The central point argued in Vali Nasr’s book “The Dispensable Nation” is that for the Obama administration, diplomacy took a back seat to the military as the administration took control of the war in Afghanistan from the Bush administration. In fact, the second part of the book’s title is “American Foreign Policy in Retreat”. As the chief aide to Richard Holbrooke, whom Obama chose as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Nasr puts Holbrooke on quite a pedestal in the book, and others have built a bit of a cottage industry around attacking Nasr’s version of events, but I want to concentrate just on the missed opportunity for diplomacy.
Setting aside the arguing over Holbrooke and Nasr, it is clear that Nasr has identified a fatal flaw in Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. Nasr describes a very early opening for negotiations with the Taliban that was squandered:
Around that time, in fall 2009, Holbrooke and I had a meeting with Egypt’s foreign minister. Egypt’s intelligence chief, General Abu Suleiman (who later became vice president when Mubarak fell), was also in the room. At one point he turned to Holbrooke and said, “The Taliban visited us in Cairo.” Holbrooke said, “Really, who came? Do you remember?” Abu Suleiman reached into his bag, pulled out a piece of paper, held it before his face, and read three names. The last one made us all pause. It was Tayed Agha, a relative the Taliban chief, Mulla Omar, as well as his secretary and spokesman, whom we knew to be actively probing talks with the United States on Taliban’s behalf. We knew Tayed Agha to be a player, but we did not know then that he would become America’s main Taliban interlocutor in first secret and later formal talks that began in 2011 (and were made public in February 2012).
Although Holbrooke jumped at the opportunity and presented the case to the Obama administration, they were dismissive of the idea during the critical time that they were developing and then implementing McChrystal’s vaunted surge of troops in Afghanistan. From the Foreign Policy excerpt of the book:
FROM THE OUTSET, Holbrooke argued for political reconciliation as the path out of Afghanistan. But the military thought talk of reconciliation undermined America’s commitment to fully resourced COIN. On his last trip to Afghanistan, in October 2010, Holbrooke pulled aside Petraeus, who by then had replaced McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, and said, “David, I want to talk to you about reconciliation.” “That’s a 15-second conversation,” Petraeus replied. “No, not now.”
The commanders’ standard response was that they needed two more fighting seasons to soften up the Taliban. They were hoping to change the president’s mind on his July deadline and after that convince him to accept a “slow and shallow” (long and gradual) departure schedule. Their line was that we should fight first and talk later. Holbrooke thought we could talk and fight. Reconciliation should be the ultimate goal, and fighting the means to facilitate it.
The Obama administration did its utmost to undermine Holbrooke’s efforts on the diplomatic front during this time: Continue reading
Foreign Policy has published an excerpt from Vali Nasr’s book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, in which Nasr relates his experiences as a key deputy to Richard Holbrooke, who served as Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The title for the piece tells virtually the entire story: “The Inside Story of How the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan”. The piece should be read in full (as should the book, I presume), but I want to highlight a couple of passages that fit well with points I have tried to make over the years regarding US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
First, we see an Obama tactic that has not been limited to his foreign policy actions, but is characteristic of him on the whole, where he makes a public move such as appointing Holbrooke, where the move has the appearance of a very positive step, but Obama then undercuts the move entirely by providing no further support (such as when he nominated Dawn Johnsen to head OLC and then abandoned her entirely, even when he could have forced a confirmation vote that would have been affirmative under bmaz’s whip count). Here is how Nasr described Holbrooke’s fate once he established his office:
Still, Holbrooke knew that Afghanistan was not going to be easy. There were too many players and too many unknowns, and Obama had not given him enough authority (and would give him almost no support) to get the job done. After he took office, the president never met with Holbrooke outside large meetings and never gave him time and heard him out. The president’s White House advisors were dead set against Holbrooke. Some, like Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, were holdovers from George W. Bush’s administration and thought they knew Afghanistan better and did not want to relinquish control to Holbrooke. Others (those closest to the president) wanted to settle scores for Holbrooke’s tenacious campaign support of Clinton (who was herself eyed with suspicion by the Obama insiders); still others begrudged Holbrooke’s storied past and wanted to end his run of success then and there. At times it appeared the White House was more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right.
What drives Obama’s craven manipulation of people in this way? Nasr nails that particularly well:
Not only did that not happen, but the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.
And this reliance on managing to the day’s news cycle ended just as badly as one would expect. Obama should pay heed to Nasr’s dire warning in his epitaph of the Afghan “adventure”, but we can rest assured that the band of political trolls surrounding him will put their fingers in their ears and shout “I can’t hear you” as Nasr warns of failure for the “exit plan” (emphasis added): Continue reading
In yesterday’s post, I pointed out the craven political decision to delay a strategic reassessment of the war strategy in Afghanistan until after the election in November. Just in case that was not enough stupidity already emanating out of Washington regarding Afghanistan, today we have the collected wisdom of John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham informing us that not only is there success in the war effort in Afghanistan, but the US must listen closely to them in order to sustain that success. In preparation for reading the recommendations from our trio of uninvited experts, it is useful to look once again at the accompanying chart, where we see the steady increase in violent events in Afghanistan. The surge of troops in early 2010 did not reverse the trend of increasing violence. In fact, violence jumped by an even larger amount in the first year of the surge than in previous years. No benefit of the surge accrued in 2011, either, as the number of violent events continued to increase.
But McCain, Lieberman and Graham would have us believe that there is “success”:
Significant military progress has been made in Afghanistan — progress that we have personally witnessed over repeated visits. Four years ago, southern Afghanistan was overrun by the Taliban, and our coalition lacked the resources and the strategy necessary to break their momentum. Today, that situation has been reversed, thanks to the president’s surge of forces, the leadership of talented military commanders, and the courage and perseverance of our troops.
Similarly, our effort to build the Afghan National Security Forces — which was under-resourced and disorganized four years ago — has been overhauled. Growing numbers of Afghan units are increasingly capable of leading the fight.
Of course, given the current clusterfuck that is reality in Afghanistan, our mentors of mendacity were forced to open their piece with a nod to the growing desire by most Americans to get out sooner rather than later:
A series of tragic events in Afghanistan has increased the desire of a war-weary public to end our mission there. As heart-wrenching as these events have been, they do not change the vital U.S. national security interests at stake in Afghanistan, nor do they mean that the war is lost. It is not. There is still a realistic path to success if the right decisions are made in the coming months.
And just what is the “realistic path to success” that is being offered for our consideration? Continue reading
Obscured somewhat by the latest revelations and speculations on the US soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday, today’s New York Times carries an article on page A6 of the print edition informing us that the Obama administration is intending to re-start payment of military aid to Egypt:
The Obama administration plans to resume military aid to Egypt, American officials said on Thursday, signaling its willingness to remain deeply engaged with the generals now running the country despite concerns over abuses and a still-uncertain transition to democracy.
The Times explains that there is a pesky barrier in the way of re-starting military aid, as Congress has made military aid dependent on “protection of basic freedoms”. The generals running Egypt since Mubarak stepped down clearly fall short of that standard, but the Obama administration of late has shown that it has no reservations about flouting the law. In this case, they are relying on Hilary Clinton to “authorize” the latest law-breaking:
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to waive the requirement on national security grounds as soon as early next week, according to administration and Congressional officials. That would allow some, but not yet all of $1.3 billion in military aid this year to move forward, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that they could discuss internal deliberations.
But why would the US do this? Clearly, Congress intended to put pressure on Egypt’s generals when it put into place the requirement that they would have to meet certain standards to continue receiving military aid. And, as the article points out, it likely was the threat of loss of funding that prompted the generals to release the US-based NGO representatives who were being held earlier this year.
We have to wait until the thirteenth paragraph of an article that is only eighteen paragraphs long to get to the real reason the Obama administration is using the waiver authority it forced into the law:
Within weeks Egypt risks missing payments on defense contracts, largely with American arms manufacturers, forcing Mrs. Clinton to decide the certification question now. “It’s coming up sooner than some people wanted,” one senior official said.
Heaven forbid we should interrupt the flow of cash to America’s poor, cash-starved arms manufacturers who have been so harmed by over ten years of endless war. Is preventing interruption of cash flow for US arms manufacturers the “national security” basis for Clinton waiving assurance of basic rights for the Egyptian people? This move tells us all we need to know about the priorities of the Obama administration.
The carnage in Syria continues unabated, with government forces shelling citizens, especially in the city of Homs. Qatar’s minister for international cooperation described Sunday’s veto of the UN Security Council resolution by Russia and China in this way:
Khaled al-Attiyah, Qatar’s minister for international co-operation, said the vetoes sent “a very bad signal to Assad that there (is a) license to kill.”
Russia claims they are working for a peaceful settlement in Syria, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Damascus now to speak to Assad:
Lavrov told Assad, according to Russia’s RIA news agency: “Every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours. It is in our interests for Arab peoples to live in peace and agreement.”
Lavrov, whose government wields rare leverage in Syria as a major arms supplier to Damascus, said Assad assured him he was committed to halting bloodshed by both sides and that he was ready to seek dialogue with all political groups in Syria.
But the arms that Russia has been supplying to Assad are still being put to use against Syria’s citizens. From the same Reuters article:
Opposition activists said the fresh assault on Homs came after 95 people were killed on Monday in the city of one million, Syria’s third biggest. More than 200 were reported killed there by sustaining shelling on Friday night.
“The bombardment is again concentrating on Baba Amro (district of Homs). A doctor tried to get in there this morning but I heard he was wounded,” Mohammad al-Hassan, an activist in Homs, told Reuters by satellite phone. “There is no electricity and all communication with the neighborhood has been cut.”
A further 19 people were killed and at least 40 wounded in Tuesday’s barrage, activists said. Some reported fighting between army defectors and government forces trying move into areas the rebels hold in Homs.
Reflecting the total failure in what passes for world “diplomacy”, the response from the West is to arm the citizens of Syria to fight back against government forces who were armed by Russia. The approach starts out positively, as an attempt to prevent the arming of the Syrian government, but by the time Joe Lieberman gets involved, it goes terribly astray: Continue reading