Posts Tagged ‘Eikenberry cables’

Update: Torture, The STL in Lebanon, and Obama’s “Way Forward” in Afghanistan

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Today we introduce a new feature in The Trenchant Observer, an occasional column commenting on some of the more important events of the previous weeks in international affairs, as seen by the Observer.

This week’s stories include U.S. policy toward torture prosecutions, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and President Obama’s speech on “the way forward” in Afghanistan.

The United States’ Adoption of the “Due Obedience” Defense in Cases of Torture

This week the Justice Department announced that it would pursue investigations into two cases involving the deaths of detainees who were preseumably subjected to “harsh interrogation techniques” that went beyond the types of torture (as defined in the U.N. Convention Against Torture) that were permitted under the George W. Bush Administration’s “legal guidance”on “harsh interrogation technicques”.

See Eric Lichtblau and Eric Schmitt, “iU.S. Widens Inquiries Into 2 Jail Deaths,” New York Times, July 1, 2011

With that, the Justice department has ended its investigation into the broad class of cases that appear to qualify as cases involving the commission of torture under the terms of the Torture Convention, to which–it must always be stressed–the United States is a party.

By taking the position that it will not prosecute individuals for acts of torture if they were permitted under the legal guidance provided by their superiors in the Bush Administration, the United States has in effect accepted the “due obedience” argument rejected by the Nuremburg Tribunal in its trials of Nazi war criminals following World War II. This rejection of the “due obedience” defense is universally accepted in international law. It is expressly confirmed in the Torture Convention in Article 2 paragraph 3, which provides:

Article 2 (3). An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Other countries parties to the Torture Convention may now proceed to prosecute individuals suspected of committing torture found within their territory, without much concern that the U.S. will rquest their extradition for trial in the U.S., given the Justice Department’s position.

This signals a clear and final decision by the Obama administration not to pursue other cases of torture committed during the Bush administration.

It is significant for two reasons. First, it represents a final decision not to prosecute cases of torture by the state with primary jurisdiction, in violation of U.S. international legal obligations under the Torture Convention.

Second, it further opens the way for other states that are parties to the Torture Convention to prosecute U.S. officials for acts of torture they may have committed.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has now issued arrest warrants and delivered the same to the Government of Lebanon for it to carry out the arrests.

In an earlier article, published on March 3, 2011, The Observer wrote:

In Lebanon, Hezbollah withdrew in January from the unity government of Sa’ad Hariri, among thinly-veiled threats of civil war, if the government of Lebanon does not break ties with the U.N. International Tribunal for Lebanon, established by the Security Council to investigate and try those responsible for the assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. Hezbollah is militating against the United Nations Security Council, international law, and the tribunal established by the Security Council because, according to reports, it fears the Tribunal will issue indictments against Hezbollah members in the coming days or weeks.

The Tribunal itself has a statute which establishes due process of law for the hearing of the charges which may be brought by the Prosecutor of the Court. Hezbollah is arguing, if effect, that the Court is biased before any judicial proceedings against its members are initiated, and without regard to the fact that they will have a chance for a fair hearing, the questioning of evidence and of witnesses, in any proceedings that might be brought. With black shirts menacing and threatening to take physical control of West Beirut and large parts of the country, Hezbollah has positioned itself as an anti-democratic force opposed to the struggle for the rule of law within Lebanon, and one opposed to the United Nations, the Security Council and international law.

Outside parties have rushed to mediate. A Saudi-Syrian initiative has now been replaced by a Qatari-Turkish mediation effort. Democracy is in the balance.

What is at stake is the authority of the U.N. Security Council, the United Nations Charter, and international law. If Hezbollah can halt the cooperation of the government of Lebanon with the STL by threats of civil war and dividing the country in two, its success would not bode well for the future of the International Criminal Court or other international tribunals that might be established in the future to deal with issues such as the Hariri assassination or issues of transitional justice.

We will now see whether Hezbollah has changed it position, and is willing to turn away from its opposition to international law, the United Nations, and the authority of the Special Tribunan for Lebanon established by the Security Council.

Democracy and the rule of law in Lebanon hang in the balance.

Obama’s “Way Forward” in Afghanistan

Recently Ambassador Carl Eikenberry completed his term as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. He is being replaced by an extraordinarily skilled deplomat with deep experience in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

Eikenberry’s departure should not go unnoticed, however. A former head of the coalition forces in Afghanistan before becoming Ambassador in 2009, Eikenberry headed an able diplomatic team. In 2009, toward the conclusion of President Barack Obama’s much-touted review of Afghanistan policy, cables written by Eikenberry in November, 2009 were leaked to the press.

In those cables, Ekenberry, who had a deep knowledge of Afghanistan before assuming his post as Ambassador, set forth his thinking about President Hamid Karzai’s government, the narrow limitations of the Afghanistan policy review, and his own cautionary words about the risks of proceeding with the “surge” of over 30,000 U.S. troops without a broader review.

Today, his words seem prophetic, and read more like the history of the last two years than the risk assessment they were originally intended to be.

See The Observer’s previous columns on this subject:

Eikenberry Memos Place Spotlight on U.S. Dilemmas in Afghanistan
January 27th, 2010

Commentary on Eikenberry Cables, Intelligence on Afghanistan
January 28th, 2010

On June 22, 2011, President Obama delivered an important speech to the nation setting forth his thoughts and policies on “the way forward in Afghanistan.”

Adminral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated publicly that Obama’s new strategy of withdrawal represented more risk than he had originally been propared to accept. The military, including Petraeus, did not agree with what in all likelihood will represent an abandonment of the modified and limited counter-insurgency or COIN strategy Petraeus had led. Toby Harnden of The Telegraph reported, for example,

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said: “Petraeus loses, Biden wins. And I respect the vice president, but I think that we have undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving year is going to make this more difficult.”

The Pentagon fought a rearguard action to prevent the surge force ordered into Afghanistan by Mr Obama in December 2009 from being pulled out by early spring next year but the withdrawal plan announced by Mr Obama, which had initially been tabled as a “compromise” by Robert Gates, the defence secretary, was not supported by Gen Petraeus.

There were reports of heated discussions during the month before Mr Obama’s prime-time speech on Wednesday night.

White House officials, aware of the soaring costs of the war and its questionable progress could be a political liability in the 2012 election, are said to have clashed with Gen Petraeus, who argued that with more time he could repeat his success in Iraq.

Harnden reported further that Obama had rejected Petraeus’ proposal to move thousands of troops from the south to the east “in order to build a counter-insurgency campaign there.” Obama also overrode Petraeus’ request to keep some of the 33,000 troops to be withdrawn by this spring until 2013.

Two military officers with close ties to Petraeus told “National Journal” that Gen Petraeus disagreed with Mr Gates’s compromise proposal and had not endorsed Mr Obama’s drawdown plan.

–Toby Harnden, “Admiral Mike Mullen says withdrawal plan is a risk,” The Telegraph, June 23, 2010

To those who have followed developments in Afghanistan over the last five to eight years, including readers of The Trenchant Observer, there was nothing new in his speech.

Rather, the Observer’s appraisal of Obama’s approach to international affairs, offered in an analysis of his failed leadership in Libya, seems to describe his Afghan policy as well:

When one looks hard at the decisions he has made, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president’s primary objective is “to manage” international conflicts and affairs, as domestic affairs, in a manner that will enable him to be reelected in 2012.

Reelection is probably a goal of almost all politicians. Certainly there are exceptions. Winston Churchill comes to mind. But with Presdent Obama, it appears to be the primary and overriding goal.

It is perhaps the prism through which the president’s actions can best be understood. In this sense, Obama’s current policy towards Libya seems to be succeeding.

For commentary on the president’s speech, see

Jennifer Rubin, “Liberals give thumbs down on Obama’s speech,” Washington Post, June 23, 2011

A “conditions based” withdrawal of 10,000 troops is meaningless. The “conditions based” withdrawal of additional troops from the surge will meet its test if and when one or more provinces fall to the Taliban.

A collapse of the Afghan government is not to be ruled out. It could come at a most unexpected moment. If it were to come before the presidential elections in 2012, it could have a decisive impact on their outcome.

The folly of following a strategy in foreign policy that is decisively determined by domestic political considerations is likely to have hard lessons to teach its authors.

The Trenchant Observer

www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv

The smartest person in the room, and the Afghanistan policy review

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Continuing Reflections on “the Smartest Person in the Room”

In a previous article, we offered some observations on the report that President Obama always considers himself to be the smartest person in any room.

See “Is Obama the Smartest Person in the Room?” October 22, 2010

This is a theme worth pursuing, for it touches on the issue of the hubris of the Obama administration, which grates even on some of the president’s strongest supporters.

Some 35 years ago, Richard C. Holbrooke, currently President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, offered a few insights into the issue of “the smartest person in the room.”

See Richard C. Holbrooke, “The smartest man in the room,” Harper’s Magazine, June, 1975.

Wrote Holbrooke,

In a similar instance, reported by Stewart Alsop, a senior CIA official who regularly briefed Defense Secretary McNamara on Indochina, using all the statistics and data compiled by the Pentagon, suddenly asked McNamara if he could offer a personal observation. When McNamara agreed, according to Alsop, the official said that he had spent much of his life working on Southeast Asia and, yes, he knew that the statistics showed that we were winning but that somehow, deep down in his bones, he just didn’t feel comfortable with all those signs of progress. Deep down he felt that things were rotten. McNamara asked for reasons, data, empirical evidence. The official couldn’t give any, he said; it was just a feeling, McNamara thanked him for his comments, dismissed him, and asked the CIA to send over another briefer.

Briefing someone that smart could be very difficult…People who had important things to say were cut off in mid-thought because they were not articulate enough to frame their thoughts in the precise, logical, bright way that was desired, if not required.

But sometimes the slower-speaking, less smart person was right; sometimes the smart ones were wrong. So finally it started to become clear: the smartest man in the room is not always right.

Worth noting is that Holbrooke is apparently not among the president’s favorite advisers.

Bob Woodward in Obama’s Wars reports, ” It wasn’t until well into the Obama presidency that Holbrooke learned definitively how much the president didn’t care for him.” Woodward recounts how Holbrooke had asked hiim to call him “Richard” instead of ” Dick”, which Obama told others he found “unusual” and even “strange”. (p. 211) One might equally note that mortifying a key adviser is a bit unusual and strange as well.

Earlier in the book Woodward quotes Vice-President Joe Biden as telling Obama, “He’s the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met, but maybe the right guy for the job.” (p. 72)

Reading Obama’s Wars, one comes away with the impression that the strategic review of Afghanistan policy was managed by a president who thought he was the smartest person in the room, and who conducted the meetings he attended in a tense and formal manner which did not encourage genuine debate.

Weeks were spent discussing whether the mission of the allies and the additional forces requested by General Stanley McChrystal was to be to “defeat” the Taliban, or to “degrade” the Taliban so they couldn’t overthrow the government in Kabul. The practical significance of this distinction, on the ground, appears to be at best dubious.

Very little attention, according to Woodward, was paid to the question of what was likely to happen in Afghanistan after the U.S. drew down its forces, and just what a negotiated settlement with the Taliban would lead to after ISAF forces had withdrawn.

This was not Bobby Kennedy leading the sessions of the Ex-Com set up by President John Kennedy to advise him during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Reading Woodward’s book, one is struck by the lack of discussion of how to handle the election fraud underway in Afghanistan, and of the full implications of sticking with Karzai. By not discussing this critical issue, and not having CIA Director Panetta or Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair present at the last meetings, a critical opportunity to change the dynamics of the governance game in Kabul was lost. This opportunity was right under their noses, so to speak, but–at least according to Woodward–not directly discussed.

Ambassador Eikenberry was absolutely rignt in pointing out in his cables that the Afghanistan policy review had a very narrow focus, and did not adequately take a wide range of considerations into account.

The way this policy review was managed by the president is troubling, and requires further reflection.

The Trenchant Observer

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Twitter: www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv
E-mail: observer@trenchantobserver.com

Comments are invited.

Urgent Note to Obama and Petraeus: Reread the Eikenberry Cables, Avoid Reasoning from Conclusions, and Adjust Course

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

The replacement of General Stanley McChrystal by General David Petraeus signals an important change in the military leadership in Afghanistan. However, with commentators suggesting that Petraeus will be the new American “proconsul” in Afghanistan, it is far from clear that President Obama is moving to redress the serious imbalance in his team’s combined civilian and military approach and strategy in Afghanistan.

To date, undue weight has been given to military solutions and military considerations. Comments from White House officials on background suggest problems on the civilian side of the equation, with thought being given to replacing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

It is a disservice to President Obama and to these men, who have given years of distinguished service to the nation, to paint them as clinging to their jobs.

That aside, why Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has not defended the State Department, and her own perogative to choose State’s team for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is an open question.

She appears to be out of the White House loop on Afghanistan policy. Whenever she does become visibly involved, as she did during last year’s reexamination of our Afghanistan strategy, she seems to agree not with her ambassadors but with the Pentagon, every step of the way.

It is a serious miskake for White House officials, themselves lacking deep foreign policy expertise or experience on the ground in Afghanistan, to personalize differences of policy by referring to “Eikenberry” or “Holbrooke”. The latter represent the expertise of the State Department, including the views of senior diplomats stationed in or with experience in the region.

It is their views, the views of the professional diplomats in the State Department, which require a new and fresh hearing.

In particular, Ambassador Eikenberry’s cables last November laid out the stark realities in Afghanistan. These realities have been forcefully confirmed since then by developments on the ground.

With the confirmation of Petraeus, it is more urgent than ever that the policies that have failed in the last nine months be reexamined with a fresh eye. In particular, the military’s current penchant for reasoning from conclusions (e.g., because a competent government, military and national police force must come into existence for our strategy to succeed, they will…) must be corrected and avoided.

Eikenberry’s cables are worth rereading now. The following article contains links to them.

***

“Eikenberry Memos Place Spotlight on U.S. Dilemmas in Afghanistan,” The Trenchant Observer, March 27, 2010

On January 25 in a story by Eric Schmitt, the New York Times reported on and published the full text of memos written by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry on November 6 and November 9, 2009, detailing his reasons for opposing the counterinsurgency strategy and “surge” proposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the latter’s boss, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petreus.

The cables strongly suggest that President Obama’s much-touted and drawn-out Afghanistan policy review in the fall did not fully address the validity of key assumptions upon which the McChrystal proposals were based, including 1) the assumption that Karzai and his government could become the kind of government partner needed for the strategy to succeed; and 2) the assumption that the Afghan army and police could be trained and built up quickly to take over and hold areas cleared by U.S. and NATO forces (including the additional 40,000 troops requested by McChrystal).

The fact that the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, himself a former commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, felt the policy review had been too narrowly focused on counterinsurgency doctrine and strategy, is in itself quite amazing.

Perhaps sensing that his views were on the verge of being eclipsed by the recommendations of Mr. Obama’s military advisors, Eikenberry in the second cable urged further study by a broader group to fully weigh considerations such as those raised in his cables–which he obviously felt were not being given due weight in the current review.

The memos confirm that the U.S. has a capable ambassador and diplomatic team in Kabul, who understand the broader picture of what is going on in Afghanistan.

But in the end, Mr. Obama did not follow the main thrust of Eikenberry’s arguments and advice. The President has gained time, perhaps, in domestic political terms, and perhaps also to see if the new strategy of protecting populations can reverse the momentum of the Taliban.

Reading these cables, however, and Eikenberry’s cogent descriptions of what sound like insuperable obstacles to be overcome, it is difficult to discern grounds for optimism regarding the success of the current strategy.

See also The Trenchant Observer, “Commentary on Eikenberry Cables, Intelligence on Afghanistan,”
January 28th, 2010

The Trenchant Observer

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Twitter: www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv
E-mail: observer@trenchantobserver.com

Comments and debate are invited.

After McChrystal: Obama, Petraeus, and Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

The newspapers will be filled for days with information and views regarding Obama’s June 23 firing of General Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal’s negative comments about his colleagues as reported in Rolling Stone magazine reflected very poor judgment, as McChrystal himself and also Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted. There were also previous instances of very poor judgment by McChrystal since he assumed command in Afghanistan.

A number of questions arose which Obama may have taken into account in reaching his decision to replace McChrystal.

One of the most important was the question of how McChrystal could be an effective team member on a team about whose members he or members of his entourage had spoken in such disparaging terms.

How could he lead the ISAF coalition, or keep France on board with the coalition? Did McChrystal bear any responsibility for the fact that some of our closest allies (e.g., Canada) are withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan?

Even more fundamental questions were raised, however, which now will have to be considered anew and with fresh eyes by Petraeus, Obama, and the new team.

Perhaps the most important is what the strategy of the United States and coalition forces is going to be going forward, after the abject failure of the current strategy led by McChrystal.

The official U.S. counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan is to secure and protect the population rather than focus on killing the enemy. The real policy as it is currently being implemented is one that focuses on killing leaders of the Taliban through predator drone strikes and assassination by special operations forces.

The lack of progress in Marja reveals that the much-touted concept of a “government in a box” to be installed following the military’s flushing out of the Taliban is a cruel illusion.

It is not going to happen, not under the government of Hamid Karzai.

The real policy is one of beating down the enemy through the use of the U.S. killing machine that couples real-time intelligence with the capabilities of drone aircraft and special operations forces on the ground. Reports that half the U.S. forces being deployed to Afghanistan are special ops and similar troops underlines this point.

The real policy, led by McChrystal, has not worked. The situation in Afghanistan has not improved since he assumed command. To the contrary, there are many indications that it has continued to deteriorate.

As for our counter-insurgency strategy, the strategy laid out by David Petraeus and his colleagues in the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual in December 2006, it is submitted, requires the presence of troops on the ground in numbers that far exceed the number of troops now in Afghanistan, even after the so-called “surge”. Should the U.S. begin to withdraw troops in mid-2011, as promised, the idea that we are implementing Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy as enunciated in U.S. military doctrine would become even more divorced from reality than it is today.

To be sure, the 2011 date for “the commencement” of a process of withdrawal, subject to conditions on the ground, was never more than a political fiction used to make the increase in American troops politically palatable back home in the U.S.

Now, things are going really badly in Afghanistan.

The principal men that permitted the U.S. to have some independence from Ahmed Karzai’s control of intelligence provided to the U.S. military in the South, Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief, with longstanding and close ties to the CIA, and Hanif Atmar, Minister of the Interior, are gone. Saleh was fired by Karzai several weeks ago, when the Minister of the Interior in charge of the police was also sacked. These were two men viewed by U.S. officials as able counterparts.

The end result of their dismissal was that Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s half-brother, has an even firmer grip on the flow of intelligence shared with the Americans and the allies in Kandahar and the South. Without that intelligence, it is likely that U.S. forces would be operating largely in the dark, at least in strategic terms.

The Karzai brothers had, in effect, “rolled” McChrystal, which may help to explain why Hamid Karzai came out so strongly in support of McChrystal, the “best” U.S. commander Afghanistan has ever had, in his view. One need hardly ask who he thinks the worst has been (hint: he has a German name).

General McChrystal had earned a new assignment. The stress had obviously gotten to him, or he would not have been making colossal errors in judgment. If he made these poor judgments in speaking about his colleagues and allowing those around him to speak about his colleagues in a disparaging manner, what other errors of judgment might he have made?

His judgments affected the lives of thousands of U.S. and allied troops.

It is clear now, if it wasn’t last fall, that President Obama made a deeply flawed decision when he handed control over our policy in Afghanistan to the military in general and McChrystal in particular.

The much-touted policy review on Afghanistan represented no more than a delaying tactic designed to generate political support and gain time, for what in the end was an approval of McChrystal’s planned “surge” of 40,000 men. Obama authorized “30,000” which with logistical and other support became a much larger number, and with 10,000 additional promised allied troops, McChrystal’s demand was essentially satisfied.

Our nation’s strategy in Afghanistan has become twisted and distorted beyond recognition. We say we are implementing Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine, when in point of fact half of the forces we are sending to the country are Special Ops and similar forces, to assist in the project of decapitating the Taliban while proving our killing machine is more effective than theirs.

We have abandoned the democratic project which the U.S., allied governments and the U.N. had as their stated objective for eight years, leaving Afghan police and military and ordinary Afghan citizens with no ideal to fight for.

The war has become about how to get the U.S. forces out, even if this means returning the people of Afghanistan to the power of the warlords, and the women of Afghanistan to the warlords and the repression and abuse of a very backward traditional and tribal society.

Instead of leading the people of Afghanistan into the 21st century, we have decided that it is sufficient for our exit purposes to allow them to return to the 19th (or 13th) century.

Nonetheless, Obama now has an opportunity to begin to correct the bad decisions he has made in the past on Afghanistan.

He should immediately reconstitute his circle of advisers to ensure that his Afghanistan team includes sufficient civilians of sufficient experience and stature to counterbalance the strong concentration of military advisers in his inner circle. These should include top U.S. diplomats with experience working in the region.

The first task of this reconstituted group should be to reread Karl Eikenberry’s cables from last November, and to devise a strategy for going forward.

That strategy must recognize that Hamid Karzai is not, and never will be, a reliable partner.

It must focus on ensuring to the maximum extent possible that the elections to the National Assembly to be held on September 18, 2010 are free and fair elections.

We must reconsider the democratic project in Afghanistan, so quickly abandoned by Obama, but which may alone contain the seeds of motivation that could one day lead to an effective national Afghan army and police force.

It must address the urgent need to prevent the further alienation of present and former members of the Northern Alliance, including Abdullah Abdullah, Amrullah Saleh, and others. Little will be gained if a reconciliation between Karzai and the Taliban in the South (should it ever occur) leads to renewed hostilities between the North and the South.

Presumably, Petraeus and Obama, with input from Eikenberry, Holbrooke, and others, can take steps to improve the types of and deployment of troops going to Afghanistan, in view of the limited force levels available from the U.S. and other allies.

It will be important for Obama, Gates and Petraeus to lead a process of reshaping our strategy in Afghanistan that reflects Petraeus’ own, fresh understanding and vision, and that of other key team members including in particular Karl Eikenberry, instead of simply trying to continue to implement the current strategy.

This reexamination should be done as soon as possible. In particular, McChrystal’s accommodations with the Karzai brothers with respect to the Kandahar campaign should be revisited.

The decisions faced by Obama are much bigger than the decision of whether or not to fire McChrystal. The deeper questions include the following:

When will the United States reconcile the total contradiction between the facts on the ground in Afghanistan and our real strategy there, with the requirements of official U.S. counterinsurgency strategy as enunciated by David Petraeus and the U.S. military?

When will the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan shift from trying to out-kill the Taliban with our incredible killing machine to a more nuanced, informed and broad-gauged strategy?

When will the United States have a military and civilian team in place in and for Afghanistan that can work effectively with each other, and with our allies?

When will President Obama pay enough sustained attention to Afghanistan to get it right?

What is needed now is not eight afternoons over a number of months, but two weeks at Camp David with a small group of advisers.

Obama could also spend a day a week working alone, without aides, on getting his own thinking straight on Afghanistan.

The United States and the world need his leadership, not his acquiescence in the failed policies of the past.

The Trenchant Observer

observer@trenchantobserver.com
Follow “trenchantobserv” on Twitter.com

Comments are invited.

McChrystal, Petraeus, COIN, and Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

The newspapers will be filled for days with information and views regarding Obama’s meeting with Stanley McChrystal and his Afghanistan team on Wednesday, June 23, in Washington.

McChrystal’s negative comments about his colleagues as reported in Rolling Stone magazine reflect very poor judgment, as McChrystal himself and also Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have admitted. There have been previous instances of very poor judgment by McChrystal since he assumed command in Afghanistan.

A number of questions arise.

One of the most important is the question of how McChrystal can be an effective team member on a team about whose members he or members of his entourage have spoken in such disparaging terms.

How can he lead the ISAF coalition, or keep France on board with the coalition? Does McChrystal bear any responsibility for the fact that some of our closest allies (e.g., Canada) are withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan? Could our disregard for international law with our policy of targeted killings have had some negative impact in this regard?

Even more fundamental questions are raised, however.

Perhaps the most important is what the strategy of the United States and coalition forces is going to be going forward, after the abject failure of the current strategy led by McChrystal.

The official U.S. counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan is to secure and protect the population rather than focus on killing the enemy. The real policy as it is currently being implemented is one that focuses on killing leaders of the Taliban through predator drone strikes and assassination by special operations forces.

The lack of progress in Marja reveals that the much-touted concept of a “government in a box” to be installed following the military’s flushing out of the Taliban is a cruel illusion.

It is not going to happen, not under the government of Hamid Karzai.

The real policy is one of beating down the enemy through the use of the U.S. killing machine that couples real-time intelligence with the capabilities of drone aircraft and special operations forces on the ground.

The real policy, led by McChrystal, has not worked. The situation in Afghanistan has not improved since he assumed command. To the contrary, there are many indications that it has continued to deteriorate.

As for our counter-insurgency strategy, the strategy laid out by David Petraeus and his colleagues requires the presence of troops on the ground in numbers that far exceed the numbers now in Afghanistan, even after the so-called “surge”. Should the U.S. begin to withdraw troops in mid-2011, as promised, the idea that we are implementing Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy as enunciated in U.S. military doctrine would become even more delusional than it is today.

To be sure, the 2011 date for “the commencement” of a process of withdrawal, subject to conditions on the ground, was never more than a political fiction used to make the increase in American troops politically palatable back home in the U.S.

Now, things are going really badly in Afghanistan.

The principal men that permitted the U.S. to have some independence from Ahmed Karzai’s control of intelligence provided to the U.S. military in the South, Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief, with longstanding and close ties to the CIA, and Hanif Atmar, Minister of the Interior, are gone. Saleh was fired by Karzai several weeks ago, when the Minister of the Interior in charge of the police was also sacked. These were two men viewed by U.S. officials as able counterparts.

The end result of their dismissal was that Ahmed Karzai has an even firmer grip on the flow of intelligence shared with the Americans and the allies in Kandahar and the South. Without that intelligence, U.S. forces would be operating largely in the dark.

The Karzai brothers have, in effect, “rolled” McChrystal, which may help to explain why Hanid Karzai has come out so strongly in support of McChrystal, the “best” U.S. commander Afghanistan has ever had, in his view. One need hardly ask who he thinks the worst has been, but I would wager he has a German name.

General McChrystal has earned a new assignment. The stress has obviously gotten to him, or he would not be making colossal errors in judgment. If he has made these poor judgments in speaking about his colleagues and allowing those around him to speak about his colleagues in a disparaging manner, what other errors of judgment may he have made?

His judgments affect the lives of thousands of U.S. and allied troops.

It is clear now, if it wasn’t last fall, that President Obama made a fatally flawed decision when he handed control over our policy in Afghanistan to the military in general and McChrystal and Petraeus in particular.

The much-touted policy review on Afghanistan represented no more than a delaying tactic designed to generate political support and gain time, for what in the end was an approval of McChrystal’s planned “surge” of 40,000 men. Obama authorized “30,000” which with logistical and other support became a much larger number, and with 10,000 additional promised allied troops, McChrystal’s demand was essentially satisfied.

Our nation’s strategy in Afghanistan is twisted and distorted beyond recognition. We say we are implementing Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine, when in point of fact half of the forces we are sending to the country are Special Ops and similar forces, to assist in the project of decapitating the Taliban while proving our killing machine is more effective than theirs.

We have abandoned the democratic project which the U.S., allied governments and the U.N. had as their stated objective for eight years, leaving Afghan police and military and ordinary Afghan citizens with no ideal to fight for.

The war has become about how to get the U.S. forces out, even if this means returning the people of Afghanistan to the power of the warlords, and the women of Afghanistan to the warlords and the repression and abuse of a very backward traditional and tribal society.

Instead of leading the people of Afghanistan into the 21st century, we have decided that it is sufficient for our exit purposes to allow them to return to the 19th (or 13th) century.

Nonetheless, Obama now has an opportunity to begin to correct the bad decisions he has made in the past on Afghanistan.

Regardless of when McChrystal leaves, Obama should immediately reconstitute his circle of advisers to ensure that his Afghanistan team includes civilians to counterbalance the strong concentration of military advisers in his inner circle. These should include the top U.S. diplomats working in the region. The first task of this reconstituted group should be to reread Karl Eikenberry’s cables from last November, and to devise a strategy for going forward.

That strategy must recognize that Hamid Karzai is not, and never will be, a reliable partner.

It must focus on ensuring to the maximum extent possible that the elections to the National Assembly to be held on September 18, 2010 are free and fair elections. We must reconsider the democratic project in Afghanistan, so quickly abandoned by Obama, but which may alone contain the seeds of motivation that could one day lead to an effective national army and police force.

It must address the urgent need to prevent the further alienation of present and former members of the Northern Alliance, including Abdullah Abdullah, Amrullah Saleh, and others. Little will be gained if a reconciliation between Karzai and the Taliban in the South (should it ever occur) leads to renewed hostilities between the North and the South.

Should McChrystal go?

The question is not if, but when.

When will the United States reconcile the total contradiction between the facts on the ground in Afghanistan and our real strategy there, with the requirements of official U.S. counterinsurgency strategy as enunciated by David Petraeus and the U.S. military?

When will the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan shift from trying to out-kill the Taliban with our incredible killing machine to a more nuanced, informed and broad-gauged strategy?

When will the United States have a military and civilian team in place in and for Afghanistan that can work effectively with each other, and with our allies?

When will President Obama pay enough sustained attention to Afghanistan to get it right?

What is needed is not eight afternoons over a number of months, but two weeks at Camp David with a small group of advisers.

Obama could also spend a day a week working alone, without aides, on getting his own thinking straight on Afghanistan.

The United States and the world need his leadership, not his acquiescence in the failed policies of the past.

The Trenchant Observer

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Opera Buffa in Kabul — Karzai Threatens to Join the Taliban

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Farsical But Sinister

Robert H. Reid of AP summarizes the farsical but sinister events of the last week in the ever stranger opera buffa of Hamid Karzai:

Karzai has long chaffed under what he considers excessive international pressure. Those complaints escalated Thursday when he lashed out against the U.N. and the international community, accusing them of perpetrating a “vast fraud” in last year’s presidential polls as part of a conspiracy to deny him re-election or tarnish his victory – accusations the U.S. and the United Nations have denied.

Two days later, Karzai told a group of parliament members that if foreign interference in his government continues, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance – one that he might even join, according to several lawmakers present.

“He said that ‘if I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban,'” said Farooq Marenai, who represents the eastern province of Nangarhar. “He said rebellion” against a legitimate Afghan government “would change to resistance” against foreign occupation.

Two other parliament members gave the same account but asked that their names not be published to avoid problems with Karzai.

Robert H. Reid, “AP Analysis: Karzai remarks risk US-Afghan rift,” Associated Press, April 5, 2010

Defense of Honor

When will someone stand up and shout, “The emperor has no clothes!”

It could do U.S.-Afghan relations a lot of good if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or President Obama himself, were to take Karzai’s wild assertions, and rebut each of them with well-documented facts, point by point.

Washington needs to understand the cultural meaning and context in Afghanistan of what Karzai is doing to the United States.

Obama might start, closer to home, by studying Michael Dukakis’ 1988 response to a question about what he would do if his wife was raped and murdered, and the impact on his candidacy of his cold and analytical response.

In Afghanistan, what Karzai has said about the United States and its allies is shameful. To pretend otherwise, to be reasonable in understanding his “idiosyncracies”, to accept the canard that he needs to strengthen his domestic support, to brush it off with diplomatic language, risks losing the hard-won respect we have earned among the population over nine hard years of war.

In a word, when attacked in a shameful way by Karzai, the United States needs to defend its honor, at least in words if not in deeds.

For excerpts and descriptions of Karzai’s remarks, see the following:

Mandy Clark, CBS News broadcast story, April 2, 2010

Jonathan Partow, “White House troubled by Afghan leader’s remarks,” Washington Post, April 5, 2010

Plan B

It is time, long past time in fact, to start developing Plan B. As unpalatable as that conclusion may be, the alternatives are going to be much worse.

It is useful to recall that Karzai did not win the first round in the presidential elections held on August 20, 2009, and that Abdullah, his opponent, withdrew from the second round only in the face of a refusal by Karzai to take meaningful measures to avoid a repetition of the fraud in the runoff.

Karzai is not the legitimate, elected president of Afghanistan, and the U.S. saying that he is–while ignoring the imminent fraud in the second round–does not make him the legitimate, elected president of Afghanistan.

As The Observer wrote on March 30,

U.S. officials need to carefully review the history of their interaction with Karzai over the last eight years, and reread what Ambassador Karl Eikenberry had to say about him and his government in his cables of November 6 and November 9, 2009.

For only when the Americans and their allies have disabused themselves of their last illusions about Karzai, and stifled their last unjustified hopes that he might reform, will they begin to have the clarity of vision that they will need to extricate themselves from their present predicament.

We cannot get to the goal of a legitimate government accepted by the population, which can defeat the Taliban or even avoid defeat at their hands, with the Karzai brothers.

We had better start thinking through the implications that flow from that one simple and brutal fact, and the adjustments to strategy and operations that will be required.

In the past, when our analysis led us to an inescapable but “unacceptable” conclusion, we have resorted to further analysis, allowing things to drift and to deteriorate further.

We must not repeat that mistake. The hour is late, and much more can still be lost.

The Trenchant Observer

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News to Note: Lower House of Afghan National Assembly Rejects Karzai’s Electoral Coup

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Heartening News, if Not an April Fool’s Joke

Jonathan Partow of the Washington Post reports from Kabul that the lower house of Aghanistan’s National Assembly has rejected Hamid Karzai’s attempt to seize control of the Electoral Complaints Commission. Partow reports:

“This is a very important day for Afghanistan’s democratic institutions,” said Peter D. Lepsch, a senior legal adviser for Democracy International in Kabul. “The legislative branch has used its constitutional authority to stem presidential power. That’s a big deal.”

The most contentious proposed change in the elections law would allow Karzai to appoint three of five members of the Electoral Complaints Commission…

This appointment proposal was a driving force for many lawmakers to vote against it by waving red cards in the air, according to Mirwais Yasini, the deputy speaker of the lower house.

“We had a very bad experience in the presidential election; it cannot be considered legal. The credibility of the current president is under question. Looking ahead, we have to have good transparency. We had to reject this law,” he said.

The members present in the lower house — about half the total — overwhelmingly voted against the proposal.

–Jonathan Partow, “Afghan parliament’s lower house rejects Karzai election proposals,” The Washington Post, April 1, 2010.

The Trenchant Observer

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Thomas L. Friedman on Karzai; Hard Options

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Thomas L. Friedman, in an op-ed article published on the New York Times website on March 30 and in the print edition on March 31, 2010, has provided an important analysis which complements our article, “Afghanistan: Obama Begins to Grasp the Reality of Karzai,” also published on March 30. The Observer had not seen Friedman’s piece before writing his own.

Friedman argues that the U.S. has violated three cardinal principles of conducting foreign policy in the Middle East:

Rule No. 1: When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go. See dictionary for Vietnam: Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky.

When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?

One reason you violate Rule No. 1 is because you’ve already violated Rule No. 2: “Never want it more than they do.”

Which leads to Rule No. 3: In the Middle East, what leaders tell you in private in English is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language.

Zeroing in on the central dilemma facing the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan, Friedman concludes:

As Filkins and Landler noted, “During the recent American-dominated military offensive in the town of Marja — the largest of the war — Mr. Karzai stood mostly in the shadows.” And if Karzai behaves like this when he needs us, when we’re there fighting for him, how is he going to treat our interests when we’re gone?

We have thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan and more heading there. Love it or hate it, we’re now deep in it, so you have to want our engagement there to build something that is both decent and self-sustaining — so we can get out. But I still fear that Karzai is ready to fight to the last U.S. soldier. And once we clear, hold and build Afghanistan for him, he is going to break our hearts.

–Thomas L. Friedman, “This Time We Really Mean It,” New York Times, March 30, 2010.

Hard Options

It is time to consider hard options.

One option would be to block the funding by the United Nations of any electoral support for the National Assembly elections to be held on September 18, 2010. Such funding should be restored only if and when Karzai withdraws his decree seizing control of the Electoral Complaints Commission, restores the language of the electoral law to its text before his decree, and takes other measures to guarantee free and fair elections in September.

No U.N. funding should occur until these actions have actually been taken, not just promised. Any restoration of funding should contain clear conditions safeguarding the freedom of the elections which, if violated, would result in an immediate cessation of funding and U.N. support operations.

Other “tough” options should also be explored. These include resolving the contradictions inherent in the alleged ties of Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, to the CIA and U.S. dependence on him for intelligence and other matters in Kandahar and the South.

An even harder question lurks just behind the question of what to do about Wali Karzai, and that is the question of what Hamid Karzai’s involvement with the CIA may have been in the past.

These issues, and what to do about Wali Karzai as the U.S. prepares to launch an intensive compaign to secure Kandahar, require concentrated attention and decisive action at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

For, as we wrote on October 6, 2009,

The failure in Afghanistan has been a diplomatic and political failure, not just a military failure. Military strategy will falter if diplomatic and political strategy does not keep pace. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan by proceeding on the naive belief that we can “stand up” a legitimate government born of fraud, or that we can “stand up” an Afghan army both capable of defeating the Taliban and loyal to a government lacking in legitimacy and losing public support. Legitimacy is the key to developing both a more effective government and a more capable army and police. Without legitimacy, both possibilities appear to be but chimeras in the desert sand.

The Trenchant Observer

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Afghanistan: Obama Begins to Grasp the Reality of Karzai

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

On March 30, 2010, Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler of the New York Times reported that earlier this month the White House had canceled a visit by Hamid Karzai to Washington, following his electoral coup and blatant takeover of the Electoral Complaints Commission. They describe his reaction as follows:

Incensed, Mr. Karzai extended an invitation of his own — to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who flew to Kabul and delivered a fiery anti-American speech inside Afghanistan’s presidential palace.

“Karzai was enraged,” said an Afghan with knowledge of the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. “He invited Ahmadinejad to spite the Americans.”

The dispute was smoothed over only this week, when Mr. Obama flew to Kabul for a surprise dinner with Mr. Karzai….

But the red carpet treatment of Mr. Ahmadinejad is just one example of how Mr. Karzai is putting distance between himself and his American sponsors, prominent Afghans and American officials here said. Even as Mr. Obama pours tens of thousands of additional American troops into the country to help defend Mr. Karzai’s government, Mr. Karzai now often voices the view that his interests and the United States’ no longer coincide.

Indeed, the recent behavior by Mr. Karzai offers the latest illustration of the central dilemma that faces the Obama administration in Afghanistan: how to influence the actions of an ally who they increasingly regard as unreliable, without undermining America’s ultimate goals here.

At a lunch in January with Afghan leaders, Karzai reportedly described himself as holding the line in Afghanistan against the Americans:

In January, Mr. Karzai invited about two dozen prominent Afghan media and business figures to a lunch at the palace. At the lunch, he expressed a deep cynicism about America’s motives, and of the burden he bears in trying to keep the United States at bay.

“He has developed a complete theory of American power,” said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.”

Mr. Karzai said that, left alone, he could strike a deal with the Taliban, but that the United States refuses to allow him. The American goal, he said, was to keep the Afghan conflict going, and thereby allow American troops to stay in the country.

–Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler, “Afghan Leader Is Seen to Flout Influence of U.S.,” New York Times, March 30, 2010.

As the authors note, the Ahmadinijad invitation is not the only evidence of the disloyalty of the Afghan president to the American and NATO forces who keep him in power.

U.S. officials need to carefully review the history of their interaction with Karzai over the last eight years, and reread what Ambassador Karl Eikenberry had to say about him and his government in his cables of November 6 and November 9, 2009.

For only when the Americans and their allies have disabused themselves of their last illusions about Karzai, and stifled their last unjustified hopes that he might reform, will they begin to have the clarity of vision that they will need to extricate themselves from their present predicament.

The Trenchant Observer

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Commentary on Eikenberry Cables, Intelligence on Afghanistan

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

A number of articles and comments are appearing which address the significance of the Eikenberry cables. Links to some of the most interesting will be provided here.

One important commentary, by a former intelligence official, points out the fact that President Obama had not ordered a National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan prior to reaching his decision on Afghanistan strategy and the “surge”. See Ray McGovern, “Obama Put Politics First on Afghanistan”, Counterpunch, January 28, 2010

The absence of a NIE is surprising in view of the Flynn report on the defects in U.S. military intelligence in that country. See Jon Boone, “US intelligence chief criticises spy failings in Afghanistan,” The Guardian (guardian.co.uk), January 5, 2010

The text of the Flynn report is highly interesting. See Major General Michael T. Flynn, Captain Matt Pottinger, Paul D. Batchelor, “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan” (working paper), January 4, 2010

Many of the defects in U.S. military intelligence the Flynn report addresses had been noted over a year earlier. See Peter Beaumont, “Intelligence failures crippling fight against insurgents in Afghanistan, The Guardian, March 6, 2009.

The Trenchant Observer

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Comments and debate are invited, in any language. If in a language other than English, please provide an English translation. A Google translation into English will be sufficient.