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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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February 23, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Afghanistan at the Crossroads

According to Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service, relying on an anonymous White House source, President Barack Obama has acted with truly Solomonic wisdom on Afghanistan. Originally planning to increase the troop contingent there by 30,000, after a conversation with General David McKiernan, the field commander in Afghanistan, in which McKiernan was unable to give a “coherent answer” to the question of what he would do with the troops, Obama decided to send only 17,000 troops for now, followed by more once a use is found for them. There is no need to worry; new uses will be found. The history of counterinsurgency is replete with proliferating uses for proliferating numbers of troops, until the counterinsurgents lose track of what their goals were and whether they really were worth that much effort to them. This happened shockingly fast in Iraq; in Afghanistan, it has been drawn out in a much more typical fashion.

McKiernan has already said that, with or without more troops, 2009 will be a “bad year.” For those with an idée fixe, the remedy for failure is always intensification of efforts. The escalation in Afghanistan is just beginning; indeed, given the pathetic state of political opposition in the United States, the best hope for avoiding escalation is to keep troops in Iraq longer. At this point, that is the better solution all-around – better for the troops’ safety and better for the safety of the population they are dealing with. After all, they are currently doing little harm in Iraq and significant and proliferating harm in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government has just concluded a deal with neo-Taliban militants whereby their rule of the Swat Valley will be de facto recognized, including the imposition of Taliban-interpreted sharia, in return for a suspension of offensive operations – excepting, of course, that the neo-Taliban will continue to kill people in the area who are insufficiently comfortable with their rule. Obama has escalated bombings in Pakistan. In an almost unprecedented move, the U.S. military has admitted that a recent airstrike in Afghanistan killed 13 civilians along with three “militants” – what’s unprecedented is that they bothered to check this time and to tell the truth. Less than half the Afghan population now looks favorably on U.S. troops, and a quarter of them think armed attacks are acceptable – think Iraq circa early 2004. Hamid Karzai has been denouncing coalition bombings and opposing the escalation – until Obama set him straight in a recent phone conversation. And Obama has recently decided that, while clearly habeas corpus is a fundamental right to be afforded inmates at Guantanamo, it is not a right for those unfortunate enough to be held at Bagram.

You can tell that events are on the move when all a commentator has to do is juxtapose tidbits from the news without even bothering to explain anything.

What passes for opposition in this country seems to be crystallizing around opposition to or “grave concern” regarding the escalation in Afghanistan. From Bob Herbert, who wrote a column about it in January, to Tom Andrews of Win Without War (what in God’s name is that slogan supposed to mean today?), you can trace the line demarcating the opposition. As yet, it seems to include only the marginalized, but the idea keeps bubbling up over and over, even in mainstream publications. If the right things happen, the issue could break open.

Just as with the runup to the Iraq war, many of these recurring critiques are fatuous. If I had an inch of rope for every invocation I’ve read of the failures of British and Russian occupations and how that proves the United States will fail in Afghanistan, I’d seriously consider hanging myself so I never had to read another one. Reading a few Wikipedia entries doesn’t give one the ability to predict a complex politico-military situation. Suffice it to say that the differences in resources, technology, political orientation, strategy, and tactics are such that no simple extrapolation holds any water. It doesn’t help, either, that everyone who uses the argument acts like they are the first to discover some priceless gem of buried wisdom.

It would behoove us to be prepared with better arguments, should it ever happen that anyone will listen to us. I have outlined some several times over the past few months and won’t repeat them, but I will add that in addition to pragmatic evaluations of the consequences of escalation we need to talk very clearly about the fundamental blindness of U.S. policies and U.S. foreign policy experts. And most clearly we have to talk about an end to the “war on terror.”

Posted at 7:45 am.

February 16, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Obama's First Month

Barack Obama’s first month in office has been a farrago of incompetence and absurdity.

He has had not one, not two, but three appointments blow up in his face. It is true that scrutiny of tax-paying is at an abnormally high level, but there is something odd about the idea of a chief performance officer for the federal government unable to figure out she should pay payroll taxes on her household help. In Tom Daschle’s case, the tax problem was only part of it. Somehow, Obama had not reckoned on the idea that, after running an excruciatingly long presidential campaign with unprecedented mass mobilization where a central plank was ending business as usual in Washington and getting lobbyists out of the halls of power, perhaps Daschle’s career as a high-priced tout for the health industry, normally an asset in a Cabinet appointment, would be a liability.

And what can one say about the absurdity of Judd Gregg, a Republican who is conservative by the standards of anyone but the current Republican Party, who once voted for the abolition of the Commerce Department, to run Commerce? Here, the problem was not vetting but making a ridiculous choice. Score one for the Congressional Black Caucus, not sufficiently overawed by Obama, which raised vociferous objections to Gregg’s being in charge of the census – and minus one for the Obama administration, which, in flailing incompetence reminiscent of the Bush administration, came up with a half-baked scheme to put the census under the supervision of the White House. If Dick Cheney had tried that, there’d be hell to pay from progressives.

And then there was Tim Geithner, the one whose nomination should have been held up. Apparently, he convinced or pressured Obama’s top aides to abandon every single one of the restrictions they wanted put on banks and other institutions getting TARP money, from limits on executive pay (symbolic, but minor in effect) to getting government control over how the money is used (crucially important). And who quickly jumped back to the first spasmodic response of Paulson and Bernanke, which they abandoned within weeks (though not until after getting a gigantic bill through Congress).

It is true that Obama faces domestic challenges more severe than any incoming president in a long time, perhaps since Harry Truman, perhaps since FDR. And it’s true that he’s getting a stimulus bill passed, for what it will eventually be worth. And it’s also true that the Democrats have not figured their way around the Republican filibuster – their 59-seat Senate majority means almost nothing.

Are these accumulated difficulties, plus some poor vetting, a sufficient explanation?

Kathleen Parker, the noted apostate right-wing columnist, recently suggested that the problem is simply Obama’s lack of experience.

I think the reason is more profound. Obama accomplished something remarkable in getting himself elected, but he did it essentially through charisma. He crafted a compelling personal narrative that tied in very well with a vision of American that people wanted to grasp for; he gave hope to people who were desperate for a reason to feel good about America but could no longer stomach Bush’s reasons.

He combined that with incredible grassroots organizing – apparently, the basic skills of a good community organizer had never been applied to a presidential campaign in a systematic way before.

He also had real strategic vision. He talked about how he was going to change America by bringing people together to build a movement that would force politicians and political processes out of their normal channels. It was not some sterile notion of bipartisan “reaching across the aisle” in Congress that he articulated, but something potentially transformative – although he seems to have gotten terribly confused about that since taking office.

There was only one problem with this vision – it was all about him. There was no cause to fight for. If he’d been born 40 years earlier, he could have fought to liberate an oppressed nation. He could have thundered from the pulpit about an end to injustice. But, born when he was, such an approach seemed unlikely to get anywhere.

So he built a movement that was held together purely by his personal magnetism and that had no ideological core; indeed, the essence of his message was post-partisan and, in America, that means pretty much devoid of content. He came to office with nothing more than a few technocratic liberal ideas, much like any other Democratic politician. And so he and his team don’t know what they’re doing. They’re the best there is at running a campaign, but that is no longer the challenge facing them.

Posted at 10:44 am.

February 9, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Avoiding Another Fiasco

Thomas Ricks, author of the best-selling Fiasco, the book that did more than anything else to chronicle the failures, excesses, and stupidity of the U.S. military in Iraq, has come out with a new book, “The Gamble.”

The first book was built around the tension between counterinsurgency and conventional war, the first represented by David Petraeus and the second by Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division in the so-called “Sunni Triangle.” While Petraeus was the hero of the book, Ricks, unlike virtually every other high-profile reporter, was unafraid to criticize Odierno and most of the rest of the military in harsh terms. Massive roundups of “military-age males” into internment camps, indiscriminate artillery fire, pointless and brutal house-raids – according to Ricks, these were what was losing the war in Iraq.

Judging from two new front-page Washington Post articles, the new book will be built around the tension between the awesomeness of Petraeus and the awesomeness of Odierno, apparently one of the rare generals capable of learning from his own mistakes. A nation already dedicated to the idea that the main lesson of the Iraq war is the awesomeness of the U.S. military will no doubt receive it with great gratitude.

In an excerpt, Ricks explains all you need to know about changes in U.S. tactics. It seems like pretty straightforward and obvious stuff. If your enemies want to stop fighting you, don’t require them to lay down their arms and go to prison; pay them to fight your other enemies. Don’t throw people into Abu Ghraib if they come to you with information. Show people respect.

The overwhelming reaction of readers of Fiasco must have been wonder that most of the military could fail to get such obvious points. Doesn’t everyone know that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?

In fact, if counterinsurgency mostly just requires treating people nicely, why not do more of it? And why has it been such a disaster so far in Afghanistan?

The orthodox military answer to that last question is that there aren’t enough troops in Afghanistan, a deficiency the Obama administration is planning to remedy, after a strategy review that should be concluded by April.

But this involves a rather simplistic view of counterinsurgency; if you really want to understand its inherent contradictions, don’t bother with the gigantic mass of new and reprinted counterinsurgency literature; just watch “The Wire.”

The first season is built around an attempt by a task-force in the Baltimore Police Department to take down a gang that controls part of the public-housing projects, with a shadowy leader on whom the police have almost no information.

It starts with a murder trial where a gang member is acquitted because a witness is coerced to lie. Immediately afterward, another witness, who did tell the truth, gets shot. The police, clueless in the extreme, wonder why anyone would bother to kill a witness after the murder rap has already been beaten; the main character must explain the obvious fact that he was killed because it’s necessary for the survival of a gang like that to – very publicly – show the fate of informers. This use of force is necessary for the gang to maintain control.

Guerilla insurgencies, even ones like the Vietnamese NLF that have far more legitimacy than any drug-dealing gang, routinely get trapped into this logic.

The flip-side of this comes during one of the pointless house raids carried out by the police as a “show of force,” though, as in Iraq, it is really a show of weakness. As police are pointlessly humiliating project residents, putting them on the ground and stepping on their necks, a gang member hits one of them. Immediately, several cops surround him and start beating him with nightsticks and kicking him. A cop who has been built up as a sympathetic character sees this and runs over. You think she’s going to stop them; actually, she’s running so she can join in. It’s left unstated but obvious: the police also need to show publicly what happens to someone who attacks them.

Counterinsurgency involves an attempt to balance this logic of brutality with that of building legitimacy while the insurgency is doing the same thing. It frequently involves increasing brutality on both sides, until some sort of tipping point is reached. In Iraq, its small successes were based on the excesses and lack of balance of the insurgency. And even when it succeeds, it does not succeed with clean hands.

Let’s hope that somebody tells the new Obama administration, already looking remarkably rudderless, a few of these home truths.

Posted at 10:46 am.

February 2, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq's Elections

Iraq’s provincial elections, held on Saturday, have temporarily brought a spike in attention back to what is now the new forgotten war. Media reports have been terribly excited about the over 14,000 candidates running and the supposed great new Iraqi enthusiasm for democracy.

Early results give a slightly more mixed picture. Although lots of candidates ran, many of them no doubt because they want access to the power of patronage (the main reason for Congressmen in the United States as well), not that many people voted. It’s not exactly fair to compare with the turnouts in 2005, which involved two national elections and a constitutional referendum, but turnout in the recent provincial elections is estimated at 51%, significantly lower even than U.S. turnout in the last two national elections (though much higher than for mid-term elections).

By contrast, the December 2005 national elections had a 76% turnout and even the January elections, despite the boycott by many Sunnis, had 58%. That boycott affected national politics only for that year; by December, Sunnis had figured out what everyone in the history of electoral boycotts has learned – that they never work. Unfortunately, since there were no new provincial elections, provincial governments have remained severely skewed in composition ever since.

Overall, there were two striking results. First, Nouri al-Maliki has emerged as a politician with some national stature and at least a modicum of broad nationalist appeal. Much of this is probably related to his joint offensive with the United States against the Sadrists in Basra and elsewhere. Early criticisms of the “surge” for changing the military panorama in Iraq without affecting civilian national politics are once again revealed to be silly; political effects simply took longer. The government and the armed forces definitely seem to have gained some legitimacy. Second, Ayad Allawi, the Shi’a former Ba’athist, is back on the scene, a clear sign of voter disaffection with the Shi’a Islamist parties. This disaffection is only partial; the aggregated votes for those parties areill pretty substantial.

So far, reported irregularities seem minor. A few thousand Sunnis in places like Adhamiyah may have been struck from the voter rolls by Shi’a election officers because they have tell-tale Sunni names like Omar; the scale is smaller than the shenanigans the Republicans pull every election cycle.

The replacement of the Sunni boycott with the disaffected voter boycott is not necessarily such a bad thing. Tuning out of the electoral process because you don’t think it matters who gets elected is not only a time-honored tradition in countries more stable than Iraq, it is much better than whipping up turnout and fervor because you intend to use the electoral results as a weapon in sectarian conflict.

Although the United States has almost certainly backed Allawi under the table and is a major political player simply by virtue of its military operations, in general Iraqis seem to ignore expressed U.S. preferences as much as possible except when they involve direct military pressure. Iranian influence is also not what it once was, with sectarian influence waning and some putatively broad nationalism reasserting itself.

The main point to take away is that, insofar as these elections are a (relatively muted) success, they are a success of Iraqis, not of the Americans or of American intervention. While it is true that recent U.S. military operations have played some role in fixing some of the mess created by their earlier intervention and the pathological conditions it created, the story of the past year and more has consistently been one of Iraqis asserting themselves.

In 2007, parliament defeated a major U.S. push to pass an oil law. Last year, the Status of Forces negotiations amounted almost to a declaration of independence by the Iraqi government; not only did they get what is officially an ironclad timetable for withdrawal, they won significant changes in how the United States does its military business.

Given the low levels of violence and the increasing presence of the Iraqi military, it seems quite likely that the United States will be able to draw down troops and send them to screw things up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We can already see our way to Bush’s likely legacy in Iraq – half a million to a million dead, destruction of the infrastructure of government and society, and creation of an authoritarian, repressive state with actual political contestation through elections. I guess that’s something to be proud of.

Posted at 10:48 am.
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