Friday, June 10, 2011

The Changing US Strategy in the AfPak Region

There is writing that is moving from the walls directly to the Oval-Office-sealed paperwork: the United States will be removing the vast majority of its presence from Afghanistan, and soon.

A few pretty obvious signs are pointing to this:
-Defense Secretary Gates is stepping down
-The extremely popular General Petraeus has been moved to the position of CIA Director
-The President is making it clear he plans to accelerate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan
-The US and Pakistan are finally working together to hunt down a list of Al-Qaeda / Taliban leadership using CIA/ISI resources

These signs are indicative of 2 major changes:
1) The US strategy in Afghanistan is becoming one that focuses on anti-leadership attacks
2) The US has discussed this strategy with Pakistan--and finally gotten real cooperation

As we discuss this strategy, we must keep in mind the US' overall goal: to prevent jihadist groups from being able to either unite the Middle East against the West, and from being able to organize and launch coordinated trans-national attacks.

The US has largely succeeded in its first goal. The Arab Spring is (mostly) a relatively liberal-democratic movement, rather than a jihadist one. The US has won the "hearts-and-minds" campaign; al-Qaeda and its affiliates lack support from large populations, except perhaps in Yemen and Somalia.

In the second, the US has largely succeeded in all places but Yemen and the AfPak region. Yemen poses a different problem, but the AfPak region can be managed without the total collapse of the Taliban.

In fact, much of the Taliban these days consist of a Vietnam-style nationalist movement. Yes, they're still unsavory folks that want to bring a twisted form of Sharia to Afghanistan, but that is largely not the US' problem, as much as we may cringe to say it. There's little indication that much of the Pashtun Taliban know much about al-Qaeda or, if they do, care for the trans-nationalist doctrine.

On the other hand, much of the hardened leadership of the Taliban and other associated groups pose the bigger threat to the US' interests. These leaders can and sometimes will coordinate strikes, as we've seen in Pakistan and India. The new strategy calls for their systematic elimination by drones or CIA/ISI strike teams coordinating both tactics and intelligence. So far, it looks like it stands a chance at being relatively effective.

In the general push for Afghan security, a few benefits arise:
1) Focusing on the leadership hampers the Taliban's ability to coordinate, resupply, etc, when facing offensives
2) Withdrawing troops hurts the Taliban's nationalist message
3) The Taliban actually do want a negotiated settlement, and seem to be willing to do so once the US withdraws. Yes, they will have much more bargaining power then, but a negotiated settlement (at this point) is a much more palatable option than continued warfare for either side. They have reached a "painful stalemate," and are ready to talk.

Ultimately, we must remember that most of the Taliban are folks with very well-defined and limited aims, that don't include attacking the US (as angry as they may be). To a large extent, we can use the NVDA/Viet Cong as an analogy for most of these fighters, even if international interests are involved in funding them.

The most important part, though, is finally getting Pakistan's full help. Pakistan is shifting for 2 reasons:
1) US promises of quick withdrawal have now made helping the US politically palatable. The Taliban are not popular in most of Pakistan, and carry out attacks against the Pakistani people all the time. If Pakistan can help the US in a way that is politically palatable, it will--the US has just given it that opening.
2) With the US withdrawing, Pakistan is now legitimately worried about the Taliban threat growing, and is going to take higher responsibility to deal with it, and take control of the Waziristan region. The US withdrawal has been a bit of a "wake-up" moment for both the Pakistani leadership and its people.

Ultimately, total defeat of the Taliban is unlikely. Unlike Iraq, where the there was a small group of "irreconciliables" that were systematically destroyed, the Taliban represent a large group that is afraid of marginalization (much like the Sunnis in Iraq felt), and it must be negotiated with and brought into the government in some way.

Focusing on strikes against the leadership is likely the way that the US can bring this negotiation to the forefront, while keeping the Taliban as weak as possible, and ultimately preventing any transnational attacks from occuring.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Keeing Up with the War in Libya

A few readers have asked me about how to best keep up with the War in Libya. I can say, without shame, that the best source I've seen so far (as far as getting the facts) has been Wikipedia. Check it out.

The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc

1) The Visegrad 4: Eastern Europe as a Major Player
2) The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc
3) Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia
4) The EU Periphery: "Core" EU's Albatross
5) The Atlantics: A Return to Arms-Length Continental Management

Our series on the "Blocanization of Europe" continues with an exploration of the factors behind the rise of Russia over the past decade, and what implications it will have for the continent.

As we discussed in our last post, Russia faced imminent marginalization in 2004, as NATO planned to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into its alliance. A Western-led push into Ukraine had formented the Orange Revolution and the election of a pro-Western Yuschenko. Georgia's strongly pro-Western government was knocking at the gates of NATO and the EU. The US had successfully coaxed Europe into accepting the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania into the EU in a fell swoop. Russia appeared to have an insurmountable united front poised against it.

This united front dissolved over the next 4 years. Some of it was due to Western distraction in the Middle East and complacency over Russia; some of it was the rift between the US and Europe over the Iraq war. But credit must be given to the Russian leadership, which successfully took advantage of every mistake the West made in order to shatter the united front:

-The carefully-timed invasion of Georgia highlighted Gerogia's vulnerability and the inability of NATO to come to its aide, and also turned popular support against the pro-Western elements that enraged Russia.
-Russia has engaged Iran and assisted its nuclear programme, enabling it to grow more assertive in the Middle East and largely upset Western plans for a hastier withdrawal from the region.
-Russia's intelligence forces engaged in a full-court press (both clandestine and propaganda operations) in Latvia and Ukraine, shaking Western support and mobilizing pro-Russian citizenry to become a more powerful political force.
-Russia threatened Germany and France with interruptions in oil & gas supplies, causing (in part) both countries to back off their bid for Ukraine and Georgia to enter NATO, thus kaibashing the entire attempt.

With NATO's plans successfully disrupted, Russia has been able to focus on two major geopolitical goals:
1) Solidifying its gas & oil supply dominance in Europe
2) Expanding its influence back towards the former Soviet states

Central Asia built strong ties with Russia during the Soviet Union, and they remain. The only major competitor for their support is China, which is a much more inward-looking nation.

Backlashes against the pro-NATO governments in Ukraine and Georgia have put these two states closer to the Russian bloc. Ukraine's ouster of the pro-Western government has eased ties with Russia and opened up stronger economic channels between the two countries. Russia's warm-water navy base near Sevastopol will remain in Russia's control. Moldova is currently a toss-up.

Russia has begun throwing its weight around as its power has grown. It has used Iran and Afghanistan to distract and frustrate the US, and shaken up confidence in the governments of Estonia and Latvia (while driving the Baltics closer together in defense--more on that later).

Furthermore, Russia is taking advantage of the EU's disharmony to build economic ties with key "Core" EU members--particularly Germany and France. Russia's vast natural resources and low-cost labor pool poses a great opportunity for the Core EU's largest (but slow) economies to start growing again and begin to bounce back from the weight of the falling EU Periphery.

What all of this means is that Russia is becoming a global player. Its base is sound (internal threats to the Putin regime are shaky at best), and it will continue to grow economically. It is rebuilding its military--in particular, its power-projection capabilities. It will grow to challenge the US on the global stage.

The thing that will make Russia different from the US--and the thing that will ultimately give the US a key advantage--is that Russia will spawn stronger and stronger alliances against it. The Visegrad 4 and the Baltic Bloc exist primarily to protect themselves from Russian domination. The US/UK will keep its power checked on the continent: their key interest is making sure no major power controls the resources and military of Europe. China will oppose Russia if it grows too strong.

The US, on the other hand, has scattered opposition at best. Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Libya form the bulk of Anti-US governments (and Russia is stuck supporting these unsavory regimes)--besides Iran, they are largely irrelevant (or are becoming less relevant quickly). If Russia can pull Ukraine into its bloc for good, it will become a relatively significant ally, but it is unlikely to grow beyond that.

But at the same time, Russia will prove a highly disruptive force in Europe, and will test the loyalty and priorities of the US/UK onthe global stage. To a great extent, Russia will be the primary driver behind the major geopolitical changes in Europe into the forseeable future.