Posts Tagged ‘Haqqani network’

Islamabad, Kabul, Moscow, Damascus and Washington: The cumulative impact of “rookie” errors—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #52 (June 16)

Saturday, June 16th, 2012

The lack of strategic thinking and stumbling execution of Obama’s foreign policy “juggernaut”–“the gang who couldn’t shoot strait” has led to a complicated, deteriorating and increasingly dangerous situation with respect to Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

President Obama and his foreign policy team have demonstrated two great weaknesses in his first 3 1/2 years in office. Both relate to the connectedness of things.

The first and most pervasive weakness has been Obama’s lack of appreciation of international law and and its impact on perceptions of legitimacy among foreign populations and governments, and the many ways in which it influences government behavior. As a result he has failed to use it effectively where it might support U.S. interests, and failed to understand that the reactions of other states to U.S. policies and actions may be strongly affected by international law.

Because of his willful ignorance of international law, Obama has blindly pursued his use of drones for targeted killings even when and where legal justification for their use is most dubious.  Moreover, Obama has made a number of rookie mistakes.

One need only think of the Abbottabad raid that killed Bin Laden, and U.S. officials boasting of the fact that it was undertaken without the Pakistani government’s knowledge or permission, to grasp the point.

See Gardiner Harris (New Delhi), “In New Delhi, Panetta Defends Drone Strikes in Pakistan, New York Times, June 6, 2012.

Harris reported the following remarks:

Leon E. Panetta, the United States defense secretary, brushed aside concerns on Wednesday that drone strikes against leaders of Al Qaeda in Pakistan violate that country’s sovereignty.

“We have made clear to the Pakistanis that the United States of America is going to defend ourselves against those who attack us,” Mr. Panetta said. “This is not just about protecting the United States. It’s also about protecting Pakistan. And we have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves.”

On Monday, a Central Intelligence Agency drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt killed Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, American officials said. Such strikes have infuriated Pakistani officials, who have demanded that they end. But the Obama administration considers them a highly effective tool in the battle against Al Qaeda.

Mr. Panetta’s remarks on Wednesday, delivered during a question-and-answer session following a speech he gave here at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, demonstrate yet again how strained the relationship between Islamabad and Washington has become.

He chuckled along with his audience about Pakistan’s lack of warning before the United States killed Osama bin Laden in a raid last year near a huge Pakistani Army base. “They didn’t know about our operation,” Mr. Panetta said to laughter. “That was the whole idea.”

Panetta, a staunch proponent of the drone strikes–many of which he personally authorized during his time as Director of the CIA, has become an increasingly outspoken member of “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”.

The second weakness has been a pattern of reactive, ad hoc foreign policy decision making where the administration appears to see only the immediate crisis in front of it, and seeks solutions which fail to take into consideration their impact on other, related issues. It is almost as if, at the highest levels, they don’t see the connections.

Over time, these weaknesses have produced an accumulation of short-sighted and “rookie” decisions which have compounded the difficulties facing the president. As a result, Obama faces a series of problems where the options are now quite limited due to earlier mistakes.

For example, because of the sharp deterioration in U.S. relations with Pakistan, the United States is now dependent on Russia in significant measure for supply routes to Afghanistan. These will also be needed for the withdrawal of men and equipment in the next two years.

Sour relations with Pakistan limit America’s ability to influence developments in that country, which is of far greater strategic importance to the United States than Afghanistan. They also undermine a key requirement for a relatively secure withdrawal from Afghanistan by the U.S. and its allies, which is Pakistani cooperation in limiting cross-border actions by the Afghan Taliban and related groups, such as the Haqqani network.

There is also evidence of “rookie” pride inhibiting the improvement of relations with Pakistan. Reliable reports suggest that one reason the U.S. withdrew a negotiating team that had been in Pakistan trying to secure the reopening of supply routes to Afghanistan was that he U.S. refused to apologize for an incident in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by mistake. The U.S. is only willing to express “regret”.


Oliver Carmichal, “US tells Pakistan to ‘bite the bullet’ over Nato supply routes; A senior US government official has said that Pakistan’s government should “bite the bullet” and reopen supply routes to Nato forces in Afghanistan,” The Telegraph, June 12, 2012.

David S. Cloud and Alex Rodriguez, “Defense Secretary Panetta’s Pakistan comments complicate talks; After Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s harsh criticism of Pakistan over militant attacks, talks to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan have stalled,” Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2012.

Eric Schmitt and Declan Walsh, “U.S. Takes Step Toward Exit in Pakistan Talks,: New York Times, June 11, 2012.

On another front, Washington’s paralysis in the face of the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria has not only allowed that crisis to erupt into flames in a civil war, but has also weakened the credibility of the United States in the region generally, and in Iran in particular.

Obama’s foreign policy regarding Syria has been vacillating, and in the end pusillanimous, as Washington has caved in to each and every Russian threat. The latest threat, hardly subtle, was Dimitri Medvedev’s reference to the risk of nuclear war in the region if a state’s sovereignty was not respected.

The United States has not responded to that threat, pretending that it did not occur. Such a failure to react is downright dangerous, and it may further feed perceptions in Moscow that Obama is a pushover.

Obama’s meeting with Putin at the upcoming G-20 conference is particularly portentous.  After Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, flew to Moscow and met with Putin, the latter canceled his appearance at the G-8 summit held at Camp David on May 18-19.  Judging from his behavior on Syria, Putin does not seem to have a lot of respect for Obama and his foreign policy team.

This should not be too surprising, as Russia has outmaneuvered the United States at every turn of the Syria crisis. Most notable, perhaps, was the Russian surprise appearance at a meeting of the Arab League at which they secured Arab League approval (or acquiescence) in a five-point peace plan which included a ban on outside intervention. The U.S. seems to have been taken by surprise, though it is always possible that they were aware and supported the initiative–which, if true, would reveal an even higher level of incompetence.

One can only be somewhat apprehensive at the prospect of the Obama and Putin meeting next week.  Obama needs to be wise, and lay the basis for a full U.S.-Russian bilateral meeting in the near future.  Above all, he now needs to give unfledging support to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, who he undercut by sending Donilon to meet with Putin.

See Miriam Elder (Modcow), “Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Moscow, victim of Kremlin ‘Twitter war’; Russian state launches volley of tweets criticising ambassador’s ‘unprofessional’ speech to students on US-Russia relations,” The Guardian, May 29, 2012.

The issue of Iran’s enrichment program, which continues despite setbacks caused in part by acts of cyber-warfare causing centrifuges to explode and other computer problems, has not been resolved, and much time has been lost. The United States will need the firm support of Russia in the ongoing multilateral talks with Iran. This means Russia has further leverage over the United States on the Syrian issue.

The fact that Russia, China and Iran are on the same side of the Syrian question should be a major cause of concern to Obama, but there is little or no evidence that the administration understands the risks involved here. “Driving from the back seat,” Syria is allowed to drift into more and more intense fighting and destruction, with a sharpening of the conflict between the U.S. and Russia which points toward an inevitable collision. This is a matter of grave concern because we are talking about the two most heavily armed nuclear weapons states on the planet.

Russia is now sending weapons and equipment to Syria to enable the Syrians to strengthen their air defense systems, apparently in a bid to forestall any foreign military intervention.

The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s sending missiles to Cuba in 1962, to forestall any U.S. invasion. Were the Russians to introduce medium-range nuclear weapons into Syria, the West would be faced with an acute crisis–without John F. Kennedy, the Captain of PT-109, and the Ex-Com led by Bobby Kennedy to assist in navigating the perilous waters.

The Obama administration is, in the end, embarked on a foreign policy which is reactive, inattentive to realities on the ground, and seemingly oblivious to the moves of other players in these various games, such as Putin and Lavrov. U.S. support for Kofi Annan’s 6-point peace plan, which was fatally flawed and played into the hands of the Syrians and the Russians from day one, provides cogent evidence of this proposition.

Indeed, jettisoning democratic values and the outrage and action called for by al-Assad’s atrocities, Obama’s foreign-policy juggernaut has given us a peculiar kind of “Realism”, one which ignores the realities on the ground.  This Realism has led to interminably weighing theoretical risks of this or that course of action, particularly of action that might actually halt the killing, while completely ignoring the risks of drift and paralysis and the likely consequences of failing to act decisvely in pursuit of a stategy which advances American national interests.  These include, incidentally, projecting and defending America’s deepest values.

Agonizing over the risks of collateral damage if military intervention were employed, these “Obama realists” ignored or greatly undervalued the risk that over 10,000 people would be killed while they temporized. The risk turned into reality, with estimates now reaching 14,000 dead.

Syria demands the full attention of the president and his foreign policy team. We are navigating perilous waters.

President Obama would be well-advised to revamp his national security team on an urgent basis, bringing back into service seasoned professionals with years of experience in the field, in order to temper the intellectual formulations and lack of strategic focus of his current advisers.

The president needs to greatly strenghten his foreign policy team, now.

The Trenchant Observer

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“The Magician” enthralls donors once again, in Kabul

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Once again the Magician has waived his green cape and dazzled the international donors who are paying for the war they are waging in Afghanistan to keep him in power. A donors conference was held in Kabul on July 20, 2010, launching “the Kabul process”.

See Nipa Banerjee, “Too many conferences, too few results in Afghanistan,” The Ottowa Citizen, July 22, 2010; and
Editorial, The Salt Lake Tribune, July 22, 2010

The last time the donors met was at the London conference in January, where after committing massive corruption in the first round presidential elections in August 2009, and refusing to replace the members of the Independent Electoral Commission who were directly responsible for certifying that fraud, the Magician dazzled the internationals with his talk of re-integration of the Taliban.

Exactly nothing, or at least nothing desirable, has come of that talk of re-integration. But because the U.S. and its allies can see no way out of Afghanistan, they long for a magical ending.

In London, the Magician succeeded in changing the subject, with the question of free and fair elections receding to something like the 25th goal in the final communiqué of the conference.

One has to marvel at such legerdemain, even if the objects of manipulation are incredibly easy targets. Among them all there does not seem to be more than six months of collective memory. None of them seem to recall the nine years of empty promises the Magician has plied them with, telling each of them exactly what they wanted to hear at exactly the right moment.

While the Magician promised to clean up the corruption in his government, the level of corruption doubled between 2007 and 2010.

While the Magician promised to build up good governance and the national police, he recently replaced Hamid Atmar, the Minister of the Interior in charge of the national police, one of a handful of Afghan ministers the U.S. and its allies believed to be highly competent. Another, Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghan intelligence, was fired at the same time. Both were former officials of the Northern Alliance, and were apparently fired to satisfy Pakistani demands.

Nonetheless, year in, year out, the internationals are enthralled by the latest spell cast upon them by the Magician, for it contains exactly what they want to hear.

The magic is powerful. Its spell enables the internationals to believe that they can negotiate a victory with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, precisely when the latter have the momentum, and believe they must only wait for the Americans and their allies to withdraw to claim victory.

The Magician’s powers of persuasion are so great that he even convinced the donors to channel 50% of their financial support directly to him and the central government. Given his government’s record of corruption, that was a magical achievement in and of itself, of stupendous proportions.

Let us hope there is a magical ending in Afghanistan that allows NATO troops to withdraw. For otherwise, with more waves of the Magician’s green cape and whatever promises the allies may wish or need to hear, it looks like a long, hard slog, with neither good governance nor victory in sight.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited. Please add to the discussion and tell the Observer why he is wrong. Or right. Or some of one and some of the other.

General Petraeus, the Haqqani network, and moral clarity in Afghanistan

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010


To find our way in Afghanistan, we need to find our compass.

Our moral compass.

General David Petraeus, according to reports, is pushing for the Obama administration to add the Haqqani network to the terrorist organizations list.  They are one of the principal groups who are blowing up everyone in suicide attacks in Afghanistan. Senator Carl Levin (D.-Michigan) made a similar suggestion upon returning to Washington from a trip to Afghanistan last week.

See Mark Landler and Thom Shanker, “U.S. May Label Pakistan Militants as Terrorists,” New York Times, July 13, 2010 (July 14 print edition).

Petraeus’ inclination, as reported, provides a ray of light, a ray of hope.  A hint of moral clarity.

With that clarity, perhaps there is another road in Afghanistan other than turning its people over to warlords and terrorists like the Haqqani network. Perhaps there is another path other than striking deals with Pakistani generals and shady Pakistani intelligence elements who have been backing the Taliban. Perhaps we can find another way to leave the country without abandoning its women, or surrendering hegemony over the South to Pakistan acting through its ties to Afghan insurgent groups, planting the seeds for future civil war between the North and the South.

The huge question is, of course, “Why wasn’t the Haqqani network already on the terrorist organizations list?

Not only was it not on the list, but we have gone aong with Karzai’s efforts to remove a large number of names of Taliban leaders from the U.N. sanctions list.

What are the reasons for omitting the Haqqani network from the terrorist organizations list, for seeking removal of Taliban leaders from the U.N. sanctions list, and for negotiating with Pakistan to get them to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table?

The administration needs to be candid with the American people about the kind of Afghanistan it is prepared to negotiate with Karzai, the Haqqani network, and the Taliban.

What we get out of Washington are platitudes about these groups accepting the Afghan constitution, and laying down their arms. What does this mean, what does this look like when you flesh it out?

The reasons we have heard so far to justify these actions, which appear to be based both on dubious assumptions and on dubious moral propositions, need to be subjected to intense and continuing scrutiny–in the full light of day.

What President Obama has apparently failed to grasp is that without a moral compass, the U.S. and NATO can neither achieve their essential goals in Afghanistan nor exit on terms short of catastrophic defeat.

Viewed from afar, at the present the White House’s only goal seems to be to help Karzai solidify his grip on power so we can beat a hasty retreat.  This is a harsh judgment but one, it is submitted, that is supported by the facts.

It is a view, moreover, that is shared by many in the region, who look more to American actions than to the finely-tuned policy pronouncements that emanate from Washington.

Hopefully, Petraeus can bring moral clarity to his job and to the president’s thinking about Afghanistan.

The moral compass Obama must find and use is an American one. The American people will not support a war without moral purpose for an indefinite period of time.

A democratic path?

It is time for President Obama, with Petraeus’ assistance and experience building the institutions of democracy in Iraq, to reconsider the now-jettisoned democratic project in Afghanistan.

That project foundered on the rock of U.S. passivity in the face of Karzai’s massive fraud in the presidential elections last August, and its unwillingness to open up the political process by forcing Karzai to fix the electoral machinery so a fair second round election for president could be held.

Karzai may be the obstacle on the democratic path.

See Chibli Mallat, “Law, war and the Petraeus doctrine: How to take democracy seriously in Iraq and the AfPak theater,” The Daily Star (Beirut), June 24, 2010. Interestingly, Mallat suggests Karzai be persuaded to leave or removed from office, with arresting him for the election fraud being one option.

Yet the democratic path may be the only alternative that gives Afghan soldiers and police a vision of the future that is worth fighting for.

As President Obama noted at his West Point commencement speech on May 22, 2010,

(P)reparing for today, I turned to…the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes. And reflecting on his Civil War experience, he said, and I quote, “To fight out a war you must believe in something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching.” Holmes went on, “More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out.”

Our challenge in Afghanistan, also in a civil war setting, is quite similar. We must help the Afghan soldier and policeman find and have something to believe in and something to want with all of his or her might. Only then will an Afghan army and an Afghan police force be able to take over from the ISAF forces and defend their country against the Taliban.

The Taliban have such a belief, anchored in part in their religious faith.

What can the United States and NATO offer an Afghan soldier or policeman that can counter that?

This is perhaps the most critical question in Afghanistan, and one whose answer will largely determine the success of our counterinsurgency strategy there.

Free and fair elections and representative government, however crude? The rule of law, at least as a roadmap to be followed? Some form of democracy?

This was the path we followed in Iraq. It is time to reconsider the democratic project in Afghanistan. With all options open for consideration.

The democratic road may be the only one by which we can get to where we want to go, period. Moreover, it may be the only road that can maintain the support of the American people, and the support of the peoples of the other democracies with whom we are allied, for a war that will surely continue for quite some time.

Let us consider a central fact. America’s greatest weapon in the world is not its drone aircraft or its special operations forces, however useful these may be at the right moment and in the right place.

America’s greatest weapon is its story and the vision it has pursued for over two centuries. This vision is a vision of democracy, of respect for law and individual rights, and of the security and prosperity that are possible in a democratic society governed by law.

It is parochial to assume that our vision and our values have no appeal to the people of Afghanistan, or that our vision and values are weaker than and cannot triumph over the those of the Taliban.

To ask America to fight in Afghanistan without this vision and without these values, is to ask the country to fight with one arm tied behind its back, in a long and grinding struggle which ultimately it cannot win.

To engage the people of Afghanistan in a common struggle, not for warlordism or a coalition with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, but for the achievement of commonly shared values, and for the security that can be achieved through a government based on the consent of the governed and the rule of law, would be to commit to the democratic road.

As suggested above, the democratic road in Afghanistan may be the only one that gets us where we want to go. Petraeus, with his intellectual grasp of the critical importance of governance in counterinsurgency doctrine and his direct experience in Iraq, must already sense this.

Where would Iraq be today if it were not for steadfast U.S. support for the development of democratic institutions, and for adherence to the rule of law? It’s worth thinking about.

It’s worth thinking about now. The September 18 National Assembly elections are barely two months away. Yet instead of focusing on building a democratic process starting with those elections, Secretary of State Clinton is off to Pakistan to see what kind of a deal we can make with the Pakistanis on Afghanistan.

It was on just such a trip in November, it will be recalled, that we reportedly struck a deal with the Pakistanis the outlines of which we seem to be following. It resulted in our abandoning negotiations in Kabul to form a national unity government with Abdullah and Karzai, or to proceed to replace those in the electoral commission behind Karzai’s fraud so that a fair second round election could be held.

Why we are playing Karzai’s game, instead of the democratic game in Kabul, is a question which calls out for a full and complete answer to the American people from the President of the United States.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited. Please add to the discussion and tell the Observer why he is wrong. Or right. Or some of one and some of the other.