certainly. China may be a big contributor to world CO2 emissions, but it is not yet so big to single-handedly destroy any attempts to put caps on world emissions (where the US is certainly that big, as is the EU). This is, as usual, about long-term and arcane calculations about the relative power of the two perceived titans of world politics, the US and the People's Republic of China.

My own opinions about where the US should be aiming its sights aside (hint: Russia and Iran), the US sees a great threat to its pacific hegemony in the Chinese, and the Chinese probably see a great opportunity in this treaty, if it should come out the right way. Further, the Chinese have an advantage--for years, the Chinese have denied any aspirations of being a "world leader" or any of that claptrap. While they are concerned about their reputation in order to open trade and assuade the military fears of their neighbors, the Chinese lack the desire to be loved, admired, and followed that the US became addicted to in the Second World War (and not for entirely sentimental reasons. The relative love affair that the Western World has had for the US over the past sixty years has allowed the US to make bold moves in its own geopolitical favor and receive backing in legitimacy, money, manpower, military base placement, etc. It's been a very powerful tool, and it's far from lost, all the Bush-era apocalyptic soothsayers' opinions to the contrary. But I digress). The Chinese can legitimately look Copenhagen dead in the eye and say, "we don't care if you approve of our economic or environmental practices," as long as such disapproval
does not grow so large as to threaten boycott (which would certainly be difficult to legitimately threaten, although it would damage the Chinese and Southeast Asian economies far, far more than the economies of the US or EU, under-read cocktail-sipping fatalists' opinions to the contrary. But I digress). It's not an enviable position for the United States.

For the United States has a reputation to uphold, and it may be in a position where it is making a value judgment about that geopolitically powerful reputation and its geopoltically powerful manufacturing industry (which is still the largest and most formiddable in the world, a fact that would be more widely known if we were not so obsessed with predicting our own demise. But I digress). Should the US walk away and say, "no deal without China breaking its back as much as we do," its European allies will grow increasingly impatient and disillusioned about American exceptionalism, altruism, leadership ability, what have you. But should the US say, "the Chinese be damned, we're going to do the right thing," then it will quite disproportionately and quite significantly load a disadvantage onto its own manufacturing industry, its war machine, its economy in general--and ultimately its ability to project power into the pacific.

Manufacturing is a CO2-heavy process, even when it's not a coal-fired steel plant (of which we have precious few these days). You'd probably have nightmares over how much CO2 went into the air to make that brand new Prius you're so proud of buying (and re-buying after a mere 3 years to get the "higher effiency" model, in a misguided attempt to save the earth. But I digress). Military manufacturing is much, much worse. Military manufacturing puts a much higher emphasis on performance over price, to the point that it hits some seriously diminishing returns (to whit, the military often picks some very odd opportunities to say "only the best for our boys!" and "we need to save money," but I digress). And, until renewable technology really picks up, manufacturing price is often fairly well-correlated to CO2 usage to make it (of course, in the case of military hardware, the CO2/price ratio is higher than for most goods).

The short of it is this: A major carbon tax or cap-and-trade will be a disaster for the US military's already- enormous budget, in a country whose debt is already so horrifyingly large that both parties are balking at spending more (and the Greek debt crisis is hopefully teaching a lesson about the limits of the power of borrowing. But perhaps not. I digress). Additionally, the US will simply flat-out lose more manufacturing to China if it should impose limits on its CO2 production and China doesn't. While the US will make sure to subsidize its arms manufacturers, many other industry's won't be so lucky. The US would have to (until renewable technologies mature) be incredibly picky about just which manufacturing sectors are "Critical to national security," or it would annihilate its economy just to keep them all afloat.

And, of course, for every manufacturing plant the US loses, it's one China gains. China's ability to compete, in particular, in high-precision manufacturing would increase significantly--a prospect that US security advisors (for better or for worse) shudder to think about (the US still has rather obnoxious export limits on high-precision manufacturing equipment to China, as well as other "dual-use technology" that the US and EU currently specialise in making. But I digress). This manufacturing would, of course, make China's economic position more powerful in the Pacific, and enable its indigenous military hardware industry (which has been crawling obediently towards independence from Russian supply).

Increased tax revenues, increased manufacturing capacity, and increased trade partnerships in the Pacific would greatly increase China's geopolitical and military position in the region, where the opposite would apply to the US. This is one of the big reasons the US is so very obsessive about making sure the Treaty (that it's actually considering signing) is "fair" in the sense that it hurts the US and China equally.

I doubt, though, that the US is going to get its wish in that particular field until Chinese GDP growth starts to peter out. And if it can handle its looming demographic crisis, China is unlikely to see GDP grwoth slow for some years to come.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tradeoffs and Wisdom in Obama's Afghan Strategy

You guys read the speech. If not, read the speech.

"Our resolve is unwavering." But, perhaps, only for the next 18 months.

Seems a strange message. And it is. But it may not be unsound.

(Quick summary: 30,000 additional troops, some begging for 5,000 more from NATO, will take a crack at the Taliban while other troops, particularly from NATO, train Afghan forces at absolutely breakneck speeds. Then, 18 months from now, we begin the drawdown.)

This looks quite a bit like the surge strategy in Iraq. And it is. General Petraeus, now in charge of CENTCOM, is probably relatively satisfied. McChrystal certainly is.

The major criticisms from the left are pretty simple--this is a waste of life, of money, we should be leaving. I think the counter-argument here is that there are a few serious points at stake: the first was brought up by the President. There is a serious security risk here. Certainly more than there was in Iraq. And certainly, this is something that we should weigh on its own as a benefit against the cost of the next 18 months, rather than succumbing to the tragedy of sunk costs. The second point is that the odds of winning are probably higher than the left probably thinks. Like it or not, Petraeus, Gates, and Bush showed that "doubling down" in a region has the potential to break the fighting will of folks that have spent the past many years slowly grinding and dying in the mountains to eek out momentum. Afghanistan will be harder than Iraq, due largely to an even-more-dysfunctional central government (and much less centralized society), but it can be done. Third, the cost of losing can go beyond simple security in the medium-term. Victory and defeat can significantly affect the relationships between the United States and other significant powers (Iran, Russia, etc); Vietnam and Afghanistan are both excellent examples. When the US lost Vietnam, its security was not threatened by Vietnam, but the Soviet Union gained a long momentum (as the US wallowed in relative misery and indecisiveness), and the momentum switched after the Soviet Union lost Afghanistan. So I think, as a whole, there is a lot to gain, and a decent chance to get it.

The criticism from the right is, as far as I can tell, centered around "sending the wrong message," as Senator McCain said. The worry, in essence, is that the US is not able to project the will necessary to break the will of the Taliban--they may simply spend the next 18 months hiding in wait, knowing the exact date at which they should spring forth to take down the Afghani government. It is not an entirely illegitimate claim. But if the Taliban does actually take an 18-month break (or relative break) from the fight against ISAF, then ISAF will have two luxuries: one, it will get to spend its massive resources in building up the Afghan Army and government (likely, the Army will have the bulk of the legitimacy of government forces, like in Iraq for some time). Two, it will allow the US to get aggressive and claim territory, hunt bad guys, etc, rather than play guard duty. Every force likes being on the offensive, and the Taliban will have to choose between actively seeking engagement with NATO troops or hoping that they can hide and be just disruptive enough to not give ISAF the luxury of relaxing and building.

Additionally, it will instill some urgency (and, frankly, panic) in the Karzai government. For all his corruption, Karzai is committed to beating the Taliban and holding onto his power base--he won't achieve his own objectives by sitting back and hoping. Knowing that the US commitment (and thus the NATO commitment) has a time limit is likely to motivate him to get his government in good enough shape to keep it together on its own, rather than free-ride off US and NATO efforts.

All in all, there is a trade-off between the message to the Afghan government and the message to the Taliban, but I think the trade-off is being managed pretty well. Furthermore, the trade-off management might actually make enough Republicans and moderate Democrats happy enough that he'll get the requisition he needs to pull it off.

My confidence here isn't quite as high as it was with the Iraqi surge, but it's probably about the best bet the US has right not to pull a win in Afghanistan (even if, yes, "win" was not a word Obama used. Deal with it.) and walk home with not only a safer Middle East, but a much-inflated geopolitical position compared to 2004.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How the EU is Handing the US a Victory in Iraq

Whether or not the US has "won" in Iraq yet is a bit unclear--it depends who you ask what the objectives are. And, frankly, I don't think that anyone quite knows the answer, even if they sit down and give you a list of said objectives. But if you imagine the most broad, liberal, and generous of objective lists, it looks like the US is a few key steps away from making Iraq a beacon of American power, determination, and values.

What are the primary obstacles? To be certain, there is corruption, major factionalism, poverty and displacement, security holes, Iranian influence, bureaucratic ineffectiveness. But, frankly, I think the linchpin here will be the Arab-Kurd negotiation process over the status (and size) of Iraqi Kurdistan. Continued ambiguity on the topic will be a major hangup for the resolution of all these other problems, and is the single most likely problem in all of Iraq to cause major destabilization of the regime.

The Arab-Kurd conflict in Iraq is a rather frustrating problem I have lamented a number of times in the past--it has been highly unclear to me exactly how Iraq was going to solve its Kurdistan problem. Kurdistan had both the power and the motive to keep pushing the central government for a greater advantage. As long as its future projections for relative power were good, a stable state could not be reached.

But the strangest of butterfly effects may be taking place. As you probably know, Turkey is hot for a bid into the EU, and has been struggling immensely to realize said bid. There are many obstacles in Turkey's way, the least of which is not racism and Islamophobia in many parts of Europe. More legitimate problems, like governmental stability and human rights questions, have kept it out, as well.

The Turks have taken their rebuffs in stride, carefully noting any concrete objections in order to try to annihilate them and (seemingly) legitimize their bid for EU ascendancy. At the top of this list of objections has been the Turkish treatment of their Kurdish minority. In a 25-year-long low-intensity war to keep the province from breaking away, the Turks have taken great measures to "Turkify" their Kurdish southeast. Banning of wearing Kurdish clothing, teaching Kurdish in school, Kurdish-language television, and Kurdish cultural/national symbols, as well as a bold official renaming of places in Kurdistan to Turkish names have been part of an overall effort that has been (somewhat fairly) called "Cultural Genocide." Frankly, it has also been a failed policy, and has more likely bolstered resistance to integration rather than eroded it.

In a rather stunning about-face, the ruling coalition in Turkey has offered a rather generous peace deal, which includes (among other things) a restoration of the Kurdish right to express a cultural identity (including television, school, clothing, etc). While certainly far from an easy fix, the overture has certainly caused the peace process to gain a great deal of momentum. In an equally stunning reply gesture, 8 PKK members from Iraq crossed the border and laid down their weapons to help cooperate with the peace process.

Obviously, there will be implications in Iraq. The decision clearly seems to be having some impact on Kurdish nationalist motivation--if the PKK (in Iraq, even!) is beginning to walk across the border and lay down arms, the organization as a whole clearly has a lot less steam to fight than it used to. Because Kurds in Iraq are probably approximately as concerned with Kurds in Turkey as other Kurds in Iraq, seeing Turkish Kurds accept a fruitful and just peace process will certainly dampen the "us versus them" mentality that has dominated ultranationalist Kurds since the early 20th century. Furthermore, if the peace process works, government control will be restored to Southeast Turkey, meaning that Iraqi Kurdish fighting groups will no longer have a porous border behind which they can rest, regroup, rearm, etc. They will have lost a key (and much larger) ally in the struggle with Iraqi Arabs, leading to decreased military power and decreased bargaining power.

With deflated motivation and ability (assuming the peace process is as rosy as everyone hopes), Iraqi Kurds are likely to realize that their future negotiating prospects are going to only be going down. This implies that today is the peak of Kurdish power in Iraq (assuming central government power will not also decrease). Any good negotiations theory says that you should (and do in fact tend to) negotiate for a settlement when at your peak of relative power. The Iraqi central government could try to drag out the negotiating process to bargain from a position of higher power later, but if they're smart, they'll want to get this done and over with without giving up too much, such that they can move on to other big problems.

Assuming that these dominoes do fall and the Kurds find a framework in which to get along with the Arab central government, a whole host of problems are going to be solved. First, Kurd-controlled and Baghdad-controlled troops will no longer be squaring off with each other--they can spend their time hunting down the remnants of al-Qaeda that (intuitively) are most dominant in the fuzzy border between the Kurdistan Autonomous Region and the rest of Iraq. Furthermore, a settlement will include election agreements, which should put a dent in factionalism and volatility in Iraqi politics, which should allow more stable ruling coalitions to actually spend political capital to tackle big problems (like corruption, power supply, IDPs, security, etc). Finally, and perhaps most tantalizingly, an agreement will likely include an oil deal, allowing Iraq's vast oil riches to finally be fully exploited--and for both governments to get significant cuts that should fund a strong Army, a strong reconstruction process, and a healthy health/education department (why this is not the case in many other oil-rich states is a very long story, but for a number of reasons I think Iraq is unlikely to fall as far into the dark pits of inefficiency, corruption, and central planning that plague many other oil states).

I don't quite mean to imply that the Turkish-Kurdish peace will will be a cure-all in Iraq. But if the dominoes fall as I think they will, it will remove what is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the Iraqi central government effectively dealing with its top domestic issues. If those can get chugging along, then the Americans can begin to feel pretty secure about having achieved even the most ambitious and extensive goal list in Iraq.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lisbon Treaty Sees Fissures On Day One

The Czech President Klaus signed the Lisbon Treaty (the last EU leader to do so) today, after the Czech Republic's constitutional court gave the treaty its thumbs-up.

But already, fissures have emerged. The Tories in the UK, who are poised to take over in big numbers by next June at the latest, are furious, and David Cameron (the very-likely next PM) is currently under great pressure to come up with some sort of legal scheme to re-transfer a great deal of power from Brussels to London. It might mean a secession, in the end: there seem to be few options left for the Tories besides total withdrawal.

Italians are also quite irate over a European Human Rights Court decision to ban crucifixes in Italian schools. And it seems that it's not a particularly politically divisive issue in Italy--they're either very attached to these crucifixes or they simply don't want Brussels meddling so deeply in their business. But this is, quite literally, what they wished for.

Disaffection and disillusionment is coming quickly at the heels of the Lisbon Treaty. Skittles and beer are not being poured on the streets in celebration, as the visionaries of the EU had hoped.

The big question: will these jitters settle, or will they undermine the process completely? The United States certainly had similar problems, and still has the occasional fight for sovereignty between a state government and Washington, but it does hold. But then again, a civil war was fought to keep it together. Surely, the Europeans will not go killing each other to preserve the Union; will that make it all too easy for the UK (and then others) to drop out?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Afghan Election Gets Key Legitimacy Boost

In an approximately-simultaneous announcement, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan declared that no candidate in the election attained 50% of the real ballots cast, and Karzai rather generously agreed to the run-off.

The agreement is an about-face from his previous stance, which implied that he would dispute results that did not provide him an outright win. This, of course, would have been disastrous. Karzai may have, in fact, just facilitated the only route possible towards long-term governmental legitimacy in Afghanistan (though by no means, of course, did he guarantee it).

A number of obvious reasons are likely behind the decision:
1) Incredible international pressure, from NATO and the UN.
2) Fear of backlash, from Abdullah supporters and anyone else disaffected by fraud.
3) Hopes for increased legitimacy and popularity, by showing generosity and magnanimity.

Apparently, the run-off is scheduled for November 7th--only a bit over two weeks away. This will be necessary to make sure the elections are completed before Afghanistan's harsh winter hits, but will make logistics for ISAF, the UN, and Afghanistan's government incredibly complex.

More importantly: will Abdullah gain enough votes to make this a serious challenge? Karzai winning in the second round (with his cooperation) is certainly better than a "stolen victory" scenario, but it's unclear whether that can be avoided in the second round. Certainly, those working for Karzai have shown a ruthless desire to win (far beyond their desire to promote democracy). Will the scandal over the past weeks deter them from trying again?

It's unclear whether there is much hope to hold on to for this election. But if it should be "free and fair" and, most importantly, convincing, then the government may gain a new "boost" in confidence necessary to help the US "surge" in Afghanistan have a lasting effect.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

An Alternative Theory on the S. Waziristan Assault

So you all probably know about the recent string of attacks by the Taliban in Pakistan, against police stations, army headquarters, and random civilians, by raid or by suicide bomb, in Peshawar or Lahore or Islamabad. The Taliban has grown particularly tough and gutsy, and it's not 100% clear to what end. Certainly they have won the ire of the Pakistanis, who are (finally) launching a long-awaited operation into South Waziristan. The BBC provides an image of the approach below:

The Army is approaching from the North, East, and West, which is probably largely a courtesy to ISAF and NATO: this way, fleeing Taliban will be going south, into the waiting jaws of Pakistani reserves, rather than north and west, where they can regroup with Afghani Taliban.

The Pakistani Army is sending 30,000, backed by artillery, helicopters, and the works. Though I'm not sure whether there will be a serious commando presence. The Taliban is perhaps 10,000 strong, with some 500-5,000 Uzbek al-Qaeda affiliated allies in the area. It's a big force. The Army is pouring in and taking civilised territory pretty quickly, though they're likely to struggle significantly in the mountains.

This fight brings up two big questions: 1) Why did the Taliban provoke Pakistan? and 2) Is Pakistan's heart really in it?

1) Most analysts seem to think that the Taliban were hoping to divide Pakistani opinion with a wave of attacks, to try to dissuade the long-planned South Waziristan invasion. I think this analysis is, frankly, naive.

Frankly, I think that the Taliban has realized at this point that launching attacks, especially against civilians, will unite/enrage the country. Expensive offensives are difficult when the status quo is peaceful, but not when the status quo is hellish, at the hands of a brutal enemy. No, I believe that the Taliban knew full well that their attacks would provoke a serious counter-attack; they knew they would not cow the Pakistanis into complacency by murdering civilians. But why would they want the Pakistanis to attack?

Let us assume for a moment that the South Waziristan assault was inevitable. It probably was. The government promised to do it, the US is pressuring them to do it, and the troops were already massing all around the region. So if Meshud (the new Pakistani Taliban leader) knew they were coming, he'd want them to come on his own terms. So it is quite reasonable to believe that he has kept his troops on high alert and sent some out to perform the raids/suicide bombs to get the Army to attack both when Meshud was strong and before mobilization preparations were complete, giving Meshud as high an advantage as possible. I find this scenario far more likely than one in which the hardened Taliban fooled themselves into hoping they could break the Pakistani people into submission with a few bombs.

But this is the fourth time since 2004 alone that Pakistan has tried to regain control of South Waziristan. The first three have failed, and the Army was trying to make sure it was as prepared as possible for the fourth assault. This accelerated assault has it a bit off-kilter, whether or not the Army will admit it, and it was frankly an excellent strategic choice by Meshud--Pakistan is fickle and its opinion changes quickly. It does not--like the US or UK--have a "sunk costs" psychology, and it is not afraid to retreat and admit defeat from even its own soveriegn territory.

2) A touger question. Much tougher. Canadian intelligence certainly suggests that a large portion of Pakistani Intelligence is in favor of a strong Taliban presence in Afghanistan, and that some may have been behind coordinating the Taliban raids in Pakistan. And it's almost certainly true. One of Pakistan's toughest security risks is its own intelligence security services, and unless it can clean house and put them in line, it will never off finish the Taliban in its own country. And as long as these elements remain, much of the Pakistani efforts will continue to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. The commitment of the government as a whole is worth serious question.

If the US cannot win enough factions in the Pakistani government such that it will make genuine efforts to oust the Taliban from regions useful to the US (Khyber, Kurram, Bajur, Chitral, and especially Balochistan), then ISAF will unlikely be able to "break the back" of the Afghani Taliban--they will receive too much support from across the border.

So, we shall see. Perhaps the Taliban will be foolish enough to burn a great deal of resources in support of Waziristan, and exhaust itself. Perhaps NATO will be smart enough to take advantage of Pakistani distraction to launch a heavy assault.

But Obama has made it clear that there will not be a major Afghanistan decision until the election results are more sure (they're still being recounted). Without more troops, there will not be a major offensive. This may be a missed opportunity. But it may become academic.

If the US cannot get the Pakistani government on its side nor the Afghan government to play by the rules and attempt to win the hearts/minds of its people, then the Afghanistan war is likely all but lost.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Lisbon Treaty

The Lisbon Treaty in the EU finally cleared one of its biggest hurdles today--that set up by the voters of Ireland.

Requiring unanimous approval of the member states of the EU, the Lisbon Treaty was signed by heads of state of all 27 member nations in 2007, and was expected to be in force at the beginning of this year. For all but Ireland, national parliaments rubber-stamped the treaty through (though the Czech and Polish executives had refused to sign the treaty until the Irish passed it--not sure what they've done yet). With the Irish vote done, the treaty is likely only some red tape away from coming into effect.

The Treaty would strengthen the breadth of powers and autonomy of the EU parliament and executive, create tighter central integration, and a whole bunch of other stuff. In reality, it's very similar to the "EU Constitution" which was so summarily rejected by the more nationalist nations of France and Holland before being abandoned entirely. While the Treaty of Lisbon's passing does not actually make Europe one big happy sovereign nation, it does make it pretty darn powerful (they'll even have a single Foreign Minister to represent the "united" EU opinion on foreign policy). It's the kind of treaty that makes an old-school realist sit down and wonder what sovereignty really means.

If the EU holds together and chugs forward, I anticipate some level of "de facto" sovereignty will emerge, even if it is not formalised in the lifetimes of anyone around today. Many of my European friends (with very strong nationalism) would surely want to cut my tongue out for saying such a thing, but I will indeed note that state pride/nationalism in the US was incredibly powerful until after the civil war (if you've seen any of those civil war movies, you see the Confederates holding up state flags and screaming things like "FOR VIRGINIA!"). In fact, while the States of the US did not have formal sovereignty in the Westphalia sense as soon as the Constitution was signed (they essentially retained their sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation by... oh, just go look it up if you don't know), the de-facto erosion of state-level power, autonomy, and semi-sovereignty is obvious in American history. Every time some issue emerges that is pressing enough to worry some majority of the country, the voting public cedes another notch of power to the federal government (though I will remain mum on whether this is or isn't a good idea).

My point is that the creation of a centralized confederation for all of Europe is similar enough to the confederation of the American states that I think a somewhat similar process of growth of central power is relatively inevitable unless the formalized central system is reversed, and quickly (which is highly unlikely).

I believe, though, that the situation is more likely to be reversible than in the US, and I believe that Russia has the potential to cause it. Like George Friedman (by the way: go read The Next 100 Years), I believe that the nations of Europe have such a vast discrepancy of fears and misgiving's about Russia's potential behavior and future that its expansion and aggression is more likely to drive a wedge between European countries rather than unite them. If Western Europe does indeed abandon the East in order to keep the oil and gas flowing, then NATO will become defunct, as will any faint illusion of collective defense in Europe under the umbrella of the EU. And then, expect some action.

But until that hypothetical arises, expect the EU to be a rather happy-go-lucky place for a while. Maybe (just maybe) it will become a more assertive and significant player in world affairs, after a 50-year post-world war II hiatus.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Middle East Wrap

You'll have to accept my apologies for not writing much lately. I'll try to make up for it today by covering just about everything worth covering in the Middle East (and on Monday I'll try to update the rest of the world).

IRAN: Iran's secret nuclear facility has been exposed by intel; Iran's attempts to minimize political losses by admitting it publicly and agreeing to talks worked better than I had anticipated. Israel is currently pulling their hair out over the issue: previously, they had been mulling an airstrike on the known above-ground Iranian facility. The second, underground one has likely ruled that option out. And, as usual, Israel is not ready to depend on Western negotiations and sanctions to solve its problems.

Iran also scored a big win in getting a 2-week "deadline" for an IAEA inspection of the facility, which should allow Iran enough time to clean it up of anything obviously bomb-related (bombs require much higher-level enrichment, for example) and be ready with smiles and open doors for the IAEA inspectors. After the Iraq debacle, the West is going to be hard-pressed to listen to a US or UK insist that it has good intel about WMD operations in a Middle Eastern country without more neutral parties willing to corroborate the story. Iran is likely to manoeuvre its way out of this with limited backlash, frustrating just about everyone (Diplomacy, they say, is a bitch).

Whether that means Iran is significantly closer to the manufacture of an atom bomb is anyone's guess from outside of classified intelligence, but a declassified British report gives them a few years, where the US published a few years ago that such activities had halted in 2005. Such a disagreement in opinion is not surprising, but it does mean that public policymaking will be marred by second-guessing.

Edit: New UN report says that Iran has the "data" to make a nuclear weapon (which is not actually all that difficult, but is a significant declaration).

AFGHANISTAN: McChrystal continues to press the point of getting more troops in Afghanistan, and Obama has continued to leave the issue on the backburner, insisting on a strategic review before going ahead with the decision. As much as it frustrates me to see little action, it's probably the right move: this is key point where Obama has to decide whether to turn Afghanistan into a major hell-raising back-breaking tax-spending mess, or a defeat. Waiting on a decision is easier than reversing one (it is very hard to declare defeat without a changing of the guard--see LBJ and Nixon), but every moment of wait erodes support, as well.

I am, personally, highly torn on the decision. While I don't think there is a "Domino" style theory to be applied here, I do think surrendering Afghanistan will put Pakistan at great risk, which will be a nightmare for India, as well as the US. They do call Afghanistan the "Graveyard of Empires," but the stakes are even higher now. Will the now-well-trained, well-funded, and very spiteful Taliban continue to foster al-Qaeda to strike at the US? The likelihood of retribution the size of 2001 will be very low if NATO walks out of Afghanistan with its tail between its legs. On the other hand, Afghanistan seems more hopeless to me than ever, in particular because NATO does not have a legitimate "good guy" government to support. NATO has resigned to supporting Karzai if he stays in power, which is looking all the more likely, if for no other reason than inertia. Given clear fraud, will his win be any more legitimate than that of Mr. Ahmedinejad in Iran? Afghanis are not dumb people, and they will know and understand, especially if they voted against him. In a normal, clean election, the losing side of the electorate can say, "well, he is not who I wanted, but he is who the majority of the country wanted." If that is not something that's believed, then the bitterness of loss becomes a force for rebellion and resistance. And do you know who's the best source for such opposition? Yeah, you guessed it.

(...if you did not guess it, I am alluding here to The Taliban).

PAKISTAN: Apparently Meshud is dead, which is pretty good news for them. (If you don't know, Meshud just recently took over as head of the Pakistani Taliban, after burning a lot of bridges to do so) Without his strong arm to keep the factions (that he exacerbated) in line, might the Pakistani Taliban begin to fracture?

Swat seems to be returning to normal, but the military has not yet moved on to Waziristan, as expected. This is almost certainly due to a hasty and significant quieting of activity from the Pakistani Taliban after the Swat operation. This was likely a strategic move, designed to give the Taliban in Pakistan time to regroup and resupply from the north, all the while avoiding giving the Pakistani military the necessary public support to act.

ISRAEL/OPT: As usual, a rather hopeless-looking mess. Obama's tripatriate talks fizzled before they were even lit. Settlements continue to be built in the West Bank, and Israel has hit some tunnels and weapons facilities with airstrikes after themselves being hit by rockets. But such activity is too normal to even seriously get international attention anymore. I expect that peace talks will not resume in earnest until the next Israeli election, if then.

IRAQ: Civilian casualty numbers continue to fluctuate, though they're lower than last year. The US is taking almost zero hits, meaning that the war/occupation in Iraq is effectively over. The Arab-Kurdish split continues to grow, though, and chaos allows al-Qaeda to operate in Kiruk and Mosul even to this day. But the Iraqi Army continues to grow in size and skill; when it is powerful enough, it will become an effective bargaining tool against the Kurds, but their most-favored-minority status by the US in particular may prompt them to call victim with some gusto before giving up their bids for autonomy, power, territory, and oil.


OBAMA (in general): He is (hopefully) finding that his personality is not enough to solve the Middle East's problems, and that some serious realpolitik must be played to convince other leaders/countries to act in ways favorable to the US. After failures of overture with Iran, Russia (how many "resets" have we had since January? Seriously!?), Pakistan, and the European partners that we so desperately hoped would love us again after ushering in the new president, we're going to have to buckle down and play the game of strongmen that we apparently so very much hate ourselves for playing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ambivalence, Indecision, and Defeat in Afghanistan

Barack Obama is in perhaps what will be the toughest spot of his presidency.

With poll numbers slipping, independents fleeing, his touted healthcare bill staggering, the economy sputtering, and other domestic mayhem, Obama might be hoping right now he could fall back to a solid foreign policy base.

But the decision to remove the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic is proving more controversial than once thought. His tripartite summit with Abbas and Netanyahu was a flop. Iraq is struggling enough to make headlines, and he has no answers. The Afghanistan election was a disaster, and now, as more American boys die on the field and signs of Taliban dominance increase, Obama is faced with a nasty choice that he didn't want to make yet.

General Stanley McChrystal (head of ISAF and the US Military's lead man on the AfPak region directly under Petraeus' command over the entire Middle East) has publicly called on the president to make a choice: Go big or go home. That is, send more troops, or quit. The current path will only lead to failure. I'm inclined to agree with the General.

The General claims that the current troop count in Afghanistan is simply insufficient--the US is spread too thin and losing. Obama, despite his initial popularity with the US's allies, is finding himself without the clout to request more troops from Australia, England, Germany... certainly not former Soviet Bloc countries (who were so generous to President Bush) after the missile shield debacle (which, to its credit, is supported by the non-partisan and sage-like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates).

The General, who is trusted despite not being particularly well-known, has given Obama a great public challenge in a time when his leadership is being questioned and the risks he is currently running in policy have become much higher and much more unlikely than he was hoping. The domestic roadblocks he's hitting now (which seemed unfathomable after he swept the election) make risks in foreign policy all the more politically difficult.

But politically, the choice that Obama has to make may be a loss either way. Support for more troops in Afghanistan is less than 50%, and if he should send more and casualty rates should continue to increase, and defeat should follow, Afghanistan will become Obama's Vietnam. If he should pull out now, the United States will be overcome with a similar sense of defeat and humility, and the GOP will be able to spend years questioning his wisdom as Commander in Chief.

The risk that President Bush took by appointing Petraeus in Iraq and "doubling down" in a situation where the country wanted to pull out must be appreciated. But Bush, an idealogue, understood that his party was likely to lose the election either way, and was able to act with a strange sense of futile freedom. The risk happened to pay off, and Petraeus' military genius was given the time it needed to shine. But the problem in Iraq, in a strange way, was easier to fix, if not more simple.

In Afghanistan, a corrupt dictator has arose to replace the paladin saviour of the country--and both men go by the name Hamid Karzai. No longer can the US simply back the "legitimate" government against the evil Taliban--the government has begun to lose its legitimacy. Without any legitimacy or moral high-ground in the central government, the US has nothing to fight for, and should leave. But, in a period of domestic political turmoil, admitting defeat would be politically catastrophic.

The election is not over yet. The Independent Election Commission has not yet, in fact, declared any winners in the campaign. UN intervention could lead to a second round of voting, in which Abdullah has a chance of winning, and (hopefully) cleaning house--with Kabul's legitimacy restored, Obama can take McChrystal's advice and double-down, as Bush did in Iraq... and hope that the investment pays off before the 2010 elections, lest the struggling Democrats suffer a slaughter similar to the 1994 turnover. Obama would surely take much of the blame.

If Karzai manages to hold onto power and award the cronies that helped him clutch to it, the game may be over. But this outcome is not assured yet.

For Obama, politically, the right choice certainly seems to be to wait, under the guise of his administration conducting a "strategic review" of the situation. But how long can this wait? How long can he delay before his ambivalence turns into a very loud and public liability? Surely, he is pressing for the IEC to hurry up and make a decision, but the second vote won't happen until late October, should it happen. Strategic ambivalence must wait until then.

But unless Obama has a series of decisive decisions lined up to react to the outcome of the election, he will be stumbling into doom. His foreign policy inexperience is starting to show, as he finds that rhetoric and hope cannot alone drive success in an international anarchy of realist, idealistic, and skeptical foes.

In Afghanistan--the US's deepest foreign policy investment--indecisiveness for too long will spell disaster. The political machinations of reality are coming to a head, and a decision to go all in or cut our losses must soon be made. The decision rests on one man: expect it soon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

And Now For Disaster

Karzai reached 54% of the vote in the preliminary announcement this weekend, though the IEC continues to cite dozens of cases of fraud.

Those tribal leaders that complained earlier? Karzai apparently took 100% of the votes in that district. Oops.

The West is cautiously calling for recounts, and possibly re-votes. The right answer here is to declare that the election was too marred to determine a winner, and have a run-off between the two candidates, though it begs the question: can more oversight be brought into the process? Or will Karzai (and/or his goons) steal this one, too?

If Abdullah leads a protest (and I'm not saying he shouldn't), an Iranian-style situation might arise... except that the Afghan state has extremely limited security powers, and the protesters will have Kalichnikovs. Things are going to get worse before they get better, if they do.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Afghan Election Update

With about half of all votes counted, Karzai has 45.8% of the vote, a slight tick downward from his earlier lead when 35% of votes were counted. This will be a nailbiter.

The IEC chairman said that the 5th or the 6th is the date we should be eyeing for results to come in. Until then, the fraud allegations have caused confidence in the election, domestically and abroad, to plummet. If confidence can't be built back, Karzai (or whomever was involved) may have handed the Taliban their biggest victory of the war. In Kandahar province, tribal leaders are publicly accusing aides to Karzai's brother (the provincial leader of Kandahar) of shutting down polling booths and shipping in ballots from elsewhere, all marked for Karzai (these tribal leaders had decided to endorse Abdullah). Kandahar province is predominantly Pashtun; such an accusation suggests that whatever unrest may come of a Karzai victory (if, as is almost certain, it is believed to be rigged) will lead to unrest in Pashtun regions as well as elsewhere.

Things are looking bad. I can't help but worry that ISAF has created a monster. US and EU envoys are considering their response to the election results. The IEC, it appears, has the power to declare the election broken and force a run-off, which the US and EU appear to hope to persuade, should the numbers work out for Karzai.

But whether things will go better the second time is a bleak question. It appears now that Karzai is much more interested in maintaining his position than his legitimacy, and such an incentive (for a man with as much power as he has) is dangerous.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Too Close to Call"

Well, my predictions from yesterday are looking to be quite wrong.

Early results, released today as announced, put the two leading candidates in what is nearly a dead tie; Karzai has 41% and Abdullah 39%. Only 10% of the votes have been counted, and it's unclear which 10% (it's almost certainly not random). Special Envoy Holbrooke said that it's way too early to call whether this election will go to a run-off, and he's right.

It begs the question: what the heck was Karzai's finance minister thinking? It seems difficult to think that he is right in his assessment of the vote count (and that the Independent Election Commission is reporting some tiny, skewed subsection of the vote despite knowing more). If he's wrong, does he know it? Does he have some flawed source? The announcement continues to trouble me.

More updates as we hear them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Dirty Win for Karzai?

Partial election results are not due to be released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) until Tuesday, but a very late Monday announcement by Finance Minister Zakhilwal claimed that Karzai has won the election with a whopping 68% of the vote. If this is actually true, it might appear to be such an enormous number as to guarantee the consent of the Afghan people despite all the intimidation and corruption.

But I fear this election is not going to end cleanly or easily no matter what happens. There are 3 likely scenarios: outright Karzai victory, outright Abdullah victory, and toss up leading to a runoff. I talked about the consequences of an Abdullah win or a run-off in my last post.

But the Finance Minister, while out of line, is likely correct about the official vote count (he is otherwise very much sticking his neck out for seemingly little gain). But while Afghan polling was neither extensive nor accurate, it certainly seemed like this would be a much closer vote as of two weeks ago. And, further, low turnout in the southern Pashtun regions (due to Taliban intimidation) was likely to hurt Karzai, not help him. A 24% increase in polling for Karzai over that two week period seems highly unlikely.

And all of this, of course, is starting to look frighteningly like the Iranian elections. Abdullah, whose reformist slant and underdog attitude are reminiscent of Mousavi, is claiming "widespread fraud" in the vote, in the form of inflated counting, ballot-stuffing, and intimidation; he claims further that such extensive fraud may well change the election outcome, implying that there would have at least been a runoff had the vote been fair.

The announcement by the Finance Minister comes a few hours after the UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan supported claims of irregularities and urged that dozens of complaints be dealt with, as they are potentially outcome-changing. The announcement might be an attempt to instill decisive victory in the minds of the Afghani population to steal the initiative from a potentially messy review or recount process.

At this point, the legitimacy of the election may be beyond saving. Abdullah cannot be faulted for claiming fraud if the allegations are true (and they likely are), but a lack of legitimacy is likely to damage the government and can potentially lead to violence. It is difficult to undo the damage of most fraud without a second vote of some sort, and such a thing is not only highly uncommon, but is logistically a nightmare; further, it's unclear a second vote would be any better. For ISAF, it's time to dig in and prepare for unrest. Whether some semblance of trust and confidence can be imparted into the Karzai government when it (almost certainly) receives a victory announcement tomorrow is unclear and grim. And without the confidence and trust of the Afghani people, the central government is going to be unable to stick.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Afghani Election So Far

The Afghan elections did not meet the catastrophic failure of total disruption and violence that many officials feared. That hurdle, at least, was cleared, and most people are carefully avoiding entertaining the idea that most of the Taliban (remember they are not always a united front) did not care too much about the elections. That is not to say that there was not violence; there were rockets, there were roadblocks, there were mortars. But they were sporadic and isolated--had the Taliban been bent on preventing the elections from happening, much more noise would have been made.

But that's only one hurdle. Turnout was apparently significantly lower than the last election, especially in the south, probably due largely to Taliban intimidation tactics. This southern area is dominated by Pashtuns, where Karzai seeks much of his support to beat Abdullah. Whether this disparity in turnout will affect the election, and whether it will call legitimacy into question, is unclear.

Other problems include complaints of ballot-stuffing or other issues of corruption. Karzai's power over Afghani bureaucracy is massive, and has led to a great deal of corruption and graft in normal government functions, and is almost certainly going to leak into the election, even if Karzai himself does not intend to cheat.

Beyond that, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) has to deal with inflated versions of normal election problems, like hanging chads.

But the votes are indeed being counted. Both Abdullah and Karzai have claimed victory, but the IEC has said that it's too early to tell. A Voice of America survey of three polling districts in Kabul put Karzai ahead in 2 of them, and Abdullah ahead in one, and neither with a majority. Ghani and Bashardost were in 3rd and 4th--Bashardost was unable to leap past fourth place even in his own district of Kabul.

Karzai will fare better in the south, and Abdullah better in the north. Karzai's primary disadvantage will be the low Pashtun turnout, but he makes up for this by a number of deals cut with warlords and other local leaders in the north. It should be a close race, and I think a runoff is likely.

Unfortunately, a runoff will be a logistical nightmare of the same magnitude as this election. The Taliban will be able to pose a similar threat, the US will probably have to spend another $250 million on it. If Karzai or Abdullah win outright, there will at least be a sigh of relief that the mess is over for a few years. That said, an outright Kazrai win would likely lead to a number of calls of corruption, irregularity, etc, and hinder reconciliatory efforts across the country.

Should a runoff occur, the two big bargainers will be Bashardost and Ghani, whose support should be able to deliver key slices of vote. I predict that they'd be more likely to support Abdullah, who shares their anti-corruption message, but Karzai is a great negotiator with a lot of power, and could sway them to his side. Should Karzai lose, his supporting warlords will have also lost, and will have little in the way of loyalty to the new government. Whether Karzai can or will convince them to get in line will be worth keeping an eye on.

More updates as we get them.

(P.S.: Congratulations and thanks in particular to the US and UK troops that have, for the past two months, helped prepare southern Afghanistan for an at least semi-functional voting experience. The impact on the local population is likely to be critical.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Perils in Placing Too Much Hope in Afghan Elections

A low-order analysis of the coming Afghan election (which is about the best you'll be getting out of me today) suggests that no likely result is going to have particularly positive outcomes for the anti-Taliban coalition, despite the increasingly bulky bunch of eggs being stuffed into the election basket by the ISAF.

Recent polls put Karzai in a decisive lead with 44%, though failing to get 50% would lead to a runoff. In second is former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah with 26%; in third, Ramazan Bashardost with 10%; and in fourth, Ashraf Ghani with 6%.

So let us first assume that the vote goes relatively smoothly, despite Taliban attempts to disrupt it. If Karzai wins, Afghanistan has a status quo problem. He is not a terrible president, but he is often arbitrary, his government is corrupt and dysfunctional, and he has apparently alienated much of his former Pashtun support in the south (he is the only all-Pashtun major candidate). Worse, he is being seen as selling out women's rights: he is executing the implementation of a law that allows Shiite men to deny food to their wives, should their wives not be satisfying them sexually (among other things). The implementation of the law is likely to boost his support among some of the 20% Shiite population of Afghanistan. Once the golden boy of the anti-Taliban movement and its Western allies, Karzai has fallen to the point of receiving but an exhausted shrug from those former allies with whom he is not currently cutting deals. Communication difficulties throughout Afghanistan and other barriers to entry for other candidates are probably large contributors to Karzai's current poll popularity.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is half-Pashtun, but spent the Taliban regime fighting with the Northern Alliance, and is therefore unlikely to win over many fence-sitting Taliban supporters simply by being elected. His current campaign mimics that of President Obama in rhetoric, and he has clearly set himself up as a sortof "change" candidate, with governmental corruption being his highest campaign issue ("security" is not listed as an official issue, but this may in large part be due to the fact that Abdullah knows better than to think it is a simple lack of will to fight that is keeping the Afghani security forces from winning). He is certainly likely to take Mr. Karzai to a runoff, but whether he'll win is unclear even to pollsters. And whether he can pull Afghanistan together is equally unclear. He does not have the loyalties of many tribes and warlords that Karzai does--and if they cannot be kept in line as the Afghan state develops, they will become as dangerous as the Taliban. And while a change in face might bring some temporary honeymoon to negotiations with the Taliban, they are unlikely to balk on their demand that negotiations occur only after foreign troops have left the country.

The other two candidates are very unlikely to make it to the runoff, which is a shame, because they're quite incredible men. They're both very well-educated technocrats that have detailed plans on how to create structures and incentives to eliminate corruption. Bashardost and Ghani have both won my heart: Bashardost's campaign office is a small tent outside of Kabul's parliament, and he's got a reputation as a charismatic, hot-headed crusader for transparency and political rights. Ghani is talkative and is apparently at times overbearing, but this is largely because he has so many intelligent things to say that he must say them quickly, lest he run out of time. As the former planning and finance ministers, respectively, their attention to detail grossly outstrips their more strongman-style rivals. But, again, they are very unlikely to win.

And, again, this assumes that the Taliban's relative quiet over the past few weeks has not been in preparation for a devastating and coordinated attack on the elections. Should the elections be significantly disrupted, the winner will face incredible legitimacy problems, despite the best of possible intentions. Thursday shall be a tense day. But the Taliban have largely let election commission workers set up and prepare without harassment, which means they may well not try to disrupt the elections themselves. The Taliban are more interested in gaining popularity for themselves than instilling temporary chaos. 90% of polled Afghans declared their intention to vote, which means a significant disruption would likely stir anger amongst otherwise-friendly Afghan people. The Pakistani Taliban's PR disaster has probably taught the Afghani Taliban that discretion is often a key aspect of a winning strategy.

We'll keep you updated on how things go on Thursday when we know.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Impact of the Fatah Shakeup

Fatah had its first congress in 20 years over the week, in what was seen as an attempt to save the party from its quickly-deteriorating reputation (which has been, since 2004, increasingly along the veins of "corrupt," "divided," and "ineffective"). After the surprising 2006 loss to Hamas in parliamentary elections, and then its ouster from Gaza by a Hamas coup, Fatah appeared to be running out of time.

This sixth Congress was an exercise in enormous cat-herding, and the vote was severely delayed due to an apparently unexpected addition of delegates and a rather frantic worry about the outcomes. And, for the ruling powers of Fatah, worry was worth having. This "old-guard," as it's being called, lost big--of the 18 seats in Fatah's central committee, old-guarders won only 4 seats. Younger "reformists" won 14, setting the path for a new kind of party. Abbas, despite his links to the old-guard and the beginning of the movement, appears to come out of the congress strengthened, with young and energetic allies in the central committee, as well as a renewed mandate.

This "reform" sub-movement is much more a political party than a resistance movement. They support a two-state solution based on the 1967 treaty lines, and are willing to negotiate with Israel over the issue. They have not dropped the right to "resist by all means" for the independence of the Palestinian people, but doing so would have been political suicide anyway.

But this new Fatah is distinguishing itself from its violent-revolutionary cousins, Hamas, much to the relief of moderates in the US and in the Middle East, Israel included. But its leadership is younger, more popular, and probably less corrupt. The new leadership has a year to get its act together before 2010 elections, in which they hope to re-take control of the Palestinian territories, and can then negotiate with greater legitimacy on behalf of the Palestinian people for statehood.

Whether these negotiations can actually push forward in the face of continued Israeli settlement construction is daunting. Israel may require a change in regime itself before serious negotiations over the details of a two-state system re-emerge. But if the Palestinian Authority can present a moderate, reasonable alternative to the violent and inflexible Hamas, Israeli fears may be assuaged to such an extent that a more reconciliatory leadership will emerge in time. Fatah will need to remain consistently open to negotiations, and more importantly, it will have to impose credible control over all of the Palestinian Authority before the Israelis are likely to see the short-term risks of two-state solutions sink far enough below the potential long-term benefits to seriously consider that road.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Will the Afghan Gamble Pay Off?

The thing that I like about the Surge-like offensive in Afghanistan is that it is likely to produce a more decisive strategic-political path within a few months than a more conservative approach was likely to determine.

There are obviously problems--the biggest is deaths, both the number and the type. After a short two days, there are already 9 coalition deaths, all of which were from roadside attacks or other ambushes, rather than from coalition-led assaults. As I've mentioned before, this is tough on morale. If this rate of death keeps up, the US public is going to seriously reconsider the wisdom and efficacy of leaving troops as sitting ducks in Helmand.

The Brits are already getting ready to leave. Public opinion in the UK is dismal--over half of Brits think that the war is unwinnable and that troops should be withdrawn right away. The increasingly-popular Tories are having trouble resisting the political temptation to pull for withdrawal.

The offensive is clearly a gamble; the Brits need results either to improve public opinion or to simply see themselves as accomplishing as much as possible before an increasingly-inevitable pullout. But the loss of the Brits would be an incredible blow to the already-stretched thin Americans, and a boon for the Taliban. It is difficult to imagine the war being won if the UK were to disappear in the near future.

The other tough part about the offensive is the difficulty in which one observes tangible results. The Taliban denied NATO the satisfaction of sticking around and fighting. Now, training and development dominate US/UK strategy, along with the occasional hunting mission--but the Taliban remain elusive. And when the US/UK inevitably leave Helmand (some time after the elections), they will certainly emerge from their hiding places to reclaim their place--the question is whether the US/UK will have created a sufficiently impressive security environment that they can resist collapse and dissolution under insurgent pressure (the Taliban are unlikely to give the US/UK the easy option of engaging Afghan forces directly in a conventional, protracted battle, lest the US send air cavalry right back in).

Whether this security training is sufficient is a nearly unanswerable question from my deskchair in Cambridge, but it is the crux of the gamble. The US must train hard, fast, and well, create buy-in from the populace (such that the Taliban does not have an extensive network of safehouses, informants, etc, upon their return), and keep enough reserve troops on-hand for long enough to provide pinpoint support to any brash assaults from the Taliban--at the same time, the military must protect itself and prevent casualties from spiraling, lest necessity take over and lead to their premature withdrawal. It is a daunting task.

If the US/UK can "win" in Helmand, I expect they are likely to use it to improve the bargaining position of the Afghani government with any Taliban. Currently, the Taliban refuse to come to the bargaining table until all foreign troops have left, but the US/UK/Afghan governments fear (with good reason) that a unilateral withdrawal at this point would lead to another Taliban takeover of the country. Withdrawal, therefore, is only an option as much as a loss of objectives is.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

US Helmand Strategy Moves Forward Without Taliban

The US leadership in Helmand has, despite frustrations, shrugged and is pressing forward with the Helmand strategy despite a lack of a decisive victory over the Taliban that once controlled the region (and are heckling US forces now).

The primary thrust of this effort involves training local security forces to take over as the US leaves. If the Taliban have indeed largely fled the areas they once controlled, a more trained Afghan force will make it significantly more difficult for the Taliban to simply show up and start running the show again. They will certainly be prey to the Afghan Taliban's advanced insurgent tactics, but the Taliban will certainly not simply be able to walk in, and any overwhelming shows of force by a Taliban offensive will attract enough American attention that it might
spell disaster. Nonetheless, the US must make sure that the Afghan soldiers trained in this initiative are confident, bold, and hard-nosed, lest they crack to the Taliban's rather infamous tactics (usually involving public listings of targets and private letters to homes threatening torture and death of family members, followed by execution of said threats).

But the US is making further progress that is likely to help its position in Helmand. While Pashtuns of the region generally growl at Western occupation, they have already seen some improvements after less than two months: bazaars and other commerce, as well as schools (especially for girls) have re-opened, and bringing some hope for increased prosperity in a region that's been held back.

If the Taliban return to find a largely unsupportive populous, Afghan and US security forces should have little trouble in driving them back out--they will not be able to become as entrenched and solidified as they once were. Furthermore, as long as US forces stay, their lives may become increasingly easier: as normal fence-sitting Pashtuns see that life might just be better under Kabul's rule, they are less likely to willingly give it all up for return of the harsh Talibani theocracy; and thus, they may be more willing to deliver information to the US.

Therefore, such trust-building measures may lead to the clues the US needs to find hidden Talibani troops in Helmand. Furthermore, intelligence from locals may allow US troops to evade roadside bombs and other improvised insurgent attacks. In particular, massive US presence means the Taliban are unlikely to find out who leaked information--and if they do, the US can protect the informants--which means information leaks are likely to increase (especially in return for monetary incentives the US has set up). Increased intelligence will mean fewer deaths and a longer stay for US troops in Helmand--and the longer they stay, the better the long-term security situation will get, no matter how many Taliban are still around.

Finally, a secure Helmand will mean that the US can start launching offensive operations from the area. Once this is ready, Pakistan should be able to effectively launch attacks into Waziristan (as Taliban will not quite so easily be able to get support from their brethren in Afghanistan, nor so easily retreat there). My personal bet is that the Helmand Taliban managed to get across the border while the US/UK invasion force was spooling up (and world media made a big deal out of the future operation. Why this was not protected intelligence, I will never know). It is possible that with US support, the Pakistani attack into Waziristan may fray the Taliban, and not simply give them the opportunity to retreat to bases across the border. If the US can secure Helmand long enough before it leaves, it should be able to support such an operation--and if my guess about the location of formerly-Helmand Taliban is right, the Waziristan operation should, within some months' time, make the situation in Helmand quite a bit more secure.

This, as usual, sounds rather optimistic. But over-arching US/Pakistani strategy is even less-publicized than US/Iraqi stragegy; and if I can think of it, surely General Petraeus can think of something at least as clever. Despite frustrations in trying to find and destroy the hardcore Taliban, prospects for US operations in Helmand look a fair bit better than they did a week ago, and are likely to improve.

(Images courtesy of Jack Hill/ The Times Online)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Questioning Gates' Wisdom on Troop Increases

Gates recently announced that the US Army was going to be increased by 22,000 people. Where he is going to find them, I have no idea. Frankly, with the number of army recruiters committing suicide from stress over the past few years, such an endeavor seems quite dangerous.

It seems these troops are necessary to keep up full rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next three years (even though Iraq troops are coming home)--at least according to Gates.

Frankly, morale may be more hurt by the stresses of trying to recruit these troops than not having enough on the battlefield, and the damage to the US recruiting interface overall may be crushing (though most of the damage has likely already be done, to be completely honest).

But I am not entirely sure Gates is wrong--it is possible that 22,000 troops over three years is an entirely reasonable recruitment goal. I haven't heard congress complain, but they apparently have a more urgent meal on their plate before August.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Anxiety Over Helmand Offensive

The Marines stormed into Helmand with force, speed, fury. Offensives are really the Marines' game, and the ride into Helmand was no different. Had anyone been there to fight them, it would have been quite the horror show.

But. There was nobody there to fight them. The Taliban apparently did the smart thing and disappeared when the Americans showed up, rather than stick around to try to repel them. In fact, the Taliban have fared quite poorly for the past 8 years when they have taken Americans toe-to-toe. But this is asymmetric warfare, and as long as the Taliban shows patience, they have a shot.

I wondered whether the Taliban would be wise enough to disappear, rather than fight, after their disastrous stand at Swat. These Afghan Taliban are more hardened than their Pakistani brethren, though I figured much of that hardness would have trickled south by now. More likely, these Taliban are under wiser command that heard of and learned from the Swat disaster.

After disappearing, the Taliban have picked (apparently quite well) opportunities to attack both the Americans and the British. 8 Brits have died in the past two weeks, and the British will to keep fighting is seriously starting to falter. The Taliban may be concentrating on them specifically to try to kick them out of the fight, eliminating the second-largest troop presence in Afghanistan. But the primary casualties from the last few weeks have been from bombs and traps--not head-to-head fighting. It's terrible for troop morale, and it means little is getting done. The offensive should be offense--otherwise, it's just high exposure.

There is good reason to be anxious over the Helmand offensive--so far, it looks like a failure. Are the bulk of the Taliban hiding in Pakistan? In the mountains? It is apparently somewhat unclear. Unless the US and UK can find them and hit them hard, this offensive is going to be a failure.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Brief on Honduras

You might be wondering what the heck has happened in Honduras that got the international community so excited. Frankly, coups were like Thursday Meatloaf in Latin America through the 1980s, and as much as there was always a bunch of sabre-rattling, they only generated serious attention as far as they upset the geopolitical and ideological balance.

The coup in Honduras is being wildly condemned by leftist governments; Nicaragua and Venezeuala are both going so far as to threaten war (Venezeula would have to deploy boats and planes of excessive quantity to do this, and would almost certainly irk the US beyond what they're capable of); Nicaragua has moved troops to the Honduras border. And President Obama himself has condemned the coup as undemocratic, but has not said much beyond that.

Frankly, the Honduras coup is rather ambiguous. Zelaya's extended-term stunt clearly contradicted the constitution, and the Constitutional Court told him to cut it--he didn't. So what then? Impeachment isn't actually an option in the Honduran constitution, and much like the Marshall Court of the US, the Army improvised and got rid of him. Was he becoming a Chavez-style tyrant? Maybe, but precedent is important. That said, they did use the force of violence to oust him, and imposed their own "interim government." Perhaps talking about it a bit longer might have been polite.

So my personal feelings on the coup are a bit ambivalent. I agree Zeyala needed to go, but the way of taking him out was perhaps not spectacular. But what other options were there? I'd love to hear what you guys think in comments.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Thoughts on the Helmand Offensive

It's getting... some news. Not too much.

But it's the biggest military offensive in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001, and the stakes are high. The outcome is important. The implications will be enormous.

The whole thing smells a bit sweetly of a General Petraeus plot. Large surge of troops, offensive against the seriously bad guys, and long-term boots on the ground to provide security and institutional organization where there is a vacuum. Petraeus trained the US army in doubling as a low-level government, and those skills will be critical in winning the long-term security of the province. Hearts-and-minds.

It is very hard, to say the least, to tell how the offensive is going. Bad guys are dying, good guys are dying. The folks in Helmand aren't sure whether they're more angered by the presence of the Taliban or the presence of foreign troops.

But if US marines and UK army troops are able to achieve victory (loosely defined as restoring peace and security to the region), then a number of benefits follow:

1) Helmand and Kandahar will be more secure areas in which the US can operate and prevent Taliban from pouring across the border during the Waziristan operation in Pakistan. This is critical. If Helmand and Kandahar remain in Taliban hands, then even a successful assault in Waziristan will be worth little to the long-term war against the Taliban. On the other hand, if the US and UK can hold the area and patrol the border, then they will pinch the largest concentration of Taliban in the entire Afpak region, and have a good shot at delivering the first crushing blow in a very long time. But these Taliban are wiser, tougher, and smarter than their brethren out in Swat, and will not go down so easily.

2) Voting in the area will be secure. Giving the Pashtun majority the ability to vote in full (where currently the only secure voting areas are in northern, non-Pashtun areas) will legitimize the election and potentially prevent post-election violence.

3) The ISAF will strike a significant psychological blow to the Taliban--and bolster the confidence of anti-Taliban citizens in Afghanistan, much like the Pakistani assault in Swat did. The ISAF needs to regain the momentum of this war; the Taliban can out-wait foreigners rather indefinitely if it is not soundly beaten.

Losing, of course, means that the momentum is very squarely in the hands of the Taliban. But, frankly, the US and UK are unlikely to simply give up this fight--they will stick around and make life rather difficult for the Taliban for a long time. Total defeat seems unlikely, and they should at least be able to operate with enough presence to support the Waziristan assault in Pakistan (at which point the US should have an easier time "mopping up" Helmand and Kandahar, as the Taliban will have no safe zones). It may be messy and long, but I believe the US is likely to turn a victory here.

But if it doesn't, serious questions will be asked about whether it is worth it to stick around much longer.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Speculating on US-Pakistani Cooperation

The evidence that the US and Pakistan are coordinating quietly in the tribal border regions of the Pakistani state is increasing. Increased US drone attacks suggest both permission and intelligence from the Pakistani army--these attacks provide the Army with not only a great psychological advantage (previously safe spots are no longer safe for the Taliban), but a tactical one (they frequently enough kill enemy commanders). Precision strikes by the Pakistani Army suggest US aerial and satellite intelligence in real-time, allowing jets and artillery to pinpoint their attacks.

The "softening" operation has prompted the Taliban in Waziristan to abandon a peace agreement they had with the government (which, frankly, I did not know was officially in place at all). Such an abandonment will mean more attacks on civilians--and if they come quickly, the Army will be forced to act more quickly than it might otherwise like. But with the spectre of civilian deaths hanging over the Army, they will utilize their American allies more to hit the Taliban hard and keep them off-balance as the Pakistani Army prepares for its assault in Waziristan.

The Pakistani assault is not, contrary to my expectations, caused NATO casualties to go down: this month was the worst in almost a year. But I have been reminded that casualty-counting during a surge in troop activity provides a false comparison: there are more troops more actively and aggressively deployed now than before, and casualties can sometimes be a sign of intense forward activity rather than enemy success. But the real US opportunity will come after a successful Waziristan assault, and the US is going to do anything it can to help that happen.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

All Doors Closed in Tehran

Yesterday, Khamenei announced that the regime would support election results against "any cost;" today, the Guardian Council announced that the partial recount re-affirmed Ahmedinejad's victory, despite admitted irregularities that included 50 cities in Iran having more votes than registered voters, and 3 million "mystery votes."

The leadership has, obviously, eliminated all political options for overturning the results of the election. Protests continued today, but they were apparently quite violently broken up by Basij and riot police that outnumbered the protesters approximately 2 to 1.

At this point, continuing protesters have no realistic chance at achieving an outcome close to what they want, but many will certainly want to continue to defame and illegitimize the regime in the long-term, both domestically and internationally. The toughest part of such a strategy is that the only weapon a protester can use to fight the regime is, ultimately, his or her own body.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pakistan Prepares to Assault Waziristan

After 8 years of absurd domestic politics that can be most briefly described as "bullshit," the past few months in Pakistan have been a dramatic and critical turnaround in the very frustrating war on the Taliban. While Swat valley is not yet a thriving pillar of liberty, justice, and security, the Taliban spine in the area has been broken (though, let me say, Taliban spines have had a very odd history of remote post-mortem reassembly). But the Pakistani army is, cleverly, recruiting former People's Militiamen and those whose lives were most thoroughly destroyed by the Taliban to become a loyal local police force that will not only keep these people fed (hearts & minds!) but, more importantly, provide a presence that will be difficult for the Taliban to overcome.

Next: Waziristan. Waziristan is a much bigger and more daunting challenge for the Pakistani Army. Waziristan serves as the primary base of operations for the Afghani Taliban--they fled after the 2001 US invasion and set up shop in this rough, tribal area; they have acted with relative impunity since. The area is full of tribalists who are quite used to their autonomy, and do not like state intervention--unlike the people of Swat, they will not be welcoming the Pakistani Army with open arms. There are many more Taliban per capita, they are more entrenched, and they know the terrain a whole lot better than the Army. And, unlike Swat, they will not give up easily--where would they go?

But here, close to the Afghani border, Pakistan has the advantage of extensive NATO intelligence, support, and firepower. NATO will almost certainly press from the north right to the border, and happily shoot across. The Taliban will need to fear drones and incoming missiles if they expose their positions in order to attack the invading Pakistani Army. The Taliban can dissolve and try to fight an insurgency, but like Swat, psychology may limit their ability to so quickly give up control of the area for a more tactically advantageous (but very, very long-term) strategy. If they hold firm, they will inflict casualties, but if the Pakistani Army can withstand those casualties, the likely-firm stance of the Taliban will shatter.

Now, it is not entirely clear this will work--the last time the Pakistani Army ventured into Waziristan, they were crushed, and left with tail between legs. But this will be different, for a number of reasons:

1) Public opinion gives the Pakistani Army the political capital it needs to both bring many troops and inflict some local civilian casualties.
2) The Pakistani Army has new leadership that is making much better use of its array of options--standard troops, paramilitary guards, commandos, airpower, etc.
3) The Pakistani Army has the political ability to cooperate with the US in this operation. That will be a huge advantage.
4) Without Swat, the Taliban is a bit off-balance. As they run out of alternative safe-havens, they have fewer places to re-group, train, supply, etc, for long-term campaigns.

The Pakistani Army is trying to soften up the positions of Talibani commander and al-Qaeda ally Meshud with airpower. Current militant casualties are estimated at about 50, which isn't many, but is enough to shake the Taliban a bit. If the Pakistani Army can continue to inflict such casualties using long-range attacks, the psychological implications (especially for a force that has enjoyed peace in its home base) will be significant.

As the Army hits the heavy enclaves of the Taliban, citizens militias are actually forming around the northwest and working with paramilitary/police to trap, separate, and kill extremists that had over-extended in attempts to push their influence further into Pakistan. Such militias may be self-propagating--stories of success may encourage otherwise fence-sitting men to take arms to help, giving them an even greater advantage. If nothing else, they will provide serious disruption to the physical network of Taliban between their strongholds, giving the Army a much-needed logistical advantage.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Team Mousavi Prepares for Martyrdom

After being told that death was the punishment for further disruption, Mousavi and thousands of protesters came back for more, clashing with riot police and the Basij. There are sporadic reports of capsicum (pepper spray) being dumped from helicopters to break up the crowd, reports of gunfire, and numbers of violent clashes that have apparently left hundreds of riot police injured. Busses, cars, motorcycles, mosques, and the Ahmedinejad supporters' Headquarters have all been set on fire. The Shrine of Khomeini has been bombed by a suicide bomber,

Sporadic clashes continue, though the police seem to have managed to break up much of it without actually killing protesters--excellent execution on their part.

But it is highly unclear that the regime has ended the protests, or seriously slowed them down. @BreakingNews on Twitter had the following:

"BULLETIN -- IRANIAN OPPOSITION LEADER MOUSAVI SAYS HE IS "READY FOR MARTYRDOM" AND WILL CONTINUE HIS PATH."

There is almost certainly a hardcore group of protesters ready to follow him to the end (see last post). They will continue to make life incredibly difficult for the regime until they are rounded up.

Friday, June 19, 2009

More Doors Close on Tehran's Future

The Ayatollah made a speech today that pretty clearly solidified his hardline stance. A few highlights:

1) No protests, no really, he means it this time. And he might, that's the tough part. Bullets may begin to fly with very little prejudice.
2) "How can you cheat by 11 million votes?" An exact (translated) quote, signifying that while a recount is happening, it's just not going to change the outcome.
3) Moderates both in elected government and religious government were dramatically missing from his side during prayers this Friday--Ahmedinejad, however, was prominently featured.
4) He called Ahmedinejad's victory "definitive," and that there would be no re-vote. He stressed that democracy does not work when the losing side takes to the streets and demands an annulment every time they lose--with this, he tried very hard to undermine the credibility of the protesters.
5) Interestingly, he criticized both sides for attacking each other, and said that all candidates had great records of service to the Islamic Republic.
6) Of course, these protests are the fault of Israel, the US, and the UK. This, more than anything, probably angers the youngsters beyond comprehension. It is one thing to stand firm against a protest, but to call it ingenuine and fabricated by state enemies is insulting enough to probably fan the flames.

Pro-Mousavi websites have not yet announced any alterations to a plan to march on Saturday from Revolution Square to Freedom Square. If the Ayatollah is going to follow through on his promises of crackdown, tomorrow is the time--or else he starts to lose credibility. Mousavi and the reformists take incredible risk if they do not cave, but if they do cave, they largely solidify the precedent that the regime can simply rig the elections however it wants from here until doomsday. By standing up to the Ayatollah, Mousavi and the reformists send a very stern warning to the leadership that the Iranian people will not sit down and tolerate election fraud--and such a statement would hold firm even if they were broken by sufficient violence. The Guardian Council does not want this kind of violence to happen every four years, and may reconsider its rigging policies if the conflict actually comes to a head.

Perhaps, then, Mousavi knows he will be a Martyr, to instill hope in future generations. It would be a sad and dim fate for him and his supporters, but surely they must now sense some level of hopelessness in the political situation; they do not have the political power nor the violent force to overcome the regime. They can embarrass it, vilify it, and doing so will have significant implications on future policy. But changing the outcome of the election is almost certainly a battle that is lost.
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