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.